Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Metaphysical Certainty of the First Way's First Premise

Parmenides argues as follows:

1. Something exists. (Premise)

2. If there were more than one thing, then they would either differ by being or by non-being. (Premise)

3. They cannot differ by being, since being is what makes them identical. (Premise)

4. They cannot differ by non-being, since to differ by non-being is to differ by nothing, and to differ by nothing is to not differ at all. (Premise)

5. Therefore, only one thing exists. (From 1 - 4)

The argument is logically valid, but it's premise (2) that is demonstrably false.  Although there have been many different attempts to circumvent this premise, I'm persuaded that Aristotle provides the best alternative.  While things are identical in their being/actuality (that-ness), they differ by their various essences (what-ness) and their varying degrees of potentialities.  Only Aristotle's Unmoved Mover is Pure Actuality, whereas other things (while participating in the actuality of the Unmoved Mover) are distinct from the Unmoved Mover due to their potentialities.  For example, an acorn is merely a type of seed in actuality, but it is an oak tree in potentiality.

I'm not going to defend the First Way in this post, with the exception of premise (1): Evident to the senses is change.  Alternatively, (1) can be stated as: Things change.

Now, why is this premise metaphysically certain?  Aristotle provides the following criticism of Parmenides's argument.  Coming to the realization that all change and all distinction is illusory itself constitutes a change, making the argument of Parmenides literally self-defeating.  We can know with certainty that things change, or at the very least, that things have the potentiality to change.


  1. First, allow me to tell you that I don't think Parmenides was right. As you know, I am much more with Herakleitos in this respect, but Aristotle's criticism, or at least the version you provide in your last paragraph, seems to miss the mark by quite a distance. of course coming to the realization of something constitutes a change, Parmenides would agree with that. But he would argue that nobody actually comes to realize anything, just as nothing really comes into being.

  2. Walter, I'm glad to see you don't agree with Parmenides. Then again, I already knew you were sympathetic to Heraclitus. By the way, would take issue with being called an atheistic-pantheist? You clearly don't believe in a personal God, but how about an impersonal God, where God is simply identical with Nature? Just curious.

    Anyway, back to the issue. If Parmenides were to respond that nobody ever comes to realize anything, then his position must be that everyone already knows that nothing changes. I think I'm in a pretty good position to say otherwise. I experience change. Either that experience is an illusion or it's veridical. Parmenides would not be willing to say it's veridical, so he would have to say that my experience is illusory. Yet, an illusory experience of change still constitutes a change in my mind. I think Aristotle hit it right on the head.

  3. Doug

    I don't take issue with anything, so you can call me whatever you want. As far as pantheism is concerned, if by that you mean that Nature (with or without the capital N) is an awesome system that allows for various outcomes, including sentient beings like ourselves, then I guess I am a pantheist. But then, every naturalist would be a pantheist, which would render the term pantheism quite trivial. If you mean anything else by it, then I definitely am not a pantheist.

    As for Pamenides, I think he would say that an illusory change does not constitute a change in our mind. That may sound weird, but if growing a beard is not a change, why would an illusion be a change?

    Anyway, as I said, I am not with Parmenides in this respect.

    1. Not every atheist or naturalist views the universe as an awesome place, or views the forces of nature as necessary (last I recall, this was your view).

      An illusory change not constituting a change in the mind is not just weird; it's contradictory. Think of Kant's distinction between phenomena (what we perceive) and noumena (what a thing is in and of itself). While we cannot be certain of the noumena, we can be certain of the phenomena. For example, I can be certain that I am being appeared to treely, as a mental image impressed upon my mind. Change is the same way.

  4. Doug

    As I have said before, you can call me whatever you like, as long as you realize that there is a difference between my view and a theist's view, not just a difference.
    Also, I don't view the forces of nature as necessary, I view them as epistemically possibly necessary. A claim of necessity should, IMO, be proved, and since I cannot prove the necessity of the forces of nature, I am not justified in claiming they are necessary. My position in this is similar to Swinburne's, who realizes God's necessity is not provable.

    As for illusory change, Parmenides would probably deny that we can be certain of the phenomena, because saying this seems to beg the question in favour of the possibility or the actuality of change.

    But, as I am not with Parmenides in this respect, I am not going to defend his view here. The important question is: (how) can (the illusion of) change be accounted for?

    1. Your views are obviously not theistic. There's never been any implication in my words that they are. What I was only saying was that your views don't conform to the typical atheist, at least not the atheists I'm familiar with.

      For the record, Swinburne positively denies God's logical necessity (existence in all possible worlds). He instead affirms God's Aristotelian necessity (that God is eternal and indestructible in the actual world).

      If Parmenides were to say it begs the question to affirm the certainty of the experience of change, then he'd be wrong. However, he affirmed that we experience change; he only denied its reality. Now, the "important question" of how to account for change is beyond the scope of this post. But as you know, the fact of change is included in the first premise of Aristotle's cosmological argument for the Unmoved Mover's (God's) existence). Poetically, to accept Parmenides' argument (not suggesting you are; far from it), is to affirm to existence of Pure Actuality, and hence, of God's existence. That was precisely Parmenides' view.

    2. Atheists, Doug, not unlike theists, come in all sorts of varieties. So, I am not sure what "the typical atheist" would look like. Actually, most atheists I am familiar with have views very similar to mine.
      In fact, even Richard Dawkins has on several occasions expressed how awesome the universe is, and how evolution accounts for various "wonders" of nature.

      And as for Parmenides, I think that accepting his argument would lead to a kind of pan(en)theistic view of God and the universe.

  5. Doug

    I see that I messed up with the italics in my reply of 3 June.
    It should have read "as long as you realize that there is a fundamental difference between my view and a theist's view, not just a gradual difference."