The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change: Really?

One often reads and hears the old adage “The only thing that is constant is change”, perhaps with good reasons. It has the authority of a very old philosopher, Heraclitus; and makes eminent sense when we look around ourselves. We are born small, vulnerable, and totally dependent on caregivers, with no ideas and not much mind to talk of. And then, at least in our own eyes, we grow big, strong, full of ideas and opinions, and acquire a powerful mind. Our feelings, looks, behaviour, ideas, relationships—every thing changes. Then we grow old and feeble, our memory starts deluding us, mind starts making serious mistakes and grows confused. Bodily we wither, shrivel and finally die. Yes, the only thing that is constant is change. Everything else comes and goes.

We see others around us, and they suffer the same fate. New people come in our lives and some of the old fall out. With those of the old who stay our relationships change, often for good, sometimes for bad. Those who cared and protected us themselves become dependent on care and protection from us. Friendships, love, work-relationships, everything is in a flux. Humm, again Heraclitus seems to be right.

The world around us also changes all the time. Sociopolitical and economic conditions never remain the same. Sociopolitical ideologies, formations and movements come and go. Leaders come and go even faster. Physical world is in a state of content change. So yes, nothing is constant but change. Heraclitus seems to be right.

But, then, is he? After all, do all the changes listed and hinted above—and all others of the same kind—really substantiate his strong statement? “The only thing that is constant is change”. Could it be that this word ‘only’ might render this claim implausible or even meaningless?

Let’s think. What is change? What are necessary conditions for change to happen? Suppose the world or part of the world under investigation is in state x1 at time t1. Change would mean that at time t2 the state of the part of the world we are looking at has transformed into x2. In short: from [state x1 at time t1] to à [state x2 at time t2]. This could happen at the least in two ways: one, the thing[s] in x1, say a-table1-at-t1, have changed. That would mean that the table1 still retains its identity but has changed somehow. Say at t1 it was new, shiny and whole; at t2 it is old, rough and one leg is broke. But the table1 still is recognized as the same table1. So the identity of the table remains constant, it did not change. It seems here that to note any change in table1 we have to assume its identity to remain constant. That means, it is not only that the change is the only constant, but also that change can not even be noticed if the identity did not remain constant; so change actually requires some or other constant! It can not stand on its own feet!! [The issue of identity of things is very complex. We can not go into details of it here. so are using it at its commonsense level.]

Alternatively, it might be the case that all the things in the ‘part of the world under our gaze’ have been replaced by a totally new set of things. Say at time t1 the world was composed of things s1, s2, s3, …. and so on. At time t2 it is composed of things sa, sb, sc, sd, ….. and so on. Well, even in this case to notice that the things {s1, s2, s3, …..} are replaced by things {sa, sb, sc, ….} we must recognize the ‘part of the world under our gaze’  to be the same, to have remained constant. Again, it seems the change requires some constant (identity of the part of the world under gaze)! The poor thing can not sand on its own feet, again!!

One can generalize both these arguments to the whole universe, and they will still remain valid. Therefore, we can state that: the notion of change necessarily requires something that changes to be constant, having the same identity at t1 and t2.

But there is more. Who notices this change? There has to be some sentient consciousness to be aware of things at time t1 and well as time t2. Of course the state of this consciousness may change, but till the consciousness has to be aware of itself, that it is the same one that noticed the world at t1 and t2. Therefore, here we have another condition for the change to happen: a sentient consciousness noticing the change.

There is an old objection to this last argument. Say, a person named Sthai Lal (‘SL’ for short) feels that he is the same person who lived in a village called Sthaigram in his childhood, went to school Sthaishala when he was five years old, and now works in Sthai & Co when he is 50 years old. One can say that SL is the same person all through Sthaigram to Shaishala to Shat & Co. A very weak and easily disposable argument against this claim is that: SL has changed, he was 5 year old when went to school, did not know much about the world, did not have much experience of the world, had a smaller and growing body; but SL in Sthai & Co. at age 50, is a man of knowledge and experience, with grown but deteriorating body. So he is not the same person. True enough, many things are changed about SL, but he and the society around him still recognize him as the same person. He takes care of his old parents, because he thinks that he is the same boy born to them. The society condemns him as selfish if he does not care for his old parents because the society believes that he is the same person who was once born to them as a small incapable baby. So there is something very constant beneath all this change.

A stronger form of the same augment is that SL is under an illusion that he is the same person, actually he changes every instant. Well, we will not go onto details of this argument. All we will say is: even if this be an illusion; one, SL can not get rid of this illusion, it is part of his being, no illusion no SL. And two, to notice the change in anything this illusion is a necessity. So if SL is not constant then at the least SL’s illusion is constant. Either way, change requires SL as a sentient consciousness, be that illusory or real.

What we have noticed is that change necessarily requires at the least two constants: one, constancy of the thing that changes, and two, constancy of a sentient being that notices the changes in the thing. If one of them is removed there is no change. Therefore, “The only thing that is constant is change” is only an attractive slogan, which does good job in certain situations, and so is useful. As a general claim it can not be defended.

This short note leaves many questions unexplored. Two of them: how about the change across the generations? How is that noticed, if it depends on the continuation of a particular sentient consciousness? And two, was there no change in the universe before humans evolved into sentient beings? To my mind both of these questions can be answered in a manner that the arguments in this note remain valid. But that will remain for some other time.


16th June 2013

One Response to The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change: Really?

  1. Anonymous says:

    यही ‘केवल’ लिखा जा रहा है तो और नियत रहने का कोई और उदाहरण नहीं मिलना चाहिए। लेकिन यदि इस धरती मेँ जीवन का आधार क्या है? वह आधार भी तो नियत है। वो कहाँ बदला? धरती मे जीवन होने के आधार को ‘हर प्रजातियों के अपने गुणसूत्र को आगे बढ़ाने की प्रबल इच्छा’ को माना जा सकता है।


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