If Heraclitus asked the question of the one and the many, Parmenides gives us a rigid answer. He breaks with the method of the Milesians who began with observations from nature, and begins instead with a logical argument, prescinding from the senses.
Reason tells us that what is, is one. And thus it cannot also be many.
This is Parmenides’ main point: that reality is an eternal, unchanging unit, and thus change is an illusion. This thesis is dramatically anti-experiential and contradicts the observations of the senses.
Here is his line of thinking.
- Thought and being are the same; you cannot think any anything except what is. You cannot think of what does not exist. Non-being is not a possible object of thought, because if you did think about it, it would be an object, and thus not non-being at all. [This is in my view the birth of EPISTEMOLOGY, the study of knowledge. Parmenides is the first person to describe knowledge and its object, and to describe the contingency of knowledge on reality.]
- It is necessary to think and say what is.
- Coming into being is impossible. For to come into existence means for a thing not to exist, and then to come into existence. But a thing cannot not exist, because then it would not be a thing at all. It would be no-thing.
- Going out of existence is likewise impossible. We cannot say “a thing no longer exists” because if it no longer exists, then it is no thing, and nothing is not a possible object of thought. Not-being is not the opposite of being like night is the opposite of day. It does not stand for anything at all.
- Therefore it does not make sense to speak of coming into being or passing out of existence.
This argument represents a radical break with the past, because the Milesians took for granted the observations of the senses and the change, the processes of coming into existence and passing away. But for Parmenides, logic and the intellect are superior to the senses, and if reason has shown us what is and is not a possible object of thought, then so much the worse for observation. Observation, to him, is the way of illusion.
Parmenides develops his reasoning about reality. He has established that it cannot come into existence or pass out of existence. So it is eternal. It cannot change in its properties, for that too involves coming in and out of non-being, which is impossible. So reality is eternal and unchanging. It is non-temporal, it is indivisible and necessary. In one passage he describes it as spherical, since to the Greeks, the sphere is perfect. It could not be infinite, for Parmenides, since the infinite is less than perfect. It is “full of what is.”
Parmenides will re-emerge in our study when we study the atomists as well as Plato. The atomists held that the world of nature is composed of atoms, and they have all these same qualities of Parmenides’ reality. The atomists are able to account for change and observation, which Parmenides was not, all the while maintaining the logic of Parmenidean thought and describing reality as fundamentally composed of Parmenidean atoms.
Plato, too, will draw on Parmenides. Some scholars say that Plato’s two worlds—an immaterial world of eternal, unchanging forms, and the material world of the senses—amount to a wedding of Parmenides and Heraclitus. Plato’s world of forms corresponds to Parmenides’ description of reality, and his world of sensible particulars corresponds the Heraclitus’ description of the world of flux.
All of this will advance our pursuit of a metaphysics of motherhood, as we are seeking to know whether what matters to a mother—the intrinsic value of her child and the importance of her child’s thriving—are myth or reality. If all her child is, is a bundle of cells and they are but bundles of atoms, and they are constantly in flux and have no enduring reality, then it is hard to locate her child’s intrinsic value. If something, for its short duration, is constantly changing, can’t be pinpointed or grasped, and then it passes out of existence, its almost impossible to demonstrate any value to it. For what is “it,” really? Isn’t “it” being a thing at all a myth? It is just atoms in flux, or as modern physicists would say, just energy. How do we value energy? It seems to me that we might impose value as a mental construct, we might intend for it to have value, but this is an imposition from without. It is like a child adopting a grasshopper and loving it with all his heart as his closest friend. The grasshopper has been given dignity from without, but it is not innate. In fact, in itself it does not have value. Innate value should exist, even if all people with their thoughts and opinions were to vanish. If you take all people away, 2+2 still equals 4. Is it possible to demonstrate that, in an analogous way, human beings have worth? Worth that is more fundamental than a person’s opinion? If so, then a mother’s love for her child and sense of her intrinsic worth makes the mother wise. If it is not, then she is delusional. Everything rests on it and hangs in the balance of metaphysics.