Thursday, January 17, 2008


I read on Mindblog this morning about an essay by a Danish science writer named Tor Nørretranders, called Permanent Reincarnation. It's one of the loveliest things I've ever read at Edge. So lovely that I'm going to replicate vast swathes of it here.
"My body is not like a typical material object, a stable thing. It is more like a flame, a river or an eddie. Matter is flowing through it all the time. The constituents are being replaced over and over again.

A chair or a table is stable because the atoms stay where they are. The stability of a river stems from the constant flow of water through it."

That sounds very Tao-like.. talk of rivers, never standing in the same river twice, etc.. Nørretranders goes on:
"98 percent of the atoms in the body are replaced every year. 98 percent! Water molecules stays in your body for two weeks (and for an even shorter time in a hot climate), the atoms in your bones stays there for a few months. Some atoms stay for years. But almost not one single atom stay with you in your body from cradle to grave.

What is constant in you is not material. An average person takes in 1.5 ton of matter every year as food, drinks and oxygen. All this matter has to learn to be you. Every year. New atoms will have to learn to remember your childhood.

These numbers has been known for half a century or more, mostly from studies of radioactive isotopes. Physicist Richard Feynman said in 1955: "Last week's potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in your mind a year ago."

But why is this simple insight not on the all-time Top 10 list of important discoveries? Perhaps because it tastes a little like spiritualism and idealism? Only the ghosts are for real? Wandering souls?

But digital media now makes it possible to think of all this in a simple way. The music I danced to as a teenager has been moved from vinyl-LPs to magnetic audio tapes to CDs to Pods and whatnot. The physical representation can change and is not important — as long as it is there. The music can jump from medium to medium, but it is lost if it does not have a representation. This physics of information was sorted out by Rolf Landauer in the 1960'ies. Likewise, out memories can move from potato-atoms to burger-atoms to banana-atoms. But the moment they are on their own, they are lost.

We reincarnate ourselves all the time. We constantly give our personality new flesh. I keep my mental life alive by making it jump from atom to atom. A constant flow. Never the same atoms, always the same river. No flow, no river. No flow, no me.

This is what I call permanent reincarnation: Software replacing its hardware all the time. Atoms replacing atoms all the time. Life. This is very different from religious reincarnation with souls jumping from body to body (and souls sitting out there waiting for a body to take home in).

There has to be material continuity for permanent reincarnation to be possible. The software is what is preserved, but it cannot live on its own. It has to jump from molecule to molecule, always in carnation.

I have changed my mind about the stability of my body: It keeps changing all the time. Or I could not stay the same."

This is a lovely meditation on being a speck of conscious awareness in a physicality, even if that "I" is just an illusion arising from that very physicality whose business seems to be to recycle material. Who says atheists can't enjoy the occasional spiritual perspective on existence once in awhile? It's heartening, calming, comforting, beautiful. It gives one a sense of being part of the whole, not a separated aberration. I like the idea that life is a river that I am permanently part of.. Sometimes it may feel necessary to focus, like if I were white water rafting in a hailstorm, but most of the time it feels like I'm on my back in an inner tube, just floating along and watching the banks pass by on a warm sunny day. Not so bad. Parts will all end up somewhere just as they do now anyway, endlessly recycled.

Here is his bilingual blog. Thank you Tor.

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