Panta rei


Take an apple. On the table in front of you is a basket of apples. No problem: you grab one of the apples. But what did you actually grab? An 'apple'? When you read this sentence, you hear in your head the sounds that make up the word 'apple'. You can also pronounce the sentence and then you will hear the sound out loud. So there is the word 'apple', the sound 'apple' in your head, the sound out loud and there is the thing we are now holding, the 'apple' itself. There are other 'apples' in the basket. Those are all 'apples'. But what is an apple? Those things that are there in that basket are not letter combinations or sounds. Those are, in fact, very different kinds of things. What we are holding in our hand right now has nothing to do with that. This apple is also different from all the other apples and yet we call all of them 'apples'.

If we leave our apple for a while we will see that it changes. Slowly the beautiful shiny apple transforms into a pile of brown junk. A little later even that is gone. Where is the original apple now?

Before we held the apple, it went through quite a history. It grew on a tree from an apple blossom. The blossom grew on the apple tree. The history of the apple tree goes back at least 13.8 billion years to when the universe was created: the Big Bang. And there are physicists who claim that our Big Bang was preceded by infinitely many other Big Bangs.

So the apple we now hold is not an independent and enduring 'thing'. By the looks of it, there are no self-contained, durable things at all. Everything is constantly changing in one continuous stream. "You cannot step into the same river twice," as Heraclitus said some 2,500 years ago.

By giving everything around us a name, we try to hold on to something. We turn it into a thing, a concept. Very handy in communication. You immediately know what is meant when someone asks you to take an apple from the basket in front of you. We do this not only with apples and pears, but also with ladies and gentlemen. My name is Ton Haarmans, but what exactly am I? Just a little while longer and I am also a pile of brown junk and my history also goes back to the Big Bang, or who knows, even further.

Giving something a name, an identity, is nothing more than a magical act, an invocation which (hopefully) facilitates communication, but otherwise in no way says anything about what a particular phenomenon actually is. Nor can it because the phenomenon itself has no individuality, no identity, no permanence. And so this also applies to myself, to who or what I am. I am not. So I have no power either. At the same time, of course, I am, just like the apple. It is not that I or the apple does not exist, but not in the way we usually think that something or someone exists, namely something that has an enduring and fixed identity. Everything flows, everything is the flow, "Panta rei".