Getting it wrong

June 1, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

In 500 BC Heraclitus of Ephesus is credited with observing the only constant is change itself; an idea he expressed in the saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice”.

I’ve been thinking about the idea that the only thing we can count on is change, and it occurs to me we’ve got it wrong.

The idea of change suggests there is a constant. That one thing is steady and eventually, it changes.

What if we were to suggest nothing is constant? That in fact, the idea of a steady-state is but an illusion.

The more I think about it the more trouble I have coming up with any example of a steady-state. Things we might think of as immovable: the sun always rising, the oceans always wet, are in fact only illusions of time. The sun won’t always rise no more than the oceans will always be wet. Only from our perspective are these things stable. Viewed on a grander timescale they are as plastic as everything in the universe.

Which means things aren’t always changing, they are more importantly never sitting still.

The difference between the two might sound more semantic than important but for me, it matters.

It matters because getting our worldview in line with reality helps us understand how everything works.

Maybe only true nerds like me care, but I thought I would share.

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40 comments on “Getting it wrong”

  1. Far too philosophical for me, especially given the time of day. It made me think of manufacturers who bring out new product versions almost every year (e.g. Sony cameras) as part of a sales cycle and manufacturers who will produce a product indefinitely and only change it if they can make a better one (e.g. Quad, Plinius). Harbeth have brought out two upgrades in recent years, but they stress there is nothing wrong with the older models and don’t need changing, whereas other manufacturers will tell you the older model that has served you fine for years is broken. I have my first Alexa-controlled speakers arriving today. Most of my changes in the last decade or more (not all) have been for convenience, mainly improved versions of streaming, and a new significant upgrade is due in days (Innuos 2.0). Also dramatic box-reduction. I am convinced 1’s and 0’s are constant, whether on a CD, storage drive or from the internet.

  2. I liked today’s philosophy.

    To get back to practice…maybe the only constant in the world is non evolving audio 😉

    We see (using more or less the same technology as something like 60 years ago) tape machines, record players, tube amps, speakers (with no noteworthy changes in basic concept), not speaking of general necessities which never found a proper solution (lossless tone controls, invisible room tuning, tiny speakers with big sound etc.).

    So yes, there’s a constant, it’s audio (aside of digital which evolved from red book to DSD for those who noticed) 😉

    1. I was far too preoccupied with Lego and Brio for the few years that SACD had any popular success, so for me SACD/DSD was a change that sailed past like a ship in the night. As they say, timing is everything.

  3. Paul!! You take me back to my days of being in college studying some of the great philosophers inside the library/study hall. 🙂
    Anyhow, change is definitely real but it is not Constant or exactly consistent from the original change itself. For example, the sun will rise everyday but does rise and set in the exact spot in the universe or even the exact time? I think not. Heck, even in the great white north some spots in the world (like the Norwegian Artic) get 3 months of darkness.

    How I translate that into audio?
    Where is change not a constant result of the original change itself? It would my state of mind. When I put those headphones on and listen to an album my perception and feelings of reality associated with what I am listening to is always changing, but never is the change the same.

    Hope that sense. 🙂
    Love the post.

  4. It’s always the same river . You’re just stepping into a different time and space. Put another way, if you jump off the ground , you’re still landing on the same earth you left. The hypothesis is wrong.

    1. Depends on your frame of reference. The Earth is rotating, which is revolving around the Sun, which is revolving around the core of the Milky Way Galaxy as the Universe expands. The river may be known by the same name by local people of the same civilization (that changes depending on who you ask); but the water molecules, dissolved and suspended solids, and the sedimentary bed load is all moving down stream. to be replaced from upstream Even when you jump up and land back on the ground, the force of impact will slightly compress the soil, although you have make careful observations or you may not notice. Try it in loose soil in a freshly tilled and raked garden plot for more obvious effect. Even the force exerted when you jump up will leave footprints.

  5. Yup. Geologists and astronomers know this. Apparent constancy is not so much an “illusion of time” as it is the difficulty of mere mortals, mayflies to Greenland sharks, to appreciate things over the long run. So accept the nature of reality (subject to re-evaluation pending additional observations) for what it is and enjoy the ride. A good and diverse personal soundtrack helps.

    And so to bed.

  6. Paul, thank you for sharing your thoughts. It brings to my mind such questions as Why is there anything? Why isn’t there nothing? What, after all, is nothing? What is eternity? etc. Good exercises for the mind and soul.


  7. “I watch the ripples change their size
    But never leave the stream
    Of warm impermanence.
    So the days float through my eyes
    But still the days seem the same…

    …ch-ch-ch-changes” – David Jones (Bowie)

    I’ve changed at my own pace, although I believe that life has
    had a big hand in the metamorphosis that we all go through…
    some more than others, but always, seemingly, at our own pace.

    1. My son’s girlfriend studied combined honours in Physics and Philosophy at the University of Manchester. Natural bedfellows.

      1. My sister worried if her son would ever get a good paying job with his double major in political science and computer science.

        Absolutely no problem getting a good paying job whatsoever. Of course he now lives in Washington DC.

  8. In any large metropolitan city, if you walk up to a stranger and ask for change of a dollar, bet you won’t get it. So what’s changed?

  9. “Getting our worldview in line with reality helps us understand how everything works” and how and why many things don’t work. Understanding reality can motivate change and even accelerate it. Accelerated change in some areas of life contrasts with other areas that haven’t changed for millennia. The Nicene Creed established in the 4th century is still the fundamental set of beliefs for Christian denominations today. I read that the Pope still opposes the ordination of women for the priesthood!

  10. Paul, while you think you are a true nerd you have a lot to learn about being a nerd. As a retired Ph.D. physicist I am a real chief nerd. So, what remains constant?

    “Throughout all of the formulations of the basic theories of physics and their application to the real world, there appear again and again certain fundamental invariant quantities. These quantities, called the fundamental physical constants, and which have specific and universally used symbols, are of such importance that they must be known to as high an accuracy as is possible. They include the velocity of light in vacuum (c); the charge of the electron, the absolute value of which is the fundamental unit of electric charge (e); the mass of the electron (me); Planck’s constant (h); and the fine-structure constant, symbolized by the Greek letter alpha.”

    For those of you who do not find this nerdy enough please go to the following link:

    Paul, I mean this next part seriously. You seem to really be into the philosophy kick you are on. Have you considered enrolling in a college level Philosophy 101 course. You can probably do it virtually and it might be fun.

    1. Philosophy can be dangerous: “I think, therefore I am.”

      Your discussion of physical constants reminds me of why I changed my major in college from Physics to Architecture, where I could creatively deal with the forces of gravity and dynamic forces like earthquakes and hurricanes. I’m still a nerd, and proudly so.

    2. Thanks, Tony. I’ve never gottten along with structured education so I’ll probably pass on that one. However, I do read a lot and that’s a good way for me to learn.

      The constants that you refer to are certainly ones I am familiar with. Thanks for chiming in!

      What do you make of this new wave of UFOs that appear to defy those constants?

  11. The epigram you quoted is not exactly what Heraclitus said. He pointed out that neither the person nor the river are a constant. All living things are a process in continuous flux. We are always a past, present and future.

  12. Astronomy

    The Wain upon the northern steep
    Descends and lifts away.
    Oh I will sit me down and weep
    For bones in Africa.

    For pay and medals, name and rank,
    Things that he has not found,
    He hove the Cross to heaven and sank
    The pole-star underground.

    And now he does not even see
    Signs of the nadir roll
    At night over the ground where he
    Is buried with the pole.

    ~ A E Housman- gather in the moss when the stones stop

    1. Chuckling when I saw A E Housman. My grandmother when she was young was travelling with a group of people, when passing Bredon Hill she spoke to the nearest gentleman ‘Some poet wrote about that hill’ he replied ‘Yes, I did’
      She never quite lived that down.

  13. René Descartes’ great great great, great grandson, began a cult in 2003 while living in Albany, NY.

    He had became highly influenced by Sartre’s writings before forming his own philosophy.

    His group is forbidden to bath at any time. As you can imagine .. after a few weeks in the group they would be found being offensive when being among “normal” society. They rather liked the fact that wherever they went others would painfully take notice and try to keep a distance…

    The philosophy’s maxim? “I stink. Therefore, I am.”

    ……….. ………………….. …………. …………..


  14. Delighted to read above that we always have a future but on reflection the ‘we’ didn’t necessarily mean me.

    Anyway, was asked that age old question by my seven year old granddaughter today, “where did the very first person come from?” If anyone would care to chip in….

  15. And yet even with negligible resources some people get it right either by sound logic (or accident) – like Democritus & atoms. OK he didn’t know that they could be divided – but not a bad bit of reasoning for 460-370 BC. Meanwhile millions listened & preferred that “easier” nonsense from Aristotle….
    As it turns out, only time, research & analysis will give you increasingly refined answers whoch will of course change as knowledge expands. Einstein’s theories need changing due to Dark Matter discoveries? Fine – the science will adapt, expand & refine. The only constant is what is known (presently) & what isn’t…
    Only fools maintain they have complete knowledge or make up change- with-the-wind nonsense that never has to be proved….(Religions spring to mind)

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