Patterns Not Atoms

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December 26th : Patterns Not Atoms

Quote of the Day

"... About 98% of the atoms in the human body are renewed each year ..."

-Time Magazine "Science: The Fleeting Flesh" 1954-10-11.

"... Continents flow back into the sea, gases flow through the atmosphere, and molecules flow through my body. Balanced, invisible flows might underlie anything I take for granted. The 'balance of nature' is profoundly more true than I once realised."

-Paul Krafel "Seeing Nature: Deliberate encounters with the visible world" Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont, 1999

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

-Heraclitus

Thoughts for the Day

Yesterday, we contemplated the idea that in space-time we are four-dimensional objects that not only stretch from our birth to our death but are connected together as branches of a single massive four-dimensional tree with all other living things existing now, in the past and in the future. This came from an attempt to understand how time flows but ended up answering 'What do we look like in four-dimensions?" But how does that jive with the scientific fact that most of our atoms are replaced every year. Lets think about this in order to seek an answer to the fundamental Metaphysical Question, "What are we; are we just lumps of flesh, lumps of matter, are we our bodies?"

Firstly, it is important to understand that while 98% of our atoms are replaced each year, some of the other 2% remain with us for our entire existences. Consider that we are about 70% water; water flows in and out of your cells easily. The water in your body is replaced every few days. But the shape of your body remains the same. If you lose more water than you gain, you become thirsty and that drives you to replace the loss. On the other hand, drink too much water too suddenly and you will be visiting the washroom. Yet the water you urinate out isn't the same water you just drank. If you pour water into a full bathtub at the end far away from the overflow drain, water will pour down the overflow drain but the water coming in won't be the water going out. You will know this if you pour cold water into a hot bath for long enough; soon it will become cold.

The same is true for most of the atoms that your body replaces. Everyday you eat food that contains fuel molecules like sugar and fat and everyday you burn fuel molecules like sugar and fat in order to power your body. The molecules you take in aren't always the same as the ones you burn; the supplies of these molecules turn over. The cells in your liver and fatty tissues that store these molecules are continuously pulling out molecules for use and storing new molecules received. Eat as many calories as you burn and the stores stay the same size but the molecules flow through. Your fuel stores are replaces less quickly than your water, perhaps every few weeks.

Your body is continuously fighting the decay of its structure. The calcium structures in your bones, your muscle fibers, the membranes around your cells and around the parts of your cells (your organelles), the complex organic molecules that make your ligaments and tendons and cartilage pads strong and supple. All of these molecules and structures are continously breaking down and being rebuilt. The gospel (good news) here is that when you are injured your body can usually repair itself because it has lots of capacity to repair and regrow anyway. These structures are replaced less often than your fuel stores, perhaps every few months.

But other structures are conserved for very long periods. The DNA in your cells is not replaced. Your cells often make copies of themselves because cells must often be replaced in their entirety. If you shave, you will remove large numbers of skin cells along with the hair you are trying to remove. These cells must be replaced and your body is ready to do so. In fact, it is continuously replacing skin cells that get rubbed of by chaffing clothing or rough surfaces. When those cells are lost the DNA inside them is also lost. When your cells make copies of themselves they also copy their DNA from new molecular building blocks (nucleic acids) built from the food you eat. But the old DNA is still there (half in each of the daughter cells after each cell division). Some of your cell types (for instance neurons in your brain) are replaced so slowly that the majority of cells of those types stay with you your entire life. The DNA at their centres stays with you too. The rest of the molecular building blocks (the water, the sugars, the fats, the phospholipids, the proteins) that make up each of those cells is replaced over and over again but the core DNA and a few other molecular structures stay with you.

So if the rest is replaced, are we just the DNA at the centres of our lasting cells? If all of this is true, then was yesterday's meditation false. We are not enduring objects connected as one through space-time but ephemeral things washed away every time we drink a glass of water?

Contemplation for the Day

Let us imagine

If you can, perform this contemplation sitting by a stream or river.

Heraclitus was right; the water in a stream is never the same water. But the water in a stream has a shape to it. Watch how it flows over or around a particular stone or against a particular bank. The shape remains the same long after all the water has been replaced many times. And the shape of a fast flowing river is not the just the shape of the rocks around which it passes. Standing waves form which echo the form of the underlying rocks but exagerate some of their shapes and smooth out others. In this Heraclitus was wrong, the river is the same river even though the water is replaced continously. Even rivers that nearly dry up seasonally remain the same rivers as they ebb and flood. Their ebbing and flooding is part of the pattern that is the river's existence separate from the water and rocks that make it up.

We too are like this. Water flows through us. But we actively maintain our forms while a river is more passive in its pattern-maintenance. A river shapes its channel and its channel shapes it. We are the shapers, when it comes to our bodies. Our bodies are continously rebuilding themselves in order to return to the same shape. We change over time, we grow and age but these changes are part of our bodies' plans. The reason that others can recognise you in your high-school yearbook photos is that you have retained most of your shape even as you have replaced most of your matter.

You are not your atoms or molecules or cells or chunks of tissue. Neither do you need a magical or metaphysical explanation for your continuity in the face of your material replacement. You are the shape or pattern formed from the atoms, molecules and cells that make up your body. You are the pattern of synapses between the neurons in your brain. The complexity of your pattern is what makes it special. It is a pattern that is capable at so many levels of maintaining itself and even replicating itself. We change over time and when we replicate ourselves we create variations on our theme (our children). Over longer periods we evolve into new species. All of this change leads to ever greater complexity and diversity.

Our bodies are made up of four major constituent elements, Carbon (C), Hydrogen (H), Oxygen (O) and Nitrogen (N). Organic chemists sometimes refer to this mixture as CHON. In itself, it isn't very complex or divers; it is just four elements. It is not the atoms that make us up that are important. Three tanks of gas (HON) and a lump of coal (C) are not very impressive and yet that is almost all there is to our bodies at the atomic level. It is the pattern into which our bodies are formed that is important. We are not lumps of matter or supernatural souls; we are patterns imprinted on matter. We are special complex patterns that strive to maintain themselves and to create new diversity. We, the body of all life, are a single four-dimensional branching worm, but we are not made out of atoms, we are a pattern imprinted in atoms that gets ever more complicated and diverse at its future end.

Quietly contemplate this idea for a while. Open your mind to being a segment of the pattern of the body all life.

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