Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

The Problem of Change

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 3, 2009

We all say, pretty often, that a person has ‘changed’. But what does that mean? If the person has changed, isn’t he a different person now? If he is still the same person, how can it be that he has changed ? What, basically, do we mean by the word ‘changed’? (This is an easily solved problem, but worth stumbling upon anyway: some essential properties stay the same and some peripheral ones change.) What, also, do we mean by ‘this person’? Is a person simply the sum total of his actions and thoughts, or can his essence be somehow distilled out? In other words, what do we mean by ‘knowing a person’? Does it mean that, given a situation, we can predict what the other person will do? Obviously not. People are too complex for that to be possible. But what does the word ‘complex’ mean here? What, exactly, in a person is so complex that we can never really predict his actions, except in the most mundane of cases?

These questions started plaguing me fairly early in my life. Once, to address this issue, I wrote a short story in which a guy and his long-time girlfriend/wife are stuck behind a barricade, which is the only thing shielding them from some firing. One of them can get away, but the other has to run to the next barricade to create a diversion. Each of them see a way in which it is possible he/she may just be able survive, but is convinced the other won’t see it. (That’s the basic idea; it has, in all its versions, got bogged down in various forms of cleverness, and I still am not able to decide how exactly to structure it.)

Seeing a person as the sum total of his thoughts and actions just didn’t satisfy me (though this would mean that all talk of change is meaningless, the product of a deranged imagination); I’d always wonder how the thoughts, and actions, came about. That’s why I soon decided that each person can be pinned down as a set of (prioritised) motivations and another set of abilities, and the contents of these sets is what exactly is too complex to know exactly. So, I decided that there was an essence to a person, and the essence I have stated is still up for debate. These are just the ones that I have come up with and have found most satisfactory.

That still leaves open the question of the meaning of change; what stays constant in the changing person? If change in a person implies a change in the set of motivations, is the only thing that stays constant the body? But what is constant about the body, during a physical change? And what about changes in the set of abilities: is that merely a physical change? And what about the acquiring of pathological disabilities? Where does that come in?

These questions remained unanswered for a long time. Then, when I was reading Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations, I came across the fact that ancient philosophers had grappled with the same questions about all change, not just that of people. The solutions they came up with can fill books in their own right, and I won’t go into them here. However, I will go – briefly and inaccurately – into the accepted modern solution, the basic idea of which is that the physical world is made up of fields, and change is change in the fields.

So, what are fields? The basic forces of the world act at a distance; all forces that act only on contact – ‘contact forces’ – can be reduced to these ‘distance forces’ acting at very small distances. For example, the force due to pushing is the result of electric repulsion between the electrons in your finger and those in the object. Also, all these distance forces are proportional to some intrinsic property of the object that is feeling the force, like mass for gravity and charge for the electric force. So, if you put a test object somewhere, measure the force on it and divide the force by the value of the intrinsic property, you get a quantity which is a property of the point only (it is important to note that the test object doesn’t actually affect the point it is on). This property is called the field.

All change is seen as a change in the values of these fields somewhere. In other words, the cause – the type of force – is the same but the exact effect of the cause – the value of the field – changes. Through imperfect metaphors and wild jumps of the imagination, I thought of change in people to be change in world-views, with the aforementioned sets constant. The qualitative cause of these actions – like the type of force – stays the same, but how it is applied to the world – the exact value of the field – changes.

Almost anything can be somehow explained this way, but corroboration is not proof. Either way, let me demonstrate, in one case which I’ve already brought up, the power of this perspective. Take a person who acquires a pathological disability to do something. It can be explained as his world-view changing to belief that what he can’t do, for some reason – depending on the pathology –, should not be done.

But that’s just a pathological disability. What about the acquiring of a physical disability? To answer this question, we’d have to find an answer to the problem of physical change of a person, which is rather different from general physical change which is explained by fields. An answer which I don’t have in an exact form, though I can distinguish instinctively between essential physical characteristics – like gender, build, face shape etc. – and non-essential ones, like skin tone and quality of the teeth.

In fact, the fact that I can work with the problem of physical change instinctively gives us a clue to the reason comparatively few ask the questions I posed in the opening paragraphs: evolution has programmed us to be able to work with these things as facts of life, and actually trying to define and answer these problems explicitly is very hard because of the complexity evolution has programmed into us.

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