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Who R U? - The Caterpillar

David Cowles

Mar 1, 2023

“It is the uniqueness of events that 'creates' spacetime; it is not spacetime that makes events unique.”

I’m reading an innocuous book about DNA when I suddenly come upon a sentence that snaps my head back: “Many SNP (genetic) variants have no known consequence…but some can be crucial to who you are.” - DNA Demystified by Alan McHughen.

If your head did not snap back, don’t worry; few heads would (snap or worry). But for me, this sentence is an epiphany…an epiphany of error! In fact, it would be a challenge to craft a sentence in ordinary English that was more broadly wrong than this one: “SNP variants…can be crucial to who you are.”

Try, “The Patriots won every Superbowl ever played.” Wrong – it just seems that way sometimes; but this erroneous sentence is just narrowly wrong, so it doesn’t compete with McHughen’s much broader error.

May I belabor the point? Telling someone they are something when they’re not is just plain cruel, even for us neo-Machiavellians. Example: In 2004, misread exit polls indicated a landslide victory for John Kerry (vs. G. W. Bush). I didn’t vote for John Kerry that year, but I have always sympathized with him. Cruel!

Back to McHughen: My DNA is no part of who I am. It’s part of my world, the world I live in, but it’s not part of me: a crucial distinction.

Let’s fall back on a ridiculously trite metaphor: a game of cards (doesn’t matter what game). The cards are dealt. My crowd is fond of saying, “It’s not a hand, it’s a foot.” Hand or foot, it’s what I was dealt, and it’s what I’m going to have to play.

I was hoping for a “grand slam” (bridge or whist). IRL, I was hoping to play for the Boston Celtics. My hand is a jumble of 7’s and 8’s. My height is 5’ 9’’ on tip toes. I probably won’t get my grand slam, and I probably won’t play pro ball. (That doesn't mean I can’t try, but trying is not doing. I am guaranteed the unfettered right to try; I am not guaranteed positive results.)

I am not those cards, and I am not this body. These are things I’ve been given to work with. So far so good, but here’s where the metaphor breaks down. In cards, I am the person behind the cards, actively playing them. IRL there is no ‘man behind the curtain’, no ‘ghost in the machine’. Let me explain. 

Most of the 30 trillion cells that make up my body contain a full ‘copy’ of my DNA (exception: red blood cells), but none of those cells is me. Obviously. But what about all those cells taken together? Are they me? What about the ever-evolving network of cellular interactions? Still not me.

So, back to the Caterpillar’s question: “Who R U?” How about we begin with actual experience? After all, at the end of the day, there is nothing else. According to 20th century British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, to be is to experience and be experienced; so ‘experience’, let’s start there.

So, how do you experience you? Certainly not as the collection of cells we call a body (or a brain). But it’s not just that I am not a cell, a collection of cells, or even a network of cells. It’s that I am not even like any of these things! It’s not that I am ‘different’ from my cells; whatever I am is entirely unlike those cells. There are no parameters for comparison.

A red ball is not a blue box. But we can compare them according to color, shape, utility, etc. No such comparison is possible between me and anything other than me (e.g., my cells).

(Sidebar: Imagine how long it must have taken civilization to convince our ‘best minds’ that the experience we call “I” is just a culture of unicellular organisms in a multidimensional petri dish! How do you do that? How do you make people believe something that silly? Why are we too anxious to think of ourselves as a ‘thing’; is this what Erich Fromm meant by “Escape from Freedom”?) 

Experience yourself. Take it in. Now nose around. Are you ‘like’ anything you hear, see, taste, smell, or touch? Of course not. You are an entirely unique phenomenon. So am I. In fact, you are not even like me…nor am I like you.

Truth to tell, I have no idea what it’s like to be you, or a network of cells; I have no idea what it’s like to be anything at all or even what it’s like to be like something. I am, period. There’s nothing else. I am not even ‘experience’ itself; I experience experiencing. I am not the man behind the curtain: there is no man, there is no curtain, just Oz…and not-Oz. I am not the ghost in a machine: there is no ghost and no machine.

It goes even deeper: I am that I am not something other than myself. My parents would be pleased: I am not like those boys who jumped off the bridge. Ok then, so what am I? Nothing? Precisely! Nothing, i.e., no thing. I am not a ‘thing’ and neither are you.  

Consider the alternative: Suppose I am like something else or, what amounts to the same thing, suppose I am something else. Either way, I am superfluous. The universe doesn’t need two of anything: “Lord, we don’t need another mountain…”

The universe does not need carbon copies. To whatever extent I am something else or like something else, I am redundant, and the universe hates redundancy.

“Idle hands”, you know…

Being is a cosmic censor, relentlessly rooting out waste (e.g., duplication) before it can form. As a result, nothing is duplicative, nothing is superfluous. Again, according to Whitehead, to be is to be both novel and consequential.

Mythology recapitulates cosmology. Being is Paradise, the Garden of Eden. (In Hebrew, Eden means ‘place of pleasure’; in Aramaic, it means ‘fruitful’.) But, as we know from Genesis, in Eden ‘one small step’ can turn into ‘one giant leap’ – out of Paradise. How so?

A single instance of duplication would create a loop, and a single loop would freeze the universe in an endless and barren cycle of soul-numbing repetition. If anything repeats, then nothing is, was, or will ever be. My new political party will have as its slogan: “No novelty, no being!”

Consider Dante’s Divine Comedy. Unwittingly, Dante ambles into the gated community we know as ‘Hell’: Dante’s Inferno, a spiral consisting of 9 descending levels (‘circles’) with the grand prize, Satan, waiting at the inflection point, the nadir of the funnel. Dante walks through Hell, past Satan, into Purgatory and eventually up to Paradise.

Now suppose that just one of those infernal ‘circles’, makes no difference which one, doubles back on itself. Dante would be trapped in Hell forever, endlessly repeating the same journey. That’s the price of a single ‘error’. That’s what’s meant by the doctrine of Original Sin.

Imagine living in a never-green world, bereft of all novelty, endlessly repeating itself until the ‘crack of doom’. Compared to this, Dante’s Inferno is a trip to Six Flags. One single loop, one single repetition, and all creativity is forever banished from the realm.  

Fortunately, there are no such loops; the universe makes no such error. We’re some 15 billion years into it and so far, not one error. Imagine you’re married to the same person for 15 billion years and never once have a fight. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

The evidence is ‘merely’ inductive, but I am willing to go out on a limb and make a leap of faith (Kierkegaard beware): there will be no such error, ever!

How can that be? We appear to be protected from error by some sort of omnipotent and infallible cosmic censor. Everything that is, in so far as it is, is unique. “How do I know? Occam’s Razor tells me so.”

The fact that the cosmos has a censor should give us profound hope. It would take so little to make this world a living Hell. Just one error out of googles of transcriptions et voilà, ‘everlasting fire’.

The very fact that there has been no such error, and apparently won’t be, can’t be, should encourage us to hope that Hell is empty (except perhaps for the Prince of Darkness) or even non-existent (good news for Lucifer, ‘light bearer’). We are offering a free tour of Hell in this issue of ATM.

Sidebar: Non-believers (e.g., Bertrand Russell, Michael Ruse) make a lot of the so-called Problem of Evil. The real problem is a Problem of Good. How do you account for the fact that at the deepest possible level, the Universe is perfect? How’d that happen?

Note: This is not a ‘best of all possible worlds’ argument. (Lie quiet Leibniz, I mean that is Gottfried Leibniz, c. 1600 CE) We do not live in the best of all possible worlds – far, far, far from it; but we do live in a perfect (error free) world.

Memo to YHWH: There’s no more need for flood or fire. Just allow a single transcription error to slip through and walk away. Ah, but you can’t do that, can you? You tried to with Job, but that did not end well…for you. Thank you for being you!

What we call ‘spacetime’ is the physical manifestation of cosmic censorship. The uniqueness of an event’s spacetime location certifies that it is not a duplicate; my coordinates are both my ‘X’ and God’s stamp of authenticity: “Inspected by #1”.

Many things overlap with me in spacetime, but nothing else occupies the precise region that I occupy. What is co-incident with me, is me! Shift that locus a single nanodegree et voilà, something new. But note, and this is key, it is the uniqueness of events that creates spacetime; it is not spacetime that makes events unique. Topology recapitulates ontology.

So, what about this body, those cells, that DNA? None of that is me; but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. These things are part of the world I’ve inherited. My experience of the world is mediated through my genetic makeup, but I am not those genes or that world.

It is not enough to say that I (ego) cannot be equated with me (id), that I am-not me. Instead, we need to say I am not-me. It is not just that there is some sort of displacement between myself as I and myself as me. Being I is not-being me. Being I is being not-me! I come to be only by negating (‘being not’) what is.

This “I” is very misleading. It implies something ‘other’ than something else. In one respect, “I” is as different from everything else as anything can be; in another respect, it’s no different at all.

There is no “I” apart from the world, there is no Wizard directing affairs on Oz. I-ness is embedded in the world, as it’s active negation. Ontologically speaking, ‘not’ is not an adverb or a conjunction, ‘not’ is an active voice, indicative mood verb! ~A ɛ A. ~A is the proverbial snake curled up at the core of being, A.

So, “Who R U?” The caterpillar was so 19th century! He asked the quintessential question of his time, the era mislabeled as “The Enlightenment”, i.e., part of the nightmare (history) from which James Joyce says we’re struggling to awake.

‘Who R U’ is a meaningless string of vocables. I am no-who. Who-ness and I-ness are incompatible categories. Backed against a wall by his Christian and Communist critics, Jean-Paul Sartre reluctantly answered the caterpillar’s question: U R ‘Freedom’. (Existentialism as a Humanism) U R that you can be whoever or whatever you want to be.

Whitehead coined the phrase, “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. To understand our genes and our experiences as ‘us’, or even as part of ‘us’, is to succumb to this fallacy.

Sidebar: Your DNA and my DNA are 99.9% the same. Yet, my experience of the world is radically different from yours, even adjusting for the fact that we experience objectively different events. Not convinced? Ok, my DNA is 50% the same as a banana’s.

(Many people have told me that I am ‘bananas’ but I don’t think they meant that I experience the world the same way a banana does…or maybe that’s exactly what they meant.)

We were born after 1750, so we are enlightened (whether we want to be or not); some would even say we’re woke. But woke to what? To the fact that we are star-stuff, that we are cogs in a mechanical universe, that our lives are determined by the forces of physics, sociology, psychology, et al?

I am the sum of my gender, my race, my culture, my nationality, my socio-economic class, my upbringing, and the remnants of a host of more or less ‘accidental’ events that constitute my life story – NOT!

I am anything but these things! No, I’m serious: anything but! I am the but! “I am the Walrus.”

If I were what the world thinks I am (above), there would be no need for me to be at all. I would be superfluous, and the universe could dispense with me. Occam’s Razor would require it. At most, I could be the nodal point of forces outside my control…or ken. But an intersection of beings is not itself a being.

I am, I am nobody’s copy, I am not superfluous. To paraphrase Job, “If the cosmos cancels me, it will be the loser for it.” I am the Walrus (along with all ‘others’, of course); I am the universe’s source of novelty and its wellspring of intensity. “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.” 


Image: Alice in Wonderland. Walt Disney Productions. 1951


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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