The (Old) Debate on Change

Musings on the possibility of change through some old philosophers.

Is change possible? Reading that line might appear to be a waste of time. My perception is that the dominant understanding in our social location understands change to be assumed.

But what if it isn’t possible?

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To play my hand, I consider the potentiality of change to be one of the most important facilitators of human life. Without change, a dreary drab of meaninglessness circumvents hope. However, I do not want to jump to a conclusion on the subject without considering as many angles as possible.

Fortunately, this is one of the most debated topics in philosophical history.

Even better, understanding the nature of change is a wondrous catalyst for actually manifesting its reality. If we are going to have a healthy relationship with the subject at hand — which, full disclosure, I don’t think our culture does — understanding its foundational principles will only work to supplement any further conversation.

Some Old Philosophers Who Didn’t Like Change

How has this topic been thought about over time? Well, most importantly, there has not been a unanimous agreement. Far from it. Further, the various perspectives that have cropped up to our existential horizon have done so because of the vast implications they have for sentient existence. People have been trying to figure this out for a long time.

Therefore, I’d like to offer a brief exploration of a few of the dominant takes on the subject. Particularly, I’m interested in the earliest accounts — the ones that set the foundation of the conversation in philosophical history. So, consider this a very limited review of literature. Also, know that there is a particular agenda I’m attempting to converge on, of which this is the vehicle.

Let’s begin with three pre-Socratic (meaning, before Socrates) philosophers: Democritus, Parmenides, and Empedocles.

These folks are probably a bit unrecognizable. These folks also lived a long time ago. Therefore, don’t get too caught up in the details. Yes, their science is a bit off, but there is some interesting validity in their proposed versions of metaphysical and physical reality.


Democritus was one of the first philosophers in written history to talk about atoms. I mean, he was way off, but that’s still impressive. How he came to his understanding of atoms, however, was because he was attempting to provide a very materialist account of the world.

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In a culture deranged (in his opinion) by supernatural mythology, where life was at the whims of these strange demiurges who were unpredictable and, quite frankly, unknown — Democritus was attempting to secure a more reasonable account of being human in the world. He has a quote that, if you pick up a book about pre-Socratic philosophers, will probably be referenced where he says:

“By convention sweet, by convention bitter; by convention hot, by convention cold; by convention color — but in reality, atoms and void.”

Essentially, the appearance of reality is simply an appearance. Reality itself is only atoms and void; both of which are unchanging material principles.

The science here gets fascinating and reveals the metaphysical agenda of Democritus of which his disposition toward change was important — he had to make this argument that materiality and, therefore, reality are not changing in order to prove his materialism. The lynchpin is that something cannot come from nothing ergo the world is unchanging material principles that may rearrange themselves to give the appearance of change but are just atoms and void which are ingenerated and indestructible.

Without something coming from nothing, he argues, change is impossible and illusory.

Nothing actually changes.


Parmenides is a bit more common in these discussions and his argumentation is much more refined — as in he prods along the logic path more nimbly than we might suspect.

If something actually changed, it would have to go from what it is, to what it is not. You cannot speak of what is not. His thought concludes, then, that what is not is not real and, therefore, change is impossible. How he arrives at this conclusion is a bit banal, but really, he deserves a fuller treatment than one paltry paragraph. Ultimately, it is his perspective that nothing is moving; that the universe is one, unchanging mass. If nothing is moving, then change is an illusion.


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Empedocles agreed. He also seems to be the Switzerland of the pre-Socratic philosophers when it comes to change. His addition, then, is that atoms do move. The basic materials of air, water, fire, and earth are moving, but it’s actually just a rearrangement of a set amount of materiality. What we call change, then, is just the constructs of different assemblies of intermingling, but unchanging things.

Plato & Aristotle

We’re not done with the pre-Socratics, but I’m hoping you are seeing that our modern perspective on change (an apparent assumption of change’s reality) is at odds with the earliest thinkers on the subject. We may be tempted to play the card of primitivism — that these thinkers were so uninformed that we shouldn’t listen to them. Learn from them, respect them, but we certainly shouldn’t conclude their accuracy.

This is why I think it is important to acknowledge that Plato and Aristotle — two giants that are responsible for the majority of philosophical development from their time until ours — thought the same way. Sure, both of these figures offered conclusions that have been vastly refuted, but even modern science and philosophy still manages to maintain influence from these two; so they shouldn’t be ruled out on historical location alone.

The idea that change is illusory or accidental because reality is timeless and based on permanent substances was absolutely vital to their thinking.

I’m not saying they are right — but we should be curious as to why they were so emphatic about this. Why did they need to prove there was no process to existential reality? The reason is that, if there was, it would counter their ontological, epistemological, and cosmological propositions that helped them make sense of the world.

The absence of change helped codify their arguments.

Does Changelessness Have Value?

We should consider the ramifications of this notion, then. We might think this position is ridiculous or full of bad science or primitive thinking, but, remember, classical philosophy conjectured about metaphysics and physics so as to nurture the lived experience of practical ethics. Believe it or not, there were practical reasons that they didn’t want change to be real.

First, if change is real, then you can never fully achieve knowledge of everything. These thinkers absolutely believed you could achieve full knowledge and, in fact, it was an adamant conclusion for their existential hope. There were problems in the world, but this, they concluded, was because our senses deceive us. To overcome such problems, humans must be able to use reason and logic to deductively infer (argue from a premise to a conclusion) what was good and right. Rationalism was superior to the flawed evidence of empiricism. We can’t trust it. Therefore, we must be able to attain full knowledge through other means. Yet, if change is possible, then full knowledge will always be out of our grasp. We don’t have to agree with this premise, but we should pay attention to what drove their perspective.

Second, this common perspective of antiquity was not very optimistic about humanity. Not only are we flawed, fallible, limited, and dangerous; we aren’t nearly as special or powerful as we imagine. If change is illusory, then, sure you can do all the work you want — but you aren’t actually changing anything. Your productivity and your accomplishments under this line of thinking don’t actually matter because the world will be no different as a result. In short, I think these old philosophers would be against our modern “crush it” culture. They emphasized a transcendent, ultimate reality that is perfect and eternal simply to suggest that humans are not.

Briefly, I do not agree with their methodology. I do think they heed a word which we might want to consider. Sometimes I wonder if we could benefit from being put in our place a bit.

Third, there is an ethical bend to the nonexistence of change — because it means there are, with certainty, universal truths. You must discover them (using rational logic, of course) and then you must diligently live by them, but if we think modern civilization is the first to wonder about objective and absolute truth within particular, subjective contexts, we are mistaken. Yet, since empiricism was faulty and change was impossible, there are perfect, timeless truths available to us.

Finally, an existential note. If change is an illusion, you have less to worry about. Uncertainty does not need to plague your soul because — remember — atoms and void. Ain’t nothing else going on here. Your perception doesn’t matter. Just bask in the simplicity of it all.

There are some good intentions behind this perspective on changelessness.

A Pre-Socratic in Favor of Change

In the other corner, standing at approximately the same height as everyone else I just mentioned, is Heraclitus. In contrast to the apparent dominant mode of pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus took a fluid stand in the opposite direction claiming that change was not an illusion — change is the fundamental reality of existence.

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The thought roots itself in a specific illustration for which Heraclitus is most known — that a person can’t step into the same river twice. Relatively mundane, this conclusion is the foundation of his perspective that reality is a constellation of processes. In turn, the world is not made out of material stuff, but is rooted in a larger fabric — the world is made out of process and change of material substance which then creates the world as we know it. The processes supersede the materiality.

As you may have guessed, Heraclitus also claimed that certainty wasn’t possible, that universal truths were a bit suspect, and that determinism should be thrown into the dustbins of history. Further, though the nomenclature was not yet developed, he was setting the trajectory for phenomenology (that one’s experience of the world creates the perceived reality of the world) and idealism (that reality is inseparable from conscious perception). The main engine of Heraclitus, however, is that existence is based on processes that are actively creating the world as we know it.

Change is not only possible; it is absolutely necessary.

Static Versus Process — Is Change Possible?

As far as philosophical developments go, eventually this becomes a central ontological (what is the nature of reality) argument. As folks continued to ask what is real and what is true, philosophy didn’t focus as much on cosmology like the pre-Socratics did (that is, about origins, what the world is made of, and how it came into being). Instead, the conversations shift to how the world actively works.

Forgive me for just inappropriately summarizing and skipping thousands of years of philosophical thought. I apologize. There are all sorts of important considerations — ones that even implicate our current topic like determinism versus free-will — that I’m not fairly addressing simply for the sake of brevity.

The time-warping jump from Heraclitus, however, does lead nicely to what is called process philosophy (or process ontology). The decision for someone thinking about change in the world, then, is whether you are a process adherent or whether you are not a process adherent. Democritus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, et al were not. Heraclitus was.

Process philosophy (again, forgive me for condensing centuries of work into a couple of sentences) is the idea that reality arises in various substances becoming. Reality is a complex integration and destruction of occasions and experiences. In contrast to determinism, the world as we know it is composed of all these things interacting over durations to form reality. Essentially, the fundamental nature of existence is a process; one where everything is influencing everything else to constantly create what we see right now.

So which is it?

Is change possible? Or is it an illusion?

And if the boringly obtuse information was not of benefit to you, I hope you consider this one important implication that these various philosophers excellently captured:

That however you answer that question will inherently determine the way you approach the world around you.

Pursuing what it means to be human so as to build the best world possible. Practical ethics through in-depth exploration. Becoming Human:

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