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.