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.

Hope vs. Reality, or the Vaccination Blues

From The New York Times:

In April, with hospitals overwhelmed and much of the United States in lockdown, the Department of Health and Human Services produced a presentation for the White House arguing that rapid development of a coronavirus vaccine was the best hope to control the pandemic.

“DEADLINE: Enable broad access to the public by October 2020,” the first slide read, with the date in bold.

Given that it typically takes years to develop a vaccine, the timetable for the initiative, called Operation Warp Speed, was incredibly ambitious. With tens of thousands dying and tens of millions out of work, the crisis demanded an all-out public-private response, with the government supplying billions of dollars to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, providing logistical support and cutting through red tape.

It escaped no one that the proposed deadline also intersected nicely with President Txxxx’s need to curb the virus before the election in November.

“Hey, if Operation Warp Speed ‘curbs the virus’ by October, the 200,000 dead will be forgotten and I’ll win a beautiful victory, the biggest win ever!”

Thus our president is hoping. 

I hope his staff doesn’t disappoint him by sharing this from The Washington Post.

In the public imagination [and between the president’s ears], the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine looms large: It’s the neat Hollywood ending to the grim and agonizing uncertainty of everyday life in a pandemic.

But public health experts are discussing among themselves a new worry: that hopes for a vaccine may be soaring too high. The confident depiction by politicians and companies that a vaccine is imminent and inevitable may give people unrealistic beliefs about how soon the world can return to normal — and even spark resistance to simple strategies that can tamp down transmission and save lives in the short term.

Two coronavirus vaccines entered the final stages of human testing last week, a scientific speed record that prompted top government health officials to utter words such as “historic” and “astounding” . . .

As the plotline advances, so do expectations: If people can just muddle through a few more months, the vaccine will land, the pandemic will end and everyone can throw their masks away. But best-case scenarios have failed to materialize throughout the pandemic, and experts — who believe wholeheartedly in the power of vaccines — foresee a long path ahead.

“It seems, to me, unlikely that a vaccine is an off-switch or a reset button where we will go back to pre-pandemic times,” said Yonatan Grad, an assistant professor of infectious diseases and immunology [at Harvard].

Or, as Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen puts it, “It’s not like we’re going to land in Oz.”

The declaration that a vaccine has been shown safe and effective will be a beginning, not the end. Deploying the vaccine to people in the United States and around the world will test and strain distribution networks, the supply chain, public trust and global cooperation. It will take months or, more likely, years to reach enough people to make the world safe.

For those who do get a vaccine as soon as shots become available, protection won’t be immediate — it takes weeks for the immune system to call up full platoons of disease-fighting antibodies. And many vaccine technologies will require a second shot weeks after the first to raise immune defenses.

Immunity could be short-lived or partial, requiring repeated boosters that strain the vaccine supply or require people to keep social distancing and wearing masks even after they’ve received their shots. And if a vaccine works less well for some groups of people, if swaths of the population are reluctant to get a vaccine or if there isn’t enough to go around, some people will still get sick even after scientists declare victory on a vaccine — which could help foster a false impression it doesn’t work.

A proven vaccine will profoundly change the relationship the world has with the novel coronavirus and is how many experts believe the pandemic will end. In popular conception, a vaccine is regarded as a silver bullet. But the truth — especially with the earliest vaccines — is likely to be far more nuanced. Public health experts fear that could lead to disappointment and erode the already delicate trust essential to making the effort to vanquish the virus succeed.

The drive to develop vaccines is frequently characterized as a race, with one country or company in the lead. The race metaphor suggests that what matters is who reaches the finish line first. But first across the line isn’t necessarily the best — and it almost certainly isn’t the end of the race, which could go on for years.

“The realistic scenario is probably going to be more like what we saw with HIV/AIDS,” said Michael S. Kinch, an expert in drug development and research at Washington University . . . “With HIV, we had a first generation of, looking back now, fairly mediocre drugs. I am afraid — and people don’t like to hear this, but I’m kind of constantly preaching it — we have to prepare ourselves for the idea we do not have a very good vaccine. My guess is the first generation of vaccines may be mediocre.”


In other words, reality isn’t reality TV.

The Simulation Situation

There are smart people who think we’re probably living in a simulation. They question whether we’re flesh and blood creatures inhabiting a physical universe. Instead, we’re mental constructs “living” inside an incredibly sophisticated computer program. Our reality is someone else’s virtual reality.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker summarizes the logic:

The argument, actually debated at length at the American Museum of Natural History just last year, is that the odds are overwhelming that ours is a simulated universe. The argument is elegant. Since the advance of intelligence seems like the one constant among living things—and since living things are far likelier than not to be spread around the universe—then one of the things that smart living things will do is make simulations of other universes in which to run experiments….

Since there will be only one “real” universe, and countless simulated ones, the odds that we are living in one of the simulations instead of the one actual reality are overwhelming. If intelligent life exists, then we are surely likely to be living in one of its Matrices. As Clara Moskowitz, writing in Scientific American, no less, explains succinctly, “A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors. They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.”

Mr. Gopnik somewhat jokingly suggests that recent events, in particular, an evil buffoon becoming President, a startling turnaround in the Super Bowl, a dumb mistake at the Oscars, are evidence that someone “up there” is messing with us (“Let’s do this crazy thing and see what happens!”). 

In response, Jesse Singal of New York Magazine argues that recent events seem so bizarre because recent history has been relatively calm:

…part of what’s going on here is that over the last few decades, the world has gotten so much less weird — in mostly good ways — that it’s now easier to highlight and harp upon what are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor weirdness flare-ups….

We pay more attention to the Patriots coming back from 28–3 in an impossibly short span of time because we’re less distracted by the U.S. trying to napalm its way out of an inconceivably stupid jungle quagmire. We gawk at the Oscar craziness and dwell on it because it stands out in a saner world than many of our parents and grandparents inhabited. Hell, it’s too early to say, but in the long run, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, maybe even [Donald Drump] — God or superintelligent alien simulators willing — will end up getting a mere footnote, rather than a chapter, in the Book of Weirdness humanity continues writing every moment of every day.

I think Mr. Singal is correct, of course. As some have noted, the Oscar thing was bound to happen (it had already happened once before, in 1964 to Sammy Davis Jr.); sports teams occasionally overcome big deficits, especially when the other team helps; and the Electoral College could have done what the Founders intended and elected a normal person (although I have to admit that, as naturally-occurring events in any possible world go, Drump in the White House is hard to accept).

The idea that we are constructs in some kind of vast computer program isn’t the same as what was depicted in the Matrix movies. In the Matrix, we were good, old-fashioned human beings being manipulated into thinking we were somewhere else. In the simulation hypothesis, we’re software that thinks it’s human. But once you start to imagine possibilities like these, it’s hard to conclude we’re one vs. the other. Would it be easier to create virtual beings who think they’re organisms like us or to trick organisms like us into thinking we’re somewhere else? 

That’s one of the problems I have with the idea of the big simulation. It’s the same problem I have with the idea that our minds could be uploaded onto a computer. In theory, a program could execute the same thoughts that you or I have. For example, it could reach the same conclusions we would if presented with the same evidence. But could a program have the same feelings, the same conscious experience, we have when we touch, hear or see? Maybe so, but it’s hard for me to understand how a program could possibly do that. Would the software include components that made the software believe it was conscious when it really wasn’t? Could the evil demon have tricked Descartes into think he was conscious when he really wasn’t?

Of course, there are other problems with the simulation hypothesis besides my personal lack of imagination. Nobody knows how common life is. How often, for example, do chemical components form single-cell organisms? How often does single-cell life make the transition to multi-cellular life? Assuming complex organisms develop, how often do they form stable societies? And how much technological progress do stable societies make before they destroy themselves or hit some other bump in the cosmic road? We know there are lots of stars in the universe, and now it looks like there are lots of planets too, but beyond that it’s all speculation.

It’s also questionable whether advanced civilizations would decide to run such simulations even if they could. Why assume that beings that advanced would care about creating a world like ours? Wouldn’t they have better things to do?

More than a few philosophers and physicists think there are other universes in addition to ours, maybe even an infinite number of them. In one or more of those many universes, every possibility is real. So maybe the universe we experience is a vast simulation. On the other hand, maybe it’s a simulation being run for an audience of one. How do I know that the simulation I’m witnessing is simulating something for anyone else? It would certainly be simpler to simulate a universe for a single “person” (me) as opposed to billions of them (all of you). At any rate, I’m sure I’m here. Are you?