Zeno's Paradox- is change an illusion?

Everyone of us has a routine - waking up early or working out religiously or going for that evening stroll. Although these might be unremarkable in one's everyday life, routine provides a sense of safety. Monotony is a rare and oxymoronic comfort in a life that is defined by change. When we observe our surroundings, we can agree that everything is in a constant state of motion, traversing the path to eventually become an altered version of itself. Nothing in the explored universe remains as is for more than a certain period of time- stars supernova, planets turn, atoms react and satellites observe. To put it simply, at any given moment, one or more attributes of any living or non living thing are changing. Change can be sudden and change can be spread over eons to the extent that one might not even realise that their surroundings are currently in the process of changing. One would ironically term that phase as routine. Change, like time, is a concept that is inherently anthropologically conceived and inevitable. It is a phenomenon that exists only to grant us a parameter that can be calculated by the human mind to feel a sense of control in this world of chaos. It is a concept so vast that it could with the same emphasis describe the transition of a flower to a fruit and the fall of a civilisation. Something so vast is bound to create a sense of unease in a race which revels in the power of authority.


What is Change?

Change, for philosophers, was a puzzling concept as it requires an object to remain the same so that it can change and to be different, so that change has occurred at the same time. Aristotle differentiated change from cognate concepts like time by stating that time can only occur at a constant rate, a criteria that does not apply to change. Yet this could not explain what exactly change was.


While many philosophers attempted to define and categorise ‘change’, Parmenides of Elea was the first to have denied its very existence. His theory of Eleaticism was distinguished by its radical monism- the belief of just the one ‘Being’ which has always existed and always will, in a state of stasis. This Being was considered reality and anything that contrasted or contradicted it did not exist, like the process of change. In one of his recovered fragments, he describes it as - “neither was nor will be, because it is in its wholeness now, and only now.”


According to his controversial theory, whatever one speaks about or even thinks about in some form already exists. If it did not exist, then it is nothing and hence no one would in turn be thinking or speaking about it in the first place. According to him, things that exist around us did not form or come into sudden existence as they have always been there. Change is therefore just an illusion.



Zeno of Elea and his Paradoxes




Parmenides pursued a direct course of thought in the finiteness and timelessness of the Being. However his disciple, Zeno, used logical sense to form a series of paradoxes reductio ad absurdum to prove the theories of other philosophers wrong. There were apparently 40 paradoxes of plurality, more colloquially just known as Zeno’s paradoxes, which showed that the reverse of monism- the belief in the existence of many things- lead to absurd conclusions. However, the original text titled ‘Parmenides’ by Plato did not survive and most of the information we have today is through second hand commentators like Aristotle.

The first of Zeno’s paradoxes- the dichotomy paradox denies the existence of physical change. To understand the paradox, consider moving from point A to another point B. To reach your destination, you must first cover half the distance. Once you have covered A/2 you then have to cover half of the remaining half, and so on and so on and so…

The series is endless. As such, it means that you will never reach point B because you will always have another half to cover. The direct logical conclusion that Zeno drew from this thought experiment was that physical movement cannot exist. His paradox about a fired arrow supports this argument. Consider an arrow that has been shot. At an instantaneous point in time, the arrow will be perfectly still. The entire path of the arrow can be split into the summation of all these instantaneous moments and in each such moment, the arrow will be stationary. Hence, it again goes to show that the arrow was never in a state of motion.


And yet, we find when we leave our houses, we arrive at our destinations. A bullet fired does reach its target and all things around us are in a state of motion. The paradox Zeno talks of is only sensible in an infinite world, a world where continuum and limits do not exist, concepts that have been mathematically and physically proven. Some of Zeno’s paradoxes confused philosophers even in the 19th century, but regardless of whether Zeno was correct, we see change manifest in the real world. Zeno and even Parmenides both argue the existence of change on the grounds that it implies a contradiction and not in the sense of it being a flawed concept. It is one thing to say that change is impossible because it has already existed but the reality remains that at one point or the other, some part of our lives is going to in some way be altered. Calling it an illusion will not lessen the impact of the destruction of forests on the environment. Similarly, calling it an illusion will not make adapting to the new normal in this pandemic easier.


In the words of Heraclitus, “We step and do not step into the same waters.” He uses a river as a metaphor for life. Sometimes, the water washes over our feet and we don’t even realise the turbulence, however sometimes, a bigger wave threatens to drag us away with the flow. In both circumstances, reality remains that the water is moving and it depends on our perception of it at that given time how much we get affected by it.


It is comforting to wrap our minds in complex theories and conjectures about the metaphysical nature of change but the ultimate factual reality remains that at some point or the other, things are going to change. To put it simply, without change, the earth wouldn’t revolve around the sun, plants wouldn’t grow, air wouldn’t flow and nothing will be able to exist (now here's some nothingness to think about).


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