Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The importance of Heraclitus' theory of flux

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The importance of Heraclitus' theory of flux
Date: 13th March 2009 12:01

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 6 March, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Explain the content and importance of Heraclitus' theory of flux.'

You have made an excellent case for a modest, as opposed to extreme (e.g. Platonic) reading of Heraclitus' theory of flux, which I find genuinely challenging.

To start with, you are absolutely right to discuss the importance of Heraclitus' theory (which you have construed, reasonably, as its influence on subsequent philosophers) first. As your deflationary interpretation appears to debunk traditional readings, however, a question does arise as to the 'importance' (construed, this time, in terms of its philosophical value for the contemporary investigator) of the modest/ deflationary reading.

You quote the principle of Charity: this is in reaction to Barnes accusation of incoherence. We don't want to attribute an incoherent theory to Heraclitus if there is equal textual support for a coherent theory. On the other hand, we also want to make Heraclitus say something challenging, and not mundane. (An example of a 'mundane' reading would be Kirk and Raven's view of fluxism as claiming that everything in the universe is undergoing a process of change, some things change quickly while other things like stones change slowly.)

Your reading is challenging; I think you could have said more about why this is so, and hence, argued for its 'importance' for us. The claim is that (a) there is no single fundamental stuff or substance (b) there are fundamental stuffs -- air, water, fire -- which change into one another through a process whereby one stuff literally disappears and is replaced by another stuff. There is no underlying 'something' which at one time takes the form of fire, and at another time takes the form of water, etc.

A stone, while it remains a stone, is not (contra Plato) 'flowing' like a river. It is just a stone. When the stone changes to fire, then you have something which is more like (?) a river, but then again its stable image unlike a river is not the result of an underlying motion, as a river is produced by the motion of water.

So, what is special about fire? Perhaps the error here is thinking of fire as just 'flame' whereas a real fire is flame, gas, combustible material, ash etc. -- the whole thing. And that's just what the universe is. 'Kindling in measures, and going out in measures.' A stone is fire which has been temporarily quenched. Lacking any chemical theory of combustion, it was perfectly reasonable of Heraclitus to suppose that anything can burn (whereas, as we now know, the product of burning is incombustible: there are just two processes: oxidation and reduction).

So far so good. But there is a whole tradition in philosophy which insists that there must be substance in the universe, as a matter of metaphysical principle. Modern physics has taken up the idea as a methodological principle; the demand that changes at the subatomic level are ultimately explained by the interaction of 'entities' of some kind. The physical universe ultimately 'is' quarks, or whatever your favoured theory.

Whitehead's metaphysics is predicated on the principle that there must be something that ultimately *exists*. You cannot have a universe unless there are 'actual entities' (from which everything else is logically constructed). If the actual entities are not spatio-temporal substances (because of insoluble logical problems which Whitehead perceives with the substance view) then the only remaining candidate is events.

Your interpretation of Heraclitus can therefore be read two ways:

(a) as an attack on the methodological principle in physics that motivates the hunt for ultimate particles: the view that when subatomic 'collision' in a cloud chamber we are (necessarily) seeing the effect of entities (however strange their properties) colliding with one another.

(b) as an attack on the metaphysical definition of 'substance' according to which, at the fundamental level, the universe is necessarily describable in terms of space-occupying substances.

I note in my Presocratics unit on Heraclitus that the popular science writer Fritjof Capra challenges the view that physics is about the search for ultimate particles in his book, 'The Tao of Physics'. The scientific value of this is admittedly questionable, because his thesis is little more than an expression of scepticism about the possible outcome of such a hunt. However, the substantive point remains that there is no logically necessary reason why there should exist ultimate physical entities.

The metaphysical theory that the universe is ultimately constituted out of events rather than spatio-temporal continuants has been vigorously challenged by P.F. Strawson in his book 'Individuals'. Strawson argues for a 'non-revisionary' metaphysic according to which spatio-temporal particulars are the basic individuals. His key argument is that the identification of events logically requires the prior identification of particulars. You can't build a universe starting with events, because you would lack the means to logically identify an event and distinguish it from another event.

One can only speculate what Heraclitus would have made of this. As you convincingly argue, he was merely describing a common observation -- a fire being kindled, a fire going out -- and drawing negative conclusions for the theories of his predecessors.

If I was answering this question in an exam, I would stress, as you have done, the textual angle and the case for the interpretation being the most reasonable in the light of the principle of charity. However, I think that there would also be room to say something about the contemporary interest of the Heraclitean view, as you have construed it.

All the best,

Geoffrey