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Reflections upon the Triple Existence

by William McGaughey

What is meant by “the Triple Existence”? This is no mere figure of speech. Stand anywhere in the outdoors and report what you see.

You see, first, the world of material being. You see the earth beneath you and the skies above. The next thing to attract your attention may be signs of life. Depending upon where you stand, there may be trees, weeds, grass, and perhaps a few small animals running around. There may be other people. This is the second type of being: living creatures. The third type would be what a particular life form, Homo sapiens, has produced. This would be the world created by human thought. If you are standing near a city street, you would see buildings, cement pavement, stop signs, traffic lights, and other objects that would not be there unless some thinking persons had designed and created them.

It may take a shift of consciousness to put these three types of existence together in the same picture: (1) They all exist physically. (2) Living creatures, including ourselves, exist during a finite period of time defined by an organism’s life cycle. (3) Thought comes to exist physically when it is infused in a material object. What we call technology is a process of building and using machines to serve our various purposes. Civilized peoples see its products everywhere.

So take a deep breath and contemplate the fact that the world in which we live consists of three quite different types of being that, in combination, comprise our own realm of existence.

Now contemplate another amazing fact. Physical being exists throughout the cosmos. It exists in the atoms and molecules of hydrogen and the other chemical elements. This existence extends to planet earth. So far as we know, however, earth is the only place that supports the other two types of being.

So far as we know, there is no life anywhere else in the universe. Living creatures do not exist in stars or even on other planets or moons in the solar system. And since Homo sapiens is a species of life, thought does not exist in places beyond that thin layer of crust on the earth’s surface. There are no intelligently produced objects on the moon or on planets or stars other than those which we human beings have sent. There is only raw physical existence in those other places. Its arrangement is governed by the laws of physics and chemistry.

You can be aware of the unique situation that we enjoy as a human beings just by thinking about it for a moment. Do that and see what other thoughts come to mind. This will help you become mindful of who and where you are.

I realize, of course, that humanity is fascinated by the idea that life may also exist in other parts of the universe. We are sending out radio signals to see if there is any intelligent response. Perhaps extraterrestrials or space aliens have already visited our planet. Maybe the U.S. government knows about this and is keeping it a secret. I take no stance on such questions but merely stick with what is indisputably known.

Back to the Triple Existence. You have perceived and contemplated the nature of the world around you, seeing that it exists in three distinctly different kinds of being. This world is a composite of matter, life, and thought. Now recognize that each of these beings originated at a particular time. Matter came first, then life, and finally thought.

Matter first appeared when the universe was created in the Big Bang. Life appeared on earth ten billion years later, first in the form of simple prokaryotic cells and later in eukaryotic cells. Thought appeared in the consciousness of human beings and, as physical objects, when civilized peoples began to build things. This process intensified during the Renaissance, five hundred years ago.

A century ago, scientists became aware of the tripartite nature of our physical environment. The names given to its separate parts were the “geosphere”, “biosphere”, and “noosphere”. An Austrian geologist, Edward Suess, first used the word “biosphere” in a book written about the Alps that was published in 1875; it was that thin sliver of territory on the earth’s surface where living creatures dwelled. A Russian geologist and cosmologist, Vladimir Vernadsky popularized this concept in the third decade of the 20th century. (See Vernadsky.) Together with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Vernadsky also developed the concept of a realm of human thinking, called the noosphere.

It was important to recognize how these three realms of existence worked together. Geology, the study of earth, begins with chemical processes but continues with the effect that life has on its environment. Consider that coal, a type of rock, consists of the compressed remains of plants from the Carboniferous period. Limestone, another rock, is formed from the residual shells of shelled sea creatures. The earth’s atmosphere might not contain so much oxygen had not living algae extracted energy from chemical compounds in which the oxygen had been locked. The impact of life on the earth’s structure is huge.

The same is true of human thought with respect to life as well as inert chemicals. The technologies of agriculture have systematically bred strains of plant life to increase food production for human beings. Domesticated animals represent human intervention in the mix of animal life. With respect to the earth’s land and mineral resources, we see obvious signs of thoughtful human activity in all inhabited places. Humankind, with its swollen population, is turning the entire surface of the earth into an artificial habitat.

The natural sciences can and should study such developments. Keep in mind, however, that the study of the geosphere, biosphere, and noosphere is but one of the ways to understand existence. Aristotle advanced the theory of the four causes: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. The natural sciences study the thing as it is. Let’s say that the material and formal causes come closest to this form of knowledge. The efficient and final causes, however, describe how something changes in the course of time and, perhaps, where that change is ultimately headed. This is history rather than natural science, containing also a smidgin of cosmology to suggest finality.

If the beginning of the 20th century saw scientists such as Vernadsky describe the nature of our triple existence, so the beginning of the 21st century has seen the emergence of big history as a discipline of study. Building upon the foundation of advanced science, big historians such as David Christian have created a story to describe how our world has evolved in the successive waves of physical existence, life, and human culture. This is a new type of creation story to nourish our modern understanding. The book, History of the Triple Existence, puts the focus of storytelling particularly upon upon the "three chapters” of universal experience, so to speak.

A final note: As life and human civilization exist in a perilously small domain on the earth’s land surface, so they could be destroyed if man does not take care to preserve the environment in which he lives. Physical existence is not at risk but the other two types are. So let the story of big history be a cautionary tale to explain how life and human thought are fragile and the critical period of this history is now.

 

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