Thursday, September 11, 2014

Are We Stardust?

Yes and no.

Often when various leaders say this, that we humans are “stardust,” it is meant in a sense of “how amazing!” A highly romanticized phrase giving validation to us as Homo sapiens.

Even the very informative science book on cosmology, The View from the Center of the Universe, speaks of how we humans are stardust. The physicist Joel R. Primack and co-writer Nancy Ellen Abrams explain:
“Stardust is thus part of our genealogy. Our bodies literally hold the entire history of the universe, witnessed and enacted by our atoms.”

Sounds impressive, especially since the claim is coming from a physicist, and the co-writers are professors at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

But wait, notice the personification in the sentence, “witnessed and enacted by our atoms.”

Think about it, atoms can’t “witness” anything. Only conscious, aware finite life can witness.

It’s true, if not for the cosmic creation and explosions of stars after the Big Bang, we wouldn't be here. The elements from which life—including us-- came were formed billions of years ago.

“The nitrogen in our DNA…the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.
Carl Sagan, “The Cosmic Connection” and Cosmos


“the elements themselves (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.) were synthesized, cooked up as it were, in the nuclear furnaces that are the deep interior of stars. These elements are then released at the end of a star's lifetime when it explodes, and subsequently incorporated into a new generation of stars -- and into the planets that form around the stars, and the life forms that originate on the planets.”
Michael Loewenstein and Amy Fredericks for "Ask an Astrophysicist"

Even classic rock singers wrote and sang of this: “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon…” written and sung by Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock;” also crooned by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

But we aren't ‘stardust’ in the sense of consciousness, self-aware, reasoning, computing, creating, ethically choosing primates.

So saying we are stardust is like saying we are composed of atoms.

In a basic microscopic sense, yes.

It’s like saying the sentences of this article are squiggles of ink on a page, pixels on a computer screen…well, yes…but that’s a superficial observation, a basic surface statement of the means whereby we consciously communicate complex ideas, scientific observations, abstract reasonings, creative writing through a series of lines and dots.

Stardust made life possible on earth but that doesn't define what conscious life is. Except maybe for those who think our sense of “I,” our consciousness, is an illusionary quirk like the biologist Francis Crick states and the neuroscientist Sam Harris and other materialists claim.

If in contrast, we choose to think human beings are an aware, reasoning, mathematically computing, and an ethical-choosing species that has evolved into the image of Ultimate Reality, what then?

Do we think we know how consciousness exists within human beings?

Do we understand the nature of reality which "existed" before the "Big Bang," before time and space came into being?

I've no idea. I'm not a professional cosmologist. And, besides, the older I get the less I think I know;-)

But consciousness does seem to be inherent in existence, at least on this planet, not a cosmically accidental quirk. Not an absurdity in a meaningless, purposeless universe.

Probably, where ever life reaches a certain plateau of complexity, consciousness appears.

And that is the true wonder—our awareness and our ability to think, reason, question, mathematically compute, and create!

Not the interesting but basic fact that our unconscious bodies have chemical elements formed from exploding stars billions of years ago.

We are star-focused lovers of the universe...

Asking "How?" and "By what means?" and "Why?"

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox


Yekaterina Haussler said...

Hmm... I don't know either. For the most part, this claim sounds too "high" and poetic to be completely true - at least to me... However, the line "Our bodies literally hold the entire history of the universe, witnessed and enacted by our atoms” does make sense. Not literally, of course. When we say the atom "witnesses" something we do not say it is conscious... or do we? It may not be conscious in the same way we are used to - but it may very well hold a memory. It may be "witnessing" things in the sense of being there and changing because of the environment... and holding a memory of the event(s). Every particle in this natural world is alive - and on some level conscious, we just have not learned to recognize it.
In any case... I will not be starting any long conversations with water molecules or anything, I promise. ;)

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for sharing a thoughtful and meditative comment.

You say "every particle in this natural world is alive." I don't agree, but it's an intriguing idea.

The famous mathematician and philosopher Alfred Lord Whitehead argued for such a view of existence with Process Philosophy.