Philosophy: May 2008 Archives

The One

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I'm teaching Parmenides, Zeno, and Gorgias tomorrow, and their arguments are so fun that I thought I might post them for discussion. Parmenides is generally seen as the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. Elea was a city on the Italic peninsula during the classical Greek period, and it was one of a few centers of philosophical thought in the pre-Socratic period. He argued that there really can't be multiple things but just one unchanging, eternal thing. What we perceive to be many, changing things is but illusion. He has a kind of dualism, because he speaks of what is (the unchanging one) and what is not (illusion, what we perceive). But since the second doesn't exist, there's really only one thing.

His student Zeno (not the same Zeno who founded the Stoic school a few centuries later) is famous for his paradoxes against motion, which served the purpose of supporting the overall Parmenidean thesis that there's no change. Gorgias the Sophist presented a parady of Parmenidean arguments, concluding that there isn't even one thing. There's just nothing. It's not clear if he does it to show that he thinks the whole discussion is stupid or if he thinks he's showing by parody what's wrong with Parmenides' arguments, but given that he was a Sophist who was famous for his claim that he could argue for any thesis, it's generally accepted that he wasn't endorsing his argument. I'll post a reconstruction of Parmenides' primary argument here. I may or may not post some Zeno stuff at some point, but I definitely want to do Gorgias' parody in a later post. So here's one way to capture Parmenides' argument.

Anything has to be in one of the four categories:
A. It is and it cannot not be.
B. It is not and it cannot be.
C. It is but can fail to be.
D. It is not but could have been in the past or could be in the future.

C and D are not options:

Against D: How could it possibly be that something exists but doesn't exist? If it exists, it exists. That's a necessary truth. It couldn't fail to be true. If it exists, it necessarily exists.

Against C: If something doesn't exist, then necessarily it doesn't exist. How could it not exist and exist? So it's got to be a necessary truth. That rules out C in a similar way.

That means that anything that doesn't exist cannot exist, and anything that does exist must exist. So the only possibilities are A and B.

He then argues that you can't think or speak about the non-existent, because something has to be possible to be thought of or spoken of. There's no possible thing to speak of or think of unless it's possible, and if it's possible then it's actual. So all there is is what does and must exist.

Now what does exist is what must exist, and that means it can't change. Change involves being one way and then no longer being that way. But if it exists, then it exists as it must be, because nothing is possible that isn't actual. So every way of being already is, and there's no room for change. Also, there can't be more than one thing, because two things mean there's a way to distinguish between them. If you can distinguish between Thing 1 and Thing 2, then that means Thing 1 is not Thing 2. But that can't be, because nothing can not be. Not being Thing 2 is a way of not being, and it's impossible to speak of something that's not Thing 2 if the thing you speak of (Thing 1) isn't Thing 2. So what he's already said leaves no room for multiplicity or change.

Therefore, there's only one unchanging thing, and all else that seems to be true is just illusion.

Ilya Somin points to a recent discussion of what life would be like if we have virtual reality machines that we could spend most of our life in. He's right to mention that this isn't a new debate based on the technology we now have but goes back (in the technological form) at least to the 70s, with Robert Nozick's experience machine.

There may have been other forms of the discussion. In fact, I'd be surprised if it never came up with the Epicureans, although I know of know extant document raising a similar puzzle for them. But it strikes me as odd that the Stoics or some other group wouldn't have raised the possibility of someone being misled about reality but experiencing pleasure, which seriously separates the two views of what counts as a good life. Epicureans would have to find some contingent reason why it would be bad to get in the machine, e.g. it may break down and then you'll miss it later, which constitutes pain (Epicurus' reason for never eating gourmet food) or someone might program in bad experiences while you're in it, and you'll never be able to get out to change the program back to what you wanted (which is similar to the Epicureans' response to the problem raised by an invisibility ring allowing you to get away with whatever you wanted). On the other hand, most people's reasons for not replacing your real experiences with machine-generated ones (at least as a permanent lifestyle) is because it's not real. That's just a bad life.

Somin's post indicates that he's unsure whether people would turn their life over to such a machine. His reason is that there are lots of people with lots of difference preferences. I think he's right about there being variation of preferences, but I think we all have the same basic preferences based on what's really and truly good. We just make mistakes about what will get us those, and those mistakes might lead some people to get into the machine.

I'm a lot less sure than he is that there would be very high numbers of such people, though, at least if my students are any indication. I present this issue in pretty much every ethics class and every ancient philosophy class I teach. That's been somewhere from 30-60 students every semester for the last several years. Once in a while I get a student who says they'd get in the machine. It's never been more than 2-3 in any given class, and more often than not no one thinks they'd get in. Maybe this is weighted in a certain direction because they're college students or something, but I really have a hard time believing a large number of people would turn their whole lives over to a virtual reality just because it's possible to do so.

I haven't seen Expelled, and I probably won't, but I've read some reviews of it across the spectrum of thought about design arguments and the particular species of them that people are calling Intelligent Design. It's been a nice occasion for everyone to say pretty much the same old things, with virtually all opponents of ID misrepresenting it pretty drastically amidst a few legitimate complaints and many supporters overstating their case, confusing some of the same basic distinctions ID opponents regularly confuse, and setting up science against religion rather than what the argument itself is supposed to suggest, which is that science and religion are in fact compatible.

So this film has drawn out much of the same nonsense that usually gets thrown around. Yet occasionally some real gem pops up that strikes me as insightful and helpful, and this time around I see that in Mollie Hemingway's wonderful critique of the media coverage surrounding this film. Several interesting points stand out:

1. She notices that the mainstream media have largely ignored this. That seems right from what I've seen. She only cites two examples, one that she doesn't think got the film quite right and the other that even I can see gets it completely wrong.
2. She compares it in style and tone to the strident, ideologically-colored, often fact-challenged documentaries of Al Gore and Michael Moore. Since I've seen none of the above, I can't comment, but it's an interesting suggestion.
3. She points out that Moore and Gore have garnered far more mainstream media coverage, not just of their documentaries, but of the issues their documentaries are about.
4. She also takes note of opinion media's much more substantial treatment of the film, and I think that's even much more obviously true when you take into account blogs (which she doesn't mention).

She doesn't really draw the conclusion that's just begging to be drawn and that I think she's suggesting. Whether a strident, ideological, fact-questioned documentary garners media attention and brings about a significant discussion of a certain issue seems to depend on what it's about or what ideology is behind it. It's unclear which it is in this case, which may be why she doesn't draw the conclusion explicitly. Is it because it's an ideology that's associated with conservatism and in particular religious conservatism? Or is it because of the issue rather than the viewpoint? Would a documentary by Michael Moore on the idiocy of intelligent design have the same no-impact result as this film has had in the major media? Would a conservative documentary starring Ben Stein but on health care or the Iraq war have the same attention Moore got with his films on those subjects?

My suspicion is that the answer is no in both cases, which if true means it's the ideology and not the topic that has made the difference. That doesn't demonstrate the point the documentary aims to make (which is about academic freedom), but it does demonstrate a similar point about which views are considered kosher by the establishment media.

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