Friday, 5 May 2017

The One

      – More thoughts following my 'Ask a Philosopher' post on 30 April, Parmenides' One. This isn't the way I want to go, but I'm going to give it a try anyway...
      I wrote my first 'serious' (non-beginner) philosophy essay as a first year undergrad at Birkbeck College, over the Christmas/ New Year holiday 1972-3. The title, 'Parmenides' Way of Truth'. I spent far longer and read far more than one would reasonably expect for a freshman essay, but something drove me. The forbidding figure of Parmenides was an irresistible challenge. There was no backing down.
      And when it was all done, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
      We know what Parmenides wrote. It's preserved in the fragments from his book 'The Way of Truth'. But the actual logic of the argument is unclear.
      So let's try with a clean slate. Let's not worry about whether or not Parmenides would recognize this has his argument.
      Something is. That's a reasonable claim to make, surely. Even if Descartes is right and the only thing I can be certain of is 'I am', then something is because I am something...
      ... and not nothing.
      Might nothing have been? That's the implication of Heidegger's question (in What is Metaphysics?) 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' I can't remember exactly how he gets there, but Heidegger, in speaking of the idea of nothing, infamously asserts, 'Das Nichts nichtet.' Nothing noths – the claim that Carnap and the Logical Positivists fastened upon as illustrating the absurdity of metaphysics.
      Well, you can hardly consider the possibility that nothing is, which is implied by the notion that there 'might have been' nothing. Nothing can be said about nothing other than it 'noths'. – I would say that one cannot even say that. Speaking for myself, I simply cannot get my mind around the sheer 'possibility of nothing'. You could try imagining 'empty space' but obviously that's just a picture. There really is nothing for the mind to hold onto. And wasn't that the point Heidegger was making? (and which the Positivists clearly missed).
      What does father Parmenides say? Nothing is unthinkable. You cannot think 'nothing', you cannot refer to 'nothing', you cannot say anything about 'nothing'. The only alternative is that...
      Something is.
      What is this something? What can we say about it? Here, I depart from the text of 'Way of Truth'.
      There are apparently two possibilities, that what is, contingently is, and that what is necessarily is. We know that something must be. There cannot be nothing. But why can't you say that it is necessary that 'something is', but contingent that the 'something' in question is configured one way (has one set of properties) rather than another way (has another set of properties)?
      Now we are at the nub of it.
      Contingency is anathema. What is ultimate, cannot be contingent. The 'ultimately contingent' is sheer irrationality. Here, I find myself agreeing with Hegel: the real is rational, it must be.
      What Parmenides says is that contingency implies 'what is not', and what is not is unthinkable. If the 'something' is white, then there can't be black. If the 'something' is square, then it can't be triangular. It's harder to see why that is a problem. The best case one can make (see the unit on Parmenides in the Pathways Program, The First Philosophers) is that, if we are talking about reality, that which is, then not or negativity cannot be part of reality or involved in any way with it. Omnis determinatio est negatio. All determination is negation. What is, in itself and apart from any view taken of it (as it were 'from outside') cannot be white because that implies negation by the above principle. It is not black.
      (In the unit on Parmenides, I compare Sartre's view in Being and Nothingness that Being is the One of Parmenides and Nothingness arises from the discriminatory actions of consciousness.)
      I'm not totally happy with this story about negation, which is why I am looking for an alternative 'take'.
      Contingency is anathema. What is, necessarily is. But we can say more. It is no less impossible to accept that existence, necessary in itself, gives rise to a contingent reality, a universe that might have been different in countlessly many ways. The Big Bang might have banged differently. Earth might not have formed, I might not have been born, etc.
      The American philosopher David Lewis has the response to this (Counterfactuals, On the Plurality of Worlds). All possible worlds are equally 'real'. Our world is just another possible world, no more 'real' than any other possible world.
      Now we're talking! But would Parmenides agree?
      The One is all possible worlds.
      Taken together, as the entire range of what can be, there is no negativity. Every conceivable property is manifested, every logical possibility realized.
      What we term 'the actual world' is merely an aspect of the One.
      The actual world is a world in time. Every time is a 'now' but only one time can be now. What one logically should say about that is that now is merely an aspect of the history of the actual world.
      The actual world contains many conscious subjects, each of whom conceives of themself as an 'I'. But only one 'I' can be I. By parity of reasoning, I am merely an 'aspect' of all conscious beings.
      Then, finally, we come to the I-now. The this.
      The One, or the That, cannot be without the this. The two ultimate, indescribable 'realities' exist at opposite poles. The One, or the That, manifests itself in indescribably many thises. Each this looks back to the One.
       – Where have I heard that before?...

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