Sunday, January 22, 2023

Paradoxes and epistemology - early Greek philosophy as conceptual innovation - "Zeno argues fallaciously."

The conceptual innovation of Thales that we identify as the birth of philosophy quickly spun off other conceptual innovations.  A real conceptual innovation does not require a book or even an argument.  You say there are many gods?  But what if there were one? Or none?  Everything is made of, at the base, water.  Why not fire, or air?  The question about the basis of existence is more important than the zany answers.  Where did existence come from?  Does it change?  Can there be a thing that is not a thing, the “void”?  How does infinity work?  The questions explode.

Much effort is used to understand motion.  Does anything move at all?  The answer would seem obvious, yet Zeno of Elea shows that Achilles will never catch the tortoise, and that the arrow in the air is not actually moving at all.  I am happy to see that Aristotle finds Zeno as aggravating as I do. Here is Aristotle on the Arrow Paradox:

Zeno argues fallaciously.  For if, he says, everything is at rest when it is in a space equal to itself, and if what is travelling is always in such a space at any instant, then the travelling arrow is motionless.  This is false; for time is not composed of indivisible instants – nor is any other size.  (from Physics, tr. Jonathan Barnes in Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd ed., p. 104)

We are now used to the cinematic special effect that stops time and freezes the bullet in flight along with the jumping dog and the pouring water.  Maybe the hero will pluck the bullet out of the air.  Clearly the arrow is not moving in the frozen moment, nor in any other of the infinitely other frozen moments.  How, then, can we say it is in motion when at no point is it in motion?

I am with Aristotle here, but Zeno’s effect is to demand some deeper thinking about how motion and time work.  My experience is that I must relax into philosophy at least a bit.  Look for the useful question generated by the nonsense and worry less about, or even enjoy, the nonsense itself.

Zeno is defending the rational system of Parmenides, who argues, step by step, in the first half of a rather tedious poem, that existence consists of a single thing, a giant motionless sphere.  In the second half of the poem he describes a world with motion and things but says this is all “opinion,” a phony artifact of our unreliable senses.  Fine, go about acting like there are many things moving around, but really it’s all just that giant sphere of gray goo.  Parmenides has invented epistemology, starting with the radical position that our senses are simply wrong about everything.  The less radical, inescapable question, will never leave us: but how do we really know anything?  I had not known that the question was so old, almost as old as philosophy itself.

Next week I’ll write a bit about Heraclitus and Empedocles, who I singled out because my impression was that they are more enjoyable to read in their own right than most of the other early philosophers.  I have spent a couple of weeks testing this idea, and I think I was right.


  1. The luxury of philosophy: you don't have to offer proof or attempt to falsify your hypotheses. Zeno obviously knew that arrows hit their targets, but as you say, he was not really making a claim about an object in flight. Explaining why someone is wrong is sometimes hard work; you have to know what you're talking about. I love the story of Zeno's death (he was so angry about stumbling and breaking his toe that he held his breath until he died).

    I'll not be reading along with you much on this project, but I am certainly enjoying your walk through the ideas. Keep 'em coming!

    1. I don't know why blogspot didn't let me post as myself. I am myself, I'm sure of it.

  2. How encouraging. You encouraged me to piece together my piece on Heraclitus and Empedocles, which I was avoiding for the good reason of knowing nothing about the subject. Of course if I regularly had that kind of sense I would not be writing about ay of this stuff.

    The death stories, all lovingly reserve by Diogenes Laertius, are often amazing. How the Greeks liked to humiliate their heroes.