Robert asked:

Was Bishop George Berkeley the first person to maintain that matter did not exist? Who was the first person who maintained that space did not exist? Who was the first person who maintained that time did not exist?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Berkeley was not the first philosopher to deny the existence of matter. That honour goes to the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides of Elea, who was indeed the first philosopher to deny the existence of matter, time and space.

According to Parmenides, the only thing that is, is the One. The only true statement one can make is, ‘It is.’ From that statement, various propositions follow:

The One was not, or will it be but exists altogether now, in the present. Hence, time does not exist. The One is not material, and it is not mental either. Any property P such that a thing can either be P, or not-P, such as ‘white’ or ‘square’, ‘heavy’ or ‘fragile’, ‘painful’ or ‘warm’, is disqualified from belonging to the One.

The One is finite, not infinite, because infinity implies something that ‘is not’. Parmenides describes the One as ‘like the bulk of a well-rounded sphere’. However, that doesn’t imply that the One is spherical in a literal sense. He is using an image.

So what about the world we all know, where things can be white or square or heavy or fragile, etc.? None of that is real, says Parmenides. Nothing we say about ‘our world’ can be true. (It is a problem with Parmenides’ theory that it is not at all easy to see how one accounts for the ‘reality’ of this on-going illusion. But that’s a problem we won’t go into.)

Parmenides’ theory of the One made a huge impact on the philosophers that followed. They couldn’t agree that the One was all there is, but the argument that Parmenides gave seemed to be compelling. So they made various compromises. Empedocles said that the world is made up of four unchanging elements. The Atomists Democritus and Leucippus said that the world is made up of atoms in motion, each atom being like a miniature unchanging Parmenidean ‘One’.

What was the argument Parmenides gave for his theory?

On the face of it, the argument is a blatant non-sequitur:

1. Take anything you like (call it x).

2. Either x is, or x is not.

3. If x is not, then x cannot be. The very idea of x is ‘unthinkable’.

4. By contraposition, if x can be then it is.

5. If ‘x is’ follows from ‘x is possible’ then x is necessary.

6. All that is, is necessary and cannot not-be.

As the very idea that ‘x is not’ is unthinkable, there is no place for negation in any account of ‘what is’. If there are two objects, x and y, then x is not y and y is not x, which is impossible. Hence x is necessarily One. If the One is white, then it is not black. So the One cannot be white or black or any other colour.

But why on earth should we accept step 3? There are plenty of things that ‘are not’. I do not have two heads. Sheffield is not on the Moon. The drink in my mug is not tea.

Parmenides’ response? Not cannot be part of what a thing is. There is no such thing, no such property as not-ness. ‘Not’ is a word we use for various practical purposes, but it does not refer, cannot refer, to anything in reality. Reality is what is, and only what is. Anything on top is something we have added, something that is not ultimately real.

Think about that for a while, and your head will start spinning.

You might, for example, consider that the very idea of things existing contingently — say, the Big Bang might not have banged, the solar system might not have formed, I might not have been born etc. — is absurd. If you are talking about what is real, then contingency can be no part of reality.

The God theory is just another example of an attempt to ‘customize’ Parmenides’ One, like the theories of Empedocles or the Atomists. Just like those theories, it requires a compromise, going back on what Parmenides considers that he has proved. There is only the One, and the One cannot be described in any way other than saying that, ‘It is.’

Give it time, and you will begin to see Parmenides meant. And then you will understand why he is considered one of the giants of Western Philosophy.

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