Heraclitus on temporal flow, identity and change

Lauren asked:

I have a question in my textbook that I was wondering if you could help. The question is:

How would Heraclitus have responded to the following statement? ‘Heraclitus’ theory is wrong because the objects we see around us continue to endure throughout time; alhtough a person, an animal or plant may change its superficial qualities, it still remains essentially the same person, animal or plant throughout these changes. In fact, we recognize change only by contrasting it to the underlying permanence of things. So permanence, not change, is the essential to reality.’

Answer by David Robjant

He would have responded that he was talking about flow, not change.

Possibly he would also have pointed out that the final line of the statement is somewhat silly, since both permanence and change seem to be observable features of reality, and it is hard to know what sense to attach to the claim that one but not the other is ‘essential’. And beyond the fact that enduring and changing are ordinary enough, change and endurance are also grammatically necessary to each other. This is because you cannot have any ‘it’ that is changing, outwith something that endures through that change.

This grammatical point is made by both Plato and Wittgenstein, and ad nauseum in modern discussions of Heraclitus. But presenting it as the last word would seriously misdirect the argument, if Heraclitus were talking about something other than change. And in my view (and the view of Iris Murdoch), Heraclitus was talking about something other than change. That, in short, is my argument in ‘Nauseating Flux; Iris Murdoch on Sartre and Heraclitus’ at the European Journal of Philosophy 21, 2013 http://philpapers.org/rec/ROBNFI.


Answer by Peter Jones

Good question. But it contains an error, and the error is the solution. The objects we see around us do not endure through time. They change in every moment. You may say that it is their attributes that change and that there is some underlying ‘essence’ that is unchangeable, but you will never find this persisting object. It is not there. This is the ‘problem of attributes’. An object is made out of attributes, but to what do those attributes belong? They must belong to a phenomenon that has no attributes. How can a phenomenon have no attributes and yet nevertheless be a phenomenon? The obvious answer is that it cannot.

It is consciousness that perceives permanence, or thinks it does, when it reifies successive momentary states by grouping them together as persistent objects. It is a high level view that breaks down at smaller scales. Here is Colin McGinn as a teenager, trying to figure out which part of an object actually is the object. Like everyone else he is unable to find any such object. (From The Making of a Philosopher). He has no better idea these days having become a professor.

“[P]icture me sitting on a bench staring at a British mailbox on a blustery spring day in Blackpool. I had just been reading about the questions of substance and qualities, and was suitably transfixed. Is an object the sum of its qualities or does it have an existence that is some way goes beyond its qualities? The mailbox had a variety of qualities – it was red, cylindrical, metal, etc. – but it seemed to be more than just the collection of these; it was a thing, a ‘substance,’ that had these qualities. But what was this substance that had those qualities? Did it lie behind them in some way, supporting them like the foundation of a house? If so, what was this underlying thing like – what qualities did it have? If it had some qualities, wouldn’t there be the same problem again, since it would also have to be distinct from these qualities? But if it had no qualities, what kind of thing could it be? How could these be something that had no qualities? So maybe we should say that there is nothing more to a mailbox than the qualities it manifests. And yet how can an object be just a set of abstract qualities? Isn’t it more solid and concrete than that?… I had a vague mental image of a grey amorphous something that constituted the underlying mailbox, to which its various manifest qualities mysteriously were attached… Yet as soon as I replaced this fuzzy image with the qualities by themselves, trying to think of the mailbox as just a ‘bundle of qualities,’ the object itself seemed to disappear.”

If there is no object there can be no unchanging object. Yet I think you are right to say that we see change against a background of permanence. So what is unchanging? If it is not the object nor the subject then what is it? This is a question that cannot be answered once we have rejected the answer given by mysticism. Heraclitus answers it when he says ‘We are and are-not’. His point is that objects do not exist as we usually think they do, and this includes you and me. To the extent that we ‘are-not’ we may be unchanging. But in this state we would not be objects or subjects. Objects and subjects would be impermanent.

Obviously this needs to be a much longer discussion, probably an endless one, but I hope this sheds some light on Heraclitus. If you study the Buddhist notion of impermanence it will help make sense of him. Perhaps Parmenides and Zeno also. Bon voyage.


Four basic questions of existence

Maggie asked:

1. Who are we?

2. Where did we come from?

3. Where are we going?

4. How should we live?

Answer by Tony Boese

We, if you mean human kind, are talking apes rocketing around space on an organic spaceship known as the Earth going to another sector of space at an incredible speed. We likely came from bacteria, which in turn came from another organic spaceship (Mars seems likely given recent discoveries).

How you take that information will inform the answer to #4. If you consider being a talking ape on a spaceship to be worrisome and wish we were something more, then the way to live becomes difficult to figure and could be anything from hedonistic rampage to monk like isolation and asceticism. There are, of course, various religious and nationalist standards for action; however, I personally take a very simple ‘that it harm none, do what you will’ standard, and if called upon to make a decision that will necessarily hurt at least someone, then a carefully context-sensitive utilitarianism.


Answer by Peter Jones

This seems to be four ways of asking the same question. The answer, if there is one, can be found only in religion. It might be possible to reach it in metaphysics, but there would be no way to verify that the answer is correct by the use of logic. To know the answer would mean, well, knowing the answer. It would not mean reading it in a book or guessing. There is only one doctrine that claims such knowledge is possible, and the route to it would be self-study, contemplation, meditation, yoga, or whatever else helps us to see why the Oracle advises us to ‘know thyself’. Consequently there is only one literature where we find the answer given in anything like an authoritative way, and that is the literature of the wisdom traditions.

But finding the answer in a book is unlikely to satisfy your search for knowledge. It would have to be discovered empirically, with no possibility of error, to count as knowledge. In short, you are the only person who can answer your questions to your own satisfaction. Still, the answer can be found in the books, as food for thought, put there by people who claim that we will find the answer if we do the work. I’m not going to answer you by claiming I know the answers. I just have my beliefs, one of which is that it is possible to know the answers if we do the work.


On an attempted proof of mind-body dualism

Armando asked:

Do you find a weakness with the following proof considering the nature, or essence, of consciousness as immaterial.

I write a note to my assistant to lift a 20 pound weight. He performs the action. I have caused a movement and work without any transfer of energy to my assistant. This psychological energy, the transfer of information, is a nonphysical ‘energy’. I find the mind to be the utilizing of the physical brain by the consciousness, as defined as that which knows, or is aware. That is, in the brain, somehow the phenomenon of consciousness can interact with the physical nature of the brain to produce effects and thinking. But the knowing (awareness) is preverbal (not limited by thought), and most likely outside of time and space constraints. It seems contradiction to have consciousness be nonphysical and affecting the physical but so is light also waves and particles at the same time.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Good question, interesting suggestion.

I do find a weakness with your proof. You fail, as did Descartes and all others who have tried, to explain how an immaterial mind and the material (physical) world interact. Your scenario misplaces where the explanation is required. The transfer of your wish from you to your assistant does involve energy in the usual way – muscle actions by you to type the note, send it electronically or walk to his desk; patterns of photons from the paper or computer screen enter your assistant’s eyes, nerve impulses travel from his eyes to brain. The unexplained bits are how your thought ‘I want my assistant to lift the weight’ makes something happen in your brain to set off the train of nerve impulses, muscle actions etc, how brain events in your assistant looking at the note produce his thought ‘I will lift the weight’, and how this thought makes things happen in his brain to produce the needed muscle action. All very mysterious if mind is immaterial.

Far more plausible (to me) is to say either that thoughts are brainstates, or, better I think, that thoughts are properties of brainstates. Thus, just as a postbox has the property of redness, so certain brainstates have the property of ‘feeling a wish that my friend lift a weight’ in the person whose brain it is. Now there is no interaction problem. The mind is just the mental aspect of the brain’s activity, felt in the person whose brain it is. I’m not suggesting that this property dualism is agreed on all sides, but the notion that consciousness is a feature of special states of matter seems to me to be on the right track.

You talk of the mind utilizing the brain. The mind being ‘out there’ as it were (outside time and space you suggest) and the brain tuning in to it, rather than the brain producing consciousness. This is just another way of stating dualism versus physicalism. The idea of the brain as a receiver/ displayer (a bit like a TV set) has been held by some famous philosophers, for example William James. It’s a popular idea for those who think souls can enter/ leave bodies, and can exist in a spirit world ‘on the other side’ (I suppose this would be outside time and space), and that I was, say, a Roman centurion in a previous life, or that near-death experiences can occur when there is no brain function.

I am unconvinced by it all. Of course if you pursue the tuning-in idea you have to ask whether there are many separate minds out there, each getting paired off with a brain. And are the minds all identical at the start, differing later according to the particularities of the brain, body and environment that lodges each – questions here for Descartes, Plato and Christians. Or is there just one mind (Universal Spirit, God, the Absolute), and each human brain gets a bit of it – Spinoza was keen on something like this. Maybe some animals also get tiny minds or teensy bits of the Big Mind. Some scientists, notably those working on near-death experiences, speculate that brains are indeed receivers of consciousness, the latter ‘stored in a non-local dimension as fields of information’ to quote van Lommel (2013). But it turns out that this ‘wave aspect of our indestructible consciousness in the non-local space is inherently not measurable by physical means’, so his hypothesis is safely immune from refutation. He may as well say, with you, it is stored outside space and time. How Karl Popper would have lambasted such pseudoscience.

I’m unsure how the particle/ wave theory of light bears on the mind-brain problem. Is it that it’s a genuine example of a dualism? (it does seem to be). Incidentally I’m not sure that light is waves and particles at the same time. I think any particular experimental setup either shows light behaving as waves (interference effect), or shows light behaving as particles (no interference effect). I suppose if you had an experiment of the one type running on one table in the lab, and an experiment of the other type on another table, one would show light as waves, the other would show light as particles, so that in that sense light behaves as waves and particles at the same time, but in different setups.


Cosmology vs ontology in Eastern and Western philosophy

Shiresse asked:

Which branch of metaphysics, cosmology or ontology, seem to you the shorter route to understanding of what is real? why do you choose it? use real life example to justify your claim.

Answer by Peter Jones

Metaphysics would be my choice for an intellectual understanding. But then I see metaphysics, ontology and cosmology as indistinguishable. Such an understanding would be limited, however, and may not even justify being called ‘understanding’.

The shortest route, the longest route, and the only route would be going and finding out. The practices of Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism and so forth are expressly designed to generate such a knowledge of reality. Lao Tsu claims to know what is real, and he claims that he knows because he can ‘look inside myself and see’. But analysis can bring us to the same conclusion as his, as is shown by F.H. Bradley in his metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality, and physics can at least debunk the idea that it is obvious what is real and what is not. A lot depends on what we mean by ‘real’. I would recommend Bradley, and a maybe a search on ‘dependent origination’.

I cannot think of a current professional philosopher that I would recommend on this issue since the entire industry seems to have disappeared up its own backside, but if you are able to understand any physics then you might like Ulrich Morhoff. He is busy trying to show that QM does not require the reality of the phenomena it describes and, rather, requires their unreality. If he succeeds then physics may be one way to distinguish between the real and the unreal.

Since you ask I would choose yoga (in its original meaning) as the only route to such an understanding, since the people who become skilled at it are the only people who have ever claimed to have acquired it, and I feel it is significant that they all agree with each other.


Buddhist philosophy of mind and self

Armando asked:

I find in the questions and answers that I have reviewed that there would be clearer understanding of what is the mind and personality (self), of objective reality and freedom, and other problems of perception with an application of the Buddhist philosophy of the mind and the self.

I believe Descartes expressed the idea incorrectly in saying ‘I think therefore I am’ in that thoughts come and go in the mind, but what perceives the thought as such, and is constant, is the quality of awareness, or that which knows (Buddha meaning the one who knows). Thinking is part of the physical functioning brain (an organic computer) not indifferent from the movement of the body and perception of feelings. That which moves the computer and the body is the awareness (consciousness). Therefore more properly it should be said ‘I know therefore I am’, or better, according to Wittgenstein and Buddhism, nothing can be said because the knower is prior to words and thinking.

The person (soul, personal identity, self) is only a creation of the awareness as it interacts with the physical universe since birth. Therefore it is said that there is no self in Buddhism. The true self, the true essence (the original mind in Buddhism), or consciousness, cannot be observed directly because it is the subject. The awareness is however that which gives everything its reality. As result the physical universe exists only in the knowing minds. We sense the physical world through the 5 senses and the braincomputer organizes the information but it becomes real only by its contact with awareness. So there is a physical world but it is only reflected in the mind (an accurate reflection) but it can never be directly known (thus the uncertainty principle and Schrodinger’s cat).

There is only true freedom when one understands that the physical world, the feelings, the thoughts and the personal identity are not the true self but only a creation of our awareness. The original mind, awareness, is obvious and is everything but is prior to thought, and it is what we are.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Thank you for a very well thought out and interesting question! In order to do justice to it I must, however, first remove some of your unstated presuppositions. I am mindful of the possibility that you may have acquired these from your reading and/or learning, but you will (I hope) agree that one cannot approach the matters in your question with assumptions already in place that really need to be part of the question!

In this case, you have put forward assumptions on the nature of thinking and on what kind of thing a brain is, that are widely broadcast in the scientific media, but not proved, and can therefore only be accepted as metaphors. You have also put forward some ideas drawn from Buddhism, which are widely believed to be the ‘truth’ about soul, self and consciousness, but they are not demonstrable and therefore at least debatable.

I begin with your statement that ‘Thinking is part of the physical functioning of the brain’ and your follow-up in calling the brain an ‘organic computer’. This is a twofold error, based on trust in the terminology used in theoretical research and writing, where such ‘objective’ language is necessary. But this vocabulary cannot imported into common speech without gross distortion of meaning, as if it unambiguously denoted the objects and processes under discussion. To conform with the thrust of your discourse, this assumption should have been put into the interrogative! Accordingly we must retrace our steps and put both of them as questions first!

And now it transpires that (a) The brain is not a computer of any kind, and (b) thinking is not a function.

To explain this, you must look at brains and neurons the same way as you look at flowers, fish and fowl and determine how they differ from plastic flowers, fish and fowl. Then it will not escape you that the former do something by themselves and for themselves that their plastic counterparts cannot do – namely grow, feed and reproduce and many other things as well, for which the word ‘function’ is out of place and must be replaced by the word ‘work’.

To understand the workings of a brain, it is frequently better to observe a beehive than to stick your nose into a computer. What you see in the beehive bears a closer resemblance to what the removal of a human skullcap reveals. I mean: you see a lot deliberate activity among the bees, and likewise a lot of deliberate activity among the colonies of neurons in the brain.

So the work going on in the brain is guided by a form of intentionality that is qualitatively an exact analogue of both the beehive and what you might call your own intentional being. Putting ‘function’ into the picture erases and/or obscures this fundamental insight.

Further, the brain is an organ, which like all living things is engaged on evaluating information. Computers don’t evaluate, nor do they exhibit intentionality: they are just hugely ramified mechanical cash registers. Leibniz over 300 years ago said that his calculating machine was ‘smarter’ than a peasant, and in like manner we today fall readily into the trap of attributing ‘sophistication’ to computers, which one second’s worth of thinking properly will reveal as the designer’s sophistication. Moreover the brain’s modus operandi is parallel processing and therefore utterly incompatible with the serial data processing of machines.

So your language on brains and thinking is inappropriate and inapplicable.
Once you’ve thought about it and distanced yourself a little from the mechanical prejudices of scientific literature, you can approach anew the question of whether Descartes or Siddartha has a more relevant take on the problems posed by our search for an understanding of the human mind, soul, self and consciousness.

Apropos Descartes, it transpires that his point of view yields more than the one perspective which you allow. Your presuppositions are again over-informed by the aforesaid mechanistic doctrine, and curiously it emanated in the first place from Descartes himself. But to insist on it without taking his purpose on board means you will miss two of the more fundamental points of his exercise. The first concerns the possibility of ‘proving’ existence, and the other the possibility of ascertaining the truth (or objective factuality) of our observations of nature. In this context it was appropriate for Descartes to translate the teeming complexity of organic life into simple cause and effect models, which must be understood on the basis of almost zero neurophysiological knowledge. Therefore his research agenda radiated inward from the myriad forms of existence to the one and only form that has the capacity of pronouncing on existence. The fact that he called this form of existence ‘thinking’ must not be allowed to constrict your appreciation of what he is trying to establish: namely that only ‘thinking’ can validate existence, and only ideas in a mind capable of logical performances have a chance of being actually true. What ‘thinking’ actually is, we still don’t know.

Since you appear to be involved with Buddhist conceptions, I expect you will not argue with the need for putting an intentional agent into centre court. You basically said it yourself: The existence of the world is a meaningless supposition unless an intelligence exists that can certify both its own existence and that of other existents. This is precisely where science is out of its depth, as none of these issues are amenable to being weighed, measured and detected; they can only be inferred from observation. But now you might look into the Hindu philosophy of intellectual monism and the total ensoulment of the universe which the Buddha does not deny. It is a nice talking point, but nothing more! It is not accessible to human knowing (and rather more to imagination than understanding). It remains on the philosophical, religious and spiritualistic agenda, because the mystery of it all intrigues us endlessly; but as for certainty, no amount of arguing or dogmatising can settle the point.

This is where your attempt to correct Descartes fails. You cannot say ‘I know’ unless you are a knower. A computer is not a knower. In a limited way, however, every living thing is a knower, in the sense that survival strategy is unquestionably a form of intentional behaviour (e.g. the extraction of survival information from the habitat). On the other hand, in respect of the advanced form of this which is our human attribute–human consciousness, our ‘soul estate’, knowledge of self–it seems at least arguable whether there are, or have been, humans who know nothing other than what they have been brainwashed to believe. It is more than debatable, in fact almost certain, that there have been humans without the ability to self-reflect, who would not therefore be in possession of a self. It can fairly easily be demonstrated from historical and anthropological information about hominids that self-reflexive thinking is a recently evolved trait of H. sapiens and not in evidence earlier than his appearance on Earth.

Therefore consciousness as your ‘true essence’ of the ‘true self’ is a self-contradictory assumption. A worm has consciousness without claiming to be a self. The same must, with very high probability, be said of archaic humans. A self is a quite sophisticated attainment, which we constantly underestimate. A very common error is the attempt to the ‘reduce’ it, which plainly erases the distinction between an instantiated consciousness of individuality and a ‘general’ consciousness which is nothing other than life itself.

It is true, as you say, that consciousness cannot be observed; but not true that this is because consciousness is the subject. It is unobservable because it is not an existent, but an intentional characteristic. Hence inference is our only avenue. This perspective should also correct your over-optimistic equation of the world with its reflection in the mind. Which mind? Your’s or the worm’s? Or maybe the neuron’s? If you keep asking more such questions you will also come to see that Schrodinger’s cat has absolutely nothing to do with it. You simply misunderstood the gist of that metaphor.

I suspect you might benefit from a better compartmentalisation of your thoughts. Desist from using mechanochemical models for living organs. Avoid confusion between work and function, between the living and the dead. Try not to mix up consciousness with mind, since self-evidently one is prior to the other. Don’t lump metaphysical authorities into the same basket with scientific authorities. And try to sort out the differences between knowing what and knowing how; between knowledge, intuition and understanding; between facts and principles. Don’t assume that searching for answers and giving answers is the same thing. And finally, don’t assume or accept that any one person, or any group, has final answers.

At the risk of sounding dogmatic myself, I propose to you that no doctrine whatever on spiritual issues has ever settled those issues with finality, except by means of dogma. The world of humankind has suffered from innumerable dogmatisms for as long as the arm of our historical knowledge reaches into past; and it is an unsightly spectre that has impeded us from understanding ourselves. I think you might be willing to agree that ‘knowing what it is to be a human being’ is the foundation of all thinking; but until this problem has been sorted out, every kind of assertion of finality has only the right of being wrong.


A syllogism named Celaront

Kyana asked:

Is the syllogism EAO-1 valid and if not what rule does it break?

Answer by Helier Robinson

It is valid. The major premise is MeP, in which both terms are distributed; the minor premise is SaM, in which S is distributed and M is undistributed; and the conclusion is SoP, in which S is undistributed and P is distributed. So no rules are broken: M is distributed at least once, neither illicit major nor illicit minor occur, and the number of negative conclusions, 1, is equal to the number of negative premises.

An example of EAO-1 is:

No mammals are fish
All sheep are mammals
Therefore some sheep are not fish

In modern logic this would be:

(x)(Mx -> ~Fx)
(x)(Sx -> Mx)
Therefore (Ex)(Sx & ~Fx)

and this is invalid.

The reason for the discrepancy between traditional and modern logic in this case is what is called ‘existentional presupposition’: in traditional logic it is assumed that universal propositions (‘All S are P’ and ‘No S are P’) the subject and predicate classes (S and P) have members; in modern logic such existence of members is not assumed but has to be stated explicitly with existential quantifiers. The two logics agree if the existential presupposition is stated explicitly in traditional logic.