History of Philosophy – Lesson 4: Parmenides and the Logic of Immobility

“So [according to Parmenides] the world is simply a motionless, changeless, undifferentiated ball of tightly-packed matter. Now, needless to say, this is not the way that it appears to our senses.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 4.
(There is so much movement in the world, that it is hard to understand how Parmenides came to think there isn’t. However, there was logic behind his reasoning, and it posed a serious problem for philosophy. It took around one hundred years and Aristotle for mankind to come up with a solution.)

Heraclitus said “Change is obvious, therefore, to hell with logic.” Parmenides said, “Logic is obvious, therefore, to hell with change.” Still using Peikoff’s own words, Parmenides’ philosophy can be summarized by the principle “What is, is, and what is not, is not, and what is not can neither be, nor be thought about.” Hard to deny that logic.

This is the earliest formulation in the history of thought of Ayn Rand’s first axiom of metaphysics — “Existence exists” — and its meaning is the same. The fact that you cannot think of nothing is also her view that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists. If thought is always about reality, always about what is, then it is false ever to hold the concept of sheer nonexistence. Up to this point, Parmenides could well be an Objectivist. But he lost his way.

One day in the far future, when we finish this series of posts on the history of philosophy, I believe you will notice a common flaw among many philosophers: they make great arguments based on wrong premises. This is not the case with Parmenides. Based on the correct premises, he formulates a bad argument, and, in the process, “solves” the age-old problem of change and multiplicity: both do not exist.

Parmenides held that change requires something fundamentally coming into or going out of existence, and since this is impossible, change entails a contradiction. Change is just as irrational as the idea of the universe being created or going out of existence. It includes reference to what is not. And what is not, is not. Therefore, he concluded, there is no change at all. And, by the way, the universe is eternal.

But he does not stop there. If there can be no reference to what is not, there cannot be such thing as a real vacuum. Therefore, there cannot be separation between two entities: the universe is solidly packed, it is one continuous slab of one stuff — a plenum. There’s just one entity, which he called “the One”. Parmenides was the quintessential monist. There is no multiplicity.

Now, just like Heraclitus, Parmenides is forced to deny the validity of the senses. After all, there is change and motion and many things everywhere. But, for some reason, that is a serious problem now. It is as if people found it easier to deny the senses AND logic; but, now that logic itself entails such denial, it is too much to bear. That is the problem Parmenides created.

We’ll see that the pluralists will deny monism to allow change and multiplicity in this world, and that Plato will create two worlds — the “real world” and the “world of appearances” — to allow both change and immobility, both multiplicity and “the One”, thus also opening the door to Paradise.

After a brief interlude with Aristotle, when the senses stop being attacked, it will be an all-out war against them across the whole of history — that is, until we get to Ayn Rand.

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