The title of this article is contradictory on purpose. Do you think that people can change or do you think that they stay fundamentally the same? This question is far less contradictory, isn’t it? That is just because it has ‘or’ in the middle, not ‘and’. Indeed, could there be an ‘and’ in the middle, or, in other words, could it be both at the same time? Simple logic dictates that something cannot change and stay the same simultaneously. So then – if we accept that we change, based on what do we still refer to our ‘selves’ throughout our entire lives? Or – if we accept that we stay the same, why do we stubbornly continue learning and investing in our ‘self’-development? Whichever side of the argument you find yourself on, it seems that, at least in this respect, we lead our lives in a complex-intuitive rather than simple-logical way. Here, I try to unpack our intuitions about this topic. Let’s see whether we end up with more clarity or more confusion.
First, we need to acknowledge that the topic of change vs identity (sameness) is at least as old as Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosophers. Probably much older than that. Arguably, it has occupied our minds for as long as we could think abstractly, and it still does. This in itself means a couple of things: the topic is important to us, and we have not found a definitive answer yet. Therefore, before we proceed, it is important to agree on some key definitions.
What do we mean by the notion of change? The Oxford Dictionary of English tells us that, among other things, this word refers to a process through which something becomes different. Importantly, a comparison is made of an object/subject with itself over a course of time. In turn, ‘different’ signifies ‘not the same’. So we can agree that for our purposes here we take the concept of ‘change’ to stand for an object/subject ‘not being the same’ or ‘being different’ than before. So far, so good.
What do we mean by the idea of staying the same? Referring once again to the dictionary, we find that the concept of ‘same’ stands for being ‘identical’ or, in other words, ‘not different’. If we add ‘staying’ to the picture, we get something like a continuation of identity over time. This seems pretty straight-forward and in line with our intuitions.
However, it also underlines the obvious contradiction discussed above – how can I be different than before and have a continuation of identity at the same time? Since studying definitions alone doesn`t seem to help us solve this puzzle, let`s see if the key can be found at the level of how we use these terms.
There is a famous statement attributed to the ancient pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus – you cannot step into the same river twice. In another article, I have written about the interpretation of this statement. Although the first thing that might come to mind is that everything is changing constantly and that nothing ever persists, upon closer inspection, I suggested a different reading of his thought. Namely, Heraclitus argued that reality is a unity of opposites. It was a central concept to him, and there is another version of the famous river-statement: “Different waters flow over those who step into the same rivers” (my emphasis; reference in the source article). Here it is made more explicit that there is something that changes and something that stays the same about a river. In other words, the river is both the same and different simultaneously. The fact that this seems contradictory to us arguably because we can perceive only one side of the opposites (either/or) serves as proof to Heraclitus that our understanding of reality is limited. His idea is that reality is, in fact, a multiplicity of opposites that are united together in one, all at the same time. However, I think we can get even more out of Heraclitus` river-statement for our current purposes.
The river into which I step is the same as, for instance, last year. At the same time, the waters that flow over my feet are definitely different from those that flowed there last year. I could extend this line of thought and say that also the sands or the stones at the bottom of the river-bed are not the same as last year as they are carried by the stream. If I look very closely, I may notice some differences also in the appearance of the river banks (perhaps due to erosion or animal activity). Yet, despite all these changes, I intuitively consider it to be the very same river as the one I stepped into last year. Why?
For example, let`s imagine there is a house by this river where a childhood friend of mine lives (we will call her Alice). We have played together at those river banks as small children, went swimming in that river as teenagers, and sometimes go on long walks along the riverside as grown-ups. Just like the waters, the sands, the stones, and the banks of the river have changed during this time, so has the visual appearance, the wardrobe, the interests, passions, and worldviews of Alice. Nevertheless, just as I consider it to be the same river as in our childhood, I also consider Alice to still be herself – Alice. What does this tell us?
It could be said that despite the clear changes in the attributes of a subject/object over time, there is also a clearly perceived continuation of the identity of its essence. On one hand, therefore, we would say that Alice has certainly developed throughout these years but, on the other hand, she still remains the same, herself – Alice. Viewed from this perspective, it no longer seems contradictory to say that Alice has changed and stayed herself at the same time.
The effort to somewhat disentangle our intuitions about this matter shows that there seem to be at least two different levels of being, so to speak, which we refer to when applying the terms ‘change’ and ‘identity’ to one object/subject. Namely, Alice and the river retain their continuation of identity over time as long as the changes that still happen to both of them concern only their attributes but not their essence. It is probably because of such intuitive attitude towards change/identity interplay that we are sometimes shocked at how someone we know (or rather – think we know) exhibits behaviour that is, in our view, fundamentally contradicting their ‘selves’ (their essence). Then we tend to say – I do not recognize Alice, she is a totally different person now, she is not the Alice I knew – and so on. Of course, what mostly happens in such situations is that some previously hidden, dormant part of Alice`s essence reveals itself, awakens and finds expression (due to whatever reasons).
Ironically, such development can be surprising and confusing also for Alice, not just for us! However, we should not forget that none of us is born with a fully formed personality or preexisting readily available knowledge of who we really are. Moreover, sometimes we mistake an attribute for the essence, even in ourselves. That is why, I think, one of the most important tasks each of us can take up during our journeys through life is to do our best to know ourselves (the identity of essence) and to become ourselves (through a variety of expressions). That is indeed a lifetime`s work in progress, but one well worth it. After all, there lie the only resources truly made available to us.