The Alien Universe

What is the life that brings us here? How is stray energy of the cosmos snared in tissues and personalities? By what agency do entities, awake and aware, evade the vast anonymity?

Mostly, we distance ourselves from the intuition of our life and its mortal consequences. We project the mystery within to an artificially perceived outside. Then we placate it with metaphors and relativities, as if it did not swallow our destiny into its otherness. Not only our minds but our nerves, guts, lungs, and hearts prefer "business as usual," so it is business as usual, right up to the end.

We pass through world as shadows through fog. Life is around us, in us, inside our inside; yet we do not stave it and cannot grasp it.

As from nowhere we become alive, we encounter a remote apprehension of absolute existence; we sustain its fragile range all our days. A chorus sings, "For all we know, this may only be a dream, / We come and go just like ripples in a stream."

There is also a spirit within us that approaches lie as limitless possibility; that expects to be surprised, forever; and that labors to make us real to ourselves. We behave as if we had been here since the beginning of time and seen it all come to this.

... For the most sentient history, human beings have indeed been considered finished and perfected creatures — final causes of deific agency. But nothing in the quite different world depicted by science is complete or final. The physical basis of life is a template of pulsating, transiting atoms. It takes but five years to replace every one of them in us with another. Thus, bodies are made of stuff on shorter loan than suits or cars. They are definitely not "ours." When friends meet after an interim, they are new assemblages. One so resembles the other (and bears its memory) because prior atoms induce new ones in positions equivalent to their own.

Even the corpse that gets buried (or cremated) is just an atomic cell marker for something invisible. Though it is truly the last remains, it contains nothing personal of the deceased, unique to him or her. It is not even as much a human artifact as other items in the last will. Its substance, decayed and saturating, will drain out of specialized organs back into nature as dust and molecules, becoming soil, air, sludge, bacteria, midges, and the like. Atoms themselves are common, undiscriminating pellets. They are so abundant and we use so many of them that each of contains dust that was part of Homer and Buddha, as well as billions of worms, jellyfish, ancestral birds, crustaceans, corals, and Stone Age hunters.

At another level, life is a sequence of cellular fields, each nested upon a previous one, so that creatures emerge from drafts of antecedent species, from a prior beginning in inanimate crystals which themselves originated in molecular clusters. Life is also an abnormally organized zone of molecular debris or, as biologist Frederick Hopkins deduced, "a dynamic equilibrium in a polyphasic system." Life is a partial realization of the informational potential in atoms and molecules. But life is something else altogether.

By our modern world view, being is neither inherent nor inevitable and, if circumstances had gone differently, there would be no one on Earth (and perhaps no one in the universe), not only now but forever. The molecular building blocks of plants and animals are reputed to have even greater potential for lifelessness that for life, and there is nothing we know that predisposes them to make hounds and hares.

What we have said about life at large is even more true (if that is possible) for human life. Most scientists find it so unlikely that, to them, intelligence is a great farce upon a lesser one. The universe should be a vacant cauldron, pure sound and fury, no jolly coachmen anywhere.

Our own assessment of the odds against our coming into being, however, cannot undo the present fact.

We are stuck at a curious place: our search for origins (intended to bear solace and company) has left us more and more alone in an alien vortex. Meaning crumbles at our lightest touch, upon smudges of distant galaxies as upon ephemeral footprints of particles — upon interest rates and commodities likewise. Hamlet's to be or not to be" has spread from the players to the audience to those not even holding tickets to the Super Bowl/World Cup of universal relativity and deconstruction. "We [now] invent our lost objects posthumously," chants postmodern scribe Steven Shaviro. "The more we brood over supposedly estranged origins, the more those origins take form retroactively, even as they recede from us. Melancholia... continually generally the very alienation of which it then complains."

We expect the daily sun to operate normally, but we know it is only "the sun," a fallible stellar machine that may perform superbly through our lifetimes but will surely give some generation of our children (if our species endures that long) a barren red or indigo morning. We expect daylight to be safe, atmosphere to be breathable, fields and woods to flower and fructify, stormy weather to end, yet we pour the worst imaginable toxins into ocean and air, daily assaulting these functions as if they were guaranteed and indestructible. We expect to achieve something with our lives, to experience great truths; yet we smother the knowable with flagrantly symbolic realms, carrying out extravagant, maudlin battles of kings and clerks and estranging ourselves (down through the centuries) from the joys and sorrows of our own experiences. All that our many crusades have uncovered, both outside and inside us, is a bottomless cavity more void than thing.

Alienation is our species' proudest theology. We are enveloped by inflation, corruption, crooks, and vamps. Schizophrenias and nothingnesses riddle our hardwon mindedness. The fact that we are dissipating irreplaceable resources makes us an event not only without a meaning but without a future. We are free of the promises and threats the gods made throughout history, but it is only the same freedom that raw stellar elements had in the beginning, to make us or not.

We are algorithms. So, who would bother to speak for us or against us?

There is no conventional way out of this dilemma, so we barricade ourselves within tinsel hierarchies and merchandise gluts — the victims of fashionable histories and recreational regimes posing as statistical laws and controlled states. We were once the victims of the divine right of kings and proletarian revolutions.

Either way, the universe is not "a gigantic clockworks, brilliantly lit," as Puritan abolitionsist John Brown proclaimed in Russel Banks' words in the novel Cloudsplitter. "It's an endless sea of darkness moving beneath a dark sky, between which, isolate bits of light, we constantly rise and fall."

We once imagined we could do God's work, or at least oversee the fastidious order of nature or, failing that, have a good time at the party. Now "we pas between sea and sky with unaccountable, humiliating ease, as if there were no firmament between the firmaments, no above or below, here or there, now or then, with only the feeble conventions of language, our contrived principles, and our love of one another's light to keep our own light from going out..."

-Embryogenesis, Richard Grossinger, Jillian O'Malley