Saturday, May 21, 2011

Unity and Multiplicity (continued*)

Filed under: General — m759 @ 10:48 AM

Heisenberg on Heraclitus

From Physics and Philosophy , by Werner Heisenberg, 1958, reprinted by Penguin Classics, 2003—

Page 28—

… In the philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus the concept of Becoming occupies the foremost
place. He regarded that which moves, the fire, as the basic element. The difficulty, to reconcile
the idea of one fundamental principle with the infinite variety of phenomena, is solved for him by
recognizing that the strife of the opposites is really a kind of harmony. For Heraclitus the world is
at once one and many, it is just 'the opposite tension' of the opposites that constitutes the unity
of the One. He says: 'We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all
things come into being and pass away through strife.'

Looking back to the development of Greek philosophy up to this point one realizes that it has
been borne from the beginning to this

Page 29—

stage by the tension between the One and the Many. For our senses the world consists of an
infinite variety of things and events, colors and sounds. But in order to understand it we have to
introduce some kind of order, and order means to recognize what is equal, it means some sort
of unity. From this springs the belief that there is one fundamental principle, and at the same
time the difficulty to derive from it the infinite variety of things. That there should be a material
cause for all things was a natural starting point since the world consists of matter. But when one
carried the idea of fundamental unity to the extreme one came to that infinite and eternal
undifferentiated Being which, whether material or not, cannot in itself explain the infinite variety
of things. This leads to the antithesis of Being and Becoming and finally to the solution of
Heraclitus, that the change itself is the fundamental principle; the 'imperishable change, that
renovates the world,' as the poets have called it. But the change in itself is not a material cause
and therefore is represented in the philosophy of Heraclitus by the fire as the basic element,
which is both matter and a moving force.

We may remark at this point that modern physics is in some way extremely near to the
doctrines of Heraclitus. If we replace the word 'fire' by the word 'energy' we can almost repeat
his statements word for word from our modern point of view. Energy is in fact the substance
from which all elementary particles, all atoms and therefore all things are made, and energy is
that which moves. Energy is a substance, since its total amount does not change, and the
elementary particles can actually be made from this substance as is seen in many experiments on
the creation of elementary particles. Energy can be changed into motion, into heat, into light
and into tension. Energy may be called the fundamental cause for all change in the world. But this
comparison of Greek philosophy with the ideas of modern science will be discussed later.

* See earlier uses of the phrase in this journal. Further background— Hopkins and Heraclitus.

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