The use of reason for self advancement poses a danger to the Cosmic order.
Heraclitus of Ephesus
I would like to start with an anecdote that the anthropologist Gregory Bateson liked to relate concerning the ancient Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Cratylus. Heraclitus believed that the most fundamental thing about reality, about the Cosmos, is that it is constantly flowing and changing. He is best known (among those who know of him at all) for having proclaimed that “a person cannot step into the same river twice.” Which is worth contemplating.
Cratylus was one of Heraclitus’s students. He went a step further than Heraclitus (so to speak) to proclaim that you can’t even step into a river once. Cratylus believed that if everything is flowing, changing, then names (i.e. nouns) don’t make any sense.
Let’s take, for example, my name, which is Oakley. To what object does that name apply? Consider me first as a human body. Our bodies are constantly changing, getting rid of old cells and replacing them with new cells. Every month we completely replace all of our skin. We grow a new liver every 6 weeks. Over the period of a year we replace every cell in our bones. There are some cells in the body that appear to be more or less permanent, for example some cells in our eyes and in our central nervous system, but even they are the product of a never ceasing flow that involves getting rid of old atoms and replacing them with new atoms. Essentially there is not one atom in our bodies that was there five years ago.
On the mental level change is much more rapid and certainly constant. Every event we experience changes our nervous system; memories are formed, attitudes and beliefs are adjusted, skills are acquired or begin to atrophy. If you met my five years ago and then meet me now you will still probably call me “Oakley” but the Being to whom the name applies is actually a different Being, made of different atoms and being run by a different mind.
It might be more accurate to give me a different name every time you meet me; “Oakley 1”, “Oakley 2:, “Oakley 3”, comes to mind. Or, perhaps it would be easier to refer to me as the verb “Oakleying”, and thus identify me not as an unchanging solid object but as a continuing process, like a river, that is still here but never the same.*
Cratylus was convinced that our use of language fundamentally distorts our understanding of reality. Staying true to his principles he then gave up the use of all language and went around just pointing at things instead. But, as Bateson liked to add, because he didn’t tell anyone what he was doing no one understood what he was doing or what his point was.
*There is a little further we can go with this. I didn’t know if you would find this interesting or too dry so I have delegated it to this end note. While Heraclitus is best known for having pointed out that “no one can step into the same river twice” another version is that he said “a person both can and cannot step into the same river twice”. The molecules of water themselves, which constitute the river, will be different each time we step in. The rate of water flow, the patterns the water makes while flowing, the leaves and sticks floating along, and the river bed will constantly change. But still, there is a river there both times! So exactly what is there both times? A flow of water. In that statement a “flow” is a noun, there is “a flow” both times. But “a flow” is a “nominalization”, a verb that has been sneakily morphed into a noun. “To flow” is a process, not an object. But “a process” is also a nominalization, for it too is a verb that has been morphed into a noun. Nominalizations are distortions of reality. They distort not only how we talk about reality but also how we think about it. It would be more accurate to say a river is “flowing water” rather than “a flow of water”. “Flowing water” presents an active image in my mind, and it only applies to the present moment with no promises about the past or future. Then there is one more nominalization to mention, that we are beings of the Cosmos.