Wood you remember me?

Posted by on October 28, 2011 in Featured, Thoughts | 3 comments

As a continuation from my last post “Who Stole The Soul?” I’d like to just add a few thoughts.

Imagine if you will a log. There’s nothing special about this log. It’s about yea big, about so high and weighs, let’s say, 5 kilos. It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood, and you know that it once was part of a living tree. Let’s now imagine this log is on fire, a very hot fire, the kind of fire where all that’s left at the end, when it goes out, is a very fine white ash. You know the kind.

What happened to the log?

Well, the heat converted all the carbon and oils into other substances, for instance, the powder fine ash, the smoke you see (or if sufficiently hot, the smoke you don’t see), the light the fire produced and the heat you feel on your skin. Any moisture in the log has dispersed as water vapor, and any unburnt particles light enough to be swept away by the air become the colouration of the smoke. But where did the log go? The space that once held the log appears empty, the 5 kilos of wood, now all ash, weighs only a few grams. There is still some heat in the ground where you burnt the log, but for all intents and purposes, the log is gone. It no longer exists.

The heat from the fire has converted the wood fibers in the log into the above mentioned new forms, light , heat, smoke, water vapour and ash. If we had a “reverse-fire” one that took all these now disparate particles and could somehow reconstruct the log, the log would weigh the same as it did before we burnt it.

The log is now a memory, but the particles that made the log are still very much a reality. The smoke, mostly CO2, has dispersed over a very large area, the light and heat is either absorbed or dissipates into the surrounding air, and the ash is the unburnt particles that are left. So do these particles remember ever being a log? No they are now chemical compounds in their own right. There is no innate “logness” to these particles which made them need to be a log. In fact, at an atomic level, these particles have no “logness” either. These particles became part of the log through the slow process of the life of a tree. The particles that have dispersed are now indistinguishable from the many other particles of the same chemical makeup that were already in the surrounding area. The CO2 from the log is now CO2 just like the stuff we breathe out. The solid carbon in the ash is carbon like we find in life forms around the planet, and also like the coal we dig up and burn for electricity. These atoms have no memory of ever having been part of a log, nor of being a part of the living tree before that. The same atoms have just as little memory of once being a part of an exploding star, as almost all particles are, any more than you or I can remember what happened before we were born.

A sufficiently hot fire will erase all evidence of “treeness” or “logness” from the log, the DNA is gone and all that remains is the compounds that the shift in energy forms has left us with.

I know we like to think it is different for humans, for not only are we self aware, we are able to rationalise and interact, to love and mourn, to lead rich lives full of promise, sorrow and joy. When we die, when we stop breathing, when we are buried and our brain functions have ceased, we too become nothing more than particles, chemical compounds and atoms. The energy we are made from is all still around, but in different forms. Much like the smoke from a fire, they are indistinguishable from any atoms of the same makeup that may have been there previously. In fact, even while we are alive, while our bodies still function and we are self aware, these atoms in isolation are no different from others of the same kind. They have no memories, nor an innate purpose. They are just atoms.

This ultra reductionist viewpoint may alarm many of you, but it is the truth as we understand it, and this truth leaves no room for a soul, assuming a soul isn’t “beyond physics”. People refuse to believe that life is ultimately futile, that our only purpose is to perpetuate the species. And yes, when you put it like that it is rather bleak. But think about your life, the history you have with people and the planet, think about how your life has affected others. This is what being alive is all about, because there is no other alternative. We are masses of indiscriminate and individually indifferent atoms, but we are alive.

Promises of a soul only serve 2 purposes: 1. To placate the fear we have of not existing, and 2. To help keep people following the doctrine as a way to control them.

Having the understanding that there is nothing after death, that we simply stop existing is a very empowering thing. The ramifications are that we only live once, so we’d better make it worthwhile, to ourselves AND to those with whom we share our lives.

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  1. I’ve heard many people say that if you don’t believe in God or a soul or other forms of spirituality “you can’t be a good person” or words to that effect. This can’t bd further from the truth and your last paragraph (and particularly last sentence) articulates this.

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  2. An excellent philosophy of reality and logic. LUV it ! Thanks !

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  3. I have two problems with this brand of ultra-reductionism — or at least two that I will discuss here.

    The first is that reductionism of this sort sometimes serves to discount higher-level properties exhibited by systems of atoms, as though the properties of the individual atoms themselves were the only thing that had any meaning. Let’s take it as given that atoms have no memory. Regardless of that fact, I am surrounded by atoms which are being used to implement memories of various kinds: DVDs, hard drives, RAM, ROM, books, pencil and ink marks jotted on paper, and so on — not to mention my own brain. So what is the significance of the fact that atoms have no memory? Does it demonstrate that memory is not possible, or not “real” in some sense? Similarly, what is the significance of the fact that individual atoms have no innate purpose? Does it demonstrate that “purpose” does not exist, or is a mere illusion?

    Your repeated emphasis that atoms do not have certain properties suggests some significance of that sort, even if it is never stated explicitly, but the suggestion seems rather lame when exposed to direct scrutiny. So what if individual atoms have no memory or intrinsic purpose? It does not follow that things composed of atoms can not have memory or intrinsic purpose. And if that was not your point, then what was it? That things can be destroyed? One does not need to be an ultra-reductionist to appreciate that fact — a couple of episodes of “Will it Blend?” will provide sufficient education in that concept.

    The second problem arises from the claim that the truth of ultra-reductionism “leaves no room for a soul, assuming a soul isn’t “beyond physics”.” Let’s grant that “beyond physics” is off-limits, as you say. Does this leave no room for a soul, where by that we mean some kind of conscious existence beyond death? As far as I can see, all it would take is for a sufficiently god-like being to reconstruct you. Said being doesn’t even need to re-use the original atoms, since they are interchangeable.

    Let’s keep our god-like beings both imaginary and secular for the sake of example: let “Q” from Star Trek, The Next Generation serve as our god. Imagine that you are unexpectedly vaporised by heavy phaser fire. You’re dead, Jim. We can’t have this! You’re not a red-shirt — you’re a leading member of the cast! No problem, says Q, there’s plenty of available matter and energy in the vicinity: we’ll just reconstruct you as you were immediately prior to the fatal blast using those raw materials. Presto! You were dead, and now you’re back. You don’t remember the whole ceasing to exist bit, of course, but everyone else can testify that it happened.

    So what’s a soul in this reductionist scheme of things? As someone mentioned in a comment on your previous post, it’s information. The relevant information in this case is simply the configuration of your body, to some level of abstraction. Where did Q get the information, given that the primary source (your body) was destroyed? Maybe he simply remembered it. Maybe he can inspect past states of the universe. The point is that if a god wants to grant you life after death, all he needs is an abstract “backup” of your bodily information, and the raw materials and skills to turn that abstraction into a reality.

    Ultra-reductionism alone isn’t sufficient to ensure that death is the final end to your existence. You need atheism on top of that: an atheism that encompasses sci-fi gods like Q as well as the more traditional kinds. Heck, it wouldn’t even take a god, just sufficiently advanced technology, so even atheism isn’t going to fill the gaps.

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