Change, Principles, and the Absurd

It was Heraclitus (500BC) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who began with the premise that everything is in a pure state of becoming. Heraclitus is famous for saying: "You cannot step into the same river twice; for other and yet other waters are ever flowing on." Another one of his fragments runs: "One should know that war is common to all, and that strife is justice; and all things both come to pass and perish through strife."

To understand how first principles work, consider that the very notion that everything is in a pure state of flux, to the point where nothing at all is permanent, would mean that the principle of identity is false. Recall that this principle states that: "Each being is what it is". For example, a carbon atom is a carbon atom, a dog is a dog, etc. But if everything is in a pure state of absolute and total change, then each thing is not what it is. In fact, there is no "thing" to speak of. There is no "being", only becoming.

But each being is what it is. A horse is a horse, not a snake. To change is to become more fully what one already is, or to become less fully what one already is. There is no change without permanency, without an enduring "thing" or "being" that undergoes the change. Moreover, without the principle of identity, one could not know anything at all. Nothing would exist in any determinate way. It would mean that each being is what it is not, for example, a dog is a cat, a pig, a goat, and anything else. It would mean that nothing has any intelligible determination. Nothing exists determinately. Everything is indeterminate. And if nothing exists determinately, then nothing is known determinately. In other words, knowledge is impossible; for it would mean that 'is' and 'is not' are the same things. One could not distinguish between anything.

And of course, Nietzsche knew this and was willing to admit it. He wrote: "Knowledge and becoming exclude one another. Consequently, "knowledge" must be something else: there must first of all be a will to make knowable, a kind of becoming must itself create the deception of beings" (The Will to Power, 517).

Denying the principle of identity also amounts to denying the principle of non-contradiction. If each being is what it is not, then is and is not are the same. Contradictories can be true at one and the same time. It would mean that the principle of identity is both true and not true at the same time and in the same respect, or that all is becoming and nothing is becoming.

But this is absurd. And so if the premise "all is in a pure state of becoming" is absurd, then everything that is implied from that premise is also absurd. Let's consider the implications of the premise that everything is in a pure state of change and that nothing is permanent.

This is a summary of the basic tenets of nihilism (from the Latin 'nihil', nothing). Now, if the nihilist holds that all science is a fiction, then how does he explain the rise of science? The answer is found once again in Nietzsche. He pointed out that knowledge is not about discovering the nature of things, but rather about "making knowable", or making sense out of what in reality is absurd. To do this we must create the illusion of being. How does one create or construct the deception that there exists "beings" or "things" that have permanency? The answer is: sound, or language. It is language that provides the illusion of being. By naming something, we are given the false impression that what we name is an actual enduring thing, whether that turns out to be your friend, an oak tree, a mosquito, an atom, etc.

But according to Nietzsche and friends (Deconstructionists), there is only becoming (change). Nietzsche writes: "Now we read harmonies and problems into things because we think only in the form of language-and thus believe in the "eternal truth" of "reason" (e.g., subject, attribute, etc.)" (The Will to Power, 522).

Thus, for the post-modern nihilist, all science is a linguistic construct that tells us nothing about reality, but is merely an expression of a will to power. There is no objective and intelligible reality, only perspectives built into language systems, and so you can choose to adhere to whatever perspective tickles your fancy. Consider the diagram below:

The unfortunate thing is that many of us have bought into this absurd mode of thinking. In fact, most of us are familiar with the premises of nihilism, yet unaware that those premises are in fact nihilistic and contrary to our basic common sense, let alone the Catholic Faith. We watch certain films without being aware that we are being fed the premises of nihilism. For example, Pleasantville is a classic nihilistic movie, Family Guy is thoroughly nihilisitc, and Seinfeld is a "Show About Nothing", a wonderful example of nihilism "with a happy face".

All of us are familiar with the popular notion that "everything is a matter of opinion", and that "everyone has a right to his own opinion", and "that every opinion is just as valid as any other", or that "what is right for me may not be right for you", and "who are you to impose your morality on me", etc. Beneath these assertions lurks the notion that knowledge is impossible.

Few of us, however, are willing to accept the full consequences of this position. When people are robbed, assaulted or sideswiped while driving, they very quickly give up post-modern nihilism as a ridiculous idea. But after a few drinks and an increased libido, some are tempted to embrace it again.

In any case, if it is absurd to deny the principle of identity, then the idea that knowledge is impossible, that reality is unknowable, that science is a fiction, that life is meaningless, that there is no truth in the area of right and wrong in human action, and that language determines reality, is equally absurd.

Next Page: Chapter 06: Ideological versus Philosophical Thinking
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