The Ancients about process and change

In this post I discuss some phrases that pivot around the topics process, change, and time, from The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1961). These topics are interesting in the light of my research that I founded in process ontology. My chosen ontology, what is knowable, is determined by the chosen metaphysics, my assumptions without proof.

Ontological choices are a basis for what you think and do (what you permit yourself), and of particular relevance here, for the theory I develop. They make distinctions from competing ones, and guide your thoughts in some direction, restricting their extension everywhere. Take the assumption that the earth is at the centre of our solar system. Distinct from the heliocentric assumption, it directs our thoughts regarding the movement of celestial bodies. Or take the assumption that people are a primitive, because at a Panglossianistic apex of evolution, and all else is derived, and of derivative importance. This leads to a different view than universal evolution that is indifferent to substrate.

Both initial assumptions tend to unduly allow people an important position, first because they are in a spatial centre, and second because they are the uniquely sophisticated product of evolutionary development, in the chronicle centre as it were. These thoughts are ubiquitous and persistent, and they can be consequential. They are known to go back to the Ancient Greek philosophers in written form and foundational for further thinking.

Another example of such an influential thought is the assumption, very much alive today, that everything is made up of objects and that change is explained from their relations. This is complementary to the thought that process is the pivot and change a primitive. Both strands of thought were developed at the height of Ancient philosophy (the inventive bit according to Russell), but object ontology kept the upper hand for roughly two thousand years (thereby causing a great deal of damage according to Russell).

Anachimander (~546 bc) writes: ‘Into that from which all things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained, for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time‘. This resonates with me, first because it mentions the metaphysical notions of making and erasing differences, and repetition. This description of the entire process of existence as a recursive loop is reminiscent of the Ouroboros. Every outcome (of a step cycle) is necessarily again the beginning of the next one. The meaning of the ‘injustice’, different from its modern understanding) of things is not developed to their full complement: askew from their natural order in time. That is necessarily and causally followed ‘as is ordained’ by the ‘reparation and satisfaction’ of that order. He points out that differences are made and erased at every cycle. New differences again present themselves at every opportunity as long as there is time, what Deleuze (1968) calls differenciation (sic).

The saying πάντα ῥεῖ (panta rhei: everything flows) is attributed to Heraclitus (~540 bc). It is exemplified by the thought that one cannot enter the same river twice. The notion of a river (including its colloquial use) is an abstraction of all the rivers that I can see and where I can take a bath. This notion is of course fortified by the word river to point out this abstraction so as one can mention the word cow to point out the species. Language in this sense tends to objectify phenomena and reinforce linguistically: a river has come to be considered an object instead of a causal process in continual flux defined by change.

Russell writes that: ‘ .. it (the subject matter dpb) is the burning not what burns. ‘What burns’ has disappeared from modern physics‘, when it turned out that matter is exchangeable for energy (p 65). Science seeks what is permanent and it would appear that not the river but the flow is permanent. I wish to mention that this fits with the statement in the Introduction of my PhD thesis that I set out to find a lasting pattern. An ontology that holds that the nature of a river is knowable as an object instead of a flow is bound to generate error. That said this by comparison recent progressive thinking exhibited in physics has not reached every nook and cranny of every obscure scientific discipline.

However, next it has been a source of doubt ever since the Ancients, and he continues to say that: ‘Philosophers, accordingly, have sought with great persistence, for something not subject to the empire of Time. This search begins with Parmenides‘ (p 65). Parmenides (~515 bc), contrary to Heraclitus argues that nothing changes. The unchangeability suggested by Parmenides is the foundation of the notion of indestructibility of substance: ‘A substance was supposed to the persistent subject of varying predicates‘ (p 70). This is a Platonic (aka essentialist) approach also called monism found in many disciplines, including business science. I believe that this is striking, because more than a river, I would consider a business to be in continual flux.

His metaphysics is based on logic and he assumes that words have a constant meaning, which he supposes unquestionable. However Russell writes that: ‘.., no two people who use the same word have just the same thought in their minds‘ (p 68). This statement resonates with me, because individual worldviews differ because of people’s differing life experiences. And in a wider perspective, that the notion of differences as a norm fit reality better than uniqueness. It is, however, distant from Parmenides’ view that nothing changes, as well as from the widely accepted view that it is possible to have identical perceptions of something and to express oneself identically. I believe this is a rare turn of events, especially regarding language, but it is possibly excepted by logic, mathematics and some strands of coding. They are fully symbolic and thereby free of human interpretation: their expression and perception are necessarily identical for different individuals.

According to Empedocles (~494 bc), last the sources of change are Love and Strife. The extent of their presence in substances determines their nature. I associate these conceptualisations respectively with a stable state in phase space that tends to last and attract, and an unstable state in phase space which is bound to repel and end. These counteracting forces are immanent to the observed processes and whether they come to the fore and the extent to which depends on outside influences. This image of naturally conflicting immanent forces is the hallmark of complexity and chaos, and thereby relevant for systems constituted by more than two elements.

This has been a discussion of a few selected phrases from ancient history of what Russell refers to a phase of Ancient Greek philosophy. They were not or hardly pursued during two millennia. Other ideas were selected instead to support the development of philosophy and to direct scientific endeavour. This course of events has moulded our thoughts into patterns beyond change or even discussion. I believe it is important that we are wary of such patterns and the consequences they bear. I believe that the foundational assumptions of some scientific disciplines are weak, because anthropocentric, little connection with modern human neuro-psychological theory, and object orientation. I also believe that some solutions, or at least awareness for the patterns that led to them, have been around for a long time.

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Complexity Scientist