I am interested in how other people think. I like to hear ideas, especially new ones. One of the reasons why I love zombie movies, or any apocalyptic movies, is my interest in how the characters choose to do what they do. Their strategy, their thought process.
I really enjoy trying to figure stuff out, and it seems that I also enjoy seeing other people try to figure stuff out. This, I guess, is what led me to the ancient Western philosophers, the pre-Socratics.
These philosophers were around in 600-500(ish) BCE. They are by no means ancient when compared to Eastern philosophies such as Hinduism, which dates back upwards to 5000-3000 BCE. I find both interesting, but here I would like to dedicate this post to the Western pre-Socratics. My goal is to use this page as a reference point, kind of like my own study notes.
I plan to read whatever I read, and make notes on things that I find interesting, then transfer those notes here. That way I can come back to them whenever, but also share what I have read with anyone that cares. But this is more for my own mental exercise.
So, anything written here (actually anything I write ever) should be taken with a grain of sand or salt or whatever, as I am not an expert or authority in anything. I am just writing from what I learn, read, interpret and think. I am subject to being dead wrong 100% of the time.
Anaximander (~570 BCE)
Anaximander thought that the universe was infinite, and came from an infinite source. This infinite source, apeiron (limitless, boundless), wasn’t an element like water or air, but something separate and boundless in nature (perhaps unnameable?). This boundless nature is the source of everything, it is where everything we see comes from, and when things cease to exist, they return back to this boundless infinite source. The infinite doesn’t have an origin but rather is the origin of everything else. This infinite source, this boundless nature was also called divine, though I don’t think it was thought to be a god or a deity.
This is interesting, as Anaximander makes it clear that the infinite nature of the universe isn’t infinite space, or infinite air, or infinite water (air, water, earth, fire were the common elements of stuff). Essentially, he isn’t giving this apeiron a definite quality, rather gives it an indefinite quality. It is pure potentiality. From this pure potentiality, he argues that opposites are drawn out and thus come into existence (hot and cold, wet and dry).
*For me, this infinite potentiality that is the source of everything makes me think of two things: quantum physics and the philosophies of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Quantum physics will tell you that nothing objectively exists, but rather exists as purely probabilistic potentiality, and that what we experience is created by our own consciousness. Only the act of observing it and experiencing it, does this ‘it’ come into existence from pure potentiality. Thus, this pure nothingness, pure potentiality brings all that we experience into existence. There are parallels of this drawn in Hinduism as well. I am reminded of Brahman. Brahman is not to be confused with Brahma, the god of creation, nor Brahmin, a religious priest or scholar. Brahman is this impersonal ‘god’ in Hinduism, though it isn’t god in the most used sense. Brahman is everything, there is nothing but Brahman, yourself included. Brahman is the true nature of reality, it is the substrate that all things (material, immaterial, physical, non-physical, experiential…everything!) are made from, the source of all things. Brahman has no definable qualities, and cannot be seen or heard or experienced with the senses directly, yet it is everything.
Anaximander also thought that the universe is constant motion and change, it is flux. But in this flux there is a universal justice that is upheld. This cosmic principle, he explained, could be seen in everything. It is why a cold winter submits to the summer, and vice versa. The natural order of flux regulates everything, and this is done through eternal motion (eternal change, eternal flux). This cosmic principle enforces a balance, so that nothing continues in one direction forever. The universe is self correcting.
This is a very great observation, and you have to imagine that at that time, this was thought of by, well, nobody. It is akin to our understanding of every action has an equal but opposite reaction (balance, cosmic order). It also reminds me of a principle in chemistry: Le Chatelier’s Principle. It states that for any reversible reaction, such as
A + B <——-> AB
that there will exist an equilibrium for that reaction. So if you start off with a given amount of A, B and AB (and anything else needed for the reaction), then the system (the reaction and its constituents) will be in a state of flux (reactions) that always seeks to find an equilibrium. Given enough time, you will always find a similar proportion of A, B and AB, no matter how much of each you start with. The consequence of this principle, of this equilibrium, is that if you add a bit more of A, or of B, then the reaction will move forward towards AB so that the reaction can reach its equilibrium point. Oppositely, if you add more AB to the solution, then the reaction will go in the reverse direction and produce more A and B, again, in order to reach equilibrium.
This is the universe trying to find balance through eternal motion, through flux.
Anaximander might have been the first person in the Western world to posit that the universe is constantly seeking equilibrium, and it does this through constant (eternal) motion, and thus is perpetually in a state of flux. He also felt, similarly to Hindu philosophies, that the balance of the universe was cyclical. The universe would form, get used up and in a catastrophic event, restart from the beginning. This process would continue for all eternity. This is quite congruent with Hindu beliefs that the universe is formed, maintained, then destroyed, only to be reformed again, all over the timeline of billions or trillions of years (I can’t remember which). Keep in mind, the number 10,000 wasn’t even invented by the Greeks at this time, nor the number zero (which was also given to the Greeks by the Indians), let alone billions and trillions.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to think that some of these early Greek thinkers must have been exposed to Eastern thought at some point.
He also had some interesting views on the layout of the cosmos. He thought that the earth was cylindrical in shape, and that the earth is surrounded by a vapor. At the point where the universe separated from the boundless, infinite source (apeiron), there grew a flame that encircled the area around the earth (beyond the vapor), like ‘bark on a tree’, but separated from the earth. He thought that what the sun, moon and stars were, were pipe like channels that acted like breathing holes connecting that fiery flame to the earth, through the vapor layer.
You can imagine it like this. Imagine being in a room where every single part of the walls, floor and ceiling are light sources. The walls are made of light bulbs, let’s just say. Then say you cover the walls, ceiling and floor with a black material. Now you only see black. Then you cut some holes in the black material, and light comes through. You don’t see ALL the light, just the light from a tiny hole. In that sense, outside of the earth and the vapors that separate it from its surroundings is simply a giant blazing fire. But because of the presence of all these little ‘holes’ in the vapor, distinct spots of light come through. We view them as the sun, the stars, the moon, but in actuality they are all the same fire. What an interesting concept! He even thought that eclipses were just coverings of these channels.
Anaximander also thought that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that it doesn’t move. If it is at the center, then it has equal distance to anything in all directions, thus has no reason to move one direction over the other, so it is bound to stay where it rests. This is an interesting argument, even if I find it to be invalid.
Anaximenes (~550 BCE)
Anaximenes continues on (whether purposely or not, I don’t know) from Anaximanders views. Anaximenes believed that the universe was infinite, but not coming from a boundless, indefinite source. Rather, he thought that this infinite material that made up the universe was air. Air seemed to make sense as it gave humans their life, it was *almost indeterminate, in the sense that it was adaptable and could take on many properties.
Anaximenes saw air as the thing that made up the universe, and it did so by its constant eternal motion and state of flux. If air became condensed you would get vapor, condensed even more and you would get water, condensed even further and you would get earth, then rock. Through rarefication (is that a word?) or ‘loosening’, it goes from solid to liquid to vapor to gas (air) to fire. Essentially, he was describing phase transitions of matter. When we have water molecules loosely arranged, let’s just say a single water molecule, it will be in the vapor (gas) state. If you compact the molecules together tighter and tighter, this will form a liquid state, water. If you compress them together increasingly to the point that they form a very specific and rigid three dimensional lattice structure, then you get ice (a solid).
All of those changes of air, from one thing (liquid) to another (a table, fire, food, the earth) requires motion. Anaximenes thought that motion was eternal, and is the cause of all change.
Anaximenes thought that the earth was flat. He reasoned that it must float and sit on top of vapor, and in order to ride the vapor and not cut into it, it must be flat.
What is interesting is Anaximenes reduces his observable universe to one simple aspect, air and its ability to condense or expand. He reduces everything to a simple concept, and in doing so removes countless variables and leaves only a few, making the universe around himself understandable. He doesn’t require gods or mythical stories to explain the phenomena he experiences, rather the presence of a single substance, air, and the proportion and distribution of it.
This has parallels to string theory, which suggests that every single fundamental subatomic particle in the universe (quarks, electrons, bosons, leptons and all those funny sounding flaven van glavens) is actually made of the same substance: strings. These strings are so small they basically don’t exist (I can’t remember how small they are, but I do know they are related to Plancks constant, which is like, really small). They vibrate at certain frequencies, with certain energies, and depending on those vibrations, they can either be expressed as a quark, or a this, or a that, or a something else. It is scary how similar the views of Anaximenes were to current days views of the universe, when looking through the lense of string theory.
Xenophanes (~530 BCE)
Xenophanes thought that there was a god, and this god had a body, but not a human body. This god is motionless, as it has no reason to move as it can do anything with the power of thought.
But Xenophane was skeptical. The thought that there was no way to ever know everything, that no man would ever no everything (maybe anything?) about the gods and the true nature of things. He thought that all that we could do was believe, as true knowledge was impossible. What we believe should be considered ‘approximations of the truth’.
Xenophanes thought that knowledge through the senses was fallible, and thus true infallible knowledge could never be obtained through them. He thought that it was impossible to understand god (thought he thought there was a god), as god was so incredibly different than us, both physically and non-physically, that our ability for relation or comprehension would be impossible. He stated that if cows were able to create gods, they would create gods with the bodies of cows. Ethiopians view their gods as black with flat noses. But he didn’t see why a powerful thing like a god would look like the believers of such a thing.
So he didn’t really produce much of a specific view of how things were in terms of the nature of reality, the universe, etc, at least not from what I have read, but it seems he was more stating what couldn’t be determined and where our limits lie in our ability to ‘know’ something.
Heraclitus (~500 BCE)
Heraclitus puts forward this concept of the logos. To be honest, from the very limited reading I have done, I am not quite sure I know what it represents. The good thing about having this page as a study reference, is that if I do future readings on a given subject I will be able to come back and correct or simply add more.
I think this logos is something like the way things are, and can be interpreted as a principle, as humans like to construct terms for things in order to understand their experience. But I am not sure if it is ‘the principle’ that is the logos, or if it is the way things are that is the logos. The principle is just something used to describe the way things are, after all.
Heraclitus seemed to believe that this logos, the way things are, are there for anyone and everyone to see. He thought that most people are ignorant to it, and even when explained how things were would remain ignorant. He would make reference to waking, sleep and dreaming, making statements like how most people live their waking life clueless to the true nature of things (the logos), unaware, just as they are while asleep.
Heraclitus thought that for those who are awake the universe was one and common, while for those who were asleep each person turns to their own personal universe.
The universe is right there in front of us to see and comprehend, but it requires a higher understanding, and our current position is actually a state of sleep. He stated things like that the true nature of things tend to be hidden, so they have to be searched deeper, and things like “Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have souls which cannot understand their language.”
Heraclitus thought that the logos was possible to know/understand, however it required the ability to look at things more deeply and get below the surface. This led him to question our senses and their validity, though besides rationality and mind, it was all that we had.
It seems as though Heraclitus thought that you might not experience the unexpected, but only when the unexpected is acknowledged or explored can it occur. I may have misinterpreted this, but it is an interesting idea for sure. It is also something that has bothered me for a few years. It came to me once I had a terrifying dream of a snake attacking me while I was crossing a stream or creek. I wasn’t expecting the snake, and so it scared the shit out of me. I woke up scared. It really affected me, as I couldn’t possibly understand how my own mind could surprise my own mind! How could this happen? How could I conjure something using my consciousness, that is unexpected to the point of producing fear that occurs still in my own consciousness?! This is when I started to entertain the idea that there is more to consciousness, and that perhaps our consciousness isn’t produced in the brain, but rather, experienced by the brain. The brain, if it exists, is more like a modem that receives internet signals externally. The youtube video you stream on your laptop/phone isn’t produced by your computer, it is received.
Anyway, that idea is interesting and I will relate it to quantum physics as well. I will explore in more detail quantum physics at some point, but essentially quantum physics shows that it is the act of observing something (anything) that brings it into existence. This bothered Einstein as he stated that he believed the moon still existed even if he wasn’t looking at it. Heraclitus seems to be stating that you can’t be unexpected, unless you are open to or expecting the unexpected. In that sense, your consciousness would create the universe, or rather your experience, as it would not be possible to experience something that you haven’t already preconceived. I’m not sure I would necessarily subscribe to this, but I am not sure that I shouldn’t or wouldn’t either.
Heraclitus was among some of the earliest philosophers to believe that a being isn’t its physical body (covering made of food as put in Hindu scripture!), but that it was the soul, and that the body is as useless and p00p once the soul has left it.
Heraclitus also thought something I can definitely subscribe to, and have argued many times before. He thought that opposites create each other, or that, opposites imply each other. He thought that it wasn’t good for man to always get what he wants, as that would devalue the entire experience of getting what you want. You only know and experience (and thus value) getting what you want when you can compare it to not getting what you want. The two are needed. The feeling of full can only be experienced in light of the feeling of hunger. “Disease makes health pleasant and good”. It is this yin and yang, these dualities that create the whole thing. It is more than just hungry and full, but that the two are completely connected, and do more than imply each other, but create each other. Neither could be experienced without the other. Neither would exist or could exist alone. This is a very powerful concept to understand.
From what I have gathered Heraclitus seems to be the originator of the saying that one can never step into the same river twice. Of course, what that means is that all is flux, and the river (nothing) remains constant, and so when you enter a river at any point, any one of those atoms that is currently present will never be either present in the same location, but also that they may never even be present at all, ever again. A water molecule will end up in the atmosphere, in a tree, in your food, in your belly, in the ocean, etc.
Heraclitus thought that there was this underlying principal, this unity (the logos) that governed everything. Everything was connected by this. This unity and connectivity of everything was not on the surface, but as he believed, was there to be witnessed by anyone and everyone. From my understanding, Heraclitus thought that this never ending state of flux of everything was the unifying thing that kept the unity and connectivity between everything. He compared it to a bow and a lyre. This can be understood when you think of two opposites, death and life, hunger and feeling full, health and sickness, good and bad, pain and pleasure, etc etc. He must have seen them as opposite ends of a string, like a string on a lyre, or a bow. It is the polar opposites that produce the tension which makes the lyre/bow possible. Without either polar opposite, the tension would not exist, and without the tension, the lyre/bow would not be a lyre/bow, as it would lose its function.
It was this tension that might have been the underlying principle of connectedness that unifies everything in existence. This is very yin/yang. Very Eastern in thought. It is more than a duality, as it also connects the dualities, thus making them one. The string on the lyre or bow is just one string, it isn’t two strings, yet it takes polar opposites to create the tension that maintains itself. So it is more than just one extreme and more than just another extreme, it is more than just duality. In fact, the duality is actually an illusion, as they are connected by the tension. The duality is actually just one thing, one continuum, and the polar opposites that we perceive are simply points along the continuum that are implied by the continuum itself.
Another extremely Eastern philosophical/religious concept (thought I am sure some practitioners of Abrahamic religions would subscribe to this as well) is that the soul, our being, can be properly put in tune with the universe, the logos, the guiding principle of things, and possibly could be seen as not separate from it, and possibly not part of the universe, but again,a continuum of it (almost like it is the same thing as it, they are both the same). This is similar to what I have read from Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) and from the Yoga Sutras; that we are infinite beings that are one and the same as the entire universe, we are this experience, we are everything. Brahman is everything, it is not separate from anything, and everything you or I have experienced is part of that continuum of everything. I find this very interesting.
Parmenides (~490 BCE)
Parmenides has more surviving primary sources than most of the other philosophers I have discussed so far. He wrote a poem, though it is more like a fanciful mythological story in my eyes. It is about how he goes to this underworld to meet a goddess for her to lay some knowledge on him.
In this journey he writes that there are two ways, one “that it is and it cannot not be” and another way “that it is not and that it must not be”. The first way, he says, is related to truth, while the second way is misguided. Clearly he sees that there exists a way of seeing the world (and existence?) that is true, while there are other ways that are wrong.
He states that “It must be that what can be spoken and thought is, for it is there for being and there is no such thing as nothing”. This is something I find interesting, and first came across it in Platos Republic. I am going to guess that Plato must have been inspired by Parmenides, in this theory of forms.
I won’t get into the theory of forms, but what I feel Parmenides is getting at is somewhere in the realm of… that if you can think it or speak of it, then it exists in a sense. It does’t mean it exists in extended space, but it still exists. So the idea of a fire breathing dragon, or a mermaid or a talking walrus, none of these things have to exist in extended space to exist, it is good enough to say they exist since they can be thought or spoken of. We can attach attributes and qualities to these things, and so come to know them. In that sense, they exist, as he argues how could they not exist if you are something which is occupying your mind and thoughts. If they were not in existence, or nothing, then you couldn’t think of them. You can’t attribute qualities to nothingness, as that makes nothingness something. Therefore even the ability to think of something means that that something exists (at least in thought and understanding).
Following the above passage, Parmenides goes on to write,
“For I shall start my exposition to you first with this way of seeking and then go on to the one on which mortals, knowing nothing, stray two-headed; for confusion in their breasts leads astray their thinking. On this way they journey deaf and blind, bewildered, indecisive herds, in whose thinking being and not being are the same and yet not the same. For all of them the path turns back on itself.”
Clearly Parmenides sees the people that take this path as confused, foolish, ignorant, wrong, etc. I think the key is the two-headedness. I think that it is in reference to duality, in seeing things in polar opposites, as things appear. A later portion of his poem addresses the ‘way of appearance’, and so this is quite possibly a prelude of sorts.
By describing something as one quality and not any other. If I wanted to describe the ball I use to play with my dog, I could say it is round, nor not with edges, I could say it is red, or not blue, brown, green, etc. I could say it is about 5 inches in diameter, or say that it isn’t 2,3,4 inches in diameter. So how can you properly (whatever that means) describe something? When I say the ball is red, am I properly describing its truest nature? When I say it is spherical, again, does that describe what it is? By saying that it is red and spherical, that is to say that it isn’t blue, and isn’t a triangle. All of these descriptions rely on the senses, but do these descriptions of sensual perception hold any merit?
“For never shall this be overcome, so that things-that-are-not are; you should restrain your thinking from this way of seeking. And do not let habit compel you, along this well-tried path, to wield the aimless eye and noise-filled ear and tongue, but use reason to come to a decision on the contentious test I have announced.”
Things that are not can never be overcome so that they are, this is the first line above. He is arguing that there is no possible way that something can come from nothing. These is a ‘law’ of physics today. Something can’t come from nothing, energy can’t be created or destroyed, etc. What is not (nothingness) has no qualities. If it had qualities, it would then be something (those qualities). It is nothingness, pure lack of anything. So, how can pure lack of anything, nothingness, produce something of qualities? Or, as a later philosopher that I will write about argues, how can nothingness transition to something. You can’t change nothingness, as there is nothing to change. The transition is absurd, as there is nothing to transition from! Next, he continues to basically warn that your senses can deceive you, and you should use reason to guide you down the path of understanding.
Parmenides then continues on to state that if something is, that is, if something exists, then it must have always existed and always will. This comes from the above argument, that something can not come from nothing, therefore if something does exist, it always existed as it can’t possibly be change from nothingness. Likewise, it will exist for eternity as something with qualities and properties can’t transition to the point of having no qualities. How can something change to nothing? The transition is absurd.
“Now only the one tale remains of the way that it is. On this way there are very many signs indicating that what-is is unborn and imperishable, entire, alone of its kind, unshaken, and complete. It was not once nor will it be, since it is now, all together, single, and continuous. For what birth could you seek for it? How and from what did it grow? Neither will I allow you to say or to think that it grew from what-is-not, for that it is not cannot be spoken or thought. Also, what need could have impelled it to arise later or sooner, if it sprang from an origin in nothing?”
This is where it is at. Not only is this something that-is exists, but it has always existed and will always exist, as it couldn’t come from nothingness. So it is eternal. But also, it is all together and single and continuous. What is being said here is that what-is, whatever exists, it is actually all just one thing. Essentially, it is a singularity.It is complete, as it is everything, infinite. It is unshaken, meaning it doesn’t change (no motion), it is unalterable.
What we are left with from Parmenides is a hardcore different view of existence and nature of reality. Rather than duality and things changing and always being in flux, he seems to state that there is only one thing that exists in the world, and it is infinite, and it is eternal, and it is all pervasive (it is everything, aka infinite), and that it doesn’t change, meaning there is no such thing as motion. He basically throws away our entire phenomenological experience. This was definitely a new idea to the West.
So if you have something, and something can not come from nothing, then something can not be created. Therefor whatever exists, is. It just is. It will always be, and always has. There is no remainder or left-overs or extras of ‘what is’, as it all ‘just is’. Therefore, all that is is simply one infinite continuum of connectedness. This produces the singularity, as there can not be any void of is between two things that are, as nothingness doesn’t exist (by definition, it is complete lack of quality and is-ness). So if there is no such thing as nothingness, then there is no such thing as nothingness ‘between’ things that are. What would nothingness look like between two objects? Would can nothingness take up space, space that would act to separate the two objects? Nothingness lacks qualities and properties, so how can something that lack properties have size or shape or take up space? Would that not itself be a property? Therefor it can’t be, nothingness can not be found between objects, as all that can exist, is. The lack of nothingness means that everything that is, is simply in a continuum. This continuum is infinite (in the sense that it contains anything and everything that is), and it is inseparable, as separation would imply nothingness being present between two things that are. This is absurd, so everything that is, is simply a singularity.
A consequence of what is being one single continuum of everything is that it is a singularity. This singularity then would mean that there exists only this singularity, there cannot be two separate things (plurality). You can’t have one singularity, and another separate singularity, as that would mean that they are separated. This brings up the question of what is separating these two singularities. If it is something that exists, something with properties, then these two singularities are actually not separated, as there is a continuum between the two, and thus there is actually just one thing that is, one singularity. But if there are supposed to be separated by nothingness, something without any properties, then again, we are back to the last argument that nothingness can’t occupy space, that it is nothingness, and nothingness can’t have a property (such as space, shape, boundaries, and the ability to separate two things that are). So it would be impossible for there to be nothing to exist between two things, as nothing simply is nothing. So there is nothing but a singularity, and it is everything that is.
Just think of it this way. Imagine a marble, let’s say a little one just a bit bigger than a pea. Imagine that the marble was the only thing in existence, it was the only thing that is, and made up the entire universe. What size would it be? That is an absurd question, as for one, there is nothing to compare it to, and two, the concept of size or comparing or even understanding is a human construct, and in this universe humans don’t exist. The marble would simply just exist, but seeing as it is the entirety of existence, it would be infinite in the sense that it is all that there is. It is also never ending, as it has no end, it is everything that exists, and to compare it something else would be absurd. Even the idea of it having a boundary doesn’t make sense, as there is nothing to produce the boundary. There is nothing on the other side of the boundary to limit the marble, as nothingness has no properties. So it extends infinitely.
Now what if there was a second marble? Could there be? What would that mean? Now if the two marbles were separated by something, then they actually wouldn’t be separated, as there would be a continuum of existence from one marble to the something to the other marble. That new thing would make up the new singularity that makes up everything. However, if we were to say that the two marbles were separated by nothingness (not something that exists), then is this not absurd? There would be a definable distance in relation to the size of the two marbles that would separate them. Nothingness would have at least this property, but it would also have the property of being able to separate the two marbles. But nothingness has no properties, it is simply nothing. So this can’t be. Also, if the singularities are each infinite in nature, then how can two infinite things be separated? What does it mean when an infinite thing has boundaries in relation to another infinite thing? Neither would be infinite. The answer Parmenides gives is that they would be the same thing, they would be the singularity. The singularity is everything that is, in one continuum. Without any void.
Parmenides finds that we shouldn’t trust our senses. We experience through our senses change, different things, etc. He felt that the truth of how things were, the underlying nature of existence followed his reasoning, and that our sensory perceptions were illusory.
Simplicius writes in commentary of Aristotle’s ‘On the Heavens’,
“And so these things came into being thanks to belief, and are now, and in time to come will end when their nourishment is complete. Men proposed names for each thing, to distinguish them.”
I wanted to include this short quote because I find it interesting. Simplicius is stating that things come into being because of our belief in them, and they will end when we stop nourishing them (stop believing in these beliefs). I have commented times before in my blog about how everything just is, but it is through the creation and application of systems and differentiation that we separate out different aspects of ‘what is’ into things that we can understand.
We don’t really understand them though, we are just subscribing to a belief, albeit a very closely held one. This quote from Simplicius basically explains how things transition from everything (the singularity) that ‘just is’, to differentiation to countless of things. Trees, grass, street, cars, sounds, sky, books, laptop, dog, etc. It is man using systems to label and divide the nature around him. By calling something a tree, it is to say that it isn’t anything but a tree. More importantly and most catastrophically, that those things are not you (me).
These are certainly interesting arguments and viewpoints. At first I disliked hearing it. I kind of refused to accept the things Parmenides and philosophers like him had to say, but I am not sure if I have found a valid argument against them yet.
Zeno (~460 BCE)
Zeno of Elea was a big supporter of Parmenides and the philosophy of singularity, no motion, no void, no nothingness, etc.
I only hope to share some paradoxes that he brought forward that I am sure many people have heard before, especially if they have studied higher math. The paradoxes are all very similar, and all require an infinite regress, and are all fallacious. I have discussed some of them previously with my girlfriend before, and we both knew they were wrong, but we couldn’t quite get our fingers on explaining why some of them were simply wrong.
The first one I will share goes like this. Imagine two points A and B. They can be any distance apart from each other, such as below:
Now, despite the fact that the distance between these two points is finite (for me it is a few inches, I don’t know how big your computer monitor is, there can be an infinite number of divisions between points A and B.
The paradox lies in the ability to traverse from A to B. If you (or anything) had to travel from A to B, then you must have to pass through half-way between A and B. Then, once reaching the half way point, there would exist yet again, another half-way point from your current position to B. And from that point there would be yet another half-way point between your current position and B and another and another. In fact, there would be an infinite number of half-way points remaining on this journey, as you could make an infinite number of division in the distance between A and B.
Zeno then asked, if you were travelling at a finite speed, how was it possible to traverse an infinite number of points within a finite amount of time. This seems absurd, and so he thought that motion itself seems absurd, and so motion was impossible.
Another similar paradox put forth by Zeno was that involving a race (tortoise and hare kind of deal). Imagine a slower runner that gets a head start on a race. Then after a little bit of time, the faster running starts running after the slower runner that is ahead of him.
The faster runner, despite being faster, has to pass through a midpoint between himself and the slower runner ahead of him at their current positions. Upon reaching that midpoint, the runner ahead will have moved, and there will be a new midpoint that requires the guy playing catch up to get to. He must do this countless times, passing through an infinite number of midpoints between them both, and so it would be impossible to pass through an infinite number of midpoints in a finite amount of time. Thus it would be impossible and so motion is not possible.
He has others like this, but they are all variations on the same theme. I won’t spoil the fun for you, but there is a reason why he is wrong in his thinking.
Melissus of Samos(~440 BCE)
Melissus was also on team singularity/no motion/all-exists-in-a-single-continuum-and-is-infinite-and-nothingness-can’t-possibly-exist.
Melissus started with a simple assumption. He assumed that there is something that exists. He reasoned, using similar reasoning as stated above, that this thing has and will always exist, as something can not come from nothing. There can be no transition of nothing, as nothing is deplete of properties that are subject to change. He then continued that this thing was infinite in size, it was boundless. This is most likely because it has no boundary or edges, as what would be in the periphery of those boundaries and edges, that would imply a boundary or edge? If it is something, then that is still the thing that exists, and it can’t be nothingness, as nothing doesn’t exist.
He then argued that this thing must be homogenous (singularity), as if there were two things that were boundless they would have limits on each other, but something that is infinite and boundless can’t have limits, so if there were two things, in actuality they are just one thing. Only one thing exists.
This thing that exists, this singularity then must also be unchanging and motionless. Motion would imply change, but how could a single homogenous thing change? Change would mean being altered and therefor whatever is could not be homogenous as what was before would cease to exist, and what would come next to be would then come into existence and be created.
His argument for the impossibility of motion is quite interesting. Based on the premise that void (nothingness) cannot exist, but externally as a limit for the singularity (ie. the universe), but also internally inside of the singularity (ie. inside the universe), then motion can’t possibly occur. He Melissus argues that in order for motion to be possible, there must be void. For something to move ‘into’ a space, that space must not be occupied. When something moves into a space, it displaces whatever was there before, and wherever that displaced stuff goes, then displaces something else, etc, etc.
This would mean that somewhere there is a void that allows all of these things to move. Just like in those sliding puzzle games, you need an empty space to move something. You need a void. But because void (nothingness) simply doesn’t exist, then motion must be impossible.
And so Melissus recognizes that we still perceive change, we perceive motion. He then believes that we must not trust our senses, as if our senses were proper, then we would not see change or motion.
Melissus believed that was is corporeal, the phenomena we experience with our senses, is simply a product of our senses and their perceptions. Melissus thought that what exists, what is, this singularity he speaks of, has no sensible qualities. He thought that all sensations require motion (change) and since change/motion doesn’t exist for what is, therefore what actually exists, what is, has no sensible qualities (colour, shape, taste, sound, etc).
Pythagoras (~530 BCE)
Pythagoras is certainly well known for his contribution to mathematics. I can remember myself learning about all sorts of mathematics that were attributed to the discoveries of Pythagoras. Pythagoras was attributed with the discovery of the Pythagorean theorem, for a right angle triangle with hypotenuse of length c, and the other sides of length and and b, that a^2 + b^2 = c^2 (a squared plus b squared equals c squared). We now know today that this mathematical theorem was actually first found thousands of years earlier in vedic times (vedic math).
I guess not much was written down by Pythagoras, but since he had quite a following, most of the work of his like minded people, the Pythagoreans, were documented and spoken and written about by others.
I wonder if it is known whether or not Pythagoras had any interactions with Indian culture or perhaps had spent some time in India, as he seems to have shared many things with those we would today call Hindu people.
He was one of the first Greeks to put forward the idea of reincarnation, and that the soul isn’t a ‘human’ soul, but it is a soul, and can transmigrate from body to body, generation after generation.
Pythagoreans were vegetarians, as they believed in reincarnation. They also believed that ones’ ‘being’, ones’ true nature, was separate from the body. They also believed that plants had souls, so I don’t know how that affected their eating habits. They also believed that it was wrong to commit suicide as you are viewed as gods’ property, and so it is not your choice to end your own (albeit current) life.
A big reason why Pythagoreans were really interesting was from their love and devotion to math. These people really found divinity in numbers, and were dedicated to finding ‘truths’ and discoveries in math. They are credited for the idea of odd and even numbers, for square, cubed, prime, etc. They found many patterns in numbers, such as that the consecutive summation of odd numbers equals the consecutive squares of numbers: 1 + 3 = 4 (2 squared), 1 + 3 + 5 = 9 (3 squared), 1 + 3 + 5 + 7 = 16 (4 squared), etc.
Pythagoreans thought that the universe was governed and balanced by harmony, and harmony was described by numbers. Nature itself could be found in numbers. This made it quite important to explore and understand the world of numbers.
Pythagoreans had an interesting dualistic view. They thought that things was unlimited and limits. Infinite and one. This was the nature of things. These two opposing qualities, unlimited and limited, are not separated in nature, but are both the source of all things that exist. Pythagoreans had a list of various principles, but each in effect were paired as an unlimited thing and a limiter. This duality is interesting, as it is similar, but also not similar to the previous schools of thought. Rather than infinite and singularity as the way things are, as tangible real things, this dualistic view of limiting and unlimited are more abstract and maybe are qualities that all things have, or at least produced from. It is the imposition of limits on the unlimited that creates the universe and that creates all things.
Pythagoreans even attributed qualities to numbers and patterns in numbers. For example, the number 4 was justice. Justice was 4 as it was the first square number (2 squared =4). It can be divisible equally, thus showed equality, and in doing so reproduced the original number of the square (2 squared = 4, divide that into two equal parts and you get the original 2 again on both sides). Some argued it was 9, some argued it was 7.
They thought that marriage was 5 as it was the union of the first even number (even was viewed as female and infinite) 2 and the first odd number 3 (odd was viewed as male and restricted). The soul was viewed as the number 1, as it is eternal and unchanging. One is neither odd nor even.
Pythagoreans also developed the theorem/proof that the internal angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees.
They thought that void exists. The Pythagoreans thought that the universe breathes in breath and void. They thought that void was what enabled the differentiation of things, by separating them. They thought that it was void that allowed numbers to be differentiation. This is really fascinating to me, especially the numbers part. Alan Watts, a great great thinker and philosopher among other things of the 20th century, would point out that… I can’t remember if it is tone or pitch or notes… but in music, it is the space and amount of time between notes (or tone or pitch…sorry, I’m not knowledgeable on music and acoustics) that produces the ability to hear the note, to differentiate it from the other notes. It is somewhat similar, though I know the two concepts are extremely different. But it is interesting now to see void coming back into the discussion in Greek philosophy.
The universe might have been a sphere, the shape doesn’t really matter though (to me), but that it was surrounded by something infinite (“the unlimited”). I am not sure what this infinite/unlimited is, that surrounds the universe. Either way, apparently from it all things are drawn up, including void, which allows people to differentiate. This brings up an interesting point to consider though: how do we define a universe?
To say that stuff is drawn from outside the universe, into the universe, well, what does that mean? Do we define the universe as everything that is? Do we definite it as all physical matter, in all of its phases? I ask because if this ‘unlimited’ exists outside the universe, but is in contact with it and things and properties can be obtained from it, then why isn’t that part of the universe too?
What was drawn into the universe was both infinite and finite, this unlimitedness and limits. From these two opposites, everything was created. Again, even numbers were viewed as infinite, while odd numbers were viewed as limiting, and so again we see how the universe is created and based from numbers.
Visually, this is how Pythagoreans saw even as infinite and odd as limited.
In figure 2 we see odd numbers. The diagram starts with 1, then 3, then 5, then 7, etc. The layout that the odd number of points draws is always a perfect square. It is uniform. It is limited and limiting. In figure 1 we have even numbers, they will extend in various arrangements, in fact a countless number of them. I am no expert on this, this is just how I seem to understand their reasoning. Obviously it is, well, odd.
The Pythagoreans felt that at the end of the day, humans can’t possibly ever know the nature of reality, but that it was for the divine only. They did think, though, that reality could be described as the balance of the unlimited and limited, and the balance played between them. That balance that we experience, harmonia, as it was put, is what makes up our reality. It comes from pure unlimitedness (infinite) that is limited into a quality, and that is what makes up our experience.
I read and thought about that above view on existence over and over. The first time I thought it was neat and cool, and somewhat true but I couldn’t quite get a grasp of why or how it makes sense, and how it relates to other views that I hold. Then, now, it hit me. The yoga sutras. Hindu philosophy. There is this infinite nature to everything. Call it pure potentiality from the quantum soup, call it god, call it Brahman, call it the singularity that everything just is, and just is connected and part of this infinite continuum. They are parallel and congruent descriptions of the same thing. But in the yoga sutras, we make something from the pure infinite undefinable is, from the Brahman, from the quantum soup. We bring it into reality as something, that is to say, not anything else. When I see my dog (this extension of the infinite nature of existence, a part of Brahman (if Brahman can even be made into parts)) what I am experiencing is seeing not anything else! From the infinite, from the unlimited, from the pure potentiality of probabilistic quantum soup, my dog emerges. This is a limitation. The unlimited, the Brahman, the quantum soup, both is and can be anything and everything (it just is). But the exact combination, the harmonia, the balance between the two, produces for me my dog. This is where the dog lies and comes to be.
Only now has this concept really been grasped by me. It is amazing, it gets me so excited!
But then I have to now question, is that what it is intended as? Am I projecting my own thoughts into it? Maybe!
In terms of the soul, it appears the Pythagoreans felt that the soul was maybe harmony itself, or a product of harmony. I’m not sure.
Anaxagoras (~470 BCE)
Anaxagoras seems to have thought that in the origin (of time? of the universe?) everything was infinitely small, to the point that nothing was distinguishable or distinct. Everything was just one homogenous thing.
He then paints this picture of how things are made now. It made me think of lego blocks, and so essentially atomism. That things were made up of various ‘stuffs’, and all these ‘stuffs’ have their own shape, size, color, etc.
BAM! This is where Anaxagoras hits me. He has an concept of the universe that I have entertained for most of my life, and fully believed and accepted in the last few years. He believes that essentially if you zoom in enough on anything, or out from anything, that you will see the same things over and over and over again.
I say this because of his views that inside anything (your arm, your bone, a molecule of air, a leaf, whatever) are an infinite number of ‘stuffs’ that make it up. These stuffs are copies of everything that possibly exists, just smaller and smaller.
For example, he felt that inside of a sperm was everything that was required for the human body. So there were little tongues, little flesh, little bones, little eyes, littler sperms, etc. But not just that, but everything else. So inside that sperm there was also little clouds, little sheep, little grass, etc. Everything makes up everything.
He could imagine that there would be an entire universe, infinitely smaller than you, inside each atom of your body, inside each cell, etc. And so if you move in the opposite direction, YOU, are simply a ‘stuffs’ that makes up a larger structure (your planet, your solar system, your galaxy, your universe), and all of that is just another ‘stuffs’ that makes up something else.
He didn’t say that quite exactly, but it is a logical extension of his concepts of stuffs being made of an infinite number of all other possible things, continuously shrinking in size.
He came to this thought from previous philosophers who argued that something cannot come from nothing. And so, he didn’t think that a person would be made up of non-person things (inanimate atoms, which aren’t persons), so there must be little person like constituents that make up the person. It is quite an interesting way of getting to his model of the universe and extended space.
Again, things of being (things that exist) either come from other things of being, or things of non-being. Since non-being (nothing) can’t produce being (something), then things of being must come from things of being. So things of being come from all other things of being which are infinitely small, and were present at ‘the beginning’ as undifferentiated uniform potentiality.
So, for things like food that provide growth of the human body, food (bread, fruit, fish, etc) inside them contain little bits of flesh, hair, blood, skin, etc. He called these ‘stuffs’ (building blocks) homoeomeries, as they make up the stuff like them. These things are the principles of stuff. I can’t tell if something is ever not a homoeomeries, as his concept leads me to believe that I myself am a homoeomeries for an even larger me (if this universe is simply an electron flying around a carbon atom that is situated inside a cell of a larger version of me’s body).
It seems that for Anaxagoras, in the beginning, these homoeomeries (or where they came from) were simply pure potential. Completely undifferentiated, and so continuous and non-separate from any other ‘homoeomeries’ (to call them homoeomeries is absurd as that implies they aren’t not homoeomeries, when in reality there is nothing but pure potentiality and everything is uniform and undifferentiated).
I don’t know if I am getting this right, but it seems he had this idea that there was no ‘smallest part’ to something. I think of it like the ability to zoom in infinitely. You can imagine the smallest marble in the world. There is no smallest part of it. Even if there was, you could zoom in greatly and find that now that part is huge, and that smallest part would be replaced with a new smallest part. You couldn’t keep looking for smaller and smaller parts (dividing and dividing it) until you were left with nothing, so there must always be something. He also thought that there was no largest part to something, and seemed to conclude that something is both small and large in relation to itself.
He extends this thought so that if there is never a smallest point to something, and when you continue zooming in (dividing – whether physically or visually or conceptually) something, no matter how small, you are always left with something, then isolation must not exist. He believed that if isolation could not exist, and something could be infinitely divisible, then it must be made up of infinitely smaller and smaller things, each all making up each other out of all possible everythings. In each thing, there is everything.
The reason why things differ is the proportions of all these things that make them up.
Anaxagoras thought that mind was different though. Mind was pure, limitless, independent and powerful, maybe even the most powerful thing. Mind is not made up of homoeomeries. Mind has control over the things that make up our universe. According to Anaxagoras, mind is what put into motion the uniform potential at the beginning, causing all things to rotate and mix. This was the birth of matter and distinguishable things and stuffs. Anaxagoras thought that mind is uniform, and that mind is identical no matter where it is found. This is contrasted with how physical matter is divisible and made up of an infinite number of different and separate constituents.
He also thought the earth was flat.
He thought that plants could feel and experienced happiness and sadness, and he based that on how plants bend their leaves.
Something else that I have argued before for the eternal soul and eternal matter that is congruent with Anaxagoras thought is that matter (things) are never destroyed. His concept of generation or destruction is just a remixing and shuffling of things.
Anaxagoras also puts a hint of yin yang down for us when he states that we only perceive things due to their opposites. If we are already feeling heat or tasting sour, then the addition of that same heat or that same sour will go unnoticed. It is in the not-tasting of sour, does sour then become perceivable. It is only in the presence of coolness does heat become perceivable. Opposites create each other. This is also something I have really come to appreciate.
Empedocles (~450 BCE)
Empedocles thought that a good teacher was one that allowed the student to see things for themselves. He thought that the combination of stringent use of senses and a good intellect was what was required to come to truths. He thought that we shouldn’t mix our insights with our associative mind, and this will naturally bring us to the truth. It seems that he thought that there was this cosmic intelligence, as the universe knows what it is doing and is balanced by this. He thought that humans could tap into this on a micro level, and come to see the truth.
This is pretty interesting. It is quite reminiscent of the yoga sutras. That things ‘just are’, and that it is from our subliminal activators that we associate qualities and properties to things, when really they just are. The key to understanding the true reality, according to the yoga sutras, is to remove these subliminal activators. What you are left with is pure being. Pure is. Everything just is. Fairly similar ideas.
Empedocles thought that there were multiple substances, not just a one singularity as some previous philosophers. He thought there were four: earth, fire, water and air. The combination and proportions of these four elements create everything.
Not just that, but these four elements were governed in some sense by two opposing forces: love and strife. All these things (elements and those forces) are eternal.
Empedocles brings forth an interesting cosmological framework: the universe is constantly (and never ending) repeating over and over a cosmic cycle. This cycle is characterized at one polar opposite to contain nothing but pure love, and on the other opposite, pure strife. Of course it isn’t binary, but changes from love to strife, and back to love again.
When love is expanding, it pushes strife to the edge of the universe. When strife begins to dominate, it crushes back on love, limiting it to the center of the universe.
When there is pure love, everything is indistinguishable, there are no four separate elements, everything is unlimited and undifferentiated. It just is. When strife is the dominant factor the four elements are completely unmixed.
The way this changes is through rotational movement.
It is also part of the love-filled time of the universe that man didn’t eat or perform blood sacrifices.
Now check this out!
In Hindu philosophy it is believed that the universe is constantly undergoing a never ending cycle of creation and destruction, with expansion and reduction occurring in between. This process takes billions of years, but appears to be just a day for Brahma. Anyway, this cycle is divided into four eras, known as yugas (era/epoch/etc). The very earliest yuga is when man is purest and most ideal. Love is constant and pure. Then as time passes and the universe moves through the other ages (yugas), it will finally enter kali yuga, when evil (strife) reaches its peak and man turns on one another. It is worth noting that we are currently in the age of kali yuga, but each yuga lasts for like 10’s or maybe even 100’s of thousands of years.
Not only this, but as the cosmic cycle continues in the Hindu philosophy, and thus as the amount of evil (strife) increases, the amount of time decreases. It is an acceleration through the yugas from good to evil.
The change of the yugas might also be caused by the rotation of the planets and solar systems.
Of course, there is also the pure love and pure strife conditions. In pure love there is pure undifferentiated being. This is the true nature of the soul, of reality, of our being in Hinduism. In pure strife there is pure separation, pure differentiation, and in Hinduism and many eastern philosophies it is encouraged to recognize your true nature, which is the opposite of this, and not to get caught up in only seeing you as a physical thing, and to be attached to the physical world, your personality, physical goods.
In both frameworks, I think the cycles are necessary, as each polar opposite of the cycle is produced by the other. The strife can only push back once love has forced it to, and vice versa.
I found the similarities interesting.
Empedocles believed in eating a vegetarian diet. He believed in reincarnation, thus saw the problems with eating flesh. He also believed that blood sacrifices shouldn’t be carried out, and to generally moderate yourself, perhaps even impose austerities on yourself. He believed it was important to have knowledge of the gods, and to understand the true nature of reality/universe.
In that sense, Empedocles seems to have more similarities with Hinduism. In Hinduism, the concept of reincarnation is prevalent. To escape samsara, this birth, death, rebirth cycle, and to achieve moksha and return to your true nature (infinite being/soul/oneness) one can do so through worship of god, through living a good life of moderation and according to austerities, or one can renounce the physical world and reach the understanding of the true reality of nature and existence (ascetics, meditation, renunciates, etc).
Perhaps I project the similarities, but I find it fascinating how congruent many of these philosophers views are with eastern thought. Perhaps they were influenced. And if they weren’t, then what?
Leucippus and Democritus (~440-420 BCE)
From what I am reading, it appears as though these two early atomists are often grouped together. It seems as though very little has survived of Leucippus’ work, so as a default they are bunched together.
I think for the sake of this post, I will just refer to them as ‘the early atomists’.
So, the early atomists put a challange to Parmenides and those that followed from him, by stating there exists a void, and in it atoms are found. Everything is made up of combinations of atoms and void. They state that ‘what-is has no more existence than what-is-not’. This contrasts Parmenides et al, who thought that nothingness lacks any and all qualities. How could something with no qualities be said to exist? These are interesting ideas.
What is interesting in this view is that atoms do not have any qualities. They only have size, shape, arrangement and position. If you start with a piece of something, let’s say a brick, at first it has qualities, in this case the properties of a brick. You can divide it in half, and it will still be brick-like. Eventually, as you further and further divide that original brick, you will come to some parts that are no longer divisible. These non-divisible things are the atoms proposed by the early atomists. They would be too small to see, for the most part (although they argue that they can be of varying sizes, just as long as they are indivisible).
These remaining indivisible things, these atoms, are completely void of qualities. It isn’t a brick atom that makes up the brick. It is only in the spatial arrangements, the combination of different atoms, and the presence and prevalence of void does something take on qualities, such as the qualities that a brick has.
These atoms are the fundamental producers of the world around us, according to the early atomists. They are the real nature of the world, and everything else seen is just a combination, just a transient make-up of them, destined to break apart and then reform in an endless number of ways over time.
One interesting aspect that the early atomists reasoned is essentially the concept and mantra present in biochemistry: form equals function. The idea is fairly simple: molecules are mindless things just floating around in aqueous (water, salt, other stuff) solution in your cells. Their ‘function’ (ie. what they ‘do’ and also what they don’t do) is directly related to their physical 3D structure. They just float around in the cell, and if one protein has the shape of a hook, well, it will eventually hook something that has a structure that makes it hookable. This structure will then do whatever it is that is most statistically probable, repeat ad infinitum. This is how chemical reactions occur in the cell. Two things can only react when they can physically come together. Just like a lock and key.
The early atomists seemed to see that this was the way the fundamental physical things of nature must be. They thought that atoms would have various shapes, and depending on their shapes, they would arrange with other atoms that would allow themselves for binding, and form structures under this principal. They also thought that two atoms will remain together until something comes along with a great enough force to release them or mix them up somehow. What was being described here is quite similar to that of ‘activation energy’ or just the energy barrier associated with any process.
In order to pick up a weight in a gym, one must apply a certain amount of energy. Not just any amount, but there is a specific minimum amount, otherwise that weight will just sit there. Once you apply that energy, the process can happen. The same is true of chemical reactions as well. Some reactions don’t happen spontaneously, but require energy first. It appears that the early atomists were quite good at visualizing and conceptualizing these tiny indivisible atoms.
The early atomists thought that it was the presence of void that allowed things to be divisible. How could a fully solid thing that is one single piece be broken? This is a great question that was first asked to me by my mma coach in Montreal, Firas. A piece of glass, a piece of paper and a piece of plastic can all be broken into different pieces. But we shouldn’t think of the piece of glass as “one” thing of glass. It appears that way to us through our senses, but our senses are wrong. In fact, it is made up of a countless number of small pieces (atoms). Not only that, each of these atoms are made up of other things, etc. So when we break something that we consider “one”, we simply labelled the glass improperly, as it is far from being singular.
But imagine something that is just one. One atom, that doesn’t have anything else smaller than it that comprises it. Imagine that thing was the size of your house. No matter what you did to it, it could not or would not break, as there is no void to allow for a separation to occur. This is what the early atomists reasoned, that the void between solid matter was what allowed for things to be divisible.
A consequence of this is that atoms (indivisible things) are permanent. They can’t be destroyed.
These early atomists also believed that the soul was made up of atoms; small fiery ones!
Something that I did not know, was that it is perhaps Democritus who was the first western philosopher to consider that the guiding reason to do something (system of ethics) was for the single aim of contentment. Later Aristotle would argue that the reason why we do anything is for happiness, that happiness (its acquisition) is the underlying reason for everything.
These early atomists seemed to think that not only did qualities not exist in atoms, but qualities don’t seem to exist at all. “Sweet exists by convention, and so does bitter, warm, cold and colour; in reality there are atoms and void.” Like many other philosophers they thought that mind was the only trustworthy way truth, and that the senses were of the “bastard kind.”
“In reality we know nothing; for the truth is hidden in an abyss.”
Aristotle in Metaphysics, speaks of Democritus and how nothing is true, or at least nothing can be known to be true. He talks about the senses being unreliable, and brings up that commonly asked question (or just themes on it) ‘how do I know you see red the way that I do?’ He says that it is silly and wrong to determine something is true or false by numbers. If almost everyone were to say something was red, while some disagree, or most people say something taste sour, while some disagree, it isn’t that one person is right, one person wrong, or even that both are right or both are wrong. It is simply unknowable in terms of truth. If I see something in my range of vision, my dog sees the same thing but different using her range of vision, and birds see the same thing differently using their range of vision, who is correct? How does that thing actually look, in truth?
It seems that in order to account for the seemingly infinite possible ways something can be experienced they felt that the atoms must be of infinite type and shape and size. They thought that the reason for differences in perception between people was from changes in the thing that was being perceived. Now, when I first read this I took it to mean that, kind of like when you are really really hot in summer, the pool water might feel freezing, but if it was a colder day then the water might feel warm. But now I read this and think that, perhaps they thought that things, even solid things that you were looking at, were constantly changing at the atomic level. That different atoms were moving around and arranging themselves differently with each other and the void. And so this ‘real-time’ movement would allow someone else to perceive something differently. But if that is the case, that doesn’t seem to make sense as wouldn’t my own perception change too?
They also seemed to have made the claim that the reason why people conceived of gods was out of fear from phenomena such as storms, eclipses, thunder and lightning.
Democritus seemed to think that the reason for plagues and various related diseases was from alien atoms constantly coming to earth. This is quite interesting for two reasons. First, it is comparable to antigens. Antigens are things that your body recognize as foreign, and so your immune system attacks it. When your immune system does this, you have the symptoms of being sick. So in a quite real sense, Democritus reasoned that sickness came from the presence of foreign things into your body. Secondly, there are hypotheses that exist about the origin of life, virus’s, etc, that come from somewhere other than this planet, and that arrived here via a meteor, asteroid, etc. Many bacterial spores, fungi spores, virus’s and even this animal (insane!), the tardigrade (real microscopic photo) can survive space.
The early atomists also had some views on how to live life. They thought that behavior compatible with contentment meant to basically take it easy. One shouldn’t overstep their bounds, not to take on too much, and to realize your limitations and to act in accordance with ones own nature. Contentment can also be found in a life subscribing to moderation. They argued that excesses and deficiencies “have a habit of changing places”, and a large change like that cannot be easy on the mind. It is definitely not in balance, and is quite disruptive.
Something the Epicureans would eventually come to see, they thought that unless you become happy and feel fulfilled with what you have (in terms of material possessions), then the desire for money will constantly keep you feeling poverty. Other views that would later be reflected in Epicurean thought included that moderation and austerities made pleasure and enjoyment greater, that the guide for what is good/bad was pleasure/pain (Hedonism). It is the attachment to desire that is extremely hard to overcome, this can be seen with the statement, “It takes courage not only to overcome an enemy, but also to overcome pleasure. Some men are masters of cities, but are slaves to women.”
I will leave this as a final quote,
“All those who derive their pleasures from their guts, by eating or drinking or having sex to an excessive and inordinate degree, find that their pleasures are brief and short-lived, in that they last for only as long as they are actually eating or drinking, while their pains are many. For the desire for more of the same is constant, and when they get what they desire, the pleasure passes rapidly. They get nothing good out of the situation except a fleeting pleasure – and then the need for more of the same recurs.”
Protagoras became known for his skills in argumentation, rhetoric and cared about the human word and how it was said. This guy seemed to love to argue and debate, and would encourage others to argue both sides of an issue.
Protagoras taught that people could be virtuous and good by education, rather than a currently held belief that it was a quality passed down through family heritage. One problem with this is that his fees for teaching were such that not everyone could afford him, so the poorer (and less important families) couldn’t learn of this. Semi-ironic? Interesting for sure.
Protagoras was interested in politics and in how someone can be successful in politics. He was a strong advocate for rhetoric and the ability to speak well to move people, and that speech was quite important. He recognized that it didn’t necessarily matter if what you were saying was 100% correct, but more so how well you said it, and how you stirred up your audience.
Protagoras thought that impressions were subjective. In this sense, they were all ‘true’ and so you could have an endless number of contradicting impressions for a given thing and none of them being wrong. Continuing with this, he felt that contradictions don’t actually happen in nature, but only because of language and our senses or at least perhaps our interpretations of them. He also thought that the mind was nothing more than the senses. Aristotle would later comment on this to say that if everything (every impression) is true, then ‘everything will be one’. Of course, I find this interesting.
Protagoras saw in humans that we tend to live together, in civilizations (communities, city states, etc). This is because we are weak and require each other for survival. Because of this, it is imperative to have government, and for there to be law so that people can live together in ‘decency and justice.’
Protagoras shows his relativistic nature when he thinks that there is no objective form of justice for a community/civilization/city state to follow. Whatever works for them is good. Whatever they agree upon is the right way to live.
He seemed to also be of the earlier people who believed that education should be free for all, and supplied for by the government.
Some more random points:
Protagoras thought that ‘man was the measure of all things’. I take this to mean, that well, you can judge a mans surroundings by the man. If you have a good man, a healthy man, a strong man, etc, then the things in his life provide for this. If you have men that are unhappy, men that are selfish, evil, etc, then there is a reason for this. Measuring the man and his qualities is the ultimate measuring stick.
Though that is how I first interpreted it, Protagoras most likely meant that mans’ subjective understanding and perceptions truly measure all things. Though, I could be wrong.
Protagoras said that skill was nothing without practice and that practice was nothing without skill. This is something I try to instill in my students that I teach in my MMA classes. When you practice technique (skills), do it with the best possible technique, because you are in effect building muscle memory through repetitions. So if you keep practicing bad skills, you will have bad technique. It is through continuously practicing with good technique that skill becomes cemented in your doings and your abilities, but it requires of you to practice with good technique
Georgias of Leontini (~ 430 BCE)
I don’t really have much to say about Georgias. He was similar to Protagoras in that he was a rhetorician, he was a relativist, and believed in the power of language and words on persuasion.
It is important to understand that words don’t exist in the world, and are merely symbols that represent real things that exist in the world. These two things should not be confused.
Words are powerful though, and this can easily be seen. Through nothing more than the mentioning of words, people can feel emotion, happy, fear, calmness- all these experiences that are real, all coming from something as simple as hearing a certain sound (a word). I can say a word out loud, say family, and upon hearing that all sorts of images, thoughts, feelings and memories can come up to your consciousness. There are things attached to the words that we recognize. The yoga sutras would call these subliminal activators, and they are the associations that ground the word in meaning and understanding (or at least through the systems that we create for our understanding of life/our experience/existence/etc).
Georgias had this interesting argument, though the argument itself was lacking. He claimed that nothing exists (have being), and even if something did exist it would be impossible to comprehend. Even if it was comprehended, it would be impossible to communicate to someone else.
He raises interesting and valid concerns about the experience of communication, and brings up questions of whether we can ever truly know the effectiveness of our ‘communications’.
Let’s say that something does exist- how can we possibly properly comprehend it? Our senses are not perfect, and cannot be trusted, so how can we perceive truthfully if something exists or not? Not just that, but how can we know that the way we are perceiving it is the way that it actually is? If every single organism on the planet were to ‘see’ a given object, there would be countless variations on what is ‘seen’. Which one is correct? Are any of them correct? Is there such thing as a correct perception? This is a good question.
Let’s now assume that you can properly apprehend and know of something that exists, how can you possibly communicate it and be sure that whoever you are communicating with is left with the same level of understanding that you had? How can someone explain something so common as love? It is impossible. We can try, and we can agree that we think we both of the same idea, but we can never truly know, can we?
Explaining love to someone who has never experienced it is futile. The same with explaining what an orgasm is, or what having children is like, or giving birth. We can make analogies, comparisons, say what it isn’t like, and use words that somewhat describe aspects of it, but nothing can be done to fully transfer that knowledge, that experience, of what it is. To describe the colour red to a blind person is futile.
Hippias of Elis (~420 BCE)
Hippias seems to have been somewhat of a renaissance man. He made all of his own clothes, shoes, jewelry, wrote about many things and taught many. He also seemed to be somewhat of a historian, or at least a collector and compiler of previous philosophical thought.
Hippias saw that there were two types of ‘laws’: a natural law and a conventional law. Natural law was something like this – when hungry you must eat, when tired you must sleep. It is related to self-preservation and is unwritten. Convention is of course man made law. It is agreed upon, or imposed upon.
Natural laws are unalterable. If you don’t eat when you are hungry, you will die. This can’t be changed. Conventional laws are prescriptions on how one should behave.
Antiphon the Sophist (~410 BCE)
Antiphon also thought similarly to Hippias on the things mentioned above. Antiphon thought that natural law was much more important than conventional law, and that conventional law should only be followed when others are around to witness you, otherwise it is unnecessary. One should only follow conventional laws when it means escaping punishment, but if you can get away with not following the conventional laws without getting punished, then you should do that.
He believed that most conventional laws are against nature and do harm against it, so it doesn’t make sense to follow them.
A very Macchiavellian (spelling?) way of looking at things, he thought that it is best to be seen obeying the law (conventional law), but whenever possible, not to obey those laws.
Antiphon thought that nature was just brute reality, and we must observe and live in accordance with nature and its laws. He cautioned that words were important, and so when forming and using words in language we should start from a proper position. This position, this starting point, should be aligned with nature and not convention. He argued that our senses are all we have to understand reality and nature and thus knowledge, but it is our language and words that can deceive. He states that to call someone “Canadian” or “American” or “German” is wrong, as it takes away from their brute reality, their true nature: being human. He thought things like calling a tree a tree while calling wood from a tree wood (ie. for a table) is a matter of convention, and not the brute reality, that it is still a tree.
This is also quite similar to thoughts and concepts expressed in eastern thought and posted here regarding the yoga sutras. We create systems (matters of convention) to classify and separate things that are not ‘true’ in nature. These systems and means of classification take us further and further away from the true brute reality.
John of Stobi who collected and created various Greek works and put them into anthologies, applies this quote to Antiphon,
“Some people do not live the life they have, but thoroughly occupy themselves with plans, as if they had another life to live, not the one they have. And meanwhile time passes them by.”