The Problem of Change: A Mystery of The Natural Order

“Philosophy begins with wonder,” says Aristotle; and indeed those who have no capacity for wonder, have no appetite for wisdom. But what is wonder? Wonder arises in the mind when, what started to be a problem, turns out to be a mystery. If you are working on a crossword puzzle, you have a problem on your hands; but if you suddenly discovered that the cross-word puzzle is really a disguised message from the one you love, the problem becomes a mystery. In a problem there is nothing to be known besides a solution, but in a mystery there is no final solution, but a continual growth towards contemplation. You face a problem but you plunge into a mystery. When a problem is once solved, you do not want to think about it any longer, but the more you think about a mystery, the more you want to think about it. Mysteries are visible leads to invisible realities; they are landmarks on the way to our destiny. Mysteries are undeciphered messages from our eternal lover and the supreme object of our love. Father Leonard Feeney said once that mysteries are not things about which we can know nothing but things about which we cannot know everything, precisely because there is so much to be known. Tides, for example, are a problem, but the sea is a mystery. Making a living is frequently a problem to man, but life itself is always a mystery.

Now the world is alive with such mysteries, and they occur as frequently in the order of nature as they do in the order of grace. We look at the sky and say; what is this apparently limitless expansion of the blue? Is it infinite or is it finite? Is it thoroughly full, or is it partly empty? Is space a substance or is it an accident? Or is it perhaps a figment of the mind? Is it changing or is it changeless? And how about time; where is the past and what is the future? What is even the very actual present, the evasive now, which, as soon as you grasp it, has already slipped away and is no more! Birth and death, food and growth, thought, love, and even sleep; all these are mysteries in the natural order which parallel the mysteries of the faith and prepare the mind for the message of revelation. The early philosophers called them problems, but we are entitled to change their labels and call them mysteries, having seen so many ages of thinkers throughout history try to sound their depths.

I intend to take up here one sample of a mystery which has haunted the minds of men at all times, and which is partly responsible for the development and growth of philosophy. I mean the mystery of change. I wish to suggest that meditation on this mystery is an excellent introduction to philosophy. I can even promise, that when assisted by the light of grace, such mediations may illuminate the central mysteries of the faith, and increase our knowledge and love of God.

At first glance, it does not seem as if change is even a problem, much less a mystery. Yet down through the ages, men from all over the earth, have felt that a changing universe could not be the only kind of reality in existence, but that this changing world must have a changeless creator, a Being who can be known by the mind, although not seen through the senses. In other words, men (and I do not mean philosophers only) have always felt that this universe of ours, by being in a state of change, indicates its insufficiency and leads the mind to God. And the fact of change is not something which requires any specialized or expert observation in order to be known; on the contrary, it is overwhelmingly with us all the time. It can be brought to our attention by winds or waves or rain, by the procession of the seasons or the succession of the days, by the movement of the stars or by the growth of a tree. Even things which appear firm and constant, like mountains and rocks, are in fact subject to forces which in time will cause decay and dissolution. At times change seems ordinary and commonplace, but every once in a while we are shocked into a terrific realization of what it implies to us.

The shock might come from the death of a friend, the end of an era, or the sudden realization that we are growing old and that there is no way back to childhood.

In the history of philosophy, the importance of the problem of change was fully recognized when a Greek philosopher of the sixth century before Christ, ventured the daring opinion that all realty is change. This philosopher is Heraclitus, who held that “everything flows like a river.” Ordinarily we talk as if there are things which undergo change. This clearly implies, that while change is going on, something remains the same; for if everything about an object or a being were to change, we could not continue to talk about the same being. If while growing up from childhood, not only my size and weight and ideas change, but even my personal identity, then why keep saying that I was a child and that I am now an adult? What is this “I” which was something and is now something else? How was this “I” identified with childhood without being identical with it? For if it were identical with its childhood, it could never truthfully say about itself: “I am now an adult.” According to Heraclitus, nothing remains the same, and therefore, not only is all the world changing, but all is change! “Nobody jumps into the same river twice,” says Heraclitus, “because the second time he jumps, it is another and a different river.” One of the disciples of Heraclitus went further to say: “Nobody jumps into the same river even once, because even before he touches the river, neither the river nor the jumper remain the same.”

If this doctrine of Heraclitus is true, then neither science is possible nor philosophy. Even when science talks about change it must talk about what is permanent in it. If nothing is permanent about reality, then there can be no scientific knowledge about it. If Heraclitus himself failed to draw all the latent conclusions of his doctrine, his disciples certainly perceived all its logical implications. When one of them, named Cratyles, was asked: “And what then should the philosopher do, if, as you say, all is change?” he replied, “The wise man simply wiggles his finger!” There is no use making any philosophical statements, if before you finish uttering your assertion, all reality has changed, and the assertion no longer applies. As a matter of fact, if Heraclitus is right, morality and moral responsibility become absurd. What, in that case, would justify condemning a man for murder, unless we are dealing with the same entity responsible for the misdeed. If nothing remains the same, then nobody can be held responsible for an act of the past.

The absurdities of the Heraclitian doctrine led a contemporaneous philosopher, Parmenides, to the absurdities of the opposit extreme. Parmenides held that change is a mere illusion of the senses, and that what is really real must be one and changeless. All change, says Parmenides, involves being coming out from non-being or turning into non-being, both of which are absurd and impossible. Nothing can turn into its other. Being can be limited only by its only remaining alternative, which is non-being and therefore nothing. Therefore being cannot be limited, and must be one continuous whole, remaining for ever one and the same. Reality, concludes Parmenides, is an infinite, homogeneous, and changeless sphere. All else is illusion.

Zeno, a disciple of Parmenides, formulated a number of arguments which seem to prove the impossibility of movement and change. The best known of these is the race between Achilles and the tortoise. Zeno argues that if Achilles were to give the tortoise only ten yards advantage, he could never overtake the tortoise, even though he ran ten times as fast. Before he can overtake the tortoise, Achilles must first cover the ten yards, but in the meanwhile the tortoise would have moved one yard ahead. Achilles must now cover the yard before overtaking the tortoise, who in turn would have moved one tenth of a yard in the meantime. It is clear that this process may be repeated ad infinitum, and so Achilles will never get to be ahead of the tortoise. Another argument of Zeno aims to prove that a flying arrow could not be in motion, for if it is in motion it should be in motion at every instant of its flight, but at any given instant the arrow cannot be moving either in the space occupied by the arrow at that instant, or in any other space. It could not be moving in the space of the arrow because this is exactly the size of its volume and allows no freedom of movement within it; nor in any other space, because the arrow cannot move where it is not. Another argument may be stated in this manner: “no body can be moved from one place to another place, because there is always an infinite number of positions between the two terminal places, and no body can occupy an infinite number of places in a finite time.”

What do the arguments of Parmenides and the paradoxes of Zeno aim to prove? They seem to show that when we try to think about change with our intellects we judge it to be impossible. You say: But if by our intellects we judge change and movement to be impossible, while by our senses we see clearly that things do change and move, why don’t we trust our senses and disregard the judgment of the intellect? The answer is that such an attitude is impossible to man, because man’s supreme and ultimate power of knowledge is his intellectual judgment and not his sense perception. What appears to the senses is naturally subordinated to what is evident to the intellect. Even the choice between the evidence of the senses and the evidence of the intellect is a matter for the intellect and not for the senses to decide.

But on the other hand, neither can the intellect deny the testimony of the senses, especially with regard to that part of reality, the material universe, which falls within the province of the senses. When we consider the senses by our intellect, we find them to be cognitive powers, that is, faculties intended by their very nature to report things as they are and not as they are not, unless something interferes accidentally with their natural operations. If it were true, as Parmenides and Zeno claim, that the senses methodically and systematically report the fact of change, while the mind irrevocably denies its possibility, then the result is intellectual despair. There is no doubt that the controversy about change and motion between the school of Heraclitus and the school of Parmenides is at the root of that period of Greek thought known as the age of sophistry, when philosophers, having despaired of attaining the truth with their minds, discarded speculative philosophy, and used their intellects instead for the acquisition of power.

It was Aristotle who contributed the right solution for the problem of change. The solution was already implicit in the common-sense judgment of men; but when Aristotle succeeded in drawing from the ordinary discourse about change, the distinctions and definitions required for a philosophic solution of this problem, philosophy as a science became possible. Parmenides had said, as already mentioned, that “being is, and non-being is not,” that “being can be limited only by non-being, and therefore, being cannot be finite or plural,” that “being cannot become non-being, nor can non-being become being,” and since these are the only possible alternatives, then change is impossible. But Aristotle denied the dichotomy between being and non-being; he said, between being in the fully actual sense, which is God, and absolute non-being, which is nothing, there is a third possibility, namely, a being in potency, like a seed. A seed, Parmenides would say, either is or is not a tree. If the seed is a tree then it cannot change to one, because there is no change when things remain the same, but if the seed is not a tree, then neither can it change to one, because the being of a tree cannot arise from its non-being. But stated in the more common-sense terminology of Aristotle, the problem can be stated more correctly in the following manner: a seed is not a tree in act but a tree in potency and therefore when sufficient causes cooperate to reduce that potency to act, the seed developes into a tree and the process of development is what we call change. This is how Aristotle arrived at his definition of change: “change is the act of a being-in-potency as long as it is yet in potency.” Potency is a reality and is different from sheer non-being which is nothing. Change is the actualization of real potency in beings that are real but finite.

We cannot leave the problem here without at least suggesting the way to solve the Zeno paradoxes. The fallacy of the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise consists in regarding as divided what is seen to be only divisible. Movement, time and distance, are different kinds of continuous quantities. Being continuous, each of them is immediately seen to be divisible ad infinitum. But divisibility is potential and not actual division. If distance were actually divided into an infinite number of intervals, it would be hard to see how Achilles can ever overtake the tortoise.

Thus as far as philosophy is concerned, the problem of change is solved by reduction to this concept of a being-in-potency. But how about potency, and what report does it give of itself apart from the fact of change? The truth is, that potency as such, can neither exist nor can it be conceived or understood. There is no existing entity which may be called pure potency. Philosophers imply that much when they tell us that prime matter is not a being but rather it is a principle of being. Whenever real potency exists, it exists as the potency of something actual. You should have an actual egg before you can claim to possess the real potency of a chicken, and you must know a real and actual chicken before you can understand what is meant by a potential chicken in an egg. If potency can neither exist nor be understood except in its relation to act, then a being in potency like our universe, is also to that extent a being opaque to our complete understanding. The element of potency in the universe implies an aspect of mystery which will be resolved only when we see face to face the One Eternal Being in whom there is no potency and therefore no mystery. Our senses cannot perceive such a Being who is pure act, but our intellect cannot be satisfied without it. We may be able now to realize a little more fully how both Parmenides and Heraclitus were baffled by the same aspect of mystery in the visible universe which was intended by God to wake them up to a realization, be it dark, of the intelligible but invisible God behind the visible universe. Parmenides was looking with his mind on the objects which his senses offer, and insisting on finding in these extended material things the one object which satisfies the intellect. He was looking for the right object in the wrong direction, and the result is his monotonous, uniform, but empty sphere where is neither a good God nor a good universe. Parmenides was staring at time and imagining eternity.

On the other hand, when Heraclitus denied permanence and asserted that all is mere change he was implicitly denying the existence of God and the substantial reality of things. Both philosophers were thwarting the universe regarding its first message as a creature, for when the world changes it confesses its insufficiency, and points towards God.