Times change, and society moves at a speed almost nobody can keep up. Generational mindsets evolve with the pass of decades, and the world appears to be in constant change. This change is an essential part of reality, and we must understand it to explain what happens to the world and to individuals.
Thinking about a tree is helpful to illustrate this. At first, someone must plant a seed in a place with the necessary conditions for it to grow. After time, the seed transforms into a small tree that will emerge and gradually grow, until it reaches maximum size and eventually starts to decay, falling and decomposing into the ground. If we want to describe change, we must justify why there was no tree at a certain moment, and why there was a tree after a definite period of time. Listing all the conditions that led to this tree growing (fertile soil, a seed, water, and minerals), does not explain why something which did not exist in the past is suddenly present and how that present tree also vanishes afterwards.
Another thing we can wonder about change and its relationship with identity, is how many leaves a tree can lose before ceasing to exist. If it loses every single leaf, which gave it a distinctive essence, nobody will deny it is the same tree we saw grow before, but that has now changed drastically. How is it still the same tree? If it remains the same after being burned or losing every leaf, we are saying it can bear change and keep its essence. But imagine someone chops it and makes tables out of it. Then we would say the tree has stopped existing. And to make matters worse, we can imagine someone may repent for having chopped this tree, so she/he pastes it back again, in the same place, so that it looks the same, and there we have again something that did not exist, but that has reappeared.
These contradictions may seem trivial at first, but they come in fatally when we think of ourselves as changing persons. When someone suffers traumatic brain damage or goes through an impactful event which changes her/his life, that person will be different, and in some cases, the change can be so big that we struggle to claim that person is the same from before. On the other hand, everyone is undergoing change every single day, and yet it is easy to identify the one from another, and our familiars from strangers, which appears to deny the change we are talking about. Change appears in all aspects of life. From personal identity, to knowledge, truth and ethics.
In this essay, I will analyze the problem of change through the minds of Parmenides and Heraclitus, and I will explain why I think Heraclitus’ ideas offer a better and more coherent answer to our questions on this field. In the first part I introduce what both thinkers have to say about the issue and show the most important consequences of those ideas. In the second part I expose the weaknesses of both views and replies from each ideology against those claims. And finally, I explain what I believe are the most important conclusions of their views, and how they re-shape the way we understand everything.
Parmenides categorized reality into two groups: There is that which exists (Being) ‘’…What Is is ungenerated and deathless’’ (fr. 8.1-4); and there is that which does not exist (Non-Being). From Being we can learn and understand reality. But from Non-Being we cannot think, learn, or say anything: ‘’…not to be said and not to be thought is it that it is not… ‘’(fr.8.5-21).
These two groups are immutable, and they cannot interact with each other, which means if something exists, it is inconceivable that it suddenly stops existing, passing from Being to Non-Being; and in the same way, if something does not exist, then it can never become real, or pass from Non-Being to Being.
From these ideas he concluded that reality is only one immovable and unchanging being. Because reality is unchanging, creation and destruction as we understand them are impossible, because they mean things pass from Being to Non-Being and from Non-Being to Being, which contradicts the main argument I just laid down.
These arguments implicate strange unintuitive conclusions. For instance, a carpenter who decides to make a table and creates it, is making something that did not exist at first but that is now taking up space on a shop or a house. This phenomenon contradicts everything Parmenides’ reasoning had proved because it implies something has been generated from non-existence. Creations like these are illogical and for this reason Parmenides affirms that if we see change in the world it is because our senses are illusory.
Parmenides’ notions conflict with the vision held by Heraclitus, who argues that reality is change: "On those stepping into rivers (staying the same), other and other waters flow on." (B12). In this metaphor, he demonstrates that every individual thing cannot be thought of without its dynamic with other things. Moreover, what justifies the presence of something is every relationship it holds with opposing forces that try to take its place. The best way to picture this is a contest, where if the fight or strife between the opponents finished, then no opponents would exist.
Notably, in a river there is a continuous flux taking place and that supplies the existence of the river. The flux of water is in war with impeding objects that constrain the will of the water to spread everywhere. If this was not the case the currents of the river would stagnate, and the river would not exist.
Subsequently, a person in isolation is not a person. Varying tests on isolated containment have proved that no human being is able to tolerate the complete trimming of her/his relationships from daily life. Undeniably, every individual exists as a result of being among a group of individuals. It is this difference that we keep with the rest of people what sustains our own identity. It is in the opposing views of others that we postulate ours. It is in the contrary actions and thoughts of others, that we affirm our identity.
Opposing views on Heraclitus’ thought argue he denies the possibility for knowledge to be acquired, because there is no room to understand something which is constantly changing. To this he would reply that knowledge is no more than a repetition of memorized information and an infertile skill. What really brings about wisdom, is paying attention to the common, major order that all things share, where all changes happen, which he called Logos. Logos is the principle of all change, that rules the balanced but always dynamic nature of things. By observing nature cleverly and regularly, any person can develop wisdom of Logos that will help her/him predict nature’s behavior and subsequently the best way to act in relation to it. This wisdom is common to all humans, Heraclitus thought, and it just takes effort and good practice of reason to be grown.
A second critique common to Heraclitus is claiming that if everything is in a contest, then nothing is ever complete, because without the opponent, no finished, delimitated being would exist. But Heraclitus embraces this notion in his philosophy because constant flux and tension affirm the existence of things based on the nature of the contest they hold. This means things do exist, but they are never of a static nature (as has been shown), and for this reason we must be critical about the way we think about entities, as isolated, finished, independent beings capable of full autonomy and self-ruling.
Parmenides has also dealt with a great deal of controversy. Notably, the wall people hit when reading him is his absolute rejection of senses, and one of the first thoughts one might have is: If reality is just an illusion, then nothing matters. And from this point of view, there is no philosophical value to be derived from Parmenides, which is a problem. A defense from Parmenides’ scholars is that he did not affirm reality was immutable, but instead that the main substance from which reality is made is immutable and unchanging. If this is what he meant to say, then he does not deny the possibility for an infinite amount of these substances to compose reality, and they just get mixed in different proportions, interacting with each other, which would explain why things change and move. This view is controversial, but it is one of the best ways to defend Parmenides’ arguments and implement them into our knowledge of reality.
As has been shown, though Parmenides and Heraclitus disagreed immensely, they are eternally linked by their concern with the same problem and the progress they made to understand being. For me, Heraclitus offers much better ways to understand life and I will show several conclusions that emerge from these ideas:
Current Physicians are struggling to figure out the functioning of the most primary composition of reality. Inner parts of atoms proved they were composed from small pieces that in time are also composed of other smaller things which are in everlasting change. These small pieces that we call electrons and protons, are at the base of everything, and they exist only as a result of their corresponding opposite forces. In other words, electrons only exist because there are protons opposing their energy against them, and vice versa.
Going further into the nature of the sub-particles, Quantum Physics point out that all beings are just fields of probability that exist tangled in a net that bonds every other field, all in an eternal flux and strive for being. Though there are information gaps in this theory, this field of knowledge is forcing many physicists to reconsider what the definition of an individual being is.
The view that reality is in constant flux embraces change as necessary and ethically good. As with most philosophical postures, we should restrain from keeping the enquiry on theorical basis and rather derive practical applications our of them. When a person faces difficulties in life, for instance, a drastic breakup, a constant battle with a person whose thoughts differ from his/hers, a sudden accident or illness or losing a job, most of us would understand this person’s feeling of rejection to change. These are changes one can hardly expect or want, but that through understanding their necessity, we may become able to accept and deal with more easily. If this person is scared by the idea of ending a relationship, she/he may stay concealed from taking a big step towards a better life that would only come about after the breakup. Being against the proposal of leaving their unwanted/hated job and taking on a new direction in their lives, tons of people are hindered away from a lifestyle they choose instead of one they ended up having.
But our brains’ response to change might deceive us; It has been known for decades now that change generates reactions on our minds alike those experienced by pain, this is, whenever we face different ideas which contradict what we had always thought or different life behaviors we are not used to, our brain goes through painful effort. Therefore, most people find themselves reluctant to any change, even if they sense there is good after the difficulties.
This disposition towards a more fulfilling experience in life does not ignore the limitations of the economic, social, and geographic context, but seeks personal improvement in order to continue growing up anywhere we might be. This improvement is not limited to relationships or passion seeking, but extends to an acceptance of any unexpected change, and an embracing of difficulty as a reaffirmation or our essence. It is a disposition to never be too certain about anything if we want to pursue wisdom.