20 February 2007

Evidence of Imperceptible Change

Is it unlikely that Heraclitus believed that "everything is always changing"? So KRS think. I gave their arguments yesterday; yet, in my view, these arguments are weak.

To someone in an agragrian society, such as Heraclitus, it would be evident that many things are changing imperceptibly: crops are growing, but we notice the change only if we look on widely separated days; animals grow, but we never see one growing; felled trees decay, but we may notice that they are rotted through only if our foot happens to fall through when we step on them. Change is exactly what one intelligently 'discerns' by paying close attention; imperceptible change is not something contradicted by experience.

It would hardly be surprising if someone were to generalize and hold that all living things, subject as they are to cycles of growth and decay, are constantly changing. One couldn't claim antecedently that it would be unlikely for Heraclitus to hold that.

(As regards Aristotle's,"all things are in motion all the time, but this escapes our perception", KRS say, "Aristotle here makes explicit what is implict in Plato, that many things (those that appear to be stable) must be undergoing invisible or unnoticed changes". But isn't it rather that Aristotle is merely making explicit what would reasonably have been the grounds for such a view in the first place?)

What is at issue, then, is whether Heraclitus might have extended this quite natural view to non-living things. Someone might maintain that the river example shows he was prepared to do exactly that. (On this point: Have you looked down at a large river, the sort that marks a boundary between states or nations, from a hillside or an escarpment? It appears solid and permanent, a 'ribbon of water'. Even to someone close up, only a river with rapids will evidently be moving. Surely in the 'river fragments' Heraclitus is wishing to draw a distinction between how a river appears to sight from afar, and how we test and confirm it to be, when we actually step in and feel the cool waters moving.)

If one were to object that rocks and bronze cauldrons are difficult cases, as they show no signs of changing at all, one might retort that large trees look unchanging, too, relative to corn or grass. Or: the fact that rocks and bronze cauldrons are constituents of things that show large-scale changes (think of Xenophanes on the revolutions of dry land and sea) indicates that they, too, must be changing.

You walk through a wood: the wind is changing; the leaves are changing; the trees are changing; the water is changing; the soil is changing. The rock isn't changing? Why? Why wouldn't the burden of proof be on someone who insisted on that?

As for the tendency to think of inanimate things as akin to animate: that is a commonly recognized characteristic of early Greek science. And which is the more difficult view: that rocks are changing imperceptibly, or that they have souls?