Parmenides Was Unreal (in the Modern Sense)

Parmenides of Elea doesn’t get much publicity these days. He lived 2,500 years ago on the edge of Greece and only one of his philosophical works survives. It’s a poem usually referred to as “On Nature”. The publicity he happens to get derives from the fact that he helped invent metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the general nature of reality (as it’s been practiced by philosophers in the Western world ever since).

Parmenides is the subject of the latest entry in a series called “Footnotes to Plato”, a periodic consideration of famous philosophers from The Times Literary Supplement. Here’s a bit of the article:

If Parmenides’ presence in the collective consciousness is relatively dim, it is in part because he is eclipsed by the thinkers he influenced. And then there is the small detail that his opinions are, as Aristotle said, “near to madness”.  Let us cut to the chase: Parmenides’ central argument. It is so quick that if you blink, you will miss it. You may need to read the following paragraphs twice.

That which is not – “What-is-not” – he says, is not. Since anything that comes into being would have to come into being out of what-is-not, things cannot come into being. Likewise, nothing can pass away because, in order to do so, it would have to enter the non-existent realm of what-is-not. The notion of beings as generated or perishing is therefore literally unthinkable: it would require of us that we think at once of the same thing that it is and it is not. The no-longer and the not-yet are modes of what-is-not. Consequently, the past and future do not exist either.

All of this points to one conclusion: there can be no change. The empty space necessary to separate one object from another would be another mode of what-is-not, so a multiplicity of beings separated by non-being is ruled out. What-is must be continuous. Since beings cannot be to a greater or lesser degree – this would require what-is to be commingled with the (non-existent) diluent of what-is-not – the universe must be fundamentally homogeneous. And so we arrive at the conclusion that the sum total of things is a single, unchanging, timeless, undifferentiated unity.

All of this is set out in a mere 150 lines, many of which are devoted to the philosopher’s mythical encounter with a Goddess who showed him the Way of Truth as opposed to that of the Way of (mere) Opinion. Scholars have, of course, quarreled over what exactly is meant by this 2,500-year-old text that has reached us by a precarious route. The poem survives only in fragments quoted and/or transcribed by others. The main transmitter was Simplicius, who lived over a thousand years after Parmenides’ death. The earliest sources of Simplicius’ transcriptions are twelfth-century manuscripts copied a further 600 years after he wrote them down.

Unsurprisingly, commentators have argued over Parmenides’ meaning. Did he really claim that the universe was an unbroken unity or only that it was homogeneous? They have also wondered whether he was using “is” in a purely predicative sense, as in “The cat is black”, or in a genuine existential sense, as in “The cat is”. Some have suggested that his astonishing conclusions depend on a failure to distinguish these two uses, which were not clearly separated until Aristotle.

What I took away from my philosophy classes is that Parmenides was a “monist”, someone who thinks that, in some significant sense, Reality Is One. The variety and change we see around us is somehow illusory or unreal or unimportant. One textbook suggest Parmenides believed that “Being or Reality is an unmoving perfect sphere, unchanging, undivided”. A later monist, the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, argued that reality consists of a single infinite substance that we call “God” or “Nature”. There are various ways to be a monist.

Well, I’ve read the paragraphs above, the ones that try to lay out Parmenides’s central argument, more than twice. You may share my feeling that the argument doesn’t succeed.

Where I think it goes wrong is that Parmenides treats things that don’t exist too much like things that do.

Although it’s easy to talk about things that don’t exist (e.g. a four-sided triangle or a mountain of gold), that only takes us so far. If I imagine a certain configuration of reality (say, me getting a cold) and what I imagined then becomes real (I do get a cold), the imaginary, unreal state of affairs (getting a real cold in the future) hasn’t actually transformed into a real state of affairs (actually getting a cold). All that’s happened is the reality of me imagining getting a cold has been replaced in the world’s timeline (and my experience) by the reality of me getting a cold. One reality was followed by another. It’s not a literal change from something that didn’t exist into something that did.

Saying that the unreal has become real is a manner of speaking. It shouldn’t be understood as a kind of thing (an imaginary situation) somehow changing its properties or relations in such a way that it becomes another kind of thing (a real situation). Philosophers have a way of putting this: “existence is not a predicate”. They mean that existing isn’t the same kind of thing as being square or purple or between two ferns. Existence isn’t a property or relation that can be predicated of something in the way those properties or relations can be. 

When Parmenides says “what is not” cannot become “what is”, he’s putting “what is not” and “what is” in a single category that we might call “things that are or are not”. That leads him, rather reasonably, to point out that “are not” things can’t become “are” things. It’s reasonable to rule that out, because a transition from an “are not” thing to an “are” thing would be something like spontaneous generation. Putting aside what may happen in the realm of quantum physics, when sub-atomic stuff is sometimes said to instantly pop into existence, the idea that “Something can come from nothing” is implausible even today. Parmenides made use of that implausibility in the 5th century BCE when he argued that what isn’t real can’t change into what’s real, so changes never happen at all.

What Parmenides should have kept in mind is that things that “are not” aren’t really things at all — they’re literally nothing — so they can’t change into something. Change doesn’t involve nothing turning into something. Change occurs when one thing that exists (a fresh piece of bread or an arrangement of atoms) becomes something else that exists (a stale piece of bread or a different arrangement of atoms). Real stuff gets rearranged, and we perceive that as something coming into existence or going out of it, i.e. changing.

So I think Parmenides was guilty of a kind of reification or treating the unreal as real. He puts what doesn’t exist into a realm that’s different from the realm of things that do exist, but right next door to it. Those two realms aren’t next door to each other, however. They’re in totally different neighborhoods, one that’s real and one that’s imaginary. It’s impossible and unnecessary to travel from one realm to the other.

By the way, the gist of the Times Literary Supplement article is that Parmenides “insisted that we must follow the rigours of an argument, no matter how surprising the conclusion – setting in motion the entire scientific world view”. Maybe so. I was more interested in his strange idea that change never happens.

Punished by a Philosopher

I was slightly tempted to discuss a new book that lays out the argument for considering The Toddler to be a toddler (The Toddler In Chief by Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University). But even thinking about that subject would be a form of punishment.

Instead, I’m going to consider a different kind of punishment: being subjected to a bad philosophical argument. It’s not the worst kind of punishment. It’s often interesting or amusing to consider what a philosopher says, however implausible it might be.  Punishment is what came to mind, however, when I went from reading about the Toddler book to reading Richard Marshall’s interview with Yale philosophy professor  Michael Della Rocca. (Note: This isn’t the typical post I’ve published in recent years in terms of either subject matter or length; there’s nobody watching if you’d like to turn back now.)(PS: Another option is to read the final few lighthearted paragraphs.)

Professor Della Rocca specializes in metaphysics and early modern philosophy — “Early Modern” primarily refers to the ideas of Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Locke, all published between 1615 and 1715.

This is the argument that Della Rocca makes:

… in virtue of what are [any two things] A and B not identical? If one answers: “in virtue of being in different locations,” then the question just re-arises in a different form: in virtue of what are these locations not identical? … So this response … goes no distance toward offering genuine illumination on the issue of what it is in virtue of what A and B are distinct.

Why do we need “genuine illumination” on what makes A and B distinct? If we have what seems to be an excellent reason to believe A and B are different things (one’s here and the other is over there), why shouldn’t we believe they’re different without being required to explain the difference sufficiently well?

Della Rocca continues:

I take such why-questions seriously—i.e. I think that they demand an answer, and I’m certainly not alone here. Such questions are for me a hallmark of rationalism. Rationalism can mean lots of different things to different people, but for me the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the PSR) is central to rationalism. The PSR is the principle according to which there are no brute facts that obtain or no things that exist without an explanation. That is, each thing or each fact has an explanation. The PSR is the guiding force of Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s work….

The Principle of Sufficient Reason tells us that every fact, including whether or how A and B are different, requires a sufficient (genuinely illuminating? satisfactory? compelling?) reason to admit the difference exists or explanation for why or how it exists. But must we accept that Principle? Is it true?

Professor Della Rocca doesn’t say. Instead, he points out that philosophers often demand reasons and explanations, and once you start down that road, there is no reason to stop until you get to the finish line, i.e. you are justified in demanding reasons or explanations in every case, until you get one that’s “sufficient”. That is the Principle of Sufficient Reason. (Bright children who keep asking “why” questions until their parents lose patience may be covert adherents of the PSR.)

[Philosophers] accept explanatory demands in particular domains, and I point out that it seems right that they do accept these explanatory demands. I think that explanatory demands are the lifeblood of philosophy, and you don’t need me to say that they make sense and should be taken seriously. People already do take them seriously. After showing that certain explanatory demands are accepted, I then try to make life difficult for my interlocutors by showing how the explanatory demands that they already accept lead to surprising or even troubling consequences.

He holds that one such troubling consequence is being forced to accept the principle known as the “Identity of Indiscernibles”.

This is the case with my defense of the identity of indiscernibles. I begin with explanatory claims that very many philosophers embrace or seem to embrace—claims to the effect that such-and-such a situation is to be ruled out precisely because it would involve inexplicable facts. I then ratchet up the pressure by showing how this explanatory demand generates momentum to go further and, in this case, eventually generates pressure to accept the identity of indiscernibles and indeed the full-blown PSR.

I believe the idea here is that if we cannot sufficiently explain what it is, for example, for A and B to be in visibly different locations, not only should we withhold judgment, but A and B aren’t in different locations at all. The same rule applies to the other apparent differences between A and B, their color, their size, I suppose their importance, whatever difference you care to name. But if there are no differences between A and B, they must be the same thing. They are identical. A = B.



Since the variables A and B can be assigned to anything, we end up with a version of the classic philosophical position called “monism”. Generally speaking, monism is the position that reality is one thing and not a collection of things. The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides is credited (or discredited) as an early monist. Della Rocca thinks Parmenides was serious about what sounds like an incredible position:

Parmenides, as I interpret him, is a strict monist in the sense that he denies that there are any negations or distinctions whatsoever (i.e. one thing’s not being another). Indeed, for Parmenides, such distinctions, such negations, and any multiplicity are unintelligible—they cannot even be thought.

Parmenides’ successors—notably Plato and Aristotle—were haunted by Parmenides’ vision, and they sought to make the world safe for distinctions and multiplicity. Whether they succeeded is another matter. My view is that this move in Parmenides from the PSR to a strong version of monism or a rejection of all distinctions and multiplicity is repeated time and time again in the history of philosophy. Attempts to avoid this result either by limiting the PSR or denying it outright fail.

Della Rocca than presents his own take on monism:

I endorse Parmenideanism in my own voice for reasons stemming from the PSR…. Thus, there are no differentiated substances or beings, actions, knowledges (instances of knowledge), or meanings. There is, one might say, being or substance, but not substances or beings; there is action, but no actions. For me, these terms (“substance”, “action”, “knowledge”, “meaning”) are not count nouns, but are something like mass terms.

The challenge in each of these cases is this: we ordinarily think of actions, etc. as differentiated, as relational, but for me there is no good way to make sense of such differentiation, such relations, and so—in order to save or redeem the concepts of substance, action, knowledge, and meaning—we have to ascend to an undifferentiated, non-relational version of these phenomena, if they are to be saved or redeemed at all.

We take the reality that we were trying to capture in terms of differentiation and, instead, we capture it better by appealing to undifferentiated versions of these phenomena. In this way, my account is deeply skeptical, not in the tame sense of denying that we know that there are instances of these phenomena, but in the sense of denying that we have a coherent conception of these phenomena, at least of these phenomena as involving distinctions.

I think this is the structure of Della Rocca’s argument, even though it’s not how it’s presented in the interview:

1) The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a fundamental, highly plausible principle.

1a) It is so fundamental that it might not be justifiable, but to be consistent, anyone who has ever required a good enough reason to believe something exists or some statement is true should require a good enough reason in every case.

2) Once we accept the PSR, we realize that the explanations we ordinarily accept are insufficient, because we can ask for those explanations themselves to be explained.

4) Among the insufficient explanations are those that attempt to explain how or why two or more things are different (e.g., “you might think these two objects are different because they are in different locations, but in virtue of what are their locations different?”).

5) Since such explanations are insufficient, the supposed differences don’t exist.

6) The Identity of Indiscernibles is another plausible principle. But it says that if there are no differences between two things, the two things are only one thing; “they” are identical.

7) Therefore, we should adopt some kind of monism, the view that reality is somehow one thing; the universe doesn’t consist of many things (such as electrons and gluons, or apples and oranges). Neither does it consist of only a couple of things (like mind and matter).

8) In particular, we should think of certain things, action and meaning, for example, as one thing (action or meaning) rather than many things (e.g. the actions you performed yesterday or the meanings of the words in Della Rocca’s interview).

I don’t think I’ve expressed the argument very well, but, since it’s part of an interview, it’s not presented with crystalline clarity. No doubt it’s clearer and has more detail in Della Rocca’s articles or books.

Nevertheless, I think it’s nuts. On the face of it, denying that reality is made of different things, things that have relationships and distinctions between them, seems so wrong, so counterintuitive, one wonders if “all is one” means something deeply and obscurely profound, not what it appears to mean.

Anyway, here are a few observations.

The obvious place to start is the Principle of Sufficient Reason. What makes a reason or explanation sufficient? Ordinarily, when we evaluate a reason or explanation, we think it’s sufficient if it meets our purposes now and (we hope) in the future. But the Principle of Sufficient Reason doesn’t include a statement of purpose, so the meaning of “sufficient” is hard to determine.  If somebody is visiting our house for the first time, it would be helpful to tell them that there is a tree on either side of our driveway, and their leaves are (somewhat surprisingly) different colors. Asking for further explanations of these facts would be a waste of time. It wouldn’t change the original facts about location and color. It would serve no purpose.

But Della Rocca thinks apparent differences like location and color require further explanation. Perhaps physics could do the job. A physicist can explain various characteristics of spacetime and light. But only up to a point (or down to a point). The further the explanations proceed, questions will come up. Why do certain constants have the values they do? Is there a reason for the strong nuclear force to have the strength it does? Or is it a brute fact? If it’s a brute fact, the PSR is false. Does everything happen in a chain of cause and effect, even at the quantum level? Or are quantum events random? How about the Big Bang? Did it happen for a reason or simply happen? If there are any brute facts, or anything happens (or once happened) randomly, the PSR is false. Why presume it’s true, as Della Rocca does?

In step 5 above, there is a leap from “such and such explanations of difference X are not sufficient” to “the supposed difference X doesn’t exist”. But being unable to explain X doesn’t demonstrate that X is unreal. There must be other evidence for the existence of X, or why bother trying to explain it?  The most we should infer from our inability to explain something is that we don’t understand it as well as we’d like to. We might want to reserve judgment. If we want to further justify our belief in X’s existence, we have more work to do.

One of the more surprising claims Della Rocca makes is that there are no relations or distinctions. He begins by referring to actions and then broadens his thesis to cover substances, meanings and knowledges (which is, in fact, the plural of “knowledge”). Revisiting a paragraph from above:

… we ordinarily think of actions, etc. as differentiated, as relational, but for me there is no good way to make sense of such differentiation, such relations, and so—in order to save or redeem the concepts of substance, action, knowledge, and meaning—we have to ascend to an undifferentiated, non-relational version of these phenomena, if they are to be saved or redeemed at all. We take the reality that we were trying to capture in terms of differentiation and, instead, we capture it better by appealing to undifferentiated versions of these phenomena….  we [do not] have a coherent conception of these phenomena, at least of these phenomena as involving distinctions.

Della Rocca says we should think of substance, action, knowledge and meaning as “undifferentiated” phenomena. Yet he differentiates between substance, action, knowledge and meaning. Why? Following his lead, we have to ask what the difference is between substance and action, for example. Is there a “genuinely illuminating” explanation of the difference between them? Or between them and phenomena like quantity or intention?

For that matter, Della Rocca (like Parmenides did in the past) uses words to communicate. If there are no distinctions or relations, why choose one word rather than another? Why say “attempts to deny” instead of “deny to attempts”? Why not say “cornflakes green belief” when he greets a colleague in the philosophy department? If meaning is an undifferentiated phenomenon, the words one chooses and the assertions one makes shouldn’t matter.

Finally, the typical monist response to being challenged regarding the existence of different things is to invent new language. The English philosopher G. E. Moore once said (in his “Proof of an External World”) that he could prove the existence of the external world by holding up one hand and then the other while intoning “Here is one hand … and here is another”.

From the article on “Monism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

[In “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism”, Bertrand Russell declared:]

“I share the common-sense belief that there are many separate things; I do not regard the apparent multiplicity of the world as consisting merely in phases and unreal divisions of a single indivisible Reality.”

Whether due wholly to argumentative force or at least partly to historical contingencies, such declarations [as Russell’s and Moore’s] had the effect of ending any interest in monism … for nearly one hundred years. And so philosophical fashion swung from some form of monism in the nineteenth century, to some form of pluralism in the twentieth century.

By “phases and unreal divisions”, Russell was referring to a standard response a monist might give to Moore’s proof of an external world. Again from the Stanford Encyclopedia:

For instance, when one claims that there is a hand here, the … monist might hold that what is strictly the case is that the world is handish here.

I don’t see much difference between “here is a hand and here is another” and “the world is handish here and also handish here”, or “handing here and also there”. But I don’t find monism appealing.

Wittgenstein is often quoted as saying “philosophy leaves the world as it is”. What he actually wrote (in German, Philosophical Investigations, 124) was on the relationship between philosophy and language: “philosophy leaves everything [i.e. the way we actually use language] as it is”. I don’t think that’s true, but what Wittgenstein wrote could be interpreted in a way that pertains to Della Rocca’s argument for monism.

Philosophers often argue about which terminology to use to describe facts they agree on. All philosophers agree that people have hands. But, if we want to be as precise and accurate as humanly possible, how should we talk about that fact? G. E. Moore insisted he had two hands, by which he meant that his hands were objects external to his mind, that is, part of the external world, something he would only bother pointing out when responding to “idealist” philosophers who denied such an external world exists.

Della Rocca would agree that Moore had two hands, and probably agree that Moore’s hands weren’t ideas in Moore’s mind or anyone else’s (like the idealists did), but he wouldn’t want to say that Moore’s hands were part of anything. I don’t know exactly what he’d say, but he’d have to somehow refer to them as aspects (?) of the one reality while denying that they are distinct objects related to each other (in Russell’s words: “unreal divisions of a single indivisible Reality”). He thinks that when we really get down to it, notions like “difference” and “relation” make no sense. That makes no sense to me. And people continue to have two hands regardless.

Philosophical arguments like the one between monism and pluralism (there are many individual things) have been going on for centuries. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Quoting Wittgenstein again:

Philosophy hasn’t made any progress?—If someone scratches where it itches, do we have to see progress? Is it not genuine scratching … or genuine itching? [Culture and Value, 86e].

And once more:

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy” [On Certainty, 467].

I’m done. If you read this whole thing, you’ve been punished enough.