Science and self

451px-New_Scientist_6_Feb_2010New Scientist has jiggled my little grey cells recently.

You are not alone

We have creatures living in us and on us. We’d die without them, especially the ones in the gut that help us digest food. Some of them are not good for us, though, and these are parasites. They take, take, take—there’s no give with a parasite. Did you know that parasitism is the most popular lifestyle on Earth? Up to now you may have thought it confined to adolescents who lie moping on the couch all day. Some of you may have, or have had, personal experience of this curious parasitic life form that lives at the expense of its host(s). Perhaps you harbour the wish to turn the tables and one day, in your dotage perhaps, become parasitic on those who treated you as their host. We can all dream. You may have seen parasites in or on your pets. You may even have them yourself: worms and malaria for example (if so, hopefully now recovered). Anyway, the point is that you and I are never alone.


Sometimes it feels as if we have parasites living in our minds. They suck well-being from us. They used to be called demons, but now we call them other things. One of the commonest is depression. At least 1 person in 6 has to deal with this some stage. It seems that the most popular antidepressants are not as effective as was once thought. Or perhaps it’s better to say that drug-resistant depression is on the rise. New treatments involving magnetism and electricity (not the old-style ECT) are being investigated. If brain waves can affect the external environment—and they can, otherwise EEG/EKGs wouldn’t work—then magnetic and electrical forces might affect the brain. Perhaps someone some day will explain to me exactly what magnetism and electricity are. The anaesthetic ketamine might also have its uses. Indirectly it helps nerve cells in the brain to grow new bits and pieces—which is a good thing for depressives. So maybe depression is not only a chemical thing, but also a structural thing—the shape of nerve cells is affected in depression. Then again, there’s the moon. It’s reported that the full moon makes people edgier. Well, if the gravitational pull of the moon can affect the oceans, might it not also affect the liquid in and around the brain, and the brain itself which is really quite jelly-like? Perhaps someone some day will explain to me exactly what gravity is.


Huge amounts of methane lie just below the Arctic sea. Melting of seabed ice means that there could be a gigantic smelly belch any time soon. That would bring global warming forward by over 30 years and change the face of the planet: sea levels, climate zones, malaria risk areas … a long list. Human activity might have nothing to do with it: the leakage of methane from this area is nothing new and could have been going on since the end of the last ice age.

So what?



The earth does not revolve around you or me. In time-terms, the ice age is but yesterday. It will come again. The earth will do what the earth has to do, and we can not stop it, even if that means a gigantic arctic fart next month, or a catastrophic eruption of the Yellowstone caldera. Microbes will do what microbes have to do, and we can not stop them, even if that means MRSA and/or bird flu epidemics decimate the human population next year. We are not in control. Not one of us. The sooner each one of us comes to terms with this, the better. Actually, it’s liberating, for it means that there’s no point fretting about the future so we might just as well work with the here-and-now–which is what eternal means anyway: out of time, in the moment.

Each one of us is no more than a collection of memories, feelings, and illusions—or more likely delusions—about ourselves. If we keep inflating our balloons, at some point they will burst. If we recognize our own powerlessness and frailty, we are not subject to illusions about them, or about the pride that causes us to think ourselves better than others. Ego-self is illusion. St Paul calls it flesh. Letting go of it is what the crucifixion is about. To love my life is to lose it—the self-centred ego, the me, me, me. Losing this means stepping into the freedom of resurrection. Liberation comes phoenix-like after destruction. This is the truth of all religions worthy of the name. We can rise only if we have fallen.

It’s been said that the principal job of the priest is to prepare people for death. So here you are, boys and girls: sooner or later you’re gonna be dead. All your self, your hurts, your trophies, your notions, your targets, your money in the bank … none of it matters. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. Meaningless. It doesn’t matter how big your grave is, how well-tended it is, how often it’s visited, or how large is the plaque erected in your memory.

Reading about science reminds me that, as I pointed out here, we are creatures of this earth. No more, no less. We’re in partnership with the cosmos, not opposition to it. So work with what you’ve got and enjoy it while it lasts. And when it goes, work with something else.

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