Recently in the grocery store, one of our customers grabbed my arm. “You sold me ‘The Swerve,’ ” he said, his face lit up with joy. “What an incredible book. I give it to everyone now, and they think I’m a genius.”
I nodded my head in agreement. “A magnificent book.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “We’re all atoms.”
Mr. MAY: The dust, yeah. And, in fact, all of the above is true. You know, a certain amount of dust is created in every event in the universe and particularly in supernovae - a lot of dust is put out. And we, human beings and all animals and all plants and everything on the Earth are made of the dust that has come out of supernovae. Now that's not something that I discovered but that's a fact. So when Joni Mitchell said we are stardust, we are golden, she was right. We are stardust. And I find that quite an amazing thing to think about. The material of our body did come from the insides of stars. It was made in the insides of stars.
But, look, is it right to say that we are nothing but star-stuff, atoms, what have you? I mean, if you took my body apart and rearranged it into a bloody lump of flesh, or if you were somehow able to take it apart all the way down to its component particles and rearrange them into clouds of this or that gas, would you still be looking at me? Of course not, because a mere catalog of stuff does not suffice to identify an object, much less a living thing, and much, much less a living, sentient thing capable of abstract reasoning, moral deliberation, aesthetic contemplation, and all the rest. Western Philosophy practically begins with this insight—and the consequent, conscious overthrow of Democritus & Co. The third definition of knowledge in Plato's Theaetetus, for starters, and the entirety of Aristotle's Metaphysics, book I.
So why do we find ourselves back on square one even today, time and again? These days, probably to challenge jingoistic notions of human privilege—that is, for the same reasons they trumpet apparent findings on higher cognition in animals along with anything that seems to challenge the notion of human free will, such as Benjamin Libet's experiments.
And why must we recruit specifically Thaller, Greenblatt and May to tell us half-truths we could just as easily deduce from a grade school textbook? Here I could do a little speculation of my own, but that would turn my snark into acid.