Thursday, 23 February 2012

Reality is a lake, not a river – stability versus dynamic change

Reality must ultimately be stable and eternal; dynamic change must therefore be a secondary and subordinate phenomenon: reality therefore is a lake not a river.


The observable world is one of change, of growth and decay, of birth and death. 

Yet knowledge of reality requires stability, eternity and universality – or else knowledge is merely delusion, and will (sooner or later) be swept away by the process of change.

In this world, therefore, knowledge requires that there must, somewhere and at sometime (but not here and now), be a stable world of eternal, universal and unchanging reality.

This primary insight is the basis of all philosophy.


The secondary matter is then to create a structure to model the relation between stable and dynamic.

There are only two possibilities: 

1. that ultimate reality is stable (and dynamic change is secondary), or 

2. that ultimate reality is dynamic (and stability is secondary, local, temporary, contingent).


But only one of these possibilities is coherent: that ultimate reality is stable.

Because if ultimate reality is claimed to be dynamic then this is self-subverting: there is no real knowledge, only delusion, therefore the knowledge that reality is dynamic is not real, it is a delusion.


However, modernity has made that incoherent choice, the wrong choice, because for modernity the ultimate reality is dynamic change, particularly that the ultimate reality is evolutionary change.

Therefore, modernity cannot engage with reality. Perceived knowledge is inevitably contingent, local and temporary, it is subjective and unstable – all we know (and this knowledge is lost as soon as articulated) is how we feel in the present moment.

Experience is the contingent sequence of such moments – neither linked with the past not pointing to the future.

Therefore modernity is leading us into disaster


For modernity, therefore, reality is a river, dynamically changing, sweeping away all apparent stability and order.

Any still pools in the river are merely temporary states, and are misleading representations of the underlying reality of continual flow and change: all still pools will sooner or later be changed – will be relocated transformed, disappear... 

When humans are reasoning, when humans think they know something, they are merely operating within one of these contingent still pools.

When reality is a river, all knowledge is ultimately a delusion – at best something that has historically been pragmatically valuable in a particular (unique) still pool existing in a specific place for a limited time – all of which is presumably soon to be changed.


But this is incoherent.

Reality must be placid: a lake – but a lake which contains dynamic activity...

Imagine a placid lake – but which contains dynamic swirls of movement.

The earth and all we observe is that dynamic swirl within the placid lake.


But whence comes the dynamic swirl in the placid lake?

While it is easy to visualise (because we have seen it) that a flowing river can generate, albeit temporarily, still pools here and there – how could a placid lake generate dynamic swirls in particular parts of its water? How could stability generate change?

The answer is that of course it cannot

One cannot get change from stability; at least, not by any natural means.

Therefore, the (true) model of reality as stable means that super-natural means must be the cause of dynamic change.

In other words ‘a god’ must be the unmoved-mover that generates change from stasis.


This is the basis of coherent metaphysics: the model of reality must primarily be one of eternal and universal stability, secondary reality is that world of observed change, and a god is necessary.

This basic metaphysical model is what is needed - minimally - to make sense of life, and to live in the world.



Linus said...

To assume this placid lake reality, and to assume facts about its nature, you must be able to position yourself "outside" of experience - which you cannot. Only God can.

This does not mean that objectivity is an impossibility. Objectivity means that something is right or wrong (in observational or existential experience), and this is possible as long as we can imagine what right and wrong in a certain circumstance entails.

This means that our conceptualisation of the world is the only placid lake we as human beings will ever have access to. And which conceptualisation of the world is true for a Christian? Holy Scripture. That is where knowledge about ultimate reality is revealed, it is the only source of it for a Christian believer; we cannot by our mere human powers gain epistemic access to God - but God has, through His Word, gained ontological access to us. The knowledge about reality as is, is, for every Christian, in the Word of God, not in man's intellectual pursuits.

bgc said...


Obviously, what I describe is a very very simple model - if it doesn't help you in any way, please feel free to ignore it.

I am talking about the basic metaphysics which came before Christianity - in world historical terms it was this metaphysics which prepared the ground for Christianity.

And I was also trying to suggest that the modern metaphysics of dynamic change is unable to be Christian; to the modern metaphysic Christianity is nonsense - at best a happy delusion, at worst a delusion used to exploit people.

Linus said...


I did not intend to sound arrogant, I'm sorry if I did. I enjoy your blog and many of your hypotheses and models, and hoped to contribute with some of what I've learned myself. (Though I see now that it came out a bit harsh.)

It seems to me that metaphysical realism is often attacked by modern society (even resulting in the anti-realistic Christianity of Don Cupitt), and is difficult to defend in modern times (from a philosophical standpoint). Therefore a realism like that of Andrew Moore (via Hilary Putnam) may be more successful, at least in discussing these things in modern, secularised times.

I agree that metaphysics of dynamic change is deeply non-Christian; I think it often seems to embrace ontological relativity, which fails to grasp any sense of truth.

I think the choice of "conceptual frame" is what faith really is. If I believe the Word of God is true, I have accepted the conceptual frame that the Bible provides. Thus, I am a Christian.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said...

The distinction posed appears, of course, very early in the history of philosophic reflection, most notably in the contrast between Heraclitus and Parmenides. This is one of the basic metaphysical questions, in company with the question of the many from the one, temporality from timelessness, and – as here – change from the unchanging. The answer – for the West – passes through Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and onward from there; for the East, one looks most notably to Shankaracharya. (cf. Thomas C. Mcevilley’s “The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies”) If there is only multiplicity, time, change, motion, flux, then, in the words of Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Of course, even our materialist science admits to the stability beyond the flux of mere things; else, in what do ‘physical laws’ cohere, and why should they take such elegant, rational, mathematical representation?

Cantillon Blog said...

The source of change = the tao; prana; perhaps Grace, properly understood?

Perhaps variation in the divine flux might be reflected in the motion of the planets. As above, so below. The decline in interest in astrology is after all associated with the rise in modernity.

Cantillonblog said...

Cosmic habitforce (Napoleon Hill's term for it, writing before Sheldrake) creates structure.

Tao is the evolution of the system of morphic fields.

bgc said...

@Peter S - yes, of course I got this from the Ancient Greeks - but indirectly.

Metaphysics made no real sense to me until I read Ed Feser's book on Aquinas (only about two and a half years ago), when the penny dropped.

But (having been smitten by Aristotle) now I tend to think that Plato took things about as far as ordinary people can follow them (the above is a version of Platonic metaphysics - or at least it is intended to be) - and that any 'advance' beyond Plato is at the expense of greater abstraction and lower comprehensibility.

So I would now call myself a Platonist in philosophy.

CorkyAgain said...

"Of course, even our materialist science admits to the stability beyond the flux of mere things; else, in what do ‘physical laws’ cohere, and why should they take such elegant, rational, mathematical representation?"

Well, yes, but they don't see those physical laws as evidence for some trans-phenomenal, ideal world. Instead, like Aristotle, they see those laws as necessary characteristics of and in the material realm.

Of course, we also have the Kantian epigones who like to think that the physical laws are something that human consciousness does not discover in but rather imposes upon the phenomenal flux, so as to make some sense of it.

Neither of these approaches is any less problematic than the Parmenidean/Platonic approach that Bruce has outlined.

CorkyAgain said...

So I would now call myself a Platonist in philosophy.

I think I'm coming to that point too.

Feser certainly helped me understand Aristotle and Aquinas, but I'd already been noodling about the natural law ever since I first encountered it in, of all places, the writings of Murray Rothbard.

I've also been quite taken by MacIntyre's virtue ethics.

But the book I keep returning to, and that you might also find interesting, is Henry Corbin's Alone With The Alone. It's about the philosophy of ibn 'Arabi, the 13th Century Sufi, and explores many neoplatonic themes.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

Re: Dr. Charlton,

It is very hard for us, formed in modern sensibilities and modes of understanding, to come to any understanding or appreciation of metaphysics, which almost falls into the category of “excluded knowledge”. As for Aristotle, the standard dichotomy is to place Aristotle against Plato, but this is misleading to a fair degree, as there is more sympathy between their understandings than is usually judged. Thomas Taylor’s general introduction to Aristotle’s writings demonstrates this, as does Lloyd Gerson’s recent volume, “Aristotle and Other Platonists”. Although frequently overlooked, Aristotle was – of course – the first Platonist after Plato himself.

Plotinus also deserves particular mention, as he drew together in his philosophic vision both Platonism and Aristotelianism (and Stoicism as well), answered Aristotelianism on behalf of the Platonic tradition – with respect to which he considered himself a faithful disciple and inheritor – and attained, in his person and writings, the apotheosis of Platonic mystical understanding: “The Sage, then, is the man made over into a Reason−Principle: to others he shows his act but in himself he is Vision.” [Ennead III.8.6]

In closing, let me recall an incident involving Peter Kreeft, in which a philosophic colleague observed to him that, while many individuals have started as Aristotelians only to end up as Platonists, none – to his recollection – started as Platonists and subsequently became Aristotelians. Kreeft’s response? “There are two exceptions to that rule. Aristotle and me.”

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

Re: CorkyAgain,

With regard to physical laws, fair enough, but both Platonic and Aristotelian understandings of the Forms are very far from a “mere materialism”, which assumes order and structure, but cannot account for it. As for evidence, in terms of physics, for a “trans-phenomenal, ideal world”, I would point particularly to Bell’s Theorem, most notably the implications explored by Henry Stapp.

As for Henry Corbin’s “Alone with the Alone”, this is a classic work by a seminal scholar, one I can’t praise too highly. Ibn ‘Arabi is an astonishing figure. I am quite familiar with the scholarship on him: after Corbin, you might also look to Toshikito Izutsu, Michel Chodkiewicz and especially William Chittick. The Ibn Arabi Society is also worth spending time with. As a starter, you might take a look at Chittick’s article, “The Divine Roots of Human Love” (, a very moving article that filled me with a profound consolation when I first read it many years ago.

As a final note, the (re)title of Corbin’s book, mentioned above, is from Plotinus, the "flight of the alone to the Alone." [Ennead VI.9.9]

CorkyAgain said...

@Peter S.,

I agree with your comments re Aristotle and did not mean to suggest that he was in any way a 'mere materialist'.

Thank you for the additional references, which I shall certainly look into!

I have a copy of Izutsu's Sufism and Taoism and Corbin's The Man of Light, but haven't had time to do much more than skim through them.

I also have Izutsu's Creation and the Timeless Order of Things on my Amazon wishlist, following your earlier recommendation. But I should probably finish reading the books I have before buying any more!

Wm Jas said...

The problem with change coming from stability is a logical/conceptual one which does not depend on the laws of nature. It's hard to see how positing something "supernatural" solves the problem.

bgc said...

@WmJas: "The problem with change coming from stability is a logical/conceptual one which does not depend on the laws of nature. It's hard to see how positing something "supernatural" solves the problem."

I agree that it is a logical/ conceptual problem - and that was what I was trying to express.

So, there is a choice between the self-refuting nonsense of dynamism, and the logical non-sequitur of statis.

But this is about trying to produce a simple, comprehensible metaphysics with the minimum number of assumptions, these assumptions being clearly located. The idea of an unmoved mover is a mystery which bridges the gap between statis and change (and between eternity and time) and was (I think) an early metaphysical concept or 'proof' of 'god' - this was something it was rationally-necessary for a god (with certain properties) to do.

All metaphysical systems have assumptions, some have many assumptions, and many are just plain incoherent.

The appeal of the simple, Platonic 'reality as lake' metaphysics is that these assumptions are relatively well-located and comprehensible - albeit mystical.