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Continuity versus change

How can we explain unchanging continuity, while everything around us seems to change all the time? Or does it?

The Greek founders of Western philosophy built entire theories on the assumption that some things are eternal and immutable, while others are temporary and subject to change. While the pre-Socratics explored the material foundations of our world, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle reserved eternity for immaterial ideas – a concept that was picked up and elaborated on by Christian doctrine. But then came Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Sartre and astronomy’s theory of a cyclic expanding and contracting universe.

Can we hold on to the idea of continuity when faced with overwhelming arguments for change?

At around 600 BCE, the Pre-Socratics wondered whether perhaps a basic, eternal and immutable material substance, an elemental particle, could be the foundation of the universe. They explored options like water, air, fire, and indeed indivisible atoms, but soon hit another problem. Explaining what the world is made of, does not explain how the world changes. How does water turn into a tree, or how does an animal live and die? New theories that explained change needed to be explored. Some, like Parmenides, stated that there is no change. The change we believe we perceive, is illusory. Others, like Heraclitus, posited that everything changes, or flows, all the time. “There is nothing permanent except change.” Empedocles presented a compromise: there are four root elements (earth, water, fire and air) that never change, but these elements are mixed up by the forces of love and strife in ever-changing combinations – like a limited number of musical notes can create an unlimited number of melodies.

Socrates was less interested in the foundations of the material universe. He was mainly interested in the conceptual foundations of the human life – ideas of justice, how to distinguish right from wrong, how to live a good life, and so on. Just like the Pre-Socratics had done with material foundations, Socrates presumed that the foundations of life are based on universal, immutable and eternal concepts. Many years later, Immanuel Kant would repeat this claim to universal moral foundations, based on human rationality.

Plato and Aristotle attempted to say something about everything, by developing theories that say something about the world, about ideas and about ethics in one consistent, homogenous framework. Of course, consistent theories are only as strong as their starting points, just like houses are only as strong as their foundations. If the starting point can be questioned, the entire logical deduction that follows from it can be questioned. Both Plato and Aristotle started from the assumption of immutability and eternity. Both presumed that everything is created according to a detailed, immutable idea – a “form”. For example, a particular horse is a material instance of the immaterial blueprint of “horse”. The idea of horse is a perfect, immutable and eternal blueprint for all horses. The appearance of a particular horse, is imperfect, variable and temporary. Plato stated that these forms reside in a separate realm of forms, and materialise in a realm of appearances – the material world as we perceive it. Human souls move between the realm of forms and the realm of appearances, and our capacity for rational thought allows us access to the realm of forms while we find ourselves here in the material realm. Aristotle claimed that the forms are embedded in the world and its objects, and are not able to exist separately – perhaps best understood when using our current understanding of DNA as an analogy.

The core difference between Plato and Aristotle is the nature of the “form”. Plato claimed that forms reside in a separate world, separate from the material world, while Aristotle claimed that forms are embedded in the material objects they give form to.

Plato’s claim that “forms reside in a separate world, and settle only temporarily in human bodies,” sat very well with the Christian teachings of souls, heaven and the eternal life. One cannot help but think that Plato is where Christianity found inspiration for its most basic principles. The concept of an eternal, immutable soul stuck among religious believers, while being refined along the way by Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, among others.

And then, of course, came Hegel, Marx, Darwin and Sartre. Each in his own way questioned the immutability of the world and human thought, and gave “change” a prominent role in his philosophy. Hegel posited that the world is the result of a historical development of “world spirit” – an ever-changing universal reason that moves on the waves of opposing arguments, and eventually culminates in “absolute spirit”. History, in other words, is a continuous stream of changing ideas. Marx replied to Hegel that the world is not the result of a spiritual development, but of a material, economic development. Science, art and ethics are in permanent interaction with the conditions, means and social structures of economic production. History is a continuous stream of changing economic relations, which lead to changing ideas. Darwin replied that the world is the result of infinitesimal random changes over long periods of time, some of which allow species to adapt to their environments and improve their chances of survival. There is no perfect, immutable and eternal blueprint. There are no “forms” in the Platonic or Aristotelian sense. History is a continuous stream of errors in cell division, leading to random mutations. The existentialist philosopher Sartre claimed that each and every individual writes his or her own life script. There are no beacons, let alone universal, eternal and immutable values and guidelines. Each of us has the responsibility to take up the gauntlet and write our own, authentically personal life.

I find it hard to hold on to eternal, immutable and universal ideas in the face of arguments for continuous change and ideological relativism. If Aristotle presented a much improved theory to Plato’s, more recent philosophers have presented even stronger arguments for change. Whether or not the continual changes we perceive all around us are part of a bigger scheme – an absolute spirit, or a classless society, or a judgment day – is speculation only. History shows that we have easily jumped to speculations and conclusions in the past, easily deceived as we are by perceived patterns and the limitations of our own psychology.

Could it be that our perception of continuity is simply the result of applying our psychological patterns onto the world? In the words of Hume, we can’t even perceive causality, but we do apply it to the world in our minds. Could it be that we apply continuity, eternity and immutability to phenomena in the world in the same way?

Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]