Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Parmenides on the One and the Many (Western Philosophy)

For my MCCC Western Philosophy students. This morning I'll be explaining the Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. Here are the notes I'll be working from.

Question: What is Parmenides solution to the problem of the one and the many?
There is no “many.” Only “the One” exists.
This is hard to believe, since our experience is of “many” things (this table, that chair, etc.). The table and the chair appear to be two things, not the same thing.
How does Parmenides arrive at the idea that the “many” do not exist?

1.   Thinking and being are the same.
When you think, the content of your thinking is a thought. If you think “This board is white,” you are thinking of what is, namely, the board and its color.
If you say “I am thinking of a unicorn,” you are thinking of something that is. You’re thinking of a horse, and a single horn.
Parmenides believes that when you think of anything at all, that thing is. Parmenides wrote – “thought and being are the same.”
That is Parmenides’ starting point.
OK – so how does he get from this, to the idea that “the many” do not exist? And not only do “the many” not exist, change, motion, and time do not exist.

2.   Unbeing does not exist, and cannot even be thought.
Parmenides says: You cannot think of “nothing.”
          See Kenny, p. 11.
          “Never shall this prevail, that Unbeing is;
          Rein in your mind from any thought like this.” (Parmenides)
“If Being is that of which something or other, no matter what, is true, then Unbeing is that of which nothing at all is true. That, surely, is nonsense. Not only can it not exist, it cannot even be thought of.”
Paremenides – “Unbeing you won’t grasp – it can’t be done –
                             Nor utter; being thought and being are one.”
Kenny (11) explains: “Given his definition of ‘being’ and ‘Unbeing’ Parmenides is surely right here. If I tell you that I am thinking of something, and you ask me what kind of thing I’m thinking of, you will be puzzled if I say that it isn’t any kind of thing… In that sense, it is true that to be thought of and to be are one and the same.”
                   Thinking and being are the same.
Because nothing is not.  If you could think of nothing, it would be something. But that is contradictory. Nothing cannot be something.
From this it follows logically that all our beliefs about the “many” must be false. Such as, e.g.,  my belief that the book I am reading is one thing and my hand that is holding it is another thing.
Parmenides believed that is false. IN REALITY (behind what “appears” to be), there is no distinction between the book and my hand.
          In reality, they are One.

3.   How Parmenides arrives at this.
To say that something “comes into being” implies that it formerly was not.
          But it is impossible to say that, for it involves the idea of “not-being.”
And Parmenides has already shown that Nonbeing cannot be thought. “Nonbeing” is inconceivable, since thought and being are the same.
The same goes for “passing away.”
                    E.g., my dog dies and is no more – or so it seems.
                    Parmenides thinks this idea is inconceivable.
“Passing away” involves the notion of “what is not,” but “what is not” cannot be thought.
If “what is not” cannot be thought, then it cannot be. There is no realm of not being. There couldn’t be.
There is no coming into being and passing away.
Therefore the common experience that things do have beginnings and endings must be an illusion. Change is impossible!
Kenny - “Being must be everlasting.” (12) Because it could not have come from Unbeing.
There is no such thing as unbeing. Nothing can come from Nothing.
So, Being did not begin in time.

4.   Parmenides is a rationalist, not an empiricist.
Parmenides knows that this goes against our sense experience.
Of course the senses tell us that things change, that they being and end. But Parmenides says we are not to rely on sense experience. We must rely on reasoning alone.
We must go wherever the argument takes us, even if it contradicts common sense and the persuasive evidence of the senses.
Here Parmenides stands at the beginning of one of the major traditions in Western philosophy. It is called rationalism. Parmenides has been called the first rationalist philosopher.

For more see:
-      Frank Close - Nothing: A Very Short Introduction
ALSO: Physics has shown that our universe began to exist. That is, our universe has an origin. (Note: even if there is a multiverse [still, IMHO, speculation], some argue that the multiverse had a beginning.)
-       So current physics refutes Parmenides.