Change is a familiar idea in everyday life, but we have an ambiguous attitude towards it. On the one hand, a change is desirable. Many of us feel that quite strongly with respect to the present government. In another context, someone might want a change of job. And we can see a holiday as a 'change'.
On the other hand, it can be re-assuring to know that some person or situation is always the same. I have heard women say: 'My husband is quite boring – the same jokes, the same TV programmes and so on. But it is reassuring that he remains the same'. And going year after year to the same holiday destination has its own appeal.
One aspect of change is reform. Sometimes Acts of Parliament have unforeseen consequences and need reform. History has many examples of 'Reform Acts', although it can be a matter of debate whether every political 'reform' is always a change for the better, as Liz Truss discovered. And changing a treaty we have signed up to as a great deal – as with the 'oven-ready' Brexit deal – would not universally be regarded as a 'reform'.
Philosophers have varied over whether their aim is to understand the world or change it. Marx said that philosophers have just tried to understand the world but the point is to change it. Some philosophers have
tried to change the world, such as Plato or Bentham or Marx. The results have not always been impressive.
Leaving aside the reforming zeal of some philosophers, I shall take up the central philosophical problem of change. That problem concerns the relationship between change and identity or sameness. The most general conception of change is simply differences in the features of things from one time to another. Thus we speak of the change of temperature from day to day, or the change in attitudes towards disability. A narrower usage of 'change' is exemplified by change in the properties or appearance of a thing over time. For example, we beat the eggs into a liquid form and pour them into the sizzling butter in the frying pan and they change into the solidity of an omelette.
Some philosophers have argued for an intimate connection between change and time. But the two are distinct. Aristotle pointed out (in his Physics
) that change is distinct from time because change occurs at different rates, whereas time passes in a uniform manner.
A school of philosophers in Ancient Greece actually denied that change happens. They claim it is an illusion. It may seem extremely implausible to deny the possibility of change, but extreme implausibility has never deterred philosophers. An early group of Greek philosophers, the Eleatics (5th BC) and particularly Parmenides, denied that change occurs.
His argument seems to be that change is an illusion, on the grounds that a change in a thing implies that there must have been a time when the thing-as-changed did not exist, and if it did not exist it would not be there to be changed. However, this argument (if I've got it right) is very unconvincing. It depends on the premise that the non-existent, the thing as it was after it changed but before the change took place, cannot be thought or spoken about. Indeed, we might picture in our mind the thing as changed before it has in fact changed.
I sense a rising bafflement in readers so I'll move on to the arguments of a better known and more worrying disciple of Parmenides.
Zeno was a follower of Parmenides and his paradoxes are generally seen as attempts to defend him. They present challenges to philosophers and mathematicians, and solutions to the paradoxes are disputed to the present day. I will not look at these in detail, but note their relevance to the view that change is an illusion.
Consider what is sometimes called the 'stadium' paradox. A runner has to run a given length but before he can run the whole length he must run half of it and before that he must run half of the half and so on. He can therefore never get started and therefore he cannot change his position. Zeno has similar paradoxes to the effect that Achilles can never catch up with the tortoise, and a flying arrow is in fact stationary and therefore does not change its position.
The practically-minded of you will dismiss the paradoxes as obviously phoney, but theoretical solutions to them are not at all easy. Every philosopher since Aristotle has had a go at solving them and nowadays the suggested solutions are highly mathematical. But even if we ignore Parmenides and leave Zeno's paradoxes to the Ancient Greeks and the Modern Geeks, we are still left with the philosophical problem: In what sense can the same thing persist through change? If a thing changes, can it be said to be the same thing?
Once again, Aristotle is helpful here. Aristotle took the view that what persists over time and through change is the substrate, or the 'essential stuff', and that it is the particular form which the stuff happens to take which is acquired or lost in the event of change. Aristotle's view involves a distinction between the essence of something and what he calls its 'accidents' or the properties it may acquire or lose over time.
In his Meditations
, Descartes gives a helpful example. He considers a piece of wax: 'It has an odour, is hard, cold, easily handled…'. But when placed near the fire, all these attributes (what Aristotle calls its 'accidents') vanish. But it remains the 'same' piece of wax; the substrate remains but its form has changed.
Aristotle's distinction works for changes in things; they can change in various ways but remain essentially the same. But his view does not work for other types of case. Children sometimes raise these other types of example, even if they are unaware that they are challenging Aristotle. They sometimes ask questions like this: Suppose a train is given a new engine and new carriages. Can it be the same train?
Well, the answer depends on the context. In one sense, the stuff is different and therefore it is not the same train. But an impatient parent might say that it is the same train because it is the same 9.15 from Glasgow to Edinburgh that we got yesterday. In other words, the parent is appealing to different but perfectly valid ideas of identity and change, concerned with sameness and change in purpose or timetable.
This flexibility of view is supported by Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein wrote (Tractatus
2.0271): 'Objects are what is unalterable and subsistent; their configuration is what is changing and unstable…'. But he also writes: 'Since we need the unalterable we do not get along without names. They are essential to the assertion that this thing has that property, and so forth'. This thing, the train, has that property of leaving at 8.45 to take passengers to Edinburgh.
The issue becomes even more complicated when we move to change and sameness in the identity of a person. Our bodies have the sameness of stuff – a changeless essence, perhaps DNA or the like, but they also change in many ways as a result of many factors such as age, disease, mishap or lifestyle. On the other hand, when we think of the changes or sameness of a person, we are not mainly thinking of bodily changes. Distinctively personal identity or sameness is not the identity or sameness of stuff. It is more like the identity of a novel or a play.
Throughout many years there may be frequent changes and perhaps reforms in someone's life, like different chapters in a book or acts in a play. But it is the same story because it has an over-all continuity and identity; it is my story.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow