What are we? What sets us apart from the universe?
We believe that we exist in limited time and space. We believe that we are defined by hereditary and environmental influences, leaving room for only a nebulous core of individuality. There is some truth in this perspective. But there is more.
What is time? The present is the sum of everything that is past, and the future evolves from the present. We only see the past as fixed and future as malleable because our minds process information in one direction. But every existent can only act in accordance with its nature and causality. The future is as firmly defined as the past. Every grain of existence implies by its identity the sum of all it has been and everything it will ever be. Time is not a dimension that we move through. Time is the iteration of the possible states of the configuration space of the Universe. It is a single system slowly revolving through all the configurations both possible and necessary to it. All that exists is the eternal present. Time is one’s perspective of the Long Now.
What makes us – us? We are machines, built out of matter and energy, but more importantly, we are information processing structures, the total of which defines our unique configuration. The molecules and cells composing our bodies are regularly replaced by our growth and repair mechanisms. Only the information patterns encoded in genes and consciousness persists. Many mistakenly place emphasis on either the genes or environment as determining structures. But there is no fundamental difference. Genes are triggered, expressed, or suppressed in response to environmental stimuli. Whether we are healthy or sickly because of good genes or good diet makes no difference to the end result. What matters is not our genotype, but our total phenotype — the sum of genetic and environmental influences. The particular combination is only important to biologists.
As human beings, we contain two complex information-processing systems: the genetic and the mental. Of the two, our mental structure is the far more important. We are each unique configurations of information-processing systems that spend our lives gathering up memes and observations and spitting out conclusions and actions. Our mental structures work in method much like our genetic systems, absorbing, modifying and sharing memetic structures through Darwinian processes. On a rare occasion, we cut, paste, and synthesize ideas to form a new unique yet stable and contagious meme-structure and add it to the shared pool of ideas, sending ripples through our shared meme-space and the physical environment through which we enact our ideas.
Mentally and physiologically, we are unique to a very basic level — it is just as unlikely for two people to have identical chromosomes as to have an identical understanding of an idea. Yet on both the fine details and the broad pattern of large structures, we share almost all of our mental and genetic identity with our species and genetically, with all life. There is no need to seek our identity in a mystical hidden soul. We are the unique yet utterly common sum of everything we inherit from the Universe. Our bodies are made from atoms created in the heart of dying stars and designed by a three billion year old genetic inheritance — each a unique information-processing system.
As individual biological systems, our slice of the Long Now is small. But as information systems, we inherit all that is and contribute to all that will be. As the latest expression of the evolving complexity-generating process of nature, we are seeds of the growing intelligence of the universe.