I’ve previously written about rivers, both considering the analogy of a river with life and also about a near-death experience, trying to swim in a river at night.
Today I am writing at the intersection of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos. And so, I thought it would be fitting to think some further thoughts about rivers.
The adage “you can’t cross the same river twice” comes to mind as I watch small boats crisscrossing the river. This is both true and false, depending on how we define “river”.
It is true, you will never cross the exact same atoms of water ever again, but that is true of almost any experience you can have in life. Every experience we have is unique if we pay enough attention to the details. Your favourite dish at your favourite restaurant, is never quite the same each time.
So things in life appear the same, only because we blur the differences with our lack of attention. This lack of focus on details can make life appear dull and grey. But pay enough attention; every experience is completely unique, and that set of circumstances will never repeat itself.
If you take a fresh deck of cards, and give it seven riffle shuffles, something unique will happen. Spread the cards face up on a table, and gaze at the order of the cards in wonder. That particular order of cards will be truly random, and that specific order will never have been reached before in the history of playing cards.
This is because there is a mind-boggling number of possible variations that a 52-card deck can be arranged in. Let’s think this through. For the first card in the series, there are 52 possible options. For the second, there are 51 possible options left, as we have already used one card. For the third, 50, options.
So just with the first three cards of the series that you have face up on the table, there are 132,600 (525150) possible arrangements.
Let’s add another three cards:
And for good measure and to hammer the point home, let’s do ten:
Or 57.4 quadrillion.
And the total possibilities of arrangements for a deck of cards?
Here it is:
I don’t even know how to describe this number in English, but it is more than the estimated number of atoms in the known universe.
And yet, when we spread the cards face up on the table after seven shuffles, we are not in shock about the specific arrangement. However, if all the cards, by chance, had arranged themselves by number, will four aces, followed by four twos, four threes, and so on, that would be shocking.
It is just a matter of details and of paying attention because that arrangement is no more likely or unlikely than any other arrangement.
So yes, you can only cross a river once, but it is also true that you can cross a river more than once. Again, it depends on what we mean by the river.
And this is about looking at the big picture. When we say “The Nile” “The Amazon” or “The Mekong’, we don’t really care about which specific atoms of water are in the trillions of litres that flow in these rivers. We are talking about the concept of the river. Each day and year, these rivers slightly deviate in their course as they further erode their banks and as different levels of water fall affect their total volume.
This doesn’t change the fact that they are still the concept of a specific river. Then the interesting question is, how much would the Nile have to change for it to no longer be the Nile? What is the characteristic of The Nile that makes it The Nile? It is continuity? Is it the fact that it is a large river running South to North in Africa?
What if, by some strange geological happenstance, a new Nile route opened through Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and then finished in my hometown, Venice?
Would it still be The Nile? Would it be something else? Is it the continuity of the flow of water that defines the concept of a specific river, or the historical route that it has taken that gives it historical continuity?
Another analogy that I find is that of comparing rivers to the stream of consciousness we all have. Are we an individual swimming or rowing down the river of consciousness, or are we the flow itself? Is there a looker who’s looking, a thinker who’s thinking?
Or do thoughts just appear in our consciousness in the same way that photos of light hit our retina and create images, and sound waves are received by our ears and create sounds in our brains?
And in the same way that we can provide a final yes/no answer to the question “Can cross the same river twice?”, I am not sure we can provide a straightforward answer to this either.
It certainly is challenging to pinpoint a specific feeling of “I’, a sense of self. I am sitting here, and I am writing these words. I do this because I want to do this. But why do I want to do this? I have no idea of the neurological or psychological processes involved in my making this decision.
And yet, we cling to this story that there is an “I’, that everyone has a sense of self. It is such a strong feeling that it is difficult to accept that it is an illusion.
And there are two coherent ways to deal with our thoughts, especially those that make us suffer. We can use thinking itself to overcome our problems, or we can sidestep thinking completely.
The first strategy is what a significant portion of philosophy focuses on—negative visualization, reframing situations, and so on.
The second strategy can be accomplished by taking certain drugs or, more safely, by plenty of meditation to cut through the illusion of the self.