Volume 2, Issue 2, April 2015
Metaphysics of Change and Continuity: Exactly What is Changing and What Gets Continued?
This is a metaphysical and conceptual analysis of the concepts ‘change’ and ‘continuity’. The Buddhists are in agreement with Heraclitus that all are flowing and nothing remains. However, the Buddhists have a much more elaborate theory about change and continuity, and this theory is a key element in the entire Buddhist system of related doctrines, viz., that of karma and rebirth, the possibility of Liberation (nirv na) and others. Simply put, the Buddhist emphasizes that change is there in every aspect of reality.According to a later developed form of the Buddhist teaching, change is absolutely pervasive, and even these particles are subject to change as they are nothing more than putative objects which are conceptualized to be such and such, and without the conceptualization they are ‘nothing’ at all. (This is known as the Doctrine of Emptiness). Hence it seems that continuity is not possible. But in fact according to the later theory, change is not only possible, it is accepted as part and parcel of everyday life. The fact that nothing at all remains the same does not imply that continuity is not possible, since continuity does not always have to be that of an inherently existing object. A changing object can be continued also, in roughly the same sense as we say that an event, like a drama, continues even though everything in it is changing. The thread that ties the disparate elements of the event together in this case lies within our own conceptual imputation. This does not imply that everything is subjective, since the distinction between subject and object presupposes the idea of an absolutely existing individual self, which all Buddhist schools rejects. So in this later theory, absolute change is not possible because there is, ultimately speaking nothing to change, and when there is no change there is no continuation either. This is not to deny the empirical fact of changes and continuities that are present to us; things are there and they are indeed changing. What is being denied here is the belief that that there are essences to things which endure through all the changes. Since things are empty (of inherently existing nature) they can change, and continuity is only possible, not because there is something that exists and endures, but because there is change. A drama that does not move cannot be continued.The foregoing discussions of the Buddhist theories have many implications for the dialog between science and religion. One point is that science still seems to subscribe to the object/subject distinction. But if change and continuity are not real in the ultimate sense, then perhaps the distinction should be reconsidered. Another point concerns how to find continuity amidst all the change. But perhaps in some important sense continuity depends on us.