Archive for August, 2011

What am I?

Next on the list of Life’s Biggest Questions is What am I?

A biologist might well answer in terms such as these:

Kingdom:  Animalia
Phylum:  Chordata
Class:  Mammalia
Order:  Primates
Family:  Hominidae
Tribe:  Hominini
Genus:  Homo
Species:  H. sapiens

True enough.  The person writing this post is one member of the great ape family.  As are you, Dear Reader.  I’d like to think that you and I are in some respects wise or knowing, as the descriptor sapiens suggests.  Does that make you or me unique?  No.  As I write this, I’m told that you and I belong to a wider “family” of more than 6,955,800,000 living humans on the earth.

Yet I am somehow unique.  Each of us has two biological parents, and no child is an exact replica of either parent.  Each of us is a unique product of the genetic and epigenetic determinants passed along to us from our predecessors.  (Please see my previous post.)  You and I are in a very real sense mutants, very similar to and yet differing from our parents.  I can thank this cast of billions for bestowing on me a vitally important fight, flight, or freeze response, a capacity for perceiving patterns–even where no demonstrable pattern exists, and a predisposition to annoying allergic reactions.  (Pardon me while I sneeze.)

I am a unique instance of the general class we know as human, begotten of man and woman, living in relationships of various flavors and colors with…well, more persons than I’d care to count.  And I interact with scores of these persons on a more or less regular basis.  It is from these interactions and the feedback which comes my way that emerges a seemingly endless series of impressions of who and what I am.

In a real sense, what I am is a direct “outgrowth” of the person I was at birth and through my years of infant, childhood, and adolescent development.  And yet I am in flux: from year to year, even from moment to moment, I am a continually shifting constellation of characteristics and ideas and understandings, influenced by and influencing other persons around me.

What am I?  I am one man who is all that I become in the presence of others who are in some ways like and in others unlike me.  Maybe you and I can deal with that, at least for now.

 

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What can I know?

A book I began to read today prods me to write out my own initial answers to a few of Life’s Biggest Questions.  The first of these questions is “What can I know?”  Hmmm…epistemology, right out of the gate!

Interested?  If you are, well, first grab yourself a cup of joe or a beverage more to your liking.  What follows here is my attempt at an answer.

What I can know is, for this instance of an earthbound mammal, potentially broad or deep.   Yet it is highly unlikely that my knowledge about any given subject will be both broad and deep.

Things which fundamentally limit my knowledge are (a) the toolkit with which I experience and interact with other people and my environment and (b) the access I gain to others’ experiences and interactions.  For instance, I have eyes and ears with which I may see and hear, perceive and observe, read and listen to persons, objects, and events which are–actually or virtually–near to me. Various components and functions of my brain are actively involved as I experience and interpret from my particular frame of reference the things about which my senses inform me.

As I read what others have written and said, my capacity to learn about a thing may be stimulated, or I may become more convinced of the value of understandings already embraced.   When I read and listen and watch as other persons write and speak about their viewpoints and understandings, I may free myself from or become yet more entrenched in a set of perceptions and opinions.

My capacity to know more about and to gain understanding of a given thing is filtered through and limited by the information I have previously processed and by what I think I know about that thing–and other things I may relate to it.

Further, my potential for knowing and my experience of my potential is likely framed, to a rather significant extent, by my local, regional, ethnic, and national cultural milieu.  As a lifelong resident of the United States of America, born and raised in the Southeast, I need to check twin tendencies to overrate my knowledge of subjects about which I actually know very little and to underrate my knowledge of subjects about which I assume other persons may well know as much as I.

(A note to the reader: A few of these insights rest on findings first published in 1999 by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, both then of Cornell University, and on research done by others who have challenged and extended Kruger and Dunning’s original findings.)

What can I know?  Well, it depends.    ; )

 

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Why am I here?

So quickly it seems the time has come for me to address the second of Life’s Biggest Questions.  It’s yet another ageless question to which countless answers have been offered: Why am I here?

Why is this person called Bill where he is today?

I am reminded of the Big Pull Back sequence at the start of the 1997 film Contact.   From a close-up shot of a young girl’s eye, the camera appears to pull back farther and farther, revealing in turn the girl, her house, her neighborhood, her hometown,…then the earth, the solar system, our galactic “backyard,” other galaxies,….

As what is near and familiar vanishes in the distance, the vastness of the universe fills the screen.   Are you with me?  You might well ask, “What does that have to do with why you are here?”  A fair question.

To start with, I am where I am largely by choice, or rather, as a result of innumerable choices.  Some of these choices have been my own.  Others were made by persons closely connected to me: my wife and daughter, my bosses and co-workers, my parents and brothers, my teachers and mentors, my rivals and adversaries,…the list goes on and on.  Each of these persons’ lives was shaped by the choices of others near to and far from them.

Long before these arrived on the scene, there lived innumerable generations of individuals and families in many towns and villages sprinkled around the globe.  These people made choices, the outcomes of which sent them, along with those who came with and after them, in new and often unexpected vectors.

Sensing a theme here?  Some have called it contingency.  Every person, everything that is and has been, has emerged from and been largely defined by outcomes and occurrences that preceded them.  A large percentage of these outcomes and occurrences were unanticipated, to be sure.  It is to some extent random and chaotic, on several levels, but it isn’t all chance and happenstance.  Nor do simplistic notions of cause-and-effect suffice.  Yet precedents have played various roles in determining consequents and subsequents.

I am here as a result of countless decisions and events, the vast majority of which predate me and over which neither I nor anyone I have ever known had any control.  And that’s all right.  I’m essentially good with that.  It’s cool to be here.  Existence is a plus.  Life is good, even with all the pain and suffering and, yes, death that’s very much a part of it.

I am here.  And I am content with that.

 

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