The Divine Phytoplankton Experiment

Without diving into theology in any great depth, there has always been one element that has nagged at me. That is, ultimately, the interplay between monotheistic religion, polytheistic religion, religion in general, and science in general. Creation myths vary widely but ultimately struggle with the essential question of where did existence come from and what created it.

While we often think of the Greek gods like Zeus, Poseidon, etc. as the originators of their universe and the ultimate supreme beings, they’re relatively late in the creation myth. The Greek gods of Olympus are little more than children of children who ultimately give birth to humanity as their own progeny.

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The Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), take a somewhat different approach with a supreme divine authority responsible for the creation and origin myth. Yet, that God still cedes some power to prophets, angels, or in the case of Jesus, various incarnations or reinventions of its divine self.

In the pursuit of answering that most obnoxious of questions, who are we and where did the Universe come from? I ran into a quandary that fascinated me. The Christians adhere to a narrative that God always existed and at some point decided to create the Universe. The Greeks followed a fairly similar path, though, in place of one God, numerous divine beings are involved with varying degrees of power and presence. Many of which are heavily tied to the elements and core behaviors. Meanwhile, the most widely accepted concept scientifically is that of the big bang, or potentially the big bounce.

None of these manages to do a good job of explaining what created the creator or sparked the point of creation. The Christian has an eternal God that has and will always exist. The Greek has Chaos which gave birth to the Earth. Modern science either cites insufficient information or the possibility that things are either cyclical or that there is a genuine starting point, but it is one that merely is and always has been. Of course, each individual faith has its own take and weights each deity or deities differently, but ultimately most boil down to the same similar challenges.

Which is where phytoplankton entered the equation as a tool for understanding perception and offered a lens for accepting that we have insufficient knowledge and that moving forward that knowledge is likely to expand to encompass new things far outside our existing reach. Growing up in Christian America, the concept of an omnipresent, absolute, omnipotent God is a cornerstone of the generally accepted worldview. But, agreement on how powerful God is, how omnipotent, and how involved in the day-to-day is a source of endless debate and contention.

So, the questions become: What’s the best way to adapt to this new information as we discover it? How do I best come to understand what godly powers are? And then, how do I create a mental framework for relating to the Universe that does not require profound cognitive dissonance to be successful? And what exactly does it mean to be a god anyway?

To do this, I made a casual mental list of key things we commonly attribute to god or gods. The list included the basics, things like the ability to create the world, to modify landscapes at a profound scale, to seemingly give and create or modify life, and either immortality or extended mortality so far beyond the confines of what is within our perception that it seems to be immortality.

Then, I draw on the Ant Thought Experiment, which I’ve outlined previously, and decide to go even smaller. While an ant’s world is interesting, it’s still within a timeframe and scope that is marginally similar to ours as humans. Which eventually led me to settle on phytoplankton. To refresh, phytoplankton are so tiny they’re essentially invisible to the naked human eye unless a massive bloom is occurring. Their lifespan is brief, often only days, but they are also incredibly numerous and vary widely in type.

To begin with, put yourself in a phytoplankton’s metaphorical shoes. You’re a relatively simple organism, floating in what seems like an endless world. You’re surrounded by trillions of your companions and your multi-cellular intelligence is effective for substance and reproduction, but you aren’t likely to spout Shakespeare or discuss the origin of ethics anytime soon.

But, for the sake of this exercise, then consider what twenty-first century humans consider god-like traits and do it from your phytoplankton’s perspective. As, hopefully, we can all agree that humans are not divine and are quite far from being gods themselves, let’s consider our own species as it might be perceived by our wide-eyed phytoplankton.

Humans have the ability to re-shape the world. We’ve drained seas, created lakes the size of seas, leveled mountains and can manipulate the landscape of the earth on a profoundly impactful level. We’re also able to create light and energy. It would even be possible to take our phytoplankton, create an artificial habitat for it by re-combining basic elements to create water, specific types of soil, and oxygen and then transport that artificial habitat into space. We’re also rapidly gaining the ability to edit, recombine and modify genes and genetic markers in a way that bears a striking similarity to creating life.

But, beyond the ability to craft and modify the world at large, also consider physical size. Our titanic size in comparison to the phytoplankton would be daunting, and our physical strength so profoundly powerful that a flick of a finger would obliterate our hapless phytoplankton. To the phytoplankton’s perspective where lives are lived in a day, perhaps two—our life spans as humans are beyond perception. Consider, to our phytoplankton with its 48-hour lifespan, how minutes would seem like days and then consider that over the duration of a 100-year human life span more than 52,594,920 minutes would pass. Last, consider that where our phytoplankton is relegated to a brief period of experience and whatever genetic memory might be hardwired into its genetic code, how the sum of human knowledge must seem Begin by considering the level of knowledge you’ll have accrued by your eightieth birthday. Then, consider how that is supplemented through the internet, blogs, word of mouth, language and everything in between. As a species, and you as a member of that species, have at your fingertips visual records of virtually all parts of the earth, combined with extensive historical and predictive data. To the limited perspective of our bright-eyed phytoplankton, you are, in effect, omnipotent.

So, what’s the takeaway here? We know we’re not gods. In fact, we know that there is a universe that surrounds us that we do not understand. Ultimately, we find ourselves in a world where we are that wide-eyed phytoplankton. To this end, the traits that we have historically attributed to the divine rapidly become less daunting and overwhelming.

In a Universe full of billions of galaxies filled with billions upon billions of solar systems, each home to billions of planets, it’s not inconceivable that there might be entities, experiences, or occurrences so alien and gigantic in nature that they take on divine attributes. Ultimately, our Universe may serve as a home to creatures as different from us as we are from phytoplankton. While for some this may become a question of divinity or theism, I encourage you to instead focus on it as a way of framing, understanding and familiarizing yourself with the discomfort of the unknown.

In the end, what seems unknowable, what we lack the vocabulary for, and what is of such significant scope that it leaves us awed and humbled, may, in reality, be surprisingly simple. Once, that is, we change our perspective and analyze the situation through new and rapidly emerging contexts. Often how we look at something is every bit as important as what we’re looking at.

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