You Are a Slow Waterfall of Atoms

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Part 6 on the Pennine Way [Back to Part 1 | Part 5]

About a mile after the Low Force waterfall, I started hearing that crescendo of sound again, like trees being whipped by a hurricane ahead. Around a bend in the trail, there it was: High Force, the second largest waterfall on the Tees, an awesome torrent of gold-tinged water thundering through two narrow openings before plummeting 70 feet.

If you (like me) have been spoiled by the natural wonders of North America, you’re chuckling at the idea that a 70-foot waterfall is impressive. Yosemite alone has four falls of over a thousand feet, one of which (Yosemite Falls) is 2,425 feet – thirty-four times as high as High Force.

But High Force was riveting for two reasons. I was close for one — so close that in my chest I could feel the rumbling of the water’s violent course through the rocks. Plus I was absolutely alone, not splitting the power with anyone. Last time I saw Yosemite Falls, there were easily 2,000 pairs of eyes looking at it from various angles in various nooks of the park, meaning we each had only about 14 inches of power to ourselves. At High Force, all 70 feet were thundering just for me.

The illusion of permanence is one of the great attractions of waterfalls and rivers—they are wheres without a fixed and permanent what. Dip your cup into Lake Superior and there’s something more tangibly Lake Superior about it. But a cup of Thames water harvested off the Chelsea Embankment has only been “the Thames” for about three days. Another day and, but for the interference of your cup, it would’ve been “the North Sea.” And the previous week, before it evaporated up and rained down into the Thames watershed, the molecules in that cup of water had a million names, like “the Atlantic,” “Yorkshire poodle pee,” and “the upper lip sweat of my Aunt Diane.”

And if a molecule of Thames water is only “the Thames” for half a week, how much more compelling is the question of a waterfall’s identity, when the molecules of High Force are completely replaced every few seconds? It’s the Ship of Theseus at 100,000x.

So what is High Force, then? When I touch the water, am I touching High Force, or is High Force just a location that the water occupies? Well that can’t be it – if we turned off the water, the air space wouldn’t still be “High Force.” It’s something that can only exist as something transitory. The fact that High Force is constantly remade is the paradoxical key to its permanence. These are not new ideas, of course — Heraclitus, he of the un-step-in-twice-able river, thought pretty much the same thing 2500 years ago.

Now consider yourself, your own being and identity. Ninety-eight percent of the atoms in your body are replaced each year. By some estimates not one of your current atoms was there 7-10 years ago, and every atom of your current person will be replaced again within another 7-10 years. The brain that reads this now might remember parts of this text ten years from now, even though not a single bit of that working brain will have been present at the reading. You are in effect a slow waterfall of atoms. They pass into you and out of you, and in between, they create “you.”

Call me Ishmael, but that floors me.

Take it up a level. Before you existed, every atom that has ever been and will ever be a part of you already existed. They existed as temporary parts of the identities of millions of other creatures and things, passed one to the other through the food chain, the soil, the atmosphere and the water. You are just as qualified to wear the sticker “Made of 100% Recycled Materials” as the paper the Internet is printed on. Billions of years before all that Earthbound recycling began, every bit of you was part of a star, and before that another one, and another, as stars are born out of the dead remnants of each other. And every bit of you, every atom, has existed since the birth of the universe, twelve billion years ago.

After you are dead, every atom that was part of your final, sad, sagging human form will go, no doubt with some relief, back into the system – back into the soil and the air, to be recycled again and again.

Are “you” just the space those atoms occupied for a brief time? Of course not. If (as Bill Bryson once suggested) I took you apart with a pair of tweezers, atom by atom, would the resulting pile of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon still be you? No more than the molecules of H2O in High Force at a given moment would still be “High Force” if scattered evenly over the sheep pastures of Cumbria. So what is it that “you” are, when every last bit of “you” is as transitory as the drops of water in a waterfall, destined to leave you as surely as they entered, on their way to becoming a million other things? If it’s questionable whether in any meaningful way I’m touching “High Force” when I touch its cascading water, is it any less questionable whether I’m really touching “you” when I shake your hand?

Some find “soul” to be the necessary solution to that conundrum, the “I” that transcends my temporary mortal frame. It’s a fine effort, but it smacks of one of those answers we put into the uncomfortable gaps in our understanding to make the bookshelf look full and tidy, all the elements of our knowledge bound in identical certainty. But just as I find it unsatisfying to declare we’ve solved the troubling question of death by simply saying, “We don’t really die,” the soul solution seems to be a way of solving the conundrum of our identity by simply declaring the conundrum solved. It’s troubling that we have no permanent part, so…let’s say we do.

Einstein’s cosmological constant comes to mind. Einstein wrongly believed at first that the universe was static. When his equations nonetheless seemed to imply that the universe is either contracting or expanding, he added a fuzzy term to cancel out the effect of expansion or contraction in order to preserve his original assumption. When later discoveries proved that the universe is in fact expanding, Einstein did the thing we so often fail to do: he removed the “cosmological constant” from the bookshelf, admitting it was a mistake.

The “soul” thing is an idea so attractive, and so seemingly true – I mean, I feel permanent, how could I not be, and I can’t imagine not existing – that it tends not to be removed from the bookshelf, no matter how untenable it becomes. That’s what happens with all of the prettiest myths we put on the shelf as placeholders: they adhere to the shelf.

One fatal problem for the soul hypothesis is the rest of the animal kingdom. Knowing as we do that humans were not specially created, and are in fact closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas, and that the relationship across the tree of life changes only by minute increments, raises the questions of how and when (not to mention why) we the people got souls and they the beasts did not. It should make us seriously re-examine the idea that we, and we alone, are the repositories of immortal souls. There was no single moment or generation when we became distinctly and absolutely human. Evolution proceeds by the same minute increments that account for the tree of life itself. So if we have souls, I really think we’re gonna have to grant souls to our cousins the apes. Let’s squeeze that onto the bookshelf now.

And while we’re grandfathering the ape-soul into the contract with reality, don’t forget how very close apes are to monkeys…and on…and on… At this rate, we’ll have paramecia in heaven.

On to Part 7

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