A Meditation on Parmenides

Michael Pierce is a contributing guest writer for CelebrityTypes. As always with guest writers on the site, Pierce’s piece represents his own insights and type assessments and not necessarily those of the site. Still, we very much enjoy his work and are pleased to be able to share it with our visitors.

By Michael Pierce

Way back, before the fame of Socrates, there was this Greek named Parmenides. He wrote this poem called On Nature where he said that there is no such thing as empty space; the space that seems to separate you from me and me from this computer and any object from any other object does not exist in its own right, but is just how we perceive a certain kind of relationship between objects.

488px-raffael_065Think about it. If we had a tube, and we sucked everything out – air, bacteria, and every single atom, molecule and particle – so that it was a truly empty vacuum, and then we said, “Everyone, inside this tube is absolutely nothing!” But the definition of nothing is nonexistence, so how can we point at something that doesn’t exist? How can we point at something that by definition cannot be pointed at? Aren’t we then saying that “nothing” is really “something”? That nothingness exists in its own right? Wouldn’t it then cease to be nothingness? But then how can we suck all this supposed nothingness out of the tube?

Parmenides had a student named Zeno who helps to further illustrate this principle with a series of famous paradoxes. I won’t go into them specifically, but the running theme in all of them is as follows: We see point A and point B, and we see there is ten meters between them. Now, what if we move point A forwards to cover half of that distance? Then it would be five meters. Now how about another half? That would be two point five meters. Then again: one and a fourth of a meter. Again: 0.625 meters. 0.3125 meters. 0.15625 meters. 0.078125 meters. 0.0390625 meters…

You can try it out on your own calculator until it runs out of decimal places, but never will the calculator actually declare the distance to be 0. Point A can never truly touch point B. Why not? Because as long as something exists, it must have some sort of mass, as shown by Parmenides, and if it has mass, it can be divided infinitely. But if that’s true, then how is movement through space possible? How does separation even work if there is an infinite amount of space between each of us? And how can there even be an “amount” of nothingness in the first place to separate you and me?

Taking it a step further, how can there be movement through time? Don’t we perceive time in a similar fashion to movement, as seconds or minutes or hours marching ceaselessly from the past through the present into the future? But if Point A takes 1 second to traverse 5 meters towards point B, then it will take 0.5 seconds to travel the next 2.5 meters, and 0.25 to travel 1.25 meters, and you get the idea.

Space and time, or as the physicists tell us, spacetime, do not have substance and do not exist in their own right. Space is not a receptacle of matter; it is how we perceive a certain kind of relationship between objects. But what does that mean? What do things “really” look like? As Parmenides theorized, because nothing is truly separated by either space or time, then everything must really be smashed together, compressed into one moment, one infinite and infinitesimal whole, everything in one point, existing for one moment, for all of eternity, without beginning or end.

So, metaphysically speaking, you, me, Parmenides, Zeno, Friedrich Nietzsche, Barack Obama and Jennifer Aniston are hugging it out across spacetime. Although we are “separate”, but not in the sense that there is a gap of nothingness between us, but in the sense that our “separation” is how we perceive a certain kind of relationship between each other.

God is often said to exist outside of spacetime, which would explain how God is omnipotent, because God can see all time happening at once. We on the other hand experience it moment by moment, like an ant burrowing through a loaf of bread.

If there is truth to this theory, I don’t believe this would necessitate any loss of free will. Our lives are not predestined just because they “already exist” in some sense. Whatever choices we are making in the future we are making right now in the metaphysical sense, as well as all the choices we’ve made before: our whole being, the whole worm of our time shape, makes its choices all at once, all in the same moment, but we experience it one slice of bread at a time. But why? I think that by focusing on one moment after another, rather than all at once, it allows us to make edits to our shape, something very difficult if not impossible when viewing the moment all at once. By viewing our time shape from this oddly limited perspective, we are unable to see our future, but able to remember our past, and therefore we are able to make informed decisions without inhibition of changing our future. Therefore nothing is set until the end. No mistake you make now is a final judgment; our personality, what we become, is not set in stone until the very, very end.

Hopefully we will use this time to become something better than whatever we were before we were born, because when the eternal moment has passed, and we exit from the stage, we will be whatever we choose to be for eternity, without beginning or end.

It’s a bit like Nietzsche’s Eternal Reoccurrence (which he actually had from Empedocles, ed.), which implores humanity to make the best life in spacetime as possible, for awaiting us after death is not a better opportunity for life, but only a re-occurrence of whatever kind of life we chose here, without a single thing changed. The question then is: what kind of life do you want to live over and over for eternity? As a prophet from the ancient Americas once said, “This life is the time for men to prepare to meet God.”

So, you may ask – what in the world does this have to do with Jungian typology?

Not that much, really, except that I believe typology can help us in our quest to “improve our time while in this life [before] the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed,” as the ancient American said. I think it’s one of many useful tools in that quest. While I believe there are tools essential for every human being in that quest, and I don’t believe typology is by any means essential, I still think it can be a great help, and that is the reason I write articles and make videos about it. I’m not even exaggerating to sound more awesome. I think that if one of my offerings helps one person better understand themselves and hold themselves a little better, then I ought to be satisfied.

Watch this piece as a video here.

11 Comments

  1. Mister Nose says:

    Anti-paradox:
    Time is a sequence of inert spaces.
    If time is a continuous sequence of inert spaces, containing no time within themselves, then time has no magnitude, as the duration of all its parts equals zero. If time is a discrete sequence of inert spaces, then these spaces must be separated by something other than space; accordingly, this something could not have duration, as time is a sequence of inert spaces, and if spaces are separated by spaces, space is continuous.
    Therefore, Achiles catches the tortoise instantly.

  2. admin says:

    Yes, but it all hinges upon the assumption that time is a sequence of inert spaces. Is it really? The first Buddhists believed that time was a series of inert moments, which seems to be very close to Zeno’s conception as well.

  3. Labias Lorant says:

    What is the difference between an inert moment and an inert space?

  4. Rachel Wood says:

    Sounds like a lot of gibberish and nonsense to me, with religious/moral overtones.

    Firstly, there’s no reason I can think of why you couldn’t point to absolute nothing (which is different to the common idea of a vacuum) in a tube and refer to it as absolute nothing. Nothing isn’t really much of a definition, but it would mean something in relation to the things around it. A gap in space containing nothing IS noticeable, so why not refer to it? And why are you suggesting something called nothing would be filling this gap?

    Secondly, on the subject of time, there’s no consensus about exactly what time is and its relationship to space and matter. So to spend hours thinking about the logical consequences and complications of any specific understanding of time is not going to lead us anywhere, as fun as the thinking may be. Think about it by all means, but don’t build a life philosophy based on the concept.

    As for the rest of the article…. I think I’d prefer to ignore it. :)

  5. Rachel Wood says:

    Everybody knows Zeno only made those paradoxes because he hated finishing last in the Olympic sprinting every four years, and so came up with some loser explanation for how, well, IMPOSSIBLE it would be to win anyway.

  6. Michael Pierce says:

    Hi Rachel,

    I’m concerned that you’re criticizing the article while admitting that you’d prefer to ignore more than half of it. While this doesn’t imply that you haven’t read the entire thing, it does imply that you are disregarding a large part of it without giving a specific reason, other than that the article as a whole “sounds like a lot of gibberish and nonsense to me, with religious/moral overtones.” I bring this up because some of my comments below are already explained in the article, albeit to a lesser degree.

    What I consider the core of Parmenides thinking is the problem with the word “nothing”. It is useful in excluding the existence of certain things depending on the context of the sentence (there is nothing in my pockets; meaning there is nothing besides air and bacteria and what not. Or, there is nothing in the vacuum of space; meaning there is nothing besides dust and quantum particles). But if we are to carry the definition to its end, and exclude EVERYTHING possible from a space, then what is left? If we say nothing, then that can mean one of two things: either the thing we refer to as “nothing” is really something we did not exclude from the space, meaning it has relation to the things around it, IS noticeable, can be pointed to and named, and is filling the gap, all of which mean that it is something of some sort, something that exists, OR it does not exist. If it does not exist, then what does that entail? Well it entails that you and I are smashed together because there is nothing between us to separate us. What we perceive as “nothing” is just a way to perceive the relationship between you and me. And if this “nothing” between us really is something, if it exists as some kind of dark matter, then all that means is it’s squished up right there with us. Perhaps another way to put it would be if you have a white singularity of light, then with various lenses you could split the light coming from the singularity into separate colors. While these colors are components of the singularity, they do not have any space between them inside the singularity; they are both distinct and one. Parmenides, in a nutshell, is saying our universe is the same way.

    As for time, you’re correct to point out that the foundational concept of time that I’m building off of is only one of many, and none have been confirmed to be the one that lines up with reality. That doesn’t mean that my building off of it isn’t going to lead anywhere (it seems to have led Parmenides to some startling conclusions), but just that if the foundation it was built off of turns out to be somewhat or entirely in fault, this concept may then somewhat or entirely need to be reevaluated.

    However, you did not mention any specific theory of time which you felt contradicted the one used in this essay, so I’m unsure to what degree this would prove necessary. I am not aware of any theory that would invalidate the whole thing or even require much revising at all, especially because I was referring particularly to how we perceive time, which Zeno claimed to demonstrate as an illusion, and not how it actually is, which is what you seem to be concerned with.

    And as for Zeno, if you have asked everyone in the world about this story and confirmed that they were not lying, or even just everyone who frequents this site, or perhaps just everybody who you have heard telling this story, that would still not prove that it is a true account. Assuming however that it is a true account, Zeno’s motivations for developing the paradoxes have little if nothing to do with their validity.

  7. Rachel Wood says:

    Hi. I chose to ignore the latter part of your article because it was more about your personal opinions about typology and what it means for you, than anything else. And how was I to respond to that? I couldnt say “No, you don’t like typology because of that!” could I? :D

    I wasn’t criticizing your views (unless you share the views of Parmenides, in which case I am). I think youre a pretty good article writer – especially your type descriptions, which you need to finish by the way haha. :)

    *

    I share Parmenides concerns about the word nothing. However, I think it’s purely a linguistic concern. Conceptually, it isn’t that much of a problem. In physics, we’d remove the linguistic problem entirely by calling such a thing something like a Deep Void. And just leave it there – problem solved. :D It isn’t conceptually difficult to imagine nothing – in fact, it’s the easiest thing to imagine in the world, as it requires ZERO imagination. So I have no problem with the idea of “nothing in a tube”.

    And the whole “smashed together” thing, what’s that about? Of course we aren’t smashed together. And of course we are. Both these statements are true, so focusing on one perspective and giving it some quasi-religious significance, like you appear to do, makes no sense.

    *

    You’re correct, Im more interested in the real nature of time than our perception of it. However, your idea of how we naturally perceive time is incorrect, I feel. I think we naturally perceive the flow of time indirectly through the sequence of events, rather than by the division of it into hours, minutes, seconds, etc.

    Simply: measurement depends on having a concept of time, the concept of time depends on the observation of a sequence if events. If a person was sat in a dark room with no sensory stimulation all his life, I would expect this person to have no sense of time, as we understand it at all, but to perceive existent as one continuous moment.

    Because of this, I think Zeno’s paradoxes are meaningless as regards our perception of time, but can only be related to our measurement of the idea of sequences.

    *

    My idea about Zeno only creating his paradoxes because he kept losing the Olympic sprinting was a joke. And you’ve just made it even funnier for me by taking it seriously. Thanks for that! :D

    R

  8. Rachel Wood says:

    To clarify my objection to Zeno…

    It really has nothing to do with time, but with the division of space between two events. If we have an Event A (the rising of the sun) and an Event B (the setting of the sun), we can divide the distance between the two events into halves, quarters, eighths, etc. to infinity.

    However, Zeno cannot say that the fact the space between events can be infinitely divided means Event B never happens, because without assuming the existence of Event B we wouldn’t be able to divide the space between A and B at all.

    To put it another way, the very fact we can divide the space between these events infinitely, is a proof that both events must happen.

    Zeno’s argument is nonsense, as it fails to take this into account, and instead is just a dumb trick.

    And so, the sun will set, and the tortoise will catch the hare.

  9. Michael Pierce says:

    I think we simply misunderstood each other on the point of Zeno’s paradox; when writing the article I understood that Zeno was a supporter of Parmenides, and in response to criticism of Parmenides’ claim that all is really One developed his paradoxes to show that their criticism and its foundations were actually ridiculous, because according to their view, the sun doesn’t set and the Achilles never catches the tortoise, which as you’ve pointed out, is nonsense.

    Let me explain: the main implications of Parmenides’ philosophy are in direct opposition to Heraclitus, who claimed that everything is in flux and always changing, while Parmenides claimed that nothing actually changes, because the past, present and future already exist, and likewise we exist at every point that our body “has” and “will” travel in our life “simultaneously”, making a fourth dimensional worm shape (a rather comical analogy, but it works). This appears to be what you also argued in your second post “the very fact we can divide the space between these events infinitely, is a proof that both events must happen.” So I must not have been clear, but this is precisely what I felt Zeno was arguing in favor of. He was defending Parmenides’ position by showing the opposing position of Heraclitus, which stated that there is motion, change, and Event B doesn’t exist until it happens, is ridiculous because it ultimately leads into the paradox that you’ve rightly declared absurd: of course Achilles catches the tortoise — but it is not because he was moving into an unexisting future, but because the future of him catching the tortoise already exists; we just experience it, as you’ve said, as a sequence of events, whose “duration”, at least according to theories of relativity, may differ depending on the observer. This same argument applies to space, as space and time are rather wrapped up in each other: we understand motion in terms of minutes, hours and what not, in terms of duration over time, but this is really just us only being able to see one slice of bread at a time, when really the motion is just a “stationary” loaf of bread.

    To clarify the problem of nothing and being “smashed together”, what I meant was to describe the implication of Zeno’s argument. True motion requires that objects be distinct from each other and there be such a thing as empty space between them, specifically the empty space supposedly between atoms. However Parmenides, claimed that true nothing does not exist, because by thinking of it as something that actually exists, we are implying that it can be divided, and as Zeno has shown division goes infinitely. Therefore, rather than think of things as objects held in a receptacle of matter called “nothing” or empty space, with amounts of nothing between them, we should think of everything as united, as part of One whole.

    Why does this matter, and why do I seem to endow it with “quasi-religious significance”? Well, I actually didn’t intend to endow the concept of the eternal moment itself with that kind of significance; rather, just my own ideas that it seems to support or gives a new perspective on. But I do still consider it important to see the universe in this way: if anything, for me this is not an argument to support my daydream of hugging historical figures, but more of an intriguing implication of the more important idea to me, that past and future are both present, and everything is here-and-now, and we are deciding what this moment for us will be eternally, rather than being a flicker in a fire that passes and goes with no significance, no impact or consequences. Which you’re absolutely right, that sounds very “quasi-religious”, I think because I have a tendency to slip into a certain way of writing, but I didn’t respond because I considered it a personal or religious attack; Parmenides is not my prophet.

  10. Rachel Wood says:

    @Michael Pierce

    Fair enough. :)

    Why wasn’t all this stuff in your article? You can’t expect idiots like me to just KNOW what on earth these ancient philosophers were talking about instinctively, can you?

    If you’d made all this clear, I’d have found very little to disagree with. :D

  11. Rachel Wood says:

    I learned more from your last response than from reading the entire article haha! :D

Leave a Reply