“Change is the Only Constant.”
I love this one. It is an appropriate maxim by which twenty-somethings who are busy being lost at sea can repeat to themselves, to keep themselves preoccupied with their painstakingly difficult search for the docks of their future. It goes without saying that Heraclitus, one of the more notable ancient Greek philosophers to precede Plato, was on to something. He held that the ultimate reality of the universe was fire. We are born from it and will be consumed by it in the end. It can be viewed as something which always changes, because as long as something is on fire, there is an ongoing process of combustion, or degradation of complex carbon-containing compounds given a supply of oxygen. What’s important is the following inference which can be made: Heraclitus’ symbol of fire is used to characterize existence as an ongoing process, or pattern of continuous change. Now these former two words, continuous change, give rise to an interesting paradox, because anything which is continuous can be taken as having a steady metaphysical state. But, of course, we’re saying that this continuity is met with opposition as it actually changes. This is a paradox which I now will try to resolve!
At first, you might think that the example of the fire is incomplete in that it is disanalogous to the human situation. How can we really compare? Aren’t there people out there who seem to never change, always being content with the same day-to-day routine, or who, to the worst extreme, don’t even do anything with themselves? I think Heraclitus might say here that, in these situations, an ineffable part of our nature will cause us to seek some sort of opposition; some new experiences which will make those lives described above which seemed devoid of life all the more full. Just as even the fire may appear to stagnate as it dwindles down to a collection of sparks, so do the lives of those who become accustomed to a mode of live which is devoid of any real living, until a surprising turn of events throws them back into the arena. All it takes is one such experience. And anyone would say that life, indeed, throws us these curveballs from time to time.
But back to the point, I think that Heraclitus was wrong to think that there is a sense in which this ongoing change is the kind of change that we commonly think of as real change. Let’s use another one of his examples, a river, to make this clearer. To paraphrase, he famously said that one cannot step into the same river twice. Now the simplest way we would define a river is just a body of water with a current. The fact is that, in this definition, we have ascribed a static state to the term, river, despite the fact that analytic to this term is a non-static notion of motion. The easiest way around the glaring contradiction that one would rightly come away with from buying into this analysis would be to suggest that the river does not actually change, since we can deny its having a current as a property that necessarily belongs to the physical entity which we name a ‘river,’ and instead write it off as a relational property which is namely related to the behavior of the causal anchor of the system, that includes the river, and the way it affects its individual constituents. In other words, the river’s current doesn’t have any independent ontological status which can be derived outside of there being a river, though it can, at the same time, be explained by appealing to something external to it – and that is the system at large. It is similar to saying that there is a physical process of flowing of liquids, which can be measured, but this is brought about by a certain set-up; i.e. someone applying a force and/or setting its trajectory in a downward angle, in which case gravity, itself, acts upon the liquid to cause it to move. In fact, the geographers or environmental biologist who study rivers would likely accept my conclusion as an element in their more sophisticated explanation for the mechanics of rivers. So all I’m saying is that it’s by convention that we associate rivers with their currents, but when studied further, this association is made in order to simplify the task of explaining the role that a common cause – gravity, in this case – which is the constant which allows for the relation that seemed so obvious and intuitive. And gravity is, without question, a constant, an empirically verified fact of science – 9.81… m/s^2. So contrary to Heraclitus, I’d say that there’s a sense in which I know that I’m stepping into the exact same river, time and time again. I think I’ll make it a habit to go for a swim!
So am I being trivial with this objection? A little. Too oversensitive by introducing a healthy dose of skepticism? Again, maybe. But my point is that the way in which we even understand change, the perspective that we take when addressing the question, is crucial. And so what’s apparent is that you can usually find a hidden organization in the things which seem to be in flux all around you. The paradox is only as paradoxical as you make it.
And if you’re like me, you’re never satisfied until that spark of curiosity, that scorching flame of captivation for the puzzles which comprise our lives are all but extinguished. There’s no reason to be alarmed, because beneath the chaos that we observe out there, there has to be something – some faculty or device – which can assemble it into something orderly. And that, my friends, is a worldview for you! You can relax once that fire’s gone.
Or, at least, until another one pops up elsewhere. Paradoxically, our work may never be finished. New goals are made everyday. Passions are discovered, a new life is chosen.