a very complicated being

an essay in the series views from the mountains

first: June 22, 2019, last: July 7, 2019

Evolution led to the unfolding of structures that may be seen as a vertical hierarchy of layers, each building and closely interlinking with those below. These layers are the same for all life, from bacteria to the pinnacle of evolution on Earth so far, human beings. Naturally, not all species contain the full gamut of these structures. That hierarchy may be divided into spheres, each consisting of several layers. For a human being we may distinguish four spheres: the physical, our body, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual.

Before digging deeper: such division into spheres and layers is but for our simplifying understanding of the complicated human being. Reality is much more intricate. One aspect is that the different layers are co-located as they operate in the same space albeit on different scales. This is at least the case for the physical body. Another aspect is that the transition between layers, even between spheres, is by no means sharp and well-defined but is often smooth with aspects of one reaching deep into or even across its neighbors. Still, as a first structuring attempt, layers and spheres are useful.

The Physical Sphere

For our physical body, we may roughly distinguish five layers: (i) The biomolecular machinery translates genetic information from DNA through RNA to proteins, which in turn build and operate our body. This machinery operates in all complete cells. (ii) The individual cells with their diverse form and function constitute the intermediary building blocks for the higher layers. (iii) Then there are diverse organs like the heart, the lungs, and the brain, and other large constructs like the skeleton and the vascular system. These are formed by a very large number of cooperating and often highly specialized cells. (iv) Finally, there is the entire traditional body, the orchestrated whole of all the deeper layer. This body is the first unit that is envisaged to be viable on its own, which is not quite true, however. (v) The last layer of the purely physical body is its microbiome, a diverse, deeply integrated, and highly dynamic population of microorganisms. It supports and often enables important functions like digestion of food or protection against illnesses of all sorts. A human body without its microbiome is indeed not viable outside of an intensive care system. We share this property with all sufficiently complicated life, animals and plants. This microbiome indeed is no small thing. In a healthy human body, it outnumbers the traditional body’s cells by ten to one and when it come to genetic information it is a hundred to one.

The Higher Spheres

Beyond the sphere of the body are the non-physical spheres, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual, with the latter eventually reaching into the divine. Various schools distinguish a number of different layers within each of these higher spheres.

There is considerable controversy, however, already on the very existence in particular of the highest spheres, naturally also on their distinctions and finally on the naming. Since these are hardly touchable by current natural sciences – our platform for objective knowledge – no consensus has emerged, neither is one in sight. The progress of our common understanding of those spheres is thus slow, if there is any at all.

Natural sciences are about to make significant inroads into the lower of these spheres, however, into the emotional and the mental. Their biochemical roots indeed become ever more apparent and for an ever larger number of states and processes. With this, the previous non-physical spheres are increasingly recognized as manifestations of the body’s physical sphere, which explicitly also includes its microbiome. Indications of such rooting goes quite far already. It includes for instance out-of-body and near-death experiences. Similarly, there is a wealth of studies that show the relation between deep meditation and neurological states of the brain, even indications of long-term meditations modifying the brain’s physical compositions.

A Very Complicated Machine

With natural sciences offering an ever more comprehensive explanation of our higher spheres, rooting them in the physical, the notion emerges that man is a machine, a most complicated one, to be sure, but still a machine. This comes as a shocking proposition for many, a misguided simplification by little educated scientists. The truth is, however, that man as a very complicated automaton is a rather old teaching and indeed predates natural sciences. What is about to change now is that such understanding becomes precise and testable, hence objective. And it slowly oozes into common views and thereby dissolves widespread concepts of what a human being is, of how fundamentally different we are, from a cow, for instance. We are different, strongly and undeniably, but probably much less so than what we would like to believe.

More important than the dissolution of comforting misconceptions is our emerging appreciation of how deep, complicated, capable, and at the same time delicate this machine of ours is. As a starter, it can easily accommodate within its degrees of freedom everything we typically summarize under the tag “free will”. There are also severe imposed limitations, of course. On the trivial end, we will never fly like an eagle. We got used to that. On the more complicated end, we constantly feel the limits of our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capabilities. They carry us just so far in recognizing what is, just so deep in our love. As Farid ud-Din Attar put it, the author of the incomparable Conference of the Birds, “All you have ever known or learned is not even the beginning of what you must know.” It is that limitation we weep for, that limited reach into the heavens. It is not whether there is a physical machinery at our base or whether it is some more mystical thing.