From Stardust to Consciousness and Free Will

Seven Brief Lessons on PhysicsWe are made from the same debris that sprung forth from the big bang and formed the stars we look up to at night. The particles that make up you or I are hardly different to those which make up a comet in some distant galaxy of which we’ve yet to even see.

“If the world is a swarm of ephemeral quanta of space and matter, a great jigsaw puzzle of space and elementary particles, then what are we? Do we also consist only of quanta and particles? If so, then from where do we get that sense of individual existence and unique selfhood to which we can all testify? And what then are our values, our dreams, our emotions, our individual knowledge? What are we, in this boundless and glowing world?”

Carlo Rovelli tackles the treacherous subject of consciousness and that sense of I that is so difficult to link to the physical realm.

“…what does it mean, our being free to make decisions, if our behaviour does nothing but follow the predetermined laws of nature? Is there not perhaps a contradiction between our feeling of freedom and the rigour, as we now understand it, with which things operate in the world? Is there perhaps something in us which escapes the regularity of nature, and allows us to twist and deviate from it through the power of our freedom to think?”

In Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Rovelli asks questions that at this point are can only be speculated upon. For years philosophers have contemplated the nature of consciousness, likewise we have come to understand a great deal about the world and universe around us. Yet establishing a clear relationship between these two aspects of our reality has alluded most thinkers and scientists.

“The ‘I’ who decides is that same ‘I’ which is formed (in a way that is still certainly not completely clear, but which we have begun to glimpse) from reflections upon itself; through self-representations in the world; from understanding itself as a variable point of view placed in the context of the world; from that impressive structure that processes information and constructs representations which is our brain.”

Rovelli makes a valiant attempt at this conundrum and helps suggest a possibility that is supported by the knowledge we have. More research, of course, will help us find out if he is on the right track.

“We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made, and when we are immersed in suffering or when we are experiencing intense joy we are being nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world.”

Tackling the nature of consciousness is only one topic from many in Rovelli’s book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, yet the book as a whole delves into many interesting aspects of our existence, and while the subjects themselves should be complex and confusing, Rovelli manages to portray them in concise and approachable ways. It’s well worth the read.