When we look at various breeds of dogs, we see them as remarkably different from one another, but perhaps the dogs see it otherwise. Does a chihuahua look at a golden retriever and think, “I greet you, o fellow dog, with bottom sniffs”? If dogs do see one another as merely fellow dogs, then they are far more advanced than human beings, with all the differences we hate among ourselves.
Even if we cannot meet the the moral standards of dogs, we do share one thing with them—we are extremely interested in our own species. On TV, in movies, in books, in the vapid chirpy drone of pop songs, we want to know about human beings.
I’m that way, and I don’t even have a dog as a role model. For me an interest in people lies at the foundation of everything I write, as a single question: “What does it mean to be human?” I don’t conceive of that question as regarding the meaning of life (if there is such a thing), but rather the question concerns what it is like to simply be here, to be human at all. I think about the existence of human beings in many ways, and while the list below doesn’t even begin to explore the permutations, it shows some possible approaches.
Quantum mechanics: Like all matter, we are made of quantum particles, which we are told mysteriously pop in and out of existence. So the particles that make up our body are going in and out of existence. Wait…what? What does that say about us?
Chemistry: Those same particles create atoms, which move in and out of molecular combinations in our bodies about a bazillion times a second (to round off). At that atomic level, there is a lot of randomness, so if, for instance, a molecule drifts to the left, it may combine with another molecule and something happens. Or if by random chance it drifts to the right, nothing happens. Is this molecular reaction truly random, or do you believe that molecules drift according to fate? A bazillion times a second.
Biology: Our molecular bodies are made of the same elements we can see on the ground as we walk, with this inconceivable difference—those elements on the ground have become grouped together in such a way as to walk around and think about themselves. Think about that.
Individual person: There are seven billion people on the earth, and every single one of them feels in some way alone. Everyone also feels like the very focus of existence. After all, no one else is sitting where I sit, feeling exactly what I feel, no one else has my memories, is afraid of what I’m afraid of, desires exactly what I desire. Doesn’t that make me unique? There are seven billion unique people.
Society: We try to avoid that sense of aloneness by being in groups and by connecting with other people. In groups we also magnify our inherent goodness as well as our inherent evil. It takes many people working together to play a symphony or to run a concentration camp. Sometimes we can also appear to be in a group because so many people surround us, yet we feel sick with loneliness.
Spirit: One of the paradoxes of our existence is that we feel we are more than a body made of dirt. Even the most cold nihilist declaring that the mind is nothing but chemical reactions—even such a person doesn’t actually feel that way. You can say we’re nothing more than the chemical reactions of neurons, but I’ll give you a Mozart symphony, a quilt in a flowered pattern, a Japanese garden, or an apple pie with ice cream, and if you don’t find something spiritual in all that, then you deserve the dirt you’re made out of.
Soul: Do we have a soul? Whenever I see children smiling I always think yes we do. I would never try to convince anyone of my belief, but here’s how it is for me: I can close my eyes and lift off the earth, fly through space, I can watch rainbows a thousand lightyears wide wash across a galaxy, I can smell the perfume of angels, or I can hear ants singing. Suppose these things don’t exist, and yet I have them in my head. For me such things are real, just as the soul is. After all, the quantum particles of my body are blinking in and out of existence, but here I am.
How many possible novels are there in that list? I count at least 7 billion.