Are You Here Today?

A notification popped up on my Slack messenger at work; it was from Mary, our office administrator.

Are you here today?

Now Mary has an interesting side career, she’s a yoga instructor. But she is not a yoga instructor of the common, everyday, throw-your-leg-over-your-head variety. Rather she prefers to instruct in the more ancient and traditional notions of yoga - notions that include the physical practice but are also related to meditation and to philosophical detachment from the more selfish aspects of the ego. Given that, and the fact that her yoga practice had come up in conversation recently, I decided to poke at the question “Are you here today?”:

Now that’s a rather deep question don’t you think?

Moments later Mary arrived at my desk with a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. Ha! I’d poked fun at her, but she was actually planning to lend me a copy of a book that delves into why this actually is a deep question.

So this really got me thinking. “Are you here today?” When you get right down to it, it really is a deep question! All four words in that expression belie pretty foundational metaphysical assumptions that we casually brush over in everyday life. These assumptions are so deeply internalized that we can ask the question “Are you here today?” with no recognition that any word is really a sort of assumption at all.

Let’s look at each word. First, “are”. This is a word that indicates being and existence. This word covers over perhaps the most profound assumption – that we even exist at all. What does it mean to exist? At the deepest levels this is simultaneously a question of metaphysics and physics. You see, at the most basic level, the physicists that are working out the theories of quantum mechanics can’t agree about what existence really is at this deep level. Some say that pieces of the universe exists in a sort of superposition of all possibilities until they are “observed” and then they snap randomly into one of those possibilities. Others believe in the “multiverse” - that at every instant our universe splits into all possible “next-steps” so that there are infinitely many you in other universes. Still others recently are starting to think that no thing exists by itself, but rather existence is dictated by the interrelation between things; things are not real, just their relationships.

Next, “you”. Sure, maybe (maybe) things exist, but do you really exist as a distinct agent in this reality? Well Descartes famously said “I think therefore I am” and that feels right to me. Afterall I have subjective experience. But almost as soon as Descartes offered up his statement others were challenging it. For instance, a common theme is that the word “I” in that phrase already presumes the existence of a self so that the whole phrase becomes a tautology - something akin to “I am therefore I am”.

Let’s say that a you does exist. What is that you? Is it your physical body? Well if you’re reading this, then you’ve already been alive long enough that the material composing your body has largely been recycled many times over. I’m looking now at my 6 month old who, until recently, has only been breast fed. Literally two thirds of him is my wife! Where’s the you? Ah this is silly, the you is not physical, it’s the mind, right? What is the mind? If it’s merely an algorithm then the computer your looking at has a you just as real as the you that you’re trying to grab hold of right now. Surely the you of the human mind is more special than this, right? Maybe. But then there are plenty of strange examples from psychology about how even this you is not sacrosanct. Consider Phineas Gage who changed his mind quite literally after having shot a large iron rod the front of his head in a railroad construction accident. Or, perhaps most amazing, consider individuals who have had the hemispheres of their brain separated (an extreme procedure intended to reduce disabling grand mal seizures). These patients have been shown to have two distinct consciousnesses in their heads. Two yous?

Now we come to “here”. Surely here, the place where you are sitting and reading this can be some sort of real anchor. But where is “here”? Well you should feel honored to know that you are currently located in the very center of the Universe. But then again, so am I. And so is everything else. So maybe here isn’t all that special after all!

And finally “today”, or maybe for the purpose of this conversation “now”. Now is particularly enigmatic because it is at this singular point that our entire lives are lived. But it’s fluid. The now you’re experiencing right now is gone just as soon as you’ve experienced it. And it’s gone forever into the past. With location, you can move from “here” to “there”, but the past is immutable - once you’ve gone past it, you can never go there again. And similarly, at each moment your now is moving into the future. The future is similarly off limits, but rather than being immutable, it’s unknowable. And so, here we are forever in the spark that is now; this moment.

It’s all very confusing when you take the time to stop and thing about it.


Are you here today?

comments powered by Disqus