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Zoom Out from Your Soul Searching to Consider What You Are

A very personal scientific account of what it is to be a living being.

Key points

  • You're a living being, which is more than just your feelings and thoughts, since many living beings have neither.
  • Beings aren't durable, so they have to constantly regenerate themselves, struggling for their existence.
  • Beings do work that works to keep them working in their work settings, which means they make functional interpretive effort.
  • Effort is constrained work, preventing some work and allowing other work.

Do you ever wonder what you really are? Not who you are, which I’m sure you wonder about lots.

No. What you are. You know you’re a living being, but what’s that?

Here’s a scientific answer that’s intuitive but isn’t what you’ve come to expect from science. After 25 years of scientific research into the emergence and nature of beings, I’m convinced this is what I am.

First, stop thinking of yourself as nothing but your thoughts and feelings. After all, lots of beings don’t think or feel. Plants, for example. Or microbes.

Beings are not durable static objects like stones or stars or computers. It takes work to remain a being. Being is a verb and a noun. Beings are busy being beings.

To remain beings we struggle for our existence, which, by the way, natural selection doesn’t explain, and Darwin knew it. He assumed the struggle for existence and explained how natural selection’s process of elimination hones the work beings do to remain beings.

The business end of life isn’t natural selection. Rather, it’s beings struggling for their own existence. Natural selection isn’t choosing who survives any more than a mountain chooses who succeeds in climbing it.

Now, why do we have to do work to remain beings? Because the mountain we all live on is a slippery slope always sliding us toward degeneration. Here, let me explain.

The universe is composed of jittery, colliding particles, or as Nobel physicist Richard Feynman summarized, “atoms in motion”. Whether atoms, or particles, with all that jittering and colliding, there’s work everywhere.

And work mostly messes things up. A tornado is a lot of work but it doesn’t organize your lawn furniture. A house fire does a lot of work but it doesn’t tidy your kitchen.

Uncontrolled, work just randomizes stuff, and we beings are far from random, though we too are just particles in motion. I’m like a sandman trudging through an erosive sandstorm, trying to prevent my own randomization, my own degeneration.

There are beings that die with their bodies fully intact, for example by suffocation. What’s gone is their ability to repair themselves, the work they do to keep working. With their effort gone, their intact corpses degenerate so quickly that minutes later, there’d be no reviving them, and days later, well... That shows how fragile we are, not durable at all.

To remain a being I have to keep regenerating what degenerates. I do lots of work to keep from falling apart, most of it well below my thinking and emotional radar.

Here then is what I believe I am. I’m a chemical system that does work (makes effort) that works for (functions, is good for) keeping working (remaining a being) in my workplace (interpreting my environment).

Each of those four “works” identifies a feature that’s irrelevant and impermissible in the physical sciences but unavoidable in the life/social sciences. Physical scientists don’t talk about inanimate objects as beings making functional interpretive effort. Life and social scientists can’t help but talk about those four features.

Now, that’s all just description. How do I make my effort, especially since work mostly messes things up?

By self-control, preventing lots of work.

Here’s where intuition helps: Last week you prevented yourself from dithering, frittering away at whatever. You worked on your to-do list by preventing yourself from working on your to-don’t list. You were deliberate enough last week that you’re still a being today. How? By de-liberating yourself from doing whatever.

The work you present is a product of the work you prevent. You are your self-regenerative self-control. You’re willpower is your won’t-power.

You’re not the energy you use in your effort. You’re not the matter you consume to repair yourself as you, a sandperson, trudge through the degenerative sandstorm of particles in motion. You’re not the toast you had for breakfast, not even the caffeine. They aren’t you before you consume them and they’re not you when they end up in the toilet. And you’re not some magical unknown, unknowable or supernatural “vital” energy, force, or matter.

You are your ability to limit all possible work down to work that keeps you working. The self-control you employ isn’t just biting your tongue or keeping emotions to yourself so you can continue to fit in with society. Your whole physical being is self-regenerative self-control, your body’s checks and balances preventing the sandstorm from degenerating you.

I’ll speak for myself: I am not a thing but a prevention cycle. I am my ability to prevent the degeneration of my ability to prevent my degeneration. I’ll do that until I can’t anymore.

Now that sounds so limiting, doesn’t it? But think about it. How did you master anything you now do with agility? How did the dancer here get so fluid and free?

By mastering subtler self-control, learning what effort to prevent, what effort to allow. Making good effort, preventing bad work. In physics there’s no good or bad work. There’s just work, particles in motion.

We tend to overlook how necessary constraint is to freedom. But think about it. How does your cell phone free you to do so many things? By engineers imposing subtle control, cornering and angling those jittery, particles, so they do useful work, preventing them from jittering just anywhere. Cell phones are wired for our freedom, and it’s worth noting, it’s insulated wire to prevent the jittering electrons from doing whatever.

Mind you, cell phones don’t prevent their own degeneration. They’re just durable. Not us beings. We’re fragile.

I am self-regenerative self-control. I prevent work that fails to prevent me from failing. I need those double negatives to really understand what I am. I’m not something added to physics, but a constraint on what happens, me preventing myself from falling apart as long as I can.

Being a healthy, safe human who also feels and thinks, I’ve got head room, effort to spare, discretionary freedom to use my constraints however I like. I like writing. Editing is also a prevention process, one that enables a human like me to speculate in words about what I am.

Here’s are my videos on this perspective on what we are.

And one to start with:


Sherman, Jeremy (2017) Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The emergence and nature of selves, NYC, Columbia University Press.

Based on the theories developed in:
Deacon, Terrence (2011): Incomplete Nature: How mind emerged from Matter. NYC, Norton.