Tue 21 Apr 2009
Change. It is a natural phenomenon. Leaves change color in the Fall. Things increase in size. A bird flies across the open sky. Organisms come to be and perish. People employ the word regularly and use it in political campaigns. But what is change?
Problems associated with the reality or possibility of change have existed for millennia, beginning with Parmenides’ account of Being. Change requires non-being. But for Parmenides, change is impossible because it is unthinkable for what is not (non-being) to be what is (being) and vice-versa. Something cannot come to be from nothing and something cannot come to be nothing. Non-being, or nothing, cannot be. The leaves, then, cannot change color. The bird cannot fly across the sky. Things cannot grow or diminish in size. Things cannot come to be or perish. Everything simply is.
As opposed to Parmenides’ Being is the Heraclitean Flux or pure becoming. Illustrated in Plato’s Theaetetus, the Heraclitean Flux “is” pure chaos: everything is constantly changing in every aspect. But if everything constantly changes in every aspect, then one cannot say that something “moves” from being X to being Y. For, in a Heraclitean Flux, there is no being! The moment something is said to be Y after being X is to say that something is. Leaves do not really change color in a Heraclitean Flux. Rather, one should say that leaves exist and do not exist! If the leaves do not exist, then there is some state in a certain sense. But if they exist, then being is in the Heraclitean Flux (but being cannot be). Pure becoming makes knowledge of the world impossible since one cannot claim that there is anything.
Plato and Aristotle have struggled with the Heraclitean and Parmendean views concerning change. Change, in the form humanity recognizes it, cannot occur given the Parmenidean and Heraclitean views. What is evident in the Heraclitean and Parmendiean views is that change must occur with “one thing”, in its entirety, either coming into being or ceasing to be. If something comes to be, no part of it must have had prior existence. If it ceases to be, no part of it must continue to be. This form of coming to be and ceasing to be is known as unqualified change. Plato and Aristotle recognize this form of change to be impossible. Change, if it occurs, must be a combination of being and non-being without complete being and complete non-being.
Qualified change is the answer to Parmenides’ Being and the Heraclitean Flux. There are five principles of qualified change. The first three principles are necessary for any account of change. The last two principles are elaborations (from Aristotle) of the first three principles. The first principle is that pure becoming is impossible; it is impossible because of the contradiction that the “same thing” is and is not. The second principle is that, if pure becoming is impossible, all change requires something identifiable as existing that either comes to be or ceases to be: things cannot come to be if there is no entity that is. Without something that comes to be, what could possibly come to be? Similarly, something cannot cease to be if there is no being that actually ceases to be. The third principle is that, if change exists and pure becoming is impossible, only certain aspects of things can change. If nothing changes, then there is no change. If everything constantly changes in every way, then contradictions result. So, if change occurs, the alternative is that things change in certain aspects.
The last two principles of change are based on Aritotle’s account of qualified change from the Physics. The fourth principle of change which Aristotle adds is that some subject must underlie the change. Since things can change only in certain aspects, something must remain through the coming to be and perishing of things. There are, then, two kinds of change: accidental and substantial. Accidental changes occur whenever something non-essential to a thing changes. Leaves changing color is an accidental change. The leaf is the underlying subject of the change. Substantial changes occur whenever the underlying subjects of accidental changes come to be or cease to be. The burning of a leaf is a substantial change since the leaf no longer exists. What remains is the matter or substratum of the leaf. The matter or substratum remains through substantial change. The fifth principle of change is that all change requires matter, form, and privation. Matter, as discussed, is the underlying subject of the change and is open to being certain forms and privations. Form and privation represent the respective being and non-being of something. Form and privation are related opposites. Privation is not a complete negation of being since it indicates the potentiality of something coming to be something else. Coming to be occurs whenever a matter changes from being under a certain privation to being under a certain form. Ceasing to be is the opposite process of coming to be. Here is an example of form, matter, and privation in accidental change: a flower (matter) changes from being non-red (privation) to being red (form). In order to change to being something in a particular aspect, something must not be that particular aspect first. In the case of the flower initially being non-red, it could also be under some color other than red (i.e. yellow). Being non-red is not necessarily being nothing. Being red, because of the potentiality of the underlying subject to be different forms, is not pure being. The underlying subject can cease to be a particular form. The principles of matter, form, and privation show that change occurs whenever something moves from being under one particular aspect to being under another particular aspect. Contra Parmenides, change is of composites and not simples. It is not one thing which wholly ceases to be (becomes nothing) or wholly comes to be (creation) that constitutes change. Contra Heraclitus, change requires particular aspects of a thing coming to be or ceasing to be.
Plato and Aristotle deal with the problems of unqualified and qualified change. If one is to imagine a finite straight line (AB) which is bisected at C, a representation of the relation between unqualified change and qualified change is possible. Imagine that either end point of AB is unqualified change: one end point is Parmenides’ notion of Being/changelessness, while the other end point is the Heraclitean Flux. Parmenides’ notion of Being is unqualified change inasmuch as one takes his argument against motion into consideration. The Heraclitean Flux is unqualified change in itself. The midpoint of the line, C, represents the “middle way” position/qualified change which Plato and Aristotle support. It is intriguing that different end points can represent the same fundamental problem. The difference between the two endpoints is how the fundamental problem of unqualified change is applied: the Heraclitean Flux is identical to unqualified change itself, while unqualified change is found in the argument for Parmenides’ Being. No matter in what direction one moves along the “line of change and changelessness”, the same fundamental problem of unqualified change is encountered.
(Colin Connors is a graduate student in the Doctoral Program at Boston College and an alumnus of the Saint Anselm Philosophy Department.)