Snowflake Spirituality

December 19, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More

I was staring out of my window, watching snow flurries and thinking about the essence of being. Philosophies and religions have long grappled with trying to understand and explain the human spirit, the soul, throughout time. I have a distinct and solid understanding, and thought of a useful simile for it as I watched the flurries descend.

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Definitions of “the soul” generally include total individuality and immaterial nature. It is that which makes each of us unique, it manifests as long as we live, growing and changing within us, and then instantly vanishes from view as we die.

In most religions, the question then is asked, “Where does it go?”

Consider the snowflake. It begins as a small cluster of water molecules up in a cloud at the boundary of vapor and mist. As it hovers in the wind currents, it grows and evolves. The species (chemical formula) determines the basic nature, a flat hexagon. So why is every one different? Because they grow in subtly different mixes of molecules and temperatures. Each becomes an individual. When they grow heavy enough to drop below the cloud line, they are born as falling snowflakes.

But they have not finished growing. They continue to sublime and to collect molecules. As with any system, they increase in complexity and purity as they encounter random or systematic changes in environment. Sometimes they merge, often they fracture.

Finally they reach the ground. Some settle into clusters, becoming packed into a solid layer, and even all the way to ice. Others hit something warm and melt. In either case, what has become of the individual essence? It’s parts get recycled into other forms, compacted or melted, evaporated or metabolized. Eventually, all of the above. But the unique form is gone. Where did the unique shape of this snowflake go?

When we die, our spirit, soul, self is gone. It can remain in the memory of others, carried forward by our neighbors or impressions made on the environment. Like a melted snowflake.

In what way is the end of snowflake self any different than the end of a human self? Granted, humans are able to ask this question. And human life is naturally rated more highly by humans than the unique individuality of other creatures and things.

But besides that?

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Category: Complexity, Evolution, Human animals, Meaning of Life, nature, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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  1. Rich Paxson says:

    Don, thanks for your reflection on a snowflake reprising the cycle of birth, life and death common to all beings, animate and inanimate. The snowflake helps us to see that we all are brought into being by forces that transcend our existence. We live and grow and then cease to exist, leaving traces on a transcendent reality that remains, Yet, an individual, snowflake or human, can only infer the existence of the transcendent.

    Your post brought to mind a reflection Stephen Hawking used to begin Chapter 3: “What is Reality?” in his 2010 book The Grand Design. Hawking’s reflection does not take exactly the same trajectory as your reflection, but I see you both heading in the direction of helping the rest of us better understand our world and our place and time in that world.

    Here’s Stephen Hawking on looking out from the inside of a goldfish bowl:

    “A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved goldfish bowls. The measure's sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish's picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?

    “The goldfish view is not the same as our own, but goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing the motion of the objects they observe outside their bowl. For example, due to the distortion, a freely moving object that we would observe to move in a straight line would be observed by the goldfish to move along a curved path. Nevertheless, the goldfish could formulate scientific laws from their distorted frame of reference that would always hold true and that would enable them to make predictions about the future motion of objects outside the bowl. Their laws would be more complicated than the laws in our frame, but simplicity is a matter of taste. If a goldfish formulated such a theory, we would have to admit the goldfish's view as a valid picture of reality.”

  2. Karl says:

    The ideas, experiences, beliefs and perspectives of many people have lived on and have been passed along from generation to generation.

    This is only a glimmer of what can/has been recorded about every individual.

    Strangely enough, one of the greatest compliment one can be given is that so and so reminds them of so and so and usually the desired so and so was not an evil tyrant, but a person of selfless sacrifice for the good and welfare of others.

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