When the Snow Melts, Where Does the White Go?

22 Oct 2021

I listen to a lot of comedy podcasts. They are quite wonderful and still mostly free. In addition to the “free funny” I generally like the comedic mind’s thoughts on things. Except for science and religion. Why are their ideas so different than mine? Well, there’s a whole industry of books built around helping and encouraging creatives to do the work of creating. “The Artists’ Way” is a prominent example. It spends a lot of time talking about the inner and outer creator. This is not dissimilar to how all the other books tackle the subject of creation. As such art communities tend to have spiritual ideas about manifesting their creations into reality. Creating is what artists and God do. Yes, when stated that way, the idea seems a bit pretentious.

Honestly, despite the hubris, it’s not a bad strategy. Creating art is hard brain work but, paradoxically, really much more difficult if one spends too much time thinking about the creative process while creating. Therefore, the act of taking inspiration and execution out of one’s hands lets many artists stop overthinking and be at peace with the act of creation. If you believe in your heart of hearts that you and humanity alone, not any spiritual being, are responsible for creating a story/song/painting then the pressure can be a lot. That the blank page collects your creations as partial gifts from ‘outer god’ working in harmony with you allows some to get past their inner critics and create. Unfortunately such magical thinking leads to the idea of intellectual argument as just a story that helps one understand. Why would you fact check a story? ‘Nice’ stories, ones that imply things we are predisposed to believe, slip past our mental logic gates. There’s one story that is particularly tenacious in its grip on creators despite its flaws.

I hear this argument fairly often on podcasts when artists discuss the afterlife: Science says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed into another form. If the brain and consciousness are energy then that energy must go somewhere when a person dies. Thus it follows that a person’s consciousness moves on to some other reality. Usually they arrive at this conclusion in a bit more humble and earnest way and then trail off after the ‘it must go somewhere’ part, but that’s the basic argument. It should be stated that they completely have a point about energy not being created or destroyed. Just… not in a way that leads to an afterlife or soul. Absolutely there is energy inside a brain: Those neurons don’t fire for free. A bill has to be paid by the blood cells that deliver food (chemical energy) to our brain so it can produce electrical energy. However, consciousness is not a type of energy. It needs energy to continue existing but it is not that energy. So what is it?

This is where the riddle comes into play. When the snow melts, where does the white go? The white of snow is not a dye. Snow is white because, like a white pigment, it scatters all visible colors of light in random directions. We perceive as white anything that emits all visible colors in equal proportions. A computer monitor can be white, but it doesn’t leak white when left on its side. White is emergent from the right conditions. Change the conditions (heat the snow/smash the monitor) and the white stops being. Hit a person on the head hard enough and consciousness will stop. It may return, if the conditions again become favorable. It doesn’t ‘go’ anywhere, it just can’t exist without extremely exacting conditions.

But what about the energy? Where does the brain’s energy go? Eventually, where all energy goes: Heat. When the brain’s intricate structures break down they release some heat. Without an active immune system to fight off anything that wants to eat our high-energy people chemicals, the body and brain are consumed by little invaders. And later larger invaders. Eventually these invaders must die too and more heat is produced. The energy moves from chemical to heat over the course of years and centuries as ones body makes possible a bunch of other life. Each transfer losses a little bit to heat energy or sometimes goes straight there: Merely sitting in a chair converts 100 watts of chemical energy into heat every second of the day.

It’s tricky to know that we, that thing produced by the right conditions in our brain, are responsible for so much but are actually quite ephemeral. For some, that thought stifles creativity. One could also see consciousness as a stunningly amazing process made even more interesting by its continued existence. A hard fought accidental outcome produced by billions of years of evolution. Interestingly, evolution itself is another example of something that only exists when the conditions are right. The universe is a strange, brutally indifferent, and wonderful place. The concept of a delicate mind dependent on a whole system of support is only depressing from some points of view.