How Old Am I?

How Old Am I?

Today I am 74 years old. But am I? Is it that simple? Maybe the referent of my “I” is younger, if new selves grow during a single life, or possibly a little older if we go back to the womb (that’s when I started aging). How old is my body, which is quite closely connected to me? When did it start to exist? We normally think it was in the time of gestation, maybe a few weeks or months after conception (before I was born). But is that really the biological reality? There was a continuous line from my parents’ bodies to mine—didn’t my body start to exist when theirs did? Isn’t it kind of arbitrary to think my body had no existence before my tiny blob came along? A part of their body morphed into what I call mine—aren’t our bodies like beads on a string, not that discontinuous? Isn’t it rather like the growth of a town, where one town changes over time to produce different town forms? My body still has something of theirs in it, so don’t I have another age, which includes my parents’ age? So, let’s say we include that in my age, making me about 100 years old. But then we can repeat the same reasoning and add my parents’ parents, and so on back. Then should we say I am as old as the human species? But that species is continuous with an earlier species, reaching back millions of years. How old are my genes, which have a lot to do with who I am, body and soul? Now we are talking big numbers—my genes are extremely old! Maybe not as old as life on earth, but certainly many hundreds of millions of years old. So, I am as old as that, as old as multicellular life maybe. I—this thing, this organism, this biological unit—am extremely old. For convenience, I say I am 74 years old, which helps the bureaucrats, but in point of fact I am of an indeterminate yet enormous age. Look inside my DNA and you will see what an ancient specimen I am! Oh, I have been around in one form or another for a very very long time. And so have you, and so have all the animals on earth—we all have an incredibly long history, a lengthy period of development. The universe got pregnant with us billions of years ago, ready to bring us to fruition. A side benefit is that I am really only minutely older than the youngest person now living. They are already ancient and I am just a fraction of a second older. We each have many ages, many lifespans, many births—not just the one conventionally assigned to us.[1]

[1] If you think of yourself as created by God in an instant a small number of years ago, you will think of your age as recent and determinate; but if you accept the evolutionary story, the question becomes a lot murkier and your age will span that history. I think of my biological self as roughly as old as the lobe fish from which we descended.

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3 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Yes, well put. The tree of life (of which we are each a short lived offshoot, a flower) need not be merely metaphorically conceived.

    Reply
    • Giulio Katis
      Giulio Katis says:

      I meant to add, what I take from your post is that to conceive of the flower independently of the tree is absurd.

      Reply
      • Colin McGinn
        Colin McGinn says:

        Yes, if we ask how old the flower is, we cannot limit ourselves to the flower alone but must also consider the stem etc. Also: how old is the earth? Doesn’t that include the material that composes it?

        Reply

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