December 27, 2007 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Parmenides. "The pre-Socratic philosopher sparked an intellectual revolution that still echoes today. Yet for philosophy and science to continue to progress in the 21st century, we may need to embark on an entirely new cognitive journey ."
posted by homunculus (21 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a previous post on Heraclitus.
posted by homunculus at 1:38 PM on December 27, 2007

that which is not is not? not so.
posted by Postroad at 1:54 PM on December 27, 2007

No one could sincerely accept, even less live by, Parmenides's conclusions, not only because they are unthinkable, but also because they contain a fundamental error. This is easiest to spot in the assertion in Fragment 3 that "Thinking and the thought 'it is' are the same"; in other words, that it is impossible to think of something that does not exist.

I don't think that is what Parmenides meant, but rather that thought makes things as real as we believe real things are. In other words, there is not difference between the thought of something non-existent and the thought of something that exists. Both are real in that both are encapsulated in thought. Thinking of something that does not exist makes it exist in thought. What is a horse? It's a thought, not a reference to a specific horse, because other horses are not that specific one. Do the Gods of Olympus exist? Yes as a concept, just as much as Parmenides exists today as a concept and not as a person (because he isn't a person anymore).

In other words, if something does not exist, it has never been thought of, and you thinking about it renders it no longer non-existent.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:05 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hmmm, I wonder if I am somehow related to this Parmenides fellow.
posted by parmanparman at 2:20 PM on December 27, 2007

Alright Parmenides, if you're so great, what's your explanation for zombies?

What's that? You can't answer, because you dead?

I win!
posted by blue_beetle at 2:45 PM on December 27, 2007

By these arguments, Parmenides arrives at his picture of the world as a single, undifferentiated, unchanging unity.

Was everyone in 600BC copying off of each others' homework?

Parmenides walked up to the falafel vendor and said, "Make me one with everything".
posted by XMLicious at 2:54 PM on December 27, 2007

Pastabagel, the problem with that is that I can think of lots of things that don't exist, like dragons, and faster-than-light starships. Just because I think about them doesn't mean they exist.

Certainly they exist as concepts but that is a banal observation, approaching tautological.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:57 PM on December 27, 2007

(Indeed, it is effectively a definition, of the word "concept".)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:59 PM on December 27, 2007

To think of something that is not is, he believes, implicitly to assert simultaneously that it is and that it is not.

Is you is or is you ain't my baby?
posted by obvious at 3:03 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

While his conclusions are wacko, his attitude is impeccable:

Grant me, ye gods… but one certainty [even] if it be but a log's breadth on which to lie, on which to ride upon the sea of uncertainty. Take away everything that comes-to-be, everything lush, colourful, blossoming, illusory… Take all these for yourselves and grant me but the one and only, poor empty certainty.

If I had anybody to pray to, that would be my prayer as well.

I have to point out that this statement from the first link is ridiculous:

All writing in major cultures since has been based upon the Greek alphabet.

Uh, right. Sorry, China, Japan, India, Persia, and all other claimants: you've been declared "minor cultures." Bow down and worship!
posted by languagehat at 3:14 PM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I almost spit my coffee out on that one.
posted by homunculus at 3:32 PM on December 27, 2007

Pastabagel: I'm not a philosopher, but couldn't we extend and generalize that line of reasoning to say that, in thinking of the set of things that does not exist, we have brought them into existence as conceptual entities? Is it not true, then, that non-existence has already been destroyed?

The only way out of that is to consider a grouping of things different from the things that constitute it. Still, you run into the problem of transitivity: by definition, it seems, the members of a group have at least the attributes of the group to which they belong.
posted by invitapriore at 3:47 PM on December 27, 2007

The problem with the pre-Socratics is that that we know so damn little of their thought. As the article points out, we have but scraps of Parmenides' argument. The entire texts we have of the pre-Socratics can be purchased in a book that's less than 200 pages long.

I'm not saying that all knowledge of the pre-Socratics is impossible, but one must take proclamations on their "thought" with a spoonful of salt.

I've always been a Heraclitan at heart though. Change is only constant (a statement with more than one constant, of course).
posted by Kattullus at 4:47 PM on December 27, 2007

Q: Does Sherlock Holmes smoke a pipe?
A: Of course not! Concepts don't have mouths!



Look, it's the best joke about the importance of context when discussing non-existent/fictional entities that I could come up with. Hmpf.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:29 PM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

as for a "return to the Parmenidean moment... to reimagine his thought and its consequences, in the hope of awakening out of his awakening to one more closely answering to our need for wholeness of understanding" or whatever (so demanding!) might i suggest chris crawford's history of thinking?

i particularly like his thoughts on "subjunctive thinking":
This might be called "virtual thinking"; where sequential thinking imagines a line of nodes, subjunctive thinking sees each node as a branchpoint from which a thousand possibilities emerge. The workload of keeping track of all those possibilities is too much for the human brain to handle, but now we have a medium that is ideally suited for subjunctive thinking: the computer. Thus, the computer will permit the full exploitation of subjunctive thinking in the same way that writing permitted the full exploitation of sequential thinking. We are about to enter a new period in the human story every bit as brilliant as that of classical Greece.
here, he develops the idea a bit further:
The point I want you to take home is this: recursion is high-powered intellectual stuff, that makes perfect sense in the world of programming, allowing you to think about problems in a completely new color. You thought that red, green, and blue were the only primary colors? Think again -- programming gives you a new set of glasses to wear, glasses that allow you to see the universe of ideas in a new light.

So here we have in programming a new language, a new form of writing, that supports a new way of thinking. We should therefore expect it to enable a dramatic new view of the universe. But before we get carried away with wild notions of a new Western civilization, a latter-day Athens with modern Platos and Aristotles, we need to recognize that we lack one of the crucial factors in the original Greek efflorescence: an alphabet...

My analogy runs deep. I have always been disturbed by the realization that the Egyptian scribes practiced their art for several thousand years without ever writing down anything really interesting... Compare the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians with the writings of the Greeks and the difference that leaps out at you is humanity.

You can see the same thing in the output of the current generation of programmers, especially in the field of computer games. It's lifeless. Sure, their stuff is technically very good, but it's like the Egyptian statuary: technically very impressive, but the faces stare blankly, whereas Greek statuary ripples with the power of life.

What we need is a means of democratizing programming, of taking it out of the soulless hands of the programmers and putting it into the hands of a wider range of talents. What we need is analogous to an alphabet...
NB: this was written over a decade ago, so... i dunno :P

btw, the 'history of thinking' reminds me of one of my first comments i ever made on mefi, which S(c)DB was kind enough to reply to and correct me (twice ;)

posted by kliuless at 10:19 PM on December 27, 2007 [4 favorites]

I read that first one and all I can think is, "Wow! Alan Sokal is a mean drunk!"

He keeps throwing up these things that I start to call analogies, but I think maybe he thinks they're arguments or maybe examples. He's clearly not got a solid understanding of all the quantum stuff he goes on about. I kinda wonder how he'd deal with the Wigner's friend thought experiment where, until Wigner sticks his head in the lab to find out what happened, there is half of a scientist in there finding a live cat and half of a scientist finding a dead cat.

So much for consciousness.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:08 PM on December 27, 2007

I thought the article was interesting, and I have fond memories of Parmenides from the first year of my undergraduate degree, but I thought the argument in the article (that Parmenides in some way enabled later counter-experiential thinking) was a bit strange. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

As for Anscombe's comment about Plato being a footnote to Parmenides, I don't know how Parmenides' natural philosophy is that much of a precursor to Plato's ethical thinking.

If I'm honest, the article seemed like one of those academics write on the theme of "why the thing I know about is really important".
posted by athenian at 11:51 PM on December 27, 2007

His arguments are set out in On Nature, a rather prosaic poem of which only 150 lines survive.

I've always liked how the poetic form was used for matters like technical advice or philosophic thinking, which we strictly think of as belonging to the prose domain nowadays.

I used to live in Parmenides Str. and at nights his ghost would come up to chat and drink wine. Guess which part of the previous sentence is a lie.
posted by ersatz at 8:33 AM on December 28, 2007

Pff. Ghosts can't drink wine.
posted by cgc373 at 9:02 AM on December 28, 2007

Nothing is real. It says so right on the cover of Yellow Submarine.
posted by kimota at 1:38 PM on December 28, 2007

Now we know why Socrates is important.
posted by MetaMan at 9:28 PM on December 28, 2007

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