Sunday, December 18, 2011

#12 - More Parmenides

Ok, so I said my next post would be about Zeno's Paradoxes. . . It's not. It's more Parmenides. Actually it's the assignment I recently submitted on Parmenides. I didn't really get to explain myself too much because it's only a mid-semester essay and there was a wordcound of 1500 I had to abide by. Also the topic choices were all fairly dull. Hopefully I'll have something more exciting for the final essay, which will probably be on Aristotle's ethics.
Parmenides and Being
Parmenides is one of the original 'armchair philosophers', a rationalist who believed that through sheer power of thought one could overcome the toughest of philosophical problems. Parmenides is most notable for his enquiries into the nature of what is (or perhaps more importantly what is not) in his work 'On Nature'. It is arguably through this work that we gain two very important logical principals; the law of excluded middle and the law of non-contradiction. We do, however, also gain some less commonly accepted conclusions - The revelation that nothing changes, nothing moves, and everything is made up of one unified block of being. These claims certainly require some explanation and I will attempt to do so presently by investigating Parmenides' premises, Parmenides' conclusions, and the general coherency of his overall argument. I will attempt to translate Parmenides' arguments into logical notation and will finally put the formula to the test through the use of a thought experiment.

Parmenides begins his poetic prose by conjuring to mind the scenario in which he approaches a goddess in a chariot. The goddess informs Parmenides that there are two main ways of enquiry, enquires about what is (also called the 'path or persuasion') and enquiries about what is not. Of these two routes it is only the first that is truthful and valuable says the goddess. The justification for this is simple; to attempt to think or speak of something that is not is impossible because to even bring it to mind necessarily implies it's existence. To think or speak one must think or speak about something. As soon as one finds themselves thinking about that something it must necessarily exist. Thus Parmenides puts forth that the very notion of something 'not being' is contradictory.

Before moving on to the conclusions Parmenides draws from this argument it would be of use to clarify some key details of his argument. Firstly, when Parmenides refers to what is and what is not it must be understood that Parmenides is writing in a language that does not require an accompanying subject to give meaning to these seemingly fragmental phrases. Given this fact it is acceptable interpret the phrase it is as applying to anything at all and the phrase is not as referring to nothing.
Secondly, it may be noted that Parmenides equates the thoughts of things with the existence of the actual thing - or more precisely he doesn't recognise any differentiation between the physical and mental realms at all. This position is explicitly stated in section 3n when Parmenides claims:

                The same thing is there for thinking of and for being. (Parmenides. 3n)

 This worldview was not uncommon for the time and is known as monism. Monism refers to the view that the world is comprised of a single type of stuff, be this physical stuff, mental stuff, or otherwise. Philosophers who support the notion that everything is comprised of physical stuff are often called materialists (or advocates of physicalism), those who support the view that everything is made up of mental projections (for lack of space for a better description) are called idealists, and those who support the view that the world is made up of something else that is neither mental or physical are sometimes referred to as 'neutral monists'. (Palmer) Although the term came much later I would be tempted to call Parmenides a neutral monist as he believed that everything was made up of 'being'. I will further discuss the implications of my interpretation of Parmenides as a neutral monist later.
Returning now to Parmenides argument; Parmenides concluded that because it is nonsensical to speak of something not being things that exist must be eternal and unchanging. The reasoning behind this is that if something were to begin to exist (or cease existing) it would have to move from being nothing into being something (or vica versa). This transition would require meaningful discussion about something coming from nothing, a process that Parmenides finds problematic. Parmenides asserts that nothing comes from nothing ('ex nihilo nihil fit') and hence concludes that existing things must always have existed. Another consequence of taking Parmenides theories about what is and is not to their logical conclusions is a denial of time as we currently understand it. Time arguably involves change so without change there must be no time. This can be understood by imagining a world in which two consecutive world states are identical in every way. Would you be tempted to say that time had stopped for those moments? - I suspect that Parmenides would. The fact that we understand the events of the past, present, and future in different ways and perceive time as passing is simply an indication of the limitations of our human condition and does nothing towards proving that the passing of time is a real phenomenon. The only way to approach these sorts of problems is through rigorous logical reasoning (and not empirical observation) says Parmenides, and coins this type of enquiry as 'The path of persuasion'.
I will now attempt to formalise Parmenides argument and test it against a thought experiment that will expose it's difficulties.
First of all let's look at Parmenides’ premises as they appear most clearly. These seem to be:

P1)         Whatever can be spoken or thought of necessarily is. (Parmenides, Section 6n)
P2)         The Other: that it is not and it necessarily must not be. That, I point out to you, is a path              wholly unthinkable, for neither could you know what-is-not (for that is impossible), nor could             you point it out. (Parmenides, Section 2n, #2)
When interpreted as follows:
x = it is. (and it's negation accordingly 'it is not')
y = it can be thought and/or spoken about.
Parmenides premises become:
P1)  y x
P2) ~y  ~x
These two premises actually lead to the conclusion that (y x). The transition from y x and  ~y  ~x  to (y x) is shown to be valid in Appendix A.  
Given the interpretations outlined above consider the following thought experiment:
It is the year 2100. Unbeknownst to the citizens of earth there is a substance in the centre of the earth that is completely unlike any other substance every examined. It is neither solid, nor liquid, nor gas, nor is it similar or comparable to anything ever observed. Understandably no sentient being ever mentions this substance because it would be impossible to do so with the current knowledge that the citizens of earth have about what can and does exist. However in the year 2200 this mystery substance is discovered and labelled 'Mysterium'. From 2200 onwards people regularly think and talk about Mysterium.
Let us refer to 'mysterium' as it.
In 2100 it is not thought and or spoken about. Therefore, according to P2, it is not.
In 2200 it is thought and spoken about. Therefore, according to P1, it is.
However this seems to contradict Parmenides conclusions that things do not come into being. What was not in 2100 ('mysterium') is in 2200. This conflicts with Parmenides account of being when he explicitly states :

                Thus it must completely be or be not. (Allen, Fragment 8)

 So either my thought experiment is misrepresentative or there is a flaw in Parmenides' argument. I will now try and explain why, given the same premises, Parmenides and I reach different conclusions.

The problem is somewhat similar to the one that George Berkeley faced when he realized that things could essentially pop in and out of existence depending on whether a sentient being perceived it. Berkeley solved this problem by appealing to the omnipresent nature of God who prevents things from constantly coming in and out of existence by always perceiving them. Parmenides could potentially make a similar argument and say that the 'mysterium' had indeed existed the whole time and God had perceived it. There is, however, not sufficient evidence to suggest that Parmenides had this type of solution in mind and the application of Occam's Razor would dictate that such a clause be omitted.
The question therefore remains: What is the status of objects that escape our epistemological grasp?
When a dualist position is adopted the solution is easy: Simply explain that the 'mysterium' had probably always existed but we just hadn't perceived it. For the monist the problem is far more difficult. Due to word-length constraints I cannot elaborate very much upon this point however if my arguments are flawed it would probably be due to mis-representing Parmenides as a strict monist. I do believe, however, that this claim is not without evidence and therefore holdfast that the above thought experiment poses a problem with Parmenides' theory.


Reference List

Allen, R.E. 1966. 'The Eleatics'. Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle. New York: The Free Press. pp. 44-49.

Palmer, John, "Parmenides", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Parmenides, On Nature, (

Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Stubenberg, Leopold, "Neutral Monism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

y x
~y  ~x
y x
                  0 1 0     
    10 1 10
                  1 0 0
    01 1 10
                  0 1 1           
    10 0 01
                  1 1 1        
    01 1 01

(y x),  ( ~y  ~x)  (y x)
The argument form above is valid because in every case in which the premises are both true the conclusion is also true.

No comments:

Post a Comment