How old am I really?

Chandler asked:

How is it that we say things are young but in reality when you think of it everything is as old as the earth itself. Besides the human example, a spoon may be five months old but the components that make it I’ve been in the ground for billions of years so wouldn’t it be a lot older than We think it is?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Before the atoms that make you up were in the ground, they were formed in stars (other stars than our Sun which is still busy converting Hydrogen to Helium). We are ‘stardust, billion year old carbon’ as Joni Mitchell sang in ‘Woodstock’.

There’s a simple answer to your question in philosophical logic, more specifically the logic of identity statements. You are not identical to the stuff that makes you up. Your identity, as a spatio-temporal ‘continuant’ (to use the technical term) is determined by the conditions under which you are you, and not atoms scattered around the universe waiting to be you, or a pile of ash in a crematorium which was once you.

This begs so many questions, I hardly know where to start. Is the universe very old? Are the particles that compose you very old? Compared to what? Your age? Older, yes, but the number (in years, say) is irrelevant. Just as it is irrelevant how large the universe is in miles or kilometres, or ‘light years’ (to use another technical term). We have to get rid of our naive anthropomorphic way of looking at things, where we stand amazed at the sheer immensity of the universe — a claim which handwaving boffins on YouTube or TV shows love to repeat ad nauseam. The claim is empty, meaningless in any absolute sense.

You are not incredibly young or incredibly small. You are simply the age and size that you are, as is every other physical entity in the universe. How everything works is the interesting part, the laws of nature, the actual process of scientific discovery. That’s something truly to be amazed by: that we are capable of gaining any knowledge at all of ourselves or the universe.

However, there is a bigger question still waiting to be answered, a question for metaphysics rather than for science.

According to science, you are just stuff, formed into a shape or system of interacting components that maintains its functionality over a given temporal period, say, ‘three score and ten years’, or more if you stay healthy. When you say, ‘I exist’, your statement is true if, and only if, that physical system is set up to work in the way that a human body does, in the surrounding physical environment in which it performs its various functions — like thinking about the size of the universe or submitting questions to Ask a Philosopher, or eating or sleeping etc.

I once believed this, but I no longer do. The claim doesn’t make sense.

Speaking for myself (the very same applies to you, and any other human being) I know, as an absolute fact, that I might not have existed. My existence is contingent, not necessary. But contingent on what? On the existence of a ‘physical system set up to work in the way that it does, etc. etc.’? Surely not. The physical system known as GK might have existed, in another possible world otherwise identical to the actual world, although I did not. The ‘GK’ in the identical alternative universe is an existing entity, just as I am an existing entity, but he is not I — even though we perform the same actions, think or write or speak the same words.

I don’t even know whether the entity I refer to as ‘I’ is the same age as my functioning physical body. Maybe a new ‘I’ comes into existence every time I wake up in the morning. Or maybe more frequently than that. Or maybe (as in Vedanta Hinduism) every living human being is one and the same ‘I” (only not realizing this, because we live in a permanent illusion of being separate ‘I’s). I don’t have an answer to this metaphysical conundrum, or even a notion of how one would settle the question one way or another. That realization leaves one simply awestruck. Maybe we will never know.

Regardless of that, if my argument is right then physicalism is false and A.I. is dead in the water. There’s more on this in my recent article for Philosophy Pathways, if you’re interested.

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