Have you ever stopped to think about how old you REALLY are? I don’t mean this arbitrary thing we call your date of birth – I mean how old you REALLY are.
Every atom in your body is old – REALLY old. Many of them, such as oxygen and carbon, are only produced via stellar nucleosynthesis – inside giant stars. The nuclei of these atoms is produced by whacking helium nuclei together under extreme heat, therefore the nuclei themselves, which hold most of our mass, are actually much older than those reaction. They were created in the Big Bang. Your current body just represents a different proximity and alignment of those nuclei. They’ve been around, in one form or another, for 13.7 billion years. That’s what we call the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy – the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant.
The current estimate we have for the age of the universe is about 13.7 billion years. Therefore, it seems to me that my body is really about 13.7 billion years old. No wonder I’m feeling tired lately.
What is even more profound for me is the realization that I *had* to exist. Not only that, but I *had* to be who I am right now. It couldn’t have been any different. Yes, I’m a determinist.
When I’m having a debate with creationists about evolution, I usually hear, among their various standard arguments, something about evolution meaning we are all here through some random series of accidents. That strikes me as the complete opposite of the truth.
Think about it – 13.7 billion years ago, the Big Bang occurred. Everything that has happened since that point in time (which I guess was zero time, as time was created WITH the Big Bang) happened according to the laws of physics and chemistry, or let’s just bundle them up together and call them “Laws Of The Universe” (LOTU). Every single atomic reaction that has occurred since time started, happened as a result of LOTU. To suggest otherwise would be saying that sometimes LOTU can be broken which wouldn’t make them LAWS. From all of our investigation of the universe over the last few thousand years, we have come to understand that it does seem to operate according to certain laws. We don’t understand all of them yet and perhaps we never will. It does seem true, though, that laws are present everywhere we look.
What about quantum mechanics? Even QM, as mind-bending as it seems to be, appears to operate according to certain laws and, according to some, is probably also deterministic, even though we currently don’t understand all of the hidden variables and therefore it appears probabilistic. We’ve only been aware of the nature of sub-atomic mechanics for 100 years, it’s early days, but already we understand enough that much of our engineering is based upon the laws of QM as we currently understand them.
If we had absolute knowledge of every atomic and sub-atomic event that was happening one second after the Big Bang, and we completely understood LOTU, I’m certain we could predict everything – the entire course of our lives, the time and place of our death, and the end of the universe itself. Of course, we don’t have that information, and we probably never will, but it’s profound enough for me to sit here and contemplate that my very existence was determined by the Big Bang… that 13.7 billion years ago, the nuclei of the atoms that now form my body were created and a series of event began which lead, not only to my birth, but to the entire course of my life. Every thought and every action I’ve ever had or ever will have, are also the result of LOTU. Nothing could have been different. My life will play out the way it plays out. Every event which happens is the only possible event which COULD have happened. Nothing is wasted, nothing is in excess, nothing is superfluous. There is no reason to feel regret, or guilt, or worry. I am who I am, the only possible me I could be, and this is the only possible life I could live.
I could take it one step further and think about this particular combination of atoms that make up “Cameron”. Are they the same atoms that made up “Cameron” 37 years ago? Absolutely not. So which particular combination of atoms am I? Yesterday’s? Today’s? What makes me “me”? Is it a particular series of memories about events which happened to “me”? What if I had an accident and lost all of my memories? Would I still, then, be “me”? And, if so, why?
Perhaps this whole identity thing is just a fabrication, an illusion, a mental construct. Perhaps there is no such thing as a definitive “me”. Perhaps I shouldn’t limit the definition of “me” to this particular collection of atoms. Perhaps I should consider all of the atoms that have ever made up my body to still be “me”. But then… billions of those atoms are no longer part of my body. They came and went. Where did they go? Into the air, the soil, the water around me. They were, perhaps, absorbed by a nearby plant, which was eaten by an animal sometime later, which was then eaten by… another human. Is that other human, therefore, since they contain some of my previous atoms, also me?
This whole discussion of atoms gets weirder. Just imagine that you had eyes as powerful as an electron microscope. Now look at your skin. Which particles on there are you and which aren’t you? How go you decide which bacteria in and on your body are part of you and which aren’t you? Remove all of the bacteria in your body and you DIE. So surely they are you too. And we all know that atoms don’t have a hard shell. The electrons which are in orbit around the nucleus don’t form a hard shell, which is why physicists like Brian Greene like to say that we are mostly made up of space.
So… you are a 13.7 billion year old roving collection of atoms which are mostly made up of space and everything you have ever done, or ever will do, is 100% determined by the Laws Of The Universe.
Now tell me that isn’t at LEAST as profound and mind-boggling as anything you get from religion.