Because we are self-aware and apparently self-contained in our heads, we tend to think of ourselves as separate individuals. We may recognize our interdependence with other individuals of our own and other species, but we generally think that we are individual beings. By projection, we may think of all life as collections of individuals.
But that notion quickly breaks down when we look at plants. Many plants can be broken apart to form new individuals. Sometimes plants merge together; are they one, or two? Plants, as well as animals, are collections of cooperating cells. Our bodies contain far more bacteria than human cells, and many of our cells can be extracted and grown in laboratory dishes. So, where do I end – when is something not part of me anymore? When it breaks off? Maybe the essential “I” is just my brain; my body, which supports my brain, could be lost and I would still be here, assuming my brain had access to some futuristic laboratory that could keep it alive in a jar or a robot.
Have you ever thought about the process of replacing bits of your body with mechanical devices until there is nothing left that is organic? After replacing all the major organs of my torso with artificial versions, I could slowly replace parts of my brain with more efficient computer components until there was no grey matter left. At what point would I die? Would I notice? Do I have a soul that would fly off while the mechanical me kept on living?
The fresh water hydra is a little creature that can reproduce by “budding.” Baby hydras form as little bumps on the side of the adult and eventually mature & break off. At what point do you move from one hydra with a bump to two individual hydras? This brings up human reproduction. At what point does the fetus become a separate individual? At conception, when it’s just a tiny fertilized egg? When doctors might be able to keep it alive outside the body? At birth? At age 26 when its brain is fully developed? Are sperm or eggs part of your body or half-humans you are storing in case they have a chance to develop?
All of the matter that makes up my body is continuously being exchanged with matter outside my body. I am absorbing molecules from food, water, and air. The matter that made up me years ago is somewhere else now; I am made of new stuff. It is as if I had slowly replaced myself with machines, as I described above. Am I still the same individual I was when I was seven years old, just because I have memories of that individual? Do memories make the individual? Memories can be false. Memories can be stored on a computer disk. Memories can be lost.
I think that we have a dual nature. Just as light is thought of both as a particle and a wave, we are both separate individuals and integrated components of a complex system of matter and energy.
Today, when my wife pointed out that I had left the front door open, I tried to explain that “we” had left it open. After all, I am part of a team, and the team is to blame. Our family left the door open. Americans left the door open. Humans left the door open. You can blame one individual (me) or spread the blame to whatever group you want to place me in. That’s why it’s so strange that people fixate on blaming groups, the classic example being the Catholics & Protestants of the long struggle in Northern Ireland. Someone from the other group commits a crime & you blame their entire group. But why stop there? If a man committed the offense, we can blame all men. We can blame all people. We can blame life itself – it was an animal, in this case a human that hurt me, so I choose to blame mammals, or animals, or living things. You can blame the whole planet. After all, the planet enabled the individual to do whatever it was that we don’t like.
The huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico presents an opportunity to blame all sorts of people and organizations. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so astutely pointed out, we don’t solve problems if we focus on individuals who have done wrong instead of on the systems that produce the wrongs.
I guess there has to be a balance that recognizes our dual nature as individuals and parts of a whole. We can sue BP or anyone else, but in the end we have to change the system that makes disasters like the oil spill possible.
Touch this daisy to reveal some technical and scientific musings: