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I Am...You Are!

David Cowles

Apr 2, 2024

“Empathy is all well and good; nevertheless, your being burned at the stake, no matter how richly you deserve it, feels different to me than my being burned.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this before! The observable universe, all we know and all we can ever know, is more than 14,000,000,000 years old; you are eight orders of magnitude younger. 

You are the product of prebiotic organic molecules that once upon a time formed a single DNA (or RNA) molecule. That molecule in turn went through about 3,500,000,000 years of mutation, replication, and selection until some descendant exhibited the coding we associate with homo sapiens

In turn, you are the product of two human haploid cells (sex cells) forming a single diploid cell. That cell divided and differentiated until, voilà, the you we know…and have come to love! It all looks very neat and orderly. It should. We crafted language, logic, and mathematics to make it look that way.

You may be forgiven for being confused. You imagine that you are an epiphenomenal consequence of a single cell. What else could you think? You were thrown into an utterly alien world; you were given no training and no information other than a few scattered fragments of code in your genes. 

You were given no superpowers; on the contrary, you came into the world ignorant and defenseless. As a newborn, 60% of your caloric intake was directed toward building your brain and making neural connections. (In adults, those same activities consume only 2%.)

In Judeo-Christian theology, God is usually considered to be omnipotent and omniscient by nature. You, on the other hand, are born with neither power nor knowledge. You are the ‘anti-God’…or so it seems. The words of the Psalmist (reprised by Jesus on the Cross) are apt: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) Why indeed? We are all forsaken…at birth!

You are a baby! You are lying on your back, limbs flailing, defecating in your diaper. You don’t need any additional lessons in humility (“As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small” – John Lennon) …but you’ll get those lessons anyway, every day, for as long as you live. 

The Intellectual History of the West is the story of Universe’s aggrandizement and your miniaturization. You were born ‘tiny’, and every day you learn just how tiny - that's the function of education!

In 1500 CE, it was still possible to conceive of the Universe in the form of the human body: Adam Kadmon, Leonardo da Vinci. Now, “all we are is dust in the wind.” (Native American Poem) We are “like the morning mist, the early dew that disappears, chaff swirling up from the threshing floor, smoke escaping through a window.” (Hosea 13)

Dire straits! But we do have one thing going for us, if only we’d notice it—first-person experience. Empathy is all well and good; nevertheless, your being burned at the stake, no matter how richly you deserve it, which feels different to me than my being burned.

In Jerusalem, c. 33 CE, three men were crucified on a Jerusalem hilltop. Each one experienced his crucifixion personally. Those gathered at the foot of the crosses experienced crucifixion, but from the ‘luxury’ of box seats.

Death is like that. As far as we can tell, everything that lives, dies. We say it’s the one sure thing. It isn’t! There’s only one sure thing, and it’s the opposite of what you think: you will never die; you may see death, but you will never taste death.

Death is a third-person experience; it does not exist in the first-person world. People die, to you; you die, to them; but you never die to yourself. We all know this, even if we sometimes need to be reminded, but do we really know it? 

Hello! It’s a clue! A big, fat, Greek wedding-style clue. How could we have missed it? We have convinced ourselves that we are a tiny hole in the fabric of the World. And so we are. But that hole turns out to be the whole. I am a sub-visible pinhole in the cosmic fabric, but one hole can unravel an entire garment. In 1900, Max Planck discovered a ‘hole’ in the EM spectrum; Physics unraveled. 

The World as we are taught to see it goes like this: Cosmos → Galaxy → Solar System → Planet → Me. And that’s third-person accurate, but so is its first person reverse: Me → Planet → Solar System → Galaxy → Cosmos. It is as true to say that I contain Cosmos (where else would it be?) as it is to say that Cosmos contains me (where else could I be?). 

In the third person, I am the expression of a single DNA molecule; in the first person, the universe is an expression of me. Why do we value one mode of experience over the other? We call third person experts, scientists; we call first person experts, lunatics. But it’s all just third-person bias!

I am not of this world…obviously. (My mother said, correctly, “You’re just not people!”) Consciousness, awareness of self and others may depend on a material substructure, but it will never be reduced to that substructure. Can Ho Chi Minh City be reduced to a popsicle wrapper?


My physical dimensions are insignificant - less insignificant than yours, I’m sorry to say—but insignificant nonetheless. But what I’ve learned to call ‘me’, my body, is just the tip of a dimensionless funnel. We all agree on that. I am here; see my ‘tip’ (body), poke me, prod me; but it’s not about the tip, it’s about the funnel. Does my funnel open to the observable universe only to re-focus at a singularity? Or does it open to something much more wonderful? 


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