I Think, Therefore I Am … I Think
We (not I or anyone I know personally) sent a probe to Jupiter that managed to survive an absurdly difficult approach in order to enter into an orbit from pole to pole. The launch took place in 2011 and the probe , Juno, entered into orbit on July 4th, 2016, so this was not a red-eye to the moon; people who know something about distance in space suggest that the route covered about 540 million miles. Had we the capacity to shoot a beam of light (at the speed of light, of course) it would take only about 48 minutes and 19 seconds to get to Jupiter. So, that’s faster.
Whatever dreamy misunderstanding I had about Jupiter was set straight by Scott Bolton, the project’s chief scientist. “It’s a monster. It’s unforgiving. It’s relentless. It’s spinning around so fast. Its gravity is like a giant slingshot slinging rocks, dust, electrons, comets.” Apparently, the beautiful rings are primarily made of flotsam, some of that far slung dust, particles of which can last from 100 to 1000 years.
We’ll know more about Jupiter when the work of Juno is done. We’ll know something about how the planet was formed, and probably a bit more about the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, but at the end of the day, in 2018, we’ll still lie awake and try to get our heads around the who, how, and why of all of it.
The who I mean is not the universal life force/creator/divine architect/good shepherd. The who in question is the person lying awake, quaking in the hour of the wolf, remembering the shock that arrived when first gazing up at the stars, lazily mind-swimming in the view until, uninvited, the thought nudges the rim of consciousness –
“Whoah! I’m pretty small. These stars aren’t actually where I see them but off somewhere else, dancing in some other formation that someone else will see after I’m long gone. This big picture makes my brain hurt. Oh, and, I’m mortal. These stars will outlive me, but someday they’ll burn out and fizzle like fireworks in a fish pond.
Or something roughly like that. And that set of brutal truths then bumps up against whatever psyche melting speculation has most recently playing at the Hometown Cinema 12, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, Abre los Ojos, any of the films or shows that seem to suggest that there is no demonstrable reality, that all we know exists only in our individual brain pan, and the entire structure of all that is (or isn’t) may be a subjective fiction. I don’t know why the thought that I am dreaming myself, that my life is a lucid/fog-bound dream should be more terrifying than realizing that Russia, China, Pakistan, and North Korea all have nuclear weapons, or that the polar cap is now covered with tiki bars. After all, it’s just a theory, as undemonstratable as anything else.
Well, it may pack a punch because it throws this whole “self” thing into question, shutting down just about the only set of certainties we thought we could count on. How do we make our way through the day if we are uncertain that the day actually exists?
Let’s just put that inconvenient doubt aside for a bit because we still have to contend with how, and again, I’m less concerned with the how of Jupiter’s birth and more concerned with the how of sentience. How does it happen that we are aware of our own subjective experience? I’m not asking why us (me) or why does sentience operate as part of our human experience; I’m asking how the complex electrochemical neurological spasms and spurts have anything to do with mentation. I’m ok with all the mapping and prodding (talk about probes!) brain research has done in the last twenty years, the genetic signals and the trace minerals, but we’re still left not knowing what a thought is, where it originates, or why we know it as our own. We can track down the flawed systems of sensation, processing, and expression when they break (phantom limbs, etc), but, like life itself, mentation is currently only indirectly observable. Flashes of light and color indicate brain activity, pathways glow, lobes glow, proteins glow, but we can’t identify the how of any specific thought.
So, why? Why has the universe bumping along on whatever spiral it has ahead included awareness of self? Problem solving makes sense. Kinesthetic awareness makes sense. Gooseflesh and body hair make sense. Not sure what evolutionary advantage resides in intimations of mortality or (perhaps) intimations of reality. It’s pretty clear that a bunch of life forms can learn to distinguish between the left turn and food and the right turn and a blast from the experimenter’s taser. At that level, probably not even mentation. I’m pretty sure planaria don’t think, even though they can be conditioned. Biologists call their behavior “directional bias”, and I’m likely to keep that tag at the ready whenever my choices about anything are questioned. Why do I prefer Michigan football to Alabama football? Directional bias.
I’m perfectly comfortable lounging in the hypothetical, but real thinkers want more rigorous standards, so I’ll ask the question: If the only purpose of sentience is primal (You exist as a person separate from all other life forms. Tigers are a life force that would eat you as an appetizer. Good idea to avoid tigers.), I can’t imagine (mentation 201) why we would spend the amount of time that we do in our heads, as it were. To take the issue one step farther, what’s the point of brain activity that often provokes those locked in self-awareness to do everything in their power to shut down the transmitter? Drink, drug, exercise, gamble, shop until somehow the noise inside the head quiets; otherwise unchained humans experience incessant thought about self as being trapped in a kind of cacophonous pinball machine.
How did I get from the trip to Jupiter to unrelenting brain static? I guess I wondered why a trip of more than 500 million miles is an easier trip than an idle visit to a fairly obvious human question. Who, How, Why am I?
I’m inclined to exercise my directional bias toward mystery. It may turn out that it is better not to know how we know, you know?