Recently in the Advayavada Network, Mike posted the following:
Here's an interesting observation by the physicist and naturalist Steve Grand (naturalist in the sense that he finds no justification for believing in anything supernatural such as a soul, a spirit, or a god):
"Think of something from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there.
After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. What ever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made."
This puts a new and interesting spin on Robin William's classic observation that, "If you remember the sixties you weren't there." It also gives a new point of entry into the question, "What, if anything, is the 'Self'?"
In a sense Mike (and Steve Grand) is perfectly right. It's true that:
(a) Not an atom in my body was present at the event I remember, and
(b) I am not the stuff (atoms) of which I am made.
This is where complex systems theory comes in. In complexity science, there is a process called 'autopoiesis
'. This is a process whereby you have a stable complex system that maintains its form, but every particle of which it is constructed switches out over time. Biological life forms are the most obvious example of this, but not the only. Another example of a structure that undergoes autopoiesis is the 'red spot' on Jupiter. In a more abstract sense, we might say that a mathematical formula embodies a structure of relationships whereby the actual variables can be exchanged without the structure being lost. I don't think that counts literally as autopoiesis but it might help communicate the concept.
Of course, all I've done here is given a name to the phenomenon Mike describes, and pointed out that the concept is addressed in science and that it is a very real thing.
Philosophically, this helps to point out that there are many things that are real and actually exist, but which are not particles per se - rather, they are relationships between particles. Other examples of 'relational facts' that are real but not supernatural and not physical would be 'democracy' or 'hive'.
In my essay, "A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma and Rebirth
", I use the analogy of a wave to discuss how Karma can be a real thing without being a distinct 'force'. Like a wave, it is a conceptualization of relationships. We treat waves as real entities - even computing mathematical solutions concerning their activities. However, when we see a wave move from left to right, no "stuff" (to use Steve Grand's wording) has in fact moved from left to right. Merely, a relationship of cause and effect has taken place in one position, and the one next to it, the one next to that, and so on.
This is one key to understanding waves, understanding autopoiesis, understanding mind, understanding the Tao, understanding karma, understanding self, and understanding how we can be something other than our atoms without resorting to dualism or supernaturalism.