Whither Stability?

In Western philosophy we have had a strong tendency to privilege being over becoming. This was firmly established by Plato when he argued that our constantly changing world of everyday experience is a poor copy of a realm of eternal, unchanging forms. Christianity reinforced this idea of ultimate stability by asserting that God was eternal and unchanging. And then Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes came along and argued that reality is composed of physical substance and mental substance (souls) which are self-subsisting—they exist independently of any relations. Thus, the basic nature of a substance cannot be affected by anything—change is superficial and doesn’t reach to the essence of things, their substance, which is stable. Subsequent thought then blended Descartes’ dualism with the idea that God created souls supernaturally, which removed human minds from nature. The individual, unchanging, non-natural human soul was the anchor of reality.

Among philosophers today, substance dualism has thankfully fallen out of favor. But the idea of determinate individuals operating according to unchanging laws or principles persists. But where is the evidence for such a world view?

When we look internally at our subjective experience, it is nothing like a realm of neatly individuated, unchanging objects. In experience, novelty erupts with each passing moment in a complex, continuous flow of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and forces that never stand still. There are repetitions, habits, persistent elements but the repetitions are never perfect, never identical, each moment brings with it something new.

When we look outward at the world science investigates, we find the deep structure of reality consists of transitory events and processes, fluctuations in interacting quantum fields, coming into and going out of existence in fractions of a second.

So what provides stability and coherence?

Historically, philosophy has assumed that behind this flux is a world amenable to logic, deterministic physical laws or the stability of an eternal God. But God doesn’t exist, the old picture of deterministic physical laws has been replaced by a much more complex picture based on probabilities, and logic requires strict identities that don’t neatly map onto a world of continuous motion.

What really stands behind the assumption of stability is visual experience which presents us with many relatively constant objects that change slowly over time. Our practical ability to get around in the world requires some degree of fixity. But when it comes to ontology why privilege this? Especially when the evidence of auditory and tactile experience and the chemical senses suggest a more fluid universe.

Since the ancients, the realm of stability has increasingly narrowed so it now rests on this thin reed of the privileging of visual experience.

I don’t think philosophy has successfully grappled with the fact of change and motion.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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