Though I thought about it multiple times, I never understood Parmenides' argument for the impossibility of change. Now studying Aristotle's Physics, it popped up again and I still have the same problems – including with Aristotle's criticism of it, which seems like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Parmenides' argument seems so obviously wrong – not in the sense of Zeno's paradoxes, that cleverly seduce analytical thinking to go astray and rebel against common-sense, but in a trivial sense: effortlessly the argument is recognized as extremely faulty.

When Parmenides claims that change involves something to come from non-being into being, he's really talking about the transformation of something that already exists. So it is not the case that non-being generates being.

I suspect that the argument had much more force in his time. Maybe the question “where” the red of a fruit which ripens comes from was more puzzling?

But today our thinking is heavily influenced by reductionism (I tried to get into Aristotle's mindset, which is holistic, but old habits are difficult to shake): There are chemical processes in the fruit, a bit crudely it's just atoms “moving around” – and those atoms already existed the whole time. No mystery.

Aside from the original version I also read modern paraphrasings, which are supposed to be more rigorous and terminologically clear, so this is not the problem (like in this question), but I still do not get the gist of it.

Could you give me an explanation (or an example) which makes Parmenides argument have more force even in the context of a modern reductionist worldview?


There are chemical processes in the fruit, a bit crudely it's just atoms “moving around”

If you really want to keep a strict separation of Being and Non-Being, movement is also contradictory. For the movement of an object from point A to B involves a transition from Being to Non-Being at point A, and from Non-Being to Being at B. If we focus at point A, we see an object disappearing. And, at point B, we see an object coming into existence.

Moreover, we now know that not even elementary particles "exist the whole time". For instance, if an electron meets a positron they annihilate and emit a photon. Or, reciprocally, if a photon has enough energy it can produce a particle-antiparticle pair out of the "vacuum" (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pair_production). Thus it is not true that all we have are ever-existing and never-changing particles that simply move around and re-arrange themselves.

Now, one could still say: "OK, maybe it's not atoms, but there IS something that always existed and is just reshaping itself". But in any case Parmenides' argument would hold for this reshaping, IF you hold that Being and Non-Being are completely disjoint categories.

I think the only acceptable solution to the conundrum is Hegel's proof that, in fact, far from being disjoint concepts, Being and Non-Being/Nothing are the same. So trying to conceive of an immutable, always-existing Being is simply self-contradictory. When we say Being, we are in fact saying Becoming, Coming-to-Be and Ceasing-to-Be.

  • there has to be some connection with time for Parmenides to make sense. It seems at least to be about the discontinuity caused by something popping into existence in a razor-sharp instant of time. Probably also changing of the spin of an electron would be a good example? – wolf-revo-cats Mar 2 '17 at 22:38
  • Is time a pre-existing stage where changes take place, or is it rather a consequence of change itself? Would we still have time if we lived in a completely static Universe (if that would even be possible)? I really think the Parmenidean problem precedes a discussion about duration of change, or "popping in an instant of time" etc. It's really a conceptual problem: change involves (and requires) a "malleability" of the concept of Being to include Non-Being within it. Change is possible if and only if one abdicates from trying to hold Being and Non-Being firmly separated from one another. – tchuncly Mar 7 '17 at 17:10
  • This may seem obvious and pointless, but it really isn't. If the very truth of the concept of Being is to Become, then there can be absolutely nothing static/eternal in the world --- it is even logically absurd to speak or think of this. Sure, you will hardly make enemies if you say this when discussing physics, but some people would literally kill you for saying that even our most fundamental social institutions --- even our notion of family or our current concept of "love" --- are social constructs, which were born and will vanish at some point of our human development. – tchuncly Mar 7 '17 at 17:24

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