The Subject of Radical Change
Arnold (Keith)
Source: Philosophical Studies, Vol. 33, No. 4 (May, 1978), pp. 395-401
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  1. Tall stories are usually short on truth. In Lucian's The Liar, Euchrates spins a tale of a magician who could transform brooms into live servants, then back again into the original wood and twigs. In Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, there is a fable in which there appear, successively, separate day and night persons as distinct as Socrates and Plato, who inhabit the same body at different times.
  2. Both stories are short on truth in one way or another. What is exaggerated is the alleged unnatural metamorphosis1 from broom to servant to broom, and from day to night to day person. What they illustrate, nonetheless, and what seems true about some cases, if not these, is the survival, and possibility of re-identification, of artifacts or agents across interrupted existence and (some) radical changes. Such stories merely exaggerate a familiar phenomenon.
  3. Satin glass vases become Victorian lamps, later restored to their former state. Textile bobbins from old looms are made into candle-stands, later used to weave again. Our ingenuity transforms one artifact into another, and back again, as needs mother inventions. In some cases, what we start with and what we end with are one and the same, numerically the self-same thing.
  4. In the case of persons, we may have some difficulty with Locke's story of two distinct consciousnesses in the same body; but, given the story told is strong enough, we may have grounds enough for re-identifying temporally distinct persons or personalities, whose existence is interrupted by the appearance of a radically different person or personality in the interval. Such re-identification of survivors of radical change might be made in cases where existence is interrupted by temporary amnesia, reversible brain surgery, or the other personalities of a multiple personality. Our various medical sciences transform and restore here.
  5. There are, then, familiar examples of what we might call survival of radical change; that is, the reappearance of the same object despite discontinuities, which may involve an object of the same sort - Locke's case of agents, or an object of a different sort - Lucian's case involving artifacts.
  6. If we speak of radical change in this way, we seem to claim as true that x belongs to some non-natural kind2 F at t, and that some object z belongs to some kind F at t", and that x is identical to z, yet that neither x nor z belongs to F at t'. Some object y, distinct from x and z, yet spatio-temporally connected to them, existed at t' and may have belonged to F or some other kind. Yet, how is it possible for objects x and z to be identical, given discontinuity and appearance of y in between? How can we describe the sort of change that occurred to x? Can some things of a certain specified sort have recurrent existence?
  7. It is here that our intuitions conflict. Survival of radical change has to be read, on the one hand, as a case of substantial change in order to account for the appearance of something new, x's becoming y. On the other hand, we must describe radical change as a case of ordinary change to account for the survival and re-identification of the same thing, x's being identical to z. We seem to want survival of radical change to be a case both of ordinary and essential change; yet we cannot have it both ways.
  8. Re-identification across radical change thus construed contradicts some very fundamental laws of identity. It seems we must protest that x cannot be identical to z, since x ceased to exist at t', becoming y; and z only came into existence at t". What becomes clear is that something has been omitted in our characterization of radical change, causing this protest. These cases of survival cannot be consistently described both as cases of accidental and essential change.
  9. There are two temporal strategies, substance and stage theories3, which obviate seeming contradictions involved in ordinary change. Grant that either the stage theory4 or the substance theory is an explanation of ordinary change, there seems however no natural extension of either view to account for survival of radical change.
  10. Objects belonging to natural kinds5 do so only once during a life-time. They do not change their kinds; ceasing to belong is ceasing to exist. We can make sense of substance talk here, or even of the cessation of a continuant. But the peculiarity of artifacts and persons is they can change radically, yet survive and re-emerge. …

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