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Here’s a framework for a humanities’ study of human origins—we’re the product of five separate creations, each of which has left its mark on us. To understand our origins, let us acknowledge all five.
The five creations are: an original existence of energy; creation from that energy of quantum entities that through their mutual repulsion created time and space; aggregation of those quantum particles into the elements of physical matter: the creation of life out of physical matter; the creation of consciousness through the evolution of living creatures.
This is a very modern origin story. We’ve only recently learned enough about the first three of these creations to imagine what must be true of the other two. I confess, my knowledge of those first three is very shaky, and the only thing I know about them is, how different they were from one another. That’s all I’m going to focus on.
19th century scientists took an abstract notion, energy, and characterized it in terms of limits it had to observe, within which it could do work. We’re an example of that work. Part of our nature is how those limits limit us, and what kind of work we in turn can turn energy into. Part of our nature is how what we can and cannot do is defined by what energy is like. The first creation is however energy got made in the first place.
20th century scientists recognized in energy a creative power for forming physical stuff in the form of elementary particles. And what makes this amazing, to me anyway, is how different they are, energy and these particles. Experts say, if you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t. It’s not understandable by humans. Energy converting itself into elementary particles is the second creation. As far as I know, we’ve only hunches about how that contributes to our nature.
The third creation is those elementary particles turning into atoms and molecules, what to us is physical matter. Some of them, making up hydrogen and helium I believe, happen spontaneously. Others are formed in the course of star formation and collapse. It’s astonishing to me that knowledge of the chemical elements, and how they could be arranged by their properties in the periodic table of those elements, was almost entirely the work of the 19th century. The end of that century saw the spread of the belief that everything in the universe consisted of only energy, elemental matter and physical forces, and since these all followed invariable physical laws, everything that would happen in the future followed from what had happened in the past. Everything about us--our behaviors, our thoughts--were, like everything else in the universe, determined by the chemicals we were made of and the operation on us of physical laws.
The fourth creation is the emergence on Earth of living creatures. Generally, we refer to that emergence as living creatures evolving. Scientists think of that as another kind of chemical reaction, and refer to it as a process, like water boiling off to form steam. Since we’re living creatures you’d think we’d know what they’re like. What’s amazing to me is how little we know about them, as what makes them distinctively alive.
The fifth creation is the emergence from life of consciousness. And this we do know about because we experience it in consciousness itself. Try meditating, stilling thoughts about anything else, and you can become conscious of being conscious. Being aware of being conscious is a thing, with a separate existence and a distinct quality.
I suggest we aim to come up with origin stories for human nature that involve all five stages of creation. Surely at least these five must have a hand in making us what we are.
Such an attitude to our origins may not bear fruit for a long time. But something it can do immediately, in the present moment, is disabuse us of any one creation being regarded as special, able to over-rule the other four. I’m referring to the privileged place given by science to the what distinguishes the third stage in creation, the properties of elemental matter and the laws of physics. I suggest we regard each creation as differing from any of the others as much as elemental matter differs from the world of quanta, or from pure energy. I want us to accept that life has properties that bear as little relation to matter as matter does to quarks, and consciousness bears as little relation to life as life does to energy itself.
Who can do this? Scientists can’t, they’re totally invested by profession and temperament in the primacy of matter and physical laws. Philosophers? I think they’re worked themselves out of this field, they no longer trade in natural philosophy. Artists? We’re talking about thermodynamics and quantum chromodynamics. Psychologists?
What we need are more people like Julian Jaynes, who define their efforts only by what question is to be solved, no matter where it leads them. I note here how doggedly he pursued his study of the origins of consciousness, no matter into what academic specialty he had to venture.