The Cancer Journal - Volume 6, Number 3 (May-June 1993)
Chaos reigns - Heraclitus is back
The sixth century BC is regarded as dawn of different philosophies which appeared in several countries without any direct connection with one another: Greece, China, Iran and the land of Israel. Until then, Nature was regarded as the work of God. "God holds the beginning and end, as well the middle, of all existing things" was an ancient saying cited by Plato (1). The first Greek philosophers, Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, lived in the town of Miletus in Ionia. They sought for explanations of the natural world within the world itself. What is the primary stuff that constitutes nature, and how do changes in it bring about its various appearances?
The philosophers and their followers laid the foundation of modern science and from our point of view may be regarded as genuine scientists who studied and analyzed simple observations in a new way. Instead of asking: who is responsible for the occurrences, and: what is their purpose, they asked what is their underlying nature and: how does it change? Some, like Paramenides, maintained that the world is static, while others, like Heraclitus, regarded change as the essence of nature.
Heraclitus was born in Ephesus of Ionia not far from Miletus and is best known for his sayings: "Everything flows", "You cannot step twice in the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on" (1). There is nothing permanent, and if it appears as such it is because some seemingly permanent phenomena change extremely slowly. Even gods are temporary, "Immortals become mortals, mortals become immortals; they live in each other's death and die in each other's life". To us this statement sounds logically impossible. It, however, illustrates Heraclitus's thinking. His concepts have more than one meaning and the reader has to interpret them in different contexts. From the logical point of view it is impossible for an immortal being to become mortal, yet here "immortal' refers to a higher type of being than man whose existence is nevertheless finite (1). On the other hand, Heraclitus uses "immortal" deliberately, alluding to its other and deeper meanings that are also relevant.
Heraclitus regarded change for its own sake as the most basic ontological fact. But this is not the same change as that conceived by modern physics which regards it as an epiphenomenon of a permanent entity, e.g., a change in temperature which results from a change in molecular velocities, while the molecules themselves remain unchanged. To Heraclitus change embraces all observed qualities of the thing as a whole. Like the continuous change of the flickering flame. There is nothing permanent in a fire.
For Heraclitus the sun "is new each day". When saying that a new sun is born and dies each day Heraclitus meant, as Galenus explains, that the sun is moulded each morning out of the waters surrounding the earth and becomes one with the waters when it drops back into them in the evening (1). This may sound today more poetic than scientific, particularly since modern astronomy has placed the rising sun in the center of our planetary system. It seems plausible that Heraclitus also knew the sun as a heavenly body, but preferred the concept of the newly born sun. The sun, like the river, continuously changes and you never see the same sun twice. Yet while this statement may be obvious for the river, there was nothing in the sun's appearance to indicate that it changes. Twenty-five centuries elapsed before his statement was shown to be correct. The sun burns its fuel like any other "mortal", which illustrates the power of Heraclitus' philosophy.
Changes observed in the sun may be expressed in two ways, either the sun is an "immortal" whose appearance changes, or a "mortal" that is born and dies. Both approaches have their merit. The first underlies modern physics. It may be correct in physics but not in other disciplines, e.g., biology medicine and economy, in which observed change may be expressed only by the second approach. Evolution cannot be described as an epiphenomenon of a stable entity. There is nothing in the present structure of a species indicating how it evolved to its present state. Disease cannot be regarded as a change of attributes in an unchanging individual. The transition from health to disease has the same properties as a flickering flame. Disease replaces health and when it "dies" health is "born". During evolution, each species is formed de novo, since its present structure cannot be fully deduced from that of its ancestors.
The first approach to describe change is applied by the exact sciences. It is adequate for describing change in some phenomena of nature, but not in all. In spite of this, until recently it was generally accepted that all phenomena of nature can be described in this way, which turned to be incorrect when modern physics became involved in weather prediction. There is nothing in today's weather to indicate what it will be next week. Weather does not behave as an epiphenomenon of an unchanging entity. The entire weather changes in the same way as a flickering flame. It is born at every instant, to die in the next. This is the heart of today's scientific revolution known as "Chaos" (2). The term chaos is applied to phenomena that cannot be described by the traditional approach of physics. From the medical point of view deterministic chaos resembles the change observed in the human organism (3-5).
After twenty-five centuries it appears as if Democritus the atomist is gradually yielding to Heraclitus. Not entirely, since "everything flows", and according to Ludwik Fleck one never applies the same theory twice (6).
1. Wheelwright P. Heraclitus. Princeton University Press. Princeton NJ, 1959.
2. Gleick J. Chaos. Making a New Science. Viking, 1987.
3. Zajicek G. Meta-analysis and chaos. Cancer J 4, 152, 1991.
4. Zajicek G. Chaos and biology. Meth Inform Med 30, 1-3, 1991.
5. Zajicek G. Artificial life. Meth Inform Med 31, 167-168, 1992.
6. Zajicek G. Ludwick Fleck: founder of the philosophy of modern medicine. Cancer J 5, 304-305, 1992.