sunnuntai 26. heinäkuuta 2009

What is, is

Until now we have met pre-scientific and religious thinkers. Only one group is still missing, namely, that of proper philosophers, that is, thinkers who have interests distinct of scientific and religious ones. The Eleatic school of philosophy is the first proper example of this manner of thinking.

The founder of the Eleatic school was Parmenides. Parmenides was supposedly a possible student of Xenophanes, whom we have already met, but the connection of Xenophanes with the actual thinking of the Eleatics is rather minimal: the most that he might have passed on to his supposed follower is the idea of whole universe as a divinity – indeed, Parmenides’ teachings flirt with a mystical idea of universe being a whole where everything is connected.

Although Parmenides might then have connection with the earlier thinkers with more religious interests, it is the more scientific Ionians that Parmenides has most to do with. Parmenides even presents his own physical model of the development of the world like the Ionians had done. Yet, there is a twist: Parmenides at once admits that his model is an illusion that does not correspond with true reality. His point is to criticise all attempts of the Ionian sort, because even the first assumptions of these attempts are faulty. At the same time he develops the views of Anaximenes on one material substance in a direction the latter might have deemed incredible.

Parmenides’ criteria for deciding which physical theories are correct is the simple statement “what is, is, and what isn’t, isn’t”. Sounds obvious, but does it lead anywhere? Parmenides’ idea is that whenever we have to use negatives like “it isn’t so”, we are actually speaking nonsense. For instance, if I say “there are no centaurs”, I seem to be speaking of centaurs as existing things, but at the same time I admit that there are no centaurs. Similarly, whenever I deny something, I seem to speak of a situation that holds, but then I immediately deny that such situation holds. Parmenides may appear to have been mistaken: surely we can speak of non-existence and things not being something – otherwise we wouldn’t have the word “not” in our vocabulary. Yet, in some sense Parmenides might be right. Negative sentences do not provide us with new information, but merely tell what mistakes we should avoid: if we know of an apple that it isn’t red, I really don’t know anything definite of its colour, but only know to avoid the false statement that it is red.

Now, any statement of the form “A is not B” involves obviously negation or denial of something: thus, according to Parmenides’ criterion such statements do not tell anything. The problem is that all classifications of things are based on such statements: for instance, you couldn’t define redness in any other way, but through contrast with yellowness, blueness, greenness etc. The curious result would then be that we couldn’t pronounce any difference of things: all we could note are similarities between things. The final conclusion would be that there exists only one thing. This is actually a logical consequence of philosophy of Ionians and especially Anaximenes. If all things are merely modifications of one matter – whether it is called water, air or something else – then everything truly is one “blob”, and all apparent differences within that blob are inessential. True, it seems that e.g. I am separate from the air surrounding me, but actually I and air are both just parts of one material continuum.

Parmenides point out also that statements like “it wasn’t like this” or “it won’t be like that” are also meaningless, because they contain negation. In one sense this seems obvious: the true actuality is the way things are now, while past and future events are not happening now and are thus not at the moment actual. But Parmenides has another point: things cannot have been different than they are now and they won’t be different than now, that is, all change is a mere illusion. Remember that Parmenidian world was a continuum of matter where all apparent differences were inessential. It may look like things come and go all the time – leaves are grown by a tree and then they fall and vanish. Actually the matter of the tree has just formed into leaves which then finally turn into earth: because tree, leaves and earth are just inessential modifications of one matter, no true change has happened. Parmenides is thus criticising Ionian idea that world could somehow have begun: matter is eternal and the only true existent, thus, there cannot be any true coming-to-bes.

It isn’t a surprise to hear that Parmenides denied the existence of void, that is, a place within universe where there is no matter: after all, if we said there is no matter in some place we would be using a negation. Of the statements of Parmenides, this might the most difficult to explain nowadays: after all, the idea of a vacuum seems quite acceptable. But actually a widespread acceptance of vacuum is quite a recent thing, and we might thus assume that it is more natural for human beings to think of space as completely filled with something. True, we do use such expression as “there is nothing in it”, but on a closer look they are just saying “there is nothing I am looking for in it” (no whiskey in a bottle etc.). Indeed, the whole question “Is there anything in it” seems to suppose that there is always some “it” filling the place (we shall return to this argument when we deal with atomists).

Parmenidian world is then a continuous blob of undifferentiated mass in which no true change happens. But what is then the shape of this blob? Parmenides himself concluded that the world must be a ball. He justified this once again by noting that other possibilities would require us to accept differences and thus negation. For instance, if the world would be a pyramid, we could make a distinction between the apex and an arbitrary point within the surface of the pyramid. Parmenides’ choice of the shape caused actually a sort of debate in the Eleatic school. Parmenides’ pupil Melissos noted that in a ball we could distinguish between the points in the surface and the other points: thus, the world couldn’t have been ball even according to Parmenides’ own methodology. Melissos himself suggested that the world would have no finite shape at all, but that it would be infinite. Yet, the idea of infinity was not in fashion those days, and indeed, it is hard to imagine what an infinite blob of matter would look like. Melissos’ suggestion remained therefore a curiosity.

Elealtic theory aroused apparently quite lot of controversy: indeed, a theory that denies all change and multiplicity doesn’t seem quite convincing. Eleatics themselves answered to the challenge by trying to make the opinions of their enemies sound equally ridiculous. Melissos and especially Parmenides’ other student, Zeno, invented a number of arguments which intended to show that denying Eleatic theory would lead to contradictions: thus, philosophical argumentation had begun.

Particularly famous were Zeno’s arguments against the existence of motion. Because in Eleatic world no true changes would happen, no motion would exist either: it wouldn’t matter if one piece of matter travelled to another place, because all matter would be part of one indivisible continuum. But Zeno had also other reasons beyond his Eleatic worldview to doubt that motion in the ordinary sense of the word truly occurs. If I start to walk from my living room to kitchen I must at some point travel the half-way distance between those two rooms, and before I can reach that half-way point I must have stepped over some point between this half-way point and my original position. It is easy to see that this process could be continued indefinitely and before reaching our destination we should have made infinite number of other journeys, which seems impossible. One way out of the difficulty would be to deny the dividing of the distance between the two rooms into smaller and smaller distances: it makes no difference to distinguish between e.g. the journey before the half-way point and the journey after it, because they are just aspects of the same journey. This is actually where Zeno is heading: we could then reasonably suggest that there is no justification for distinguishing even between the beginning and the end of the journey, which would be mere aspects of one indivisible continuum.

Elean philosophy was then in a sense first synthesis in the history of philosophy: it combined the material explanation of the world as a single material continuum in the Ionian philosophy with the need to discover the human position in the world – like everything else, human thought was also just another aspect of the One or the universe as a material continuum. Furthermore, it also was the first philosophy that we know to have taken seriously the need to justify its own view against the views of its combatants, thus truly earning the name “philosophy”.

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