The world as we know it appears subject to incessant change. We watch leaves fall at the onset of autumn, people age with every year they grow older and the circumstances of our own lives differ from day-to-day.
At the same time, there are certain things that never change. A triangle can only ever have three sides, a statement is always either true or false, hot and cold are always opposites, etc.
Does any one aspect hold more sway over our understanding of the world than the other? Would it be possible to understand things that seem to change without contrasting these with things that don’t? And does mutability or permanence make an object or condition more or less real?
The first individual we know of to have given these problems some serious thought was a Greek philosopher named Parmenides. He was active as a member of the Eleatic School of philosophy during the mid-fifth century BCE in Italy. Parmenides is regarded as the father of ontology (literally, the “study of being”) and is credited with introducing formal logic to defend his metaphysical positions.
Parmenides remains a daunting figure in the history of Western philosophy due to the solution he posed to the problem of understanding change. In short, he claimed change is an illusion and our apprehension of the world leads us not to discover truth but appearances. The only direct source for his argument remains in fragments from his philosophical poem, On Nature.
I’ll extrapolate and summarize Parmenides’ claims below:
- Everything that exists “is,” or “has being.” It’s impossible to speak or think about something that “is not” (or “lacks being”), because doing so would give it some kind of being.
- All things that can be thought of must exist. There “are” no things that do not exist, and hence no such thing as “non-being.”
- In order for something to come into being, it must emerge from a state of non-being.
- As established in premise 2, there is no such thing as non-being. Therefore, nothing can come into being, and hence, change is an illusion.
- Our senses perceive a world that seems to always be undergoing change.
- Per premise 4, change is an illusion; our senses don’t perceive the world as it is but merely as it appears.
- If everything that exists “is,” and everything that exists is immune to change, the world around us must be a totality of immutable and unchanging being.
The argument presented here is entirely deductive. If Parmenides is right about the nature of being, then change must necessarily be an illusion. If all things that “are” must be, and all things that “are not” cannot be, then changeless being ends up the primary property which we can ascribe to all things that exist. Parmenides is wrong if there is such a thing as non-being, but good luck proving that.
Most of you would normally have little reason to take Parmenides seriously, I get it. But as someone who’s studied a bit of philosophy and found this argument to be of utmost consequence, I intend to challenge that.
Modern physics has put forth a principle of Conservation of Matter and Energy. According to this axiom, the amount of matter in any closed system must remain constant throughout all its processes. Matter can be neither lost nor gained, but merely transformed.
To illustrate, think of a seed in the ground growing into a plant. It seems easy enough to point out that the plant came from the seed as an indicator of change and new matter.
But as it turns out, a stem sprouted forth from inside the seed due to moisture and pressure underground. The seed would have sprouted roots as a result of the same conditions. These roots would then draw up nutrients from the soil surrounding the seed, resulting in growth. Once above ground, the plant would be able to harness photons from the sun, water and carbon dioxide into energy by means of photosynthesis.
Though at first it might seem our seed magically gained new matter along its journey into a plant, and additional matter was in fact present the whole time in other formats.
That might suffice to explain a conservation of matter, you might say. But what about energy?
The most famous equation in modern physics was given to us by Albert Einstein. E = mc² claims that an object’s kinetic energy is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. In other words, if you were to take a physical object and accelerate the movement of its atoms times the square of the speed of light, you would convert it into raw energy. Energy and mass, according to Einstein, are in fact the same thing, and can be converted into each other.
Physics has told us energy and matter are the same thing, and neither one can be created nor destroyed.
Parmenides has told us there is no such thing as non-being, and therefore no such thing as change resulting from things coming into and passing out of being. Everything is being, according to the Eleatic philosopher; nothing is created nor destroyed.
Whether you agree or disagree with Parmenides at this point is not so much my concern. I intended to raise a daunting question here rather than answer it, and I think my end of the bargain is more or less fulfilled.
It wasn’t until Plato, who was staggeringly brilliant, that Western philosophy managed to find a suitable answer to Parmenides’ claims. The argument against change is valid, and its consequences are damning for us in terms of everything we think we know about the world.
In the end, being is much more than we can fathom. When Hamlet proclaims, “To be, or not to be—that is the question,” we would do well to think his question through for once.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.