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The Problem Of Parmenides (and Its Possible Solutions)

A brief inquiry into the question of change posed by the great pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides

Date : 15/09/2021

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Uploaded by : James
Uploaded on : 15/09/2021
Subject : Philosophy

The Problem of Parmenides

It seems at once intuitive to affirm that things change based on the shared human experience of nature leaves turn red and fall to the ground in Autumn before lifeless frosts of winter in Spring, vegetation springs forth from the barren lands Summer arrives, and verdant greenery teems forth. Nevertheless, the question of the changeability of the world was the most significant and contentious debate during the era of pre-Socratic philosophy. Observing the aforementioned ceaseless alteration in life, Heraclitus of Ephesus (d. 475 BC), posited that the core truth of existence is that the world is in a constant state of becoming everything, even the seemingly unchanging mountains, existed in a constant state of flux. This ceaseless movement meant that, though I may take frequent dips in the River Cam during the sweltering summer months, the stream I wade through in August is entirely different than the waters I felt in June. This theory of constant change, however, was opposed and contradicted by another pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides (d. 475 BC), who posited that the intrinsic nature of reality was in fact one of unchanging unity there was only Being, an eternal, all-enveloping reality that transcended alterations of space and the passage of time. At first glance, such a proposition seems preposterous to even speak such words requires the changing movements of the tongue to produce the necessary words, bringing the world from a state of silence to one of noise but there was a strong logical argument for this principle.

Parmenides challenged those who disagreed with him to explain how, if things did indeed change or move, it was done without causing being to originate from non-being, which was considered an obvious logical impossibility. For Parmenides, there were two choices: either 1) being comes from being or 2) being comes from nonbeing: if the first option was correct, then the same thing existed before and after, and no change truly occurred, whereas, if the second option was correct, then nothing can truly come to be after all, nothing can emerge from nothing. Parmenides conclusion was that, given that the existence of being is readily self-evident and the absurdity of arguing for creation ex nihlo, change and multiplicity must be an illusion, our deceitful senses veiling things as they truly are. This idea was indeed enticing during the heyday of Ionian philosophy, and was adopted by a number of thinkers: most notably, Zeno (d. 430 BC), a fellow Eleatic philosopher, argued in his famous paradoxes of motion, in which he argued that, because moving to a point necessitates reaching the halfway point, and reaching that half-way point requires reaching a halfway point between the original position and the original halfway point, and reaching that secondary halfway point requires reaching a tertiary halfway point, which itself is subject to the same paradox. Thus, reaching the original endpoint is impossible, as it entails dividing space infinitely, which, as we know, is an impossibility. One can see the obvious sophistry in such an idea, insomuch as it entails using the intellect to argue against what seems plainly obvious, and accordingly Protagoras adopted it for use in his theories of universal relativism.

The Atomist Response

Driven by the conviction that it is indeed possible to walk from one end of the room to another, or change uncooked food to cooked food, not all philosophers, were content with the explanation posed by Parmenides. The atomists, led by the Thracian philosopher Democritus (d. 370 BC) and his somewhat mythical teacher Leucippus (d. 4XX BC), appeared to at least solve the paradoxes of Zeno by arguing for the notion of a philosophical atom the base unit of existence that could not be further divided that would create an endpoint to the multitudinous halfway points standing between two positions. Atomism was also able to explain change to some degree, as, it was not the case that things came into existence before our very eyes rather, atoms were eternal, and were merely rearranged into various configurations that reflected the phenomena seen before our eyes.

Atomism, however, did not solve all of the problems raised by the challenge of Parmenides, insomuch as it never addresses the core question of being posited by Parmenides how it could be that being itself came to be was not explained until the time of Plato (d. 347 BC) We find in Plato s dialogue, The Sophist, in which Plato s unnamed stranger remarks that not-being is not in fact the opposite of being, but rather, an infinite number of potential realities. Parmenides, according to Plato, erred in considering Being, or that which is, to be the only existent category, but failed to recognize that nonbeing itself, through its existence in the world of thought and forms, had a sort of reality to it itself. In The Sophist, the eponymous sophist claims that nonbeing in no way participates in being, but finds his statement rebutted by Plato s Stranger, who explains that nonbeing is in fact a greater category than being itself. Central to Plato s rebuttal of Parmenides lies in his argument that the world consists of a limited number of what are called per se truths, but an unlimited number of what are called per accidens truths. A per se truth is something that is true within itself for instance, a builder builds as a direct consequence of his being a builder while a per accidens truth is a truth unrelated to the essence of what a thing is like a doctor building a house, not as a doctor, but as a housebuilder in the moment, contrasted with his essential function of healing. Being, then, changes only insomuch as the eternal, unchanging per se truths generate per accidens truths.

The Aristotelean Response

These seeds planted in Plato s Socratic dialogues sprouted into a full theory in the writings of Aristotle (d. 322 BC), in which his discussions of physics explored the notion of potentiality in regards to being and movement. Aristotle also argued that the error of Parmenides laid in his failure to distinguish between per se truths and per accidens truths in regards to being, but focused on the question of motion that had made Zeno an infidel to the possibility of walking from the kitchen to the living room. Aristotle thus those proposes a third option to the dilemma of Parmenides based on the ideas espoused by Plato: that, 3) potential being becomes actual being, rather than being coming out of being or nonbeing.

Aristotle s arguments in the context of his discussions on Physics are important for explaining his conception of motion as an incomplete actualization that is only fully actualized when the object comes to rest. For example, a book that is dropped has the potency to fall until it hits the floor. It was not the case that the book was always on the floor and merely appeared to move through deceptive sense-data, nor was it the case that the book suddenly materialized from non-being on the floor rather, as Aristotle explained, it went from having the potential to fall to having fully fallen. Likewise, when it comes to the ineffable concept of Being itself, it was not the case that Being originated in non-being rather, actual being came from a potential, non-actualized being. This led to what is perhaps Aristotle s greatest scientific discovery: a definition of motion, which he defined in Physics book three, chapter one, as being-at-work staying itself of whatever is potentially, just as such, is motion.

In a broader context, Aristotle s arguments support his greater theory that all forms are known through the senses. He could have just as well disproved the challenge of Parmenides on a case-by-case basis, using inductive reasoning to demonstrate that, because change is evident time and time again according to our lives, it must be evident within the greater cosmological framework of reality. We can see as well, how Plato s theory of being contrasts with Parmenides affirms his theory of forms existing beyond what is there. Parmenides, however, merits respect for his ideas, insomuch as they laid the foundations for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to explore the very nature of reality itself and design a conceptual systemization that explained the great problem of change, being, and motion.

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