0English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment

Glossary of Terms:

Parmenides' refutation of time

The Greek philosopher Parmenides [c.515-c.445 BCE] posed the following argument:

Before an object can move any distance, it must first move through an infinite series of fractions of that distance; but since one can never actually get through an infinite series of steps, no distance can be moved through at all.

He also used the following argument (similar but not identical!) to reach the same conclusion:

(a) Any distance is divisible (for example, by 2);
but
(b) any fraction of a given distance is itself a distance;
therefore
(c) any distance is infinitely divisible (by whatever factor you choose -- in our example, 2).
Now from (a) follows
(a'):  before something can move any distance, it must first move some fraction of that distance (e.g., before something can move an inch, it must first cover half-an-inch).

But from (b) follows
(b'):  before it can move that fraction of a distance, it must first move a fraction of a fraction of that distance (e.g., before something can cover half-an-inch, it must first cover half-a-half-an inch).

And from (c) follows
(c'):  what is said in (b) is infinitely repeatable (in our example:  to cover half an inch, it must first cover a quarter of an inch, but before that and eighth of an inch, but before that a sixteenth, and so on without end).
Therefore -- i.e., from (c') --
(d) it can never move at all.

Since this is completely general, for any material object in space-- for all particles and conglomerates -- there is no motion in the material universe.  But since all change presupposes motion, there is no change.  And since it is only change that enables us to register the passage of time, it must be that no time passes.

Of course our senses testify to change all around us:  we stroll down the street, wind blows through the trees, leaves fall to the ground, they decay, grass grows, babies are born; floods and hurricanes come and pass, we get sick, we recover, we get sick, we die.

Nevertheless the above arguments seem rationally compelling.  We are thus faced with a dilemma:

Either the arguments, despite their persuasiveness, conceal a fallacy.

Rationale:  Since valid arguments can never yield a false conclusion, an argument that yields a false conclusion must be invalid.  But change is real, because it is so strongly attested by the evidence of our senses so that the conclusion led to by these arguments is false.  Hence the argument must be invalid.

Project for the future suggested by this option:  discover what this fallacy consists in, and display it to others.  (This might mean making some progress in the philosophy of mathematics.)

Or our senses are constantly deceiving us when they register change and motion.

Rationale:  There is no fallacy to be discovered in the above arguments, and the conclusion of any valid argument must be true.

Project for the future suggested by this option:  practice those disciplines that help us progressively to detach us from the senses -- from our body in general.  (This might mean practicing some form of asceticism.)

Parmenides is reported to have chosen the latter option.  It was his view that the testimony of reason was stronger than the testimony of the senses (reasons tell us what can and cannot be the case).  Accordingly, he is associated with the view that motion, change, time (all embraced under the term "Becoming") are illusions, and that reality ("Being") is One and Eternal.

This position is congenial to those who are inclined to identify this Being with God, and to relegate all else (the many and the changing) -- hence, the material world testified to by the bodily senses, but also any individual personal identity, and hence the supposed experiences of all such entities -- to the category of unreal appearance.  God, on this view, is the only reality.

Note that suffering of any sort, because it involves conflict, falls into the domain of the many and the changing.  Hence the identification of God with the Parmenidean One can be made to serve the purposes of theodicy.  If we classify theodicies by the different kinds of strategies they adopt for solving the problem of evil, then the "Parmenidean" varieties form a group within the larger family of theodicies that deny the reality of evil.

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Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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This page last updated 01 February 1999.