[An excerpt from Reality: a primer]
Heraclitus was one of the earliest known philosophers. He lived in what we now recognize as western Turkey, in the late 6th century BCE. We know hardly anything about him, and his philosophy is conveyed to us in fragments quoted by other people. The single most famous indirect quote we have is supplied by Plato: “Heraclitus says somewhere that ‘everything gives way and nothing stands fast,’ and, likening the things that are to the flowing of a river, he says that ‘you cannot step into the same river twice’.”
You cannot step into the same river twice. For, after you have stepped into it once, all the water moves on and is replaced by new water. It’s a new river.
For this reason, Heraclitus is known as a metaphysician of flux: nothing ever stays the same, and everything is always in the middle of changing into something else. There is certainly something to this. Waters flow, plants grow, the earth shifts; the planets revolve and rotate, tides ebb and flow, minds change; people are born, people die, relationships blossom and fade, civilizations crumble, new states are established. There is truth in this even at the smallest, most individual level: the sounds I hear are constantly changing, my eyeballs swivel to take in new sights, my thoughts jump from one idea to the next. Indeed, it seems the only permanent truth is this, that nothing is permanent.
It seems that Heraclitus himself delighted in this paradox of changeless change. Another indirect quote suggests that the change he saw everywhere led somehow to a kind of constancy: “They do not understand how, through variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and lyre.” (How could they not understand this?!) His thought seems to be that, just as a bow remains stable and unchanging while the taut bowstring is in tension with the wooden bow, the constant tension among changing appearances also brings about a kind of constancy or stability. And it surely is true that, as often as we see change, we also recognize changelessness – in granite mountains, in unyielding bronze, in the stubborn face of a clock as we wait for the end of a boring meeting. Heraclitus may be claiming that such seemingly changeless things are in fact in fluctuating tensions among opposing forces. He also is said to have written that “the road up and the road down are one and the same” – so even a lonesome road is struggling to be two things at once.
Many of Heraclitus’s near-contemporaries took turns asserting one element or another to be the ultimate one – Thales had water, Anaximenes had air – and Heraclitus laid claim to fire. This makes sense: fire is, above all, an inconstant, flickering thing. Today, of course, we might posit energy rather than fire, but the idea is the same. We posit a fundamental entity whose nature is to move, to change, to flicker, and we see stable objects as emerging somehow from the ceaseless riot.
One of my favorite books is in Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series. It’s entitled A Very Short Introduction to Nothing. The author, Frank Close, is a physicist, and in this little book he doggedly pursues the question of whether it is ever possible to have a bit of nothing. It seems not; spacetime is constantly bubbling with fields, particles, and even mere possibilities. The metaphysical picture we have of the basis of reality is something far beyond the dreams of the ancients:
In the 3,000 years since the philosophers of ancient Greece first contemplated the mystery of creation, the emergence of something from nothing, the scientific method has revealed truths that they could not have imagined. The quantum void, infinitely deep and filled with particles, which can take on different forms, and the possibility of quantum fluctuation lay outside their philosophy. They were unaware that positive energy within matter can be counterbalanced by the negative sink of the all-pervading gravitational field such that the total energy of the universe is potentially nothing; when combined with quantum uncertainty, this allows the possibility that everything is indeed some quantum fluctuation living on borrowed time. Everything may thus be a quantum fluctuation out of nothing.
Close is surely right that the ancients could not have imagined this. (To be fair, who can?) But Heraclitus captured something of the “counterbalanced by the negative sink” idea when he claimed (supposedly) that the universe is “an ever-living fire being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures.” Both metaphysicians would agree that the universe is an ongoing fluctuating that sums to zero.
Good question. Does it make any difference if we think of reality as deeply impermanent, in a continuous flux – so long as, at some level, we end up with what appears to be a world of enduring, stable-ish objects?
It does, if we take the metaphysics to heart. Our ordinary way of thinking about ourselves and the world is profoundly object-driven. The things we own are things – we buy them, possess them, care for them, and sell them. We ourselves are things – special things, to be sure, with moral worth and values, rich with feelings and thoughts – but things nonetheless, things that come into being, change over time, and fade from the landscape (which is itself yet another big thing). Yet, according to the metaphysics of flux, this way of thinking is at best a kind of useful fiction. Perhaps it is a fiction to which we are naturally attracted as soon as we begin speaking in a thing-centric language, a point Nietzsche often made:
Really, why should we be forced to assume that there is an essential difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’ in the first place? Isn’t it enough to assume that there are degrees of apparentness and, so to speak, lighter and darker shadows and hues of appearance? And if someone asks, ‘But musn’t a fiction have an author?’ shouldn’t we answer him bluntly, ‘Why?’ Musn’t this ‘musn’t’ be part of the fiction, too, perhaps? Aren’t we allowed to be a little bit ironic, not only about predicates and objects, but also about subjects? Shouldn’t the philosopher be able to rise above a faith in grammar?
Language reflects our attitudes and thoughts, and also shapes them. If, instead of things, we saw and spoke of change and flux, how might our lives be different?
For starters, we might never come across the idea of property. Who can own flux? If, instead of cows, there were only “cowings” – a continuous developing from calf through the stages of bovinity unto death – it would be exceedingly difficult to hand that continuity over to someone else in exchange for the continuous process of “golding” or some other stream of change: at least, we couldn’t do it without thinking of these changes once again as things. Any description we can provide of the scenario is inadequate, since our language forces the flux into nouns and objects – “cowings,” “goldings,” and the rest. (This inclination to “thingify” things that aren’t really things has a fancy metaphysical name: reification.)
But perhaps most significantly, we would have to take ourselves far less seriously. As it is, we think of ourselves as continuous things existing over a lifetime – and perhaps beyond. We take pride in our achievements, and hold ourselves accountable for what we’ve done to others. If you stole my cow on Friday, and I meet up with you again on Tuesday, I may still hold you accountable for your thievery and demand compensation. Try thinking that through without any stable objects! If we cannot step into the same river twice, neither can we encounter the same cattle rustler twice.
Nor could we even encounter ourselves twice. And perhaps we never do. When the philosopher David Hume looked inside himself and recorded carefully what he found, he found only a flux of sensations, thoughts, and feelings.
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.
So here’s another reason why you cannot step into the same river twice: there’s never the same you twice! Putting this together with Nietzsche’s observation, we might think of the “I” – the self – as a kind of fiction generated by grammar.
Hume found the same sort of flux everywhere, in his experience of the world and of the self. He was left in a state of melancholy, not so much because of the flux as because he was so disappointed in human reason. Hume was a commonsensical fellow, and he was not about to throw over common sense for the sake of some metaphysical argument. He had hoped, though, the philosophical reasoning would wind up supporting common sense, rather than tossing him into the Heraclitean river. But he learned that trying to apply reason to experience is like setting out upon turbulent seas in a leaky, weather-beaten vessel.
So, in answer to the “So what?” question, we might say: so everything. What the world is, whether what we take to be real is linguistic myth-making, what we ourselves are, and what the reach of human reason is, are all bound up in this question of flux.
The laughing and crying philosophers
I remember once coming across paintings in a museum of two ancient philosophers. One was called “The laughing philosopher” and the other was called “The crying philosopher.”
I read the cards next to the paintings, and learned that one was supposed to be Democritus, and the other Heraclitus. But for years I got the two mixed up, and couldn’t remember which was supposed to be crying, and which laughing.
Democritus was famous for asserting that the world is composed of tiny atoms banging into each other in an empty void. So everything that comes about, including us and our so-called lives, is a result of cosmic billiards. Is this an occasion for laughter or tears? And Heraclitus, as we know, thought the universe is perpetual flux, with nothing remaining the same from moment to moment. Again: should we laugh, or cry? Over the years, I found I could convince myself one way and the other.
As it happens, Democritus is supposed to be the laughing one, and Heraclitus the crying one. I guess it’s funny to think of life as cosmic billiards, and tragic to think of nothing being permanent. But I think my own confusion over which is which is in fact a revelation of a deeper truth: namely, that each metaphysical view is equally tragic and comic. It is difficult to find anything like a meaningful purpose for human life in either world view. Whether we arise out of mindless collisions, or perpetual flux, our lives emerge from natural processes that themselves don’t care for us even a tiny bit. The processes have been going on forever, and will continue to go on forever, and our existence, and everything we take to be beautiful and important, is just one minor episode in an infinite stretch of time. That’s sad.
Or, come to think of it, that’s hilarious! Imagine some guy trying to sort out a subway map, or trying to untie a knot in his shoelace. He’s totally consumed by the task, because he thinks where he’s going is important, and the tasks he needs to do need doing. But he’s nothing more than a cosmic accident – as are the subway, the shoe, and the entire social world he inhabits. His actions are ridiculous, absurd, and hilarious. It’s like a condemned man brushing his teeth before going to the gallows – what does it matter? Why such concern, such dedication? Both metaphysical views make it pretty hard to take anything seriously. And so we laugh, because – really – what else are you going to do?