Sunday, May 16, 2021

What Is An Individual?

                                                                                                            written 9 May 2021

                                                                                                      published 16 May 2021


            I woke up again this morning to the ongoing story of my life, a continuity of memories going back decades.  I appear to occupy the same body I did yesterday.  At every waking moment, I have a unique perspective, subject to change as I turn my head.  I seem to be an individual.

            However, self-aware consciousness is a small part of what determines my personal activity.  Only 10 percent of what we "do" arises from conscious decisions, the rest is unconscious programing playing out in real time.  That doesn't even consider the functioning of my physical body.

            A few days ago, I scrapped my arm, tearing off a small flap of skin.  The healing process goes on without any conscious input from "me".  My body knows how to stem the bleeding, seal the wound and cover it with a protective scab, then begin the reconstruction of healthy skin underneath, which will eventually be indistinguishable from the rest of my skin.

            Current estimates are that a human body has about 30 trillion cells, with about 16 million dying every second, continuously replaced by new ones.  Over the course of a year, we replace our body weight.  Some cells are replaced faster than others.  The stomach cells in contact with food digestion are replaced every 5 minutes, and the entire lining is replaced every 4 days.  We get a new suit of skin every month, a new liver every 6 weeks, and most of our body is replaced every decade.  Without "my" awareness, I inhabit a dynamic flow of biological form, much like the shape of a whirlpool in a flowing river, which I can still recognize as "me", when I look in the mirror each morning.  

            But that isn't even the whole story, because more than 40 trillion bacteria live in symbiotic harmony with "me".  Every surface of my body, external and internal, is covered with bacteria cells, not as freeloaders, but providing services essential to "my" health and well-being.  The bacteria inhabiting my skin are protective, preventing dangerous bacteria from establishing themselves, causing disease.  That is one of the problems with washing with soap.  It strips away all these friendly bacteria, which must then repopulate before my skin is once again protected. 

            At a more proactive level, the bacteria that inhabit my gut are essential for the digestion of food.  Research has shown that the makeup of the gut bacteria population can affect obesity, diabetes, liver and heart diseases, cancers, autism, and depression, just to name a few.  

            Within each of the cells that are genetically "me", are between 2 and 2,500 mitochondria, a bacterium with independent genetics, that synthesizes ATP, the essential biochemical energy molecule for the cell.  These were once autonomous, but long ago became totally symbiotic, exchanging services for lodging and protection.

            This means that my "individual", in addition to being a dynamically transforming body, is also a massive, mobile bacterial collective, where "I" am completely outnumbered!  But it gets even stranger.

            About 98 percent of the individual atoms in my body are changed every year, another fundamental flux that occurs below "my" awareness.  The Newtonian physical model imagined each of these atoms as little, solid, indivisible billiard balls.  However, quantum mechanics has demonstrated that these atoms are not solid at all, but profoundly empty space, occupied by even tinier specks in the form of electrons, protons, and neutrons.  Further examination shows these specks are not matter either, but intense energy vibrations.  At the deepest level of examination, these energy manifestations flash in and out of existence a million, trillion, trillion, trillion times a second, no more enduring than the rapid flashes of still pictures we experience as movement in films.

             Looking inward, "I" seem to be a somewhat aware personality, inhabiting a dynamic physical structure, that is a massive collective of beings working in symbiotic harmony, being constantly reaffirmed at unimaginable frequency.

            Looking outward, we see the same kind of dynamic flux of cooperative structures that form our human society, living within the larger biosphere, which provides all the material essentials of life, such as air, water, and food.  There are no autonomous individuals, only massive cooperative systems, where the fate of each one is dependent on the fate of the whole.  Life knows this, and humans need to get with the program, or die.