Truth suffers from too much analysis

Parmenidean Dogma

Posted by allzermalmer on December 9, 2011

This blog is based off an article done by W.T. Stace. The article is called Parmenidean Dogma, and appeared in the philosophical journal Philosophy, Vol. 24, No. 90 (Jul., 1949), pp. 195-204.

“By the Parmenidean dogma I mean the proposition that “something cannot come out of nothing.””

We usually hear of this first proposition, and also hear of the second proposition that usually follows from it, i.e. “something cannot become nothing.” But we shall be dealing with the first proposition, which is the Parmenidean dogma. It is called the Parmenidean dogma because Parmenides was the first person who made it into an explicit form of an abstract metaphysical proposition. The idea might have been part of human thinking before Parmenides, but he was the first to formalize it.

It is not hard to see that this dogma could come out of common experience. We have the examples of trying to get a rabbit out of an empty top-hat, cannot get blood out of a stone, cannot take money out of an empty wallet. These are part of some of our basic experiences, and these were taken on to become part of the Parmenidean dogma. We can find that something suddenly appears before us, and we will almost immediately wonder where it came from. We ask, “Where did it come from? It must have been somewhere all the time. It couldn’t have come out of nothing.”

“Just as the common experiences of stones which are hard and grey, or leaves which are green and soft, gave rise to the metaphysical concept of substance, so these other common experiences gave rise to the Parmenidean dogma. Thus common-sense truths are rashly erected into universal metaphysical principles of all being. They harden into dogmas. they solidify into prejudices so deep that in a little while men say that anything which contradicts them is “inconceivable”.”

These types of dogma help to fetter human advancement. The reason is that we come to hold these idea, and yet at the same time we never try to advance beyond it, because it seems inconceivable for them to be any different. Take for example Euclidean geometry. This looks to be our common-sense idea of the geometry of the world that we experience. From this position, it seemed inconceivable that two straight lines could enclose a space. But, however, this all changed with the non-Euclidean geometry, which was invented by Georg Riemannan

This dogma happens to be very influential, and can be found throughout western thinking. For example, it has been held in Western philosophy for a long time because of Parmenides. It has also become part of our thinking in science, or at least in many scientific thinking. As has already been pointed out, it is also part of our common-sense thinking as well.

Now Parmenides used his idea of in a very interesting way, and one that helped to make him famous. He would talk about substance and being, and these were to be major categories of how the world is. But it would also prohibit certain things.

“Change always involves the arising of something new, something which wasn’t there before, something therefore which has come out of nothing. If an object changes from green to red, then the red has come from nowhere, and the green has disappeared into non-existence. And as this contradicts the dogma it cannot have happened.”

But this seems to contradict the way we like to view things as well. That is because it makes change look like an illusion, and that’s even the conclusion that Parmenides stated based on the Parmenidean Dogma. For we do notice a change in colors, going from one color to another, or something change from one thing to another, or one state to another state. But this shows that there is change, which means that it contradicts the dogma. This would seem to indicate that there is something wrong with the Parmedian Dogma. This is involved with the Problem of Change, and one can read Heraclitus to see what happens with the Problem of Change and what can come from this.

This became such a problem back in the days of the ancient philosophers, that Aristotle came out with an answer to the problem of change. It seems to come out and try to answer the problem with a certain invocation of potential.

“Aristotle, as we know, believed he had “solved” the problem of change-a problem artificially created by the dogma and otherwise non-existent-by inventing the categories of potentiality and actuality. The rabbit was, by means of these categories, successfully produced out of the top-hat. This was very awkward because we had just looked into the top-hat and seen that the rabbit was not there. There is only one solution. The rabbit was in the hat all the time. But it wasn’t an actual rabbit. It was a potential rabbit. That is why we couldn’t see it when we looked. Potential rabbits are invisible.”

These ideas, which are developed by Parmenides, went on to influence how people reacted to it. Aristotles response went on to influence many generations of people with his response. This went on down through Aquinas of the Middle Ages, down to the present times that we live in. This, in some ways, goes to show the influences that the Parmenidean dogma went to have on philosophy and some reactions to it. “It was Parmenides who was responsible for potentiality”, because developed it to continue with the dogma in some form.

We can even find that it has even become a dogma of science. Alan Guth, in his book The Inflationary Universe, helps make this point when he says that, “”Being is ungenerable and imperishable,” wrote Parmenides in about 500 B.C., in a passage that helped to create the philosophical approach that today we call science.” So we can find that science does rely on this dogma as well, and forms one of the major foundations for science, and our view of the world. It comes from common sense experience, and we come to find it hard to think of a world that doesn’t follow such a principle.

“Clearly [Parmenidean Dogma] produced the scientific maxims of the conservation of matter and the conservation of energy. These ideas are not empirical generalizations. They are simply a priori deductions from the dogma…It is plain that scientists supposed that matter could neither be created nor destroyed because they supposed it inconceivable that something could come out of nothing or go into nothing.”

Now, it is true that we don’t see matter coming in and out of existence. We find the conservation of matter to be inline with our observations and with common-sense. It agrees with our observation of not finding rabbits coming out of empty top-hats, or finding money coming out of an empty wallet. This is what has helped to suggest the conservation of matter to begin with. But it is plain that these observations we have made are insufficient to base on which to found a universal principle about the nature of matter throughout the universe. But at least we can rely on experience for this one, to a certain degree.

But the conservation of energy itself is in a worse off position than that of matter. This isn’t support by common observation, but is flatly contradicted by it. Imagine that two people are throwing a baseball to each other, over a house. When one person throws it up into the air and over the house, there is a certain amount of kinetic energy being used. But now imagine that the ball gets stuck on the roof and doesn’t move from the roof in a week. What we notice through experience is that the energy was there when it was thrown, but disappeared when the ball got stuck on the roof. This energy disappeared. But, when a storm comes by and dislodges the ball and falls off the roof, we notice that the same amount of kinetic energy appears again. The energy was there, disappeared, and the same exact amount of energy reappeared. So what happened to the energy during that week of being lodged on the roof?

“If you consult experience, observation, the answer is that it had gone out of existence altogether. But this does not square with dogma. So the scientist invented the fiction of potential energy- Aristotle’s Parmenidean concept- to make it square. Not only is this concept supported by no evidence whatsoever, but it is in this case even flatly self-contradictory. For potential energy simply means no energy which is not now energizing. It is non-energetic energy.”

This is partially covered in another blog done here, by the same author.

But now, in recent physics, the two principles of conservation of matter and conservation of energy have disappeared. For, now both principles are combined together to form a new principle. This new principle is the principle of conservation of matter-energy. This means that energy and matter turn into one another. Matter can turn into energy, and energy can turn into matter. This follows the Parmenidean dogma, because two principles form the new single principle of conservation of matter-energy. Something still cannot come out of nothing. This is helps bring out the idea of form and matter, which seems to be related to the Parmenidean dogma.

“We suppose that two quite different things are really, in spite of their difference, the same thing, because one is a different form of the other or because they are both forms of something underlying. Another variant of the same idea is the notion of “aspects”. There are supposed to be different aspects of the same thing.”

Now an empiricist might agree to talk of such a way, the idea of form and matter, but they do not hold to it being true. It’s just a mode of speech that we use. For you can say that A and b are two forms of one thing, then either this one thing is an underlying substratum that’s unempirical, or you mean that one thing is A itself or B itself. Now, if you say that A is form of something which, by the very hypothesis under question, is different from it, specifically b, you are just talking nonsense. Purple cannot be a form of red, would be an example.

We find the category of form everywhere. For example, we say that diamond and charcoal are said to be forms of the same thing known as carbon. But charcoal and diamond are palpably different things. We also hear that heat, light, and electricity are different forms of energy. So, with all this in mind, how is this a result of the Parmenidean dogma? Empirically what is observed in the cases just mentioned would follow similarly to this. The charcoal disappears into nothing, and the diamond appears from nowhere. The heat disappears out of existence, and the light comes out of nothing.

Instead, what we do to try to avoid this, is to make an equivalence to be set up. This way we can say that heat is replaced with light, light replaced with the original amount of heat doesn’t affect this procedure. This just becomes a part of the regularity and orderliness in the changes that happen in the world. But all these observed facts contradict the Parmenidean dogma, but we say that heat has never gone out of existence and has exited for all time. We just say that it has existed in another form.

“The category of form in this case does the same work as the category of potentiality in the case of the [baseball] thrown up on the roof. And the one is as much a fiction as the other. And both fictions have been developed in our culture in order to square observed facts with the Parmenidean dogma.”

Now, one position in philosophy is that of causation. Certain theories have been proposed, and one of them has been based on the Parmenidean dogma. This type of idea is based on the cause and effect being identical. This is the idea of identity theory of causation. This means that all effects are completely and literally identical to their causes, which in turn means that there is no such thing as change in the world. But some cannot accept that there is no change in the world, and would thus have to say that the effect is another “form” of the cause. This helps bring out Parmenidean origin of the identity theory. This is because the effect must be identical with the cause, because if this were not the case, then something came into existence in the effect that was not in existence before. This means that something has come out of nothing.

Some try to save this theory of causation, and come to say that the cause and effect might not be identical but they’re at least alike. But this, as well, is contradicted by experience. Lighting is totally unlike its effect, that of thunder. One is a visual phenomena, and the other is an auditory phenomena. But this theory cannot even be made clear because the fact of resemblance is a matter of degree, and this makes it impossible for the theory to say how much resemblance there is between the cause and effect are required. And it is certainly possible that everything in the universe resembles everything else in some of it’s characteristics, no matter how much unlike they are.

The theory of identical causation, and it’s resemblance off-shoot, is part of the baseless objection to Cartesian dualism. For we usually consider it “inconceivable” for mind and matter to interact, or could influence one another. This, evidently, is because they’re suppose to be unlike one another. So the cause is unlike the effect, and find that the Parmenidean dogma ha a hand in the objection to Cartesian dualism.

There is another example, which is that of Absolute Idealism. One tenet of Absolute Idealism is that the higher cannot come out of the lower.This means that beaut and goodness cannot come out of nothing, and this would be involved if they came out of what is lower than themselves. Thus, they must have always been in existence in some say. They must be eternal.

“Indeed, on the Parmenidean view everything must be eternal, since nothing can ever come into existence. This is in fact the theory of absolute idealism, since it holds that if anything does come into existence it cannot be real, but is only an appearance. From this point of view absolute idealism is in all its expanse nothing but a vast elaboration of the Parmenidean dogma.”

Now some might question the absolute idealist, and one response would be that the pre-existent values in the absolute are invisible like the potential rabbit. This is what is meant by saying that they’re transcendental. And transcendental means not phenomenal, and not phenomenal means not visible. But if you give up the Parmenidean dogma, then all of this disappears.

Now it will be maintained that the Parmenidean dogma is either an empirical generalization or a necessary truth. Now it can’t be an empirical generalization when we’ve noticed that there’s contradictories of it being an empirical generalization. Thus, we’re left to come up with it as a necessary truth. And it would seem that many, especially Parmenides thought of it as a necessary truth. And Parmenides even used it to contradict experience, and yet such an idea is common and doesn’t strictly come from Parmenides himself. And it comes to be seen as “inconceivable” for something to come out of nothing, but this is like two straight lines enclosing space with Euclid’s geometry.

Now it seems that David Hume settled this issue of the Parmenidean dogma not being a necessary truth. He brought this up in “Why a cause is always necessary“. His answer to the Parmenidean dogma being a necessary truth doesn’t have to deal with necessary connection, and are independent of it. His answer of the Parmenidean dogma not being a necessary truth would still be valid even if we admit of necessary connection. What Hume argued against was that “whatever beings to exist must have a cause of existence.”, which we can call the causal proposition, was a necessary truth.

“[Hume] points out that we can easily imagine- he is using the word in the strict sense of having a mental image of- we can easily imagine something coming into existence without a cause.Thus you can easily imagine a billiard ball suddenly appearing on the table here, literally beginning to be, without any cause, or if you like, coming from nowhere…Now it is impossible to have an image of something which is self-contradictory. For instance, you cannot imagine a round square. Therefore the fact that you can imagine a thing or event proves that it is not self-contradictory. Therefore since you can imagine a thing coming into existence without a cause, this proves that it is not self-contradictory. Hence the causal proposition cannot be an analytic a priori truth.”

Now there is another type of “proof” that can be presented.

“When it is said that a thing is self-contradictory, this is of course elliptical. Only propositions can. So when it is said that a thing is self-contradictory what is meant is that two contradicting propositions follow from the assertion of its existence. Therefore if anyone says that something is self-contradictory we ought always to ask him to set out the two contradicting propositions. It follows that, if a thing or event can be completely described without remained in a set of propositions none of which contradicts another one, then the thing or event cannot be self-contradictory.”

Now let us imagine that some thing or event, X, comes into existence out of nothing, passes from non-existence to existence, at time T. We can describe this in only two propositions, (1.) that X did not exist before time T, and (2.) that X existed after time T. These propositions don’t contradict one another, because they deal with different times. Now, if it were said that X both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, then this would be self-contradictory. Thus, X coming into existence out of nothing is not self-contradictory and not a necessary truth. Thus, it is neither an empirical generalization and a necessary truth.

This can also be applied to causal propositions. Suppose that X came into existence at time T without a cause. This can be described with 3 propositions. (1.) X did not exist before time T, (2.) X existed after time T, (3.) before time T there was no event which stood in the causal relation to X. None of these propositions contradict one another. Now this shows that it’s not an analytic (a priori) truth, and we seem to be left with a synthetic (a priori) truth.

Now it is commonly held that there are no synthetic a priori truths. But this being the case now doesn’t mean that there are no synthetic a priori truths. So if the Parmenidean dogma is a sythetic a priori truth, then it will have the character of being intuitively necessary. But this doesn’t seem to be the case at all. For example, children don’t seem to have a problem of thinking of fairies popping out of nowhere in front of them, and things of this nature. They find it intuitive that this can happen, which means it’s not intuitively necessary that the Parmenidean dogma is a synthetic a priori truth. Some propositions in mathematics seem intuitively necessary, but these are analytic truths and we can prove them step by step. But the Parmenidean dogma doesn’t look to be demonstrably step by step, and thus not intuitively necessary. So it seems that the Parmenidean dogma is like someone who says that “the Earth is flat”. It might seem intuitively necessary that the earth is flat, but there doesn’t seem to be any demonstrable way to back up this intuitive necessary truth that they hold. “But it is quite clear that what has happened is that he has mistaken a psychological feeling of certainty, such as is derived from a deep-rooted prejudice, or a logical necessity.”

“We reach the result that the Parmenidean dogma is baseless…It does not follow that some of the ideas based on it may not be useful. Perhaps potential energy may be a useful fiction. It is necessary if the principle of conservation is to be preserved. And that principle, though it cannot claim to be an absolute truth, is doubtless a valuable methodological assumption.”

“But in general our picture of the world will be changed- and changed evidently in the direct of a more empirical philosophy. We shall not invent hidden substances underlying the changes of things in order to preserve the things from going in and out of existence. We shall not invent a hidden mysterious energy which underlies heat, light, and electricity. We shall say that the principle that they are all “forms” of energy means only that when a given amount of motion disappears and is replaced by a given amount of heat, these are equivalents in the sense that the original amount of motion can be made by suitable means to appear again and displace the heat.”

Now, this also means that Newton’s infamous “action at a distance” can be accepted. Back in Newton’s day, people looked for mechanical answers, which was basically about showing one object coming into contact with another to make it move. But Newton’s formulation of gravity said that it was action at a distance, which was where one object doesn’t come into contact with another. This was a scandal in Newton’s time, but people came to accept it (reluctantly) because it worked so well with predictions. So there’s no contradiction to suppose that a cause happens here on Earth, and all of a sudden effects something on the other side of the universe with nothing intermediary between them. The rejection of the Parmenidean dogma means that the mind is perfectly open to admit action at a distance if ever the evidence should point to it.

“In general the moral is: anything whatever can happen- anything except round squares, two two making five, or other self-contradictions. It is simply a matter of evidence. I have sometimes been asked what is the value of empiricism. Sometimes I am afraid it is used to rule out possibilities. Sometimes it appears as a narrowing influence. But its true function is to free the mind from prejudices, to free us from the bondage of supposing that our prejudices are laws of the universe. Instead of narrowing our view-point, it should open our minds and our imaginations to the possibilities of new paths and hitherto undreamed progress in knowledge. It should strike off many ancient fetters from our minds.”


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