Parmenides’ One

Robert asked:

Was Bishop George Berkeley the first person to maintain that matter did not exist? Who was the first person who maintained that space did not exist? Who was the first person who maintained that time did not exist?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Berkeley was not the first philosopher to deny the existence of matter. That honour goes to the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides of Elea, who was indeed the first philosopher to deny the existence of matter, time and space.

According to Parmenides, the only thing that is, is the One. The only true statement one can make is, ‘It is.’ From that statement, various propositions follow:

The One was not, or will it be but exists altogether now, in the present. Hence, time does not exist. The One is not material, and it is not mental either. Any property P such that a thing can either be P, or not-P, such as ‘white’ or ‘square’, ‘heavy’ or ‘fragile’, ‘painful’ or ‘warm’, is disqualified from belonging to the One.

The One is finite, not infinite, because infinity implies something that ‘is not’. Parmenides describes the One as ‘like the bulk of a well-rounded sphere’. However, that doesn’t imply that the One is spherical in a literal sense. He is using an image.

So what about the world we all know, where things can be white or square or heavy or fragile, etc.? None of that is real, says Parmenides. Nothing we say about ‘our world’ can be true. (It is a problem with Parmenides’ theory that it is not at all easy to see how one accounts for the ‘reality’ of this on-going illusion. But that’s a problem we won’t go into.)

Parmenides’ theory of the One made a huge impact on the philosophers that followed. They couldn’t agree that the One was all there is, but the argument that Parmenides gave seemed to be compelling. So they made various compromises. Empedocles said that the world is made up of four unchanging elements. The Atomists Democritus and Leucippus said that the world is made up of atoms in motion, each atom being like a miniature unchanging Parmenidean ‘One’.

What was the argument Parmenides gave for his theory?

On the face of it, the argument is a blatant non-sequitur:

1. Take anything you like (call it x).

2. Either x is, or x is not.

3. If x is not, then x cannot be. The very idea of x is ‘unthinkable’.

4. By contraposition, if x can be then it is.

5. If ‘x is’ follows from ‘x is possible’ then x is necessary.

6. All that is, is necessary and cannot not-be.

As the very idea that ‘x is not’ is unthinkable, there is no place for negation in any account of ‘what is’. If there are two objects, x and y, then x is not y and y is not x, which is impossible. Hence x is necessarily One. If the One is white, then it is not black. So the One cannot be white or black or any other colour.

But why on earth should we accept step 3? There are plenty of things that ‘are not’. I do not have two heads. Sheffield is not on the Moon. The drink in my mug is not tea.

Parmenides’ response? Not cannot be part of what a thing is. There is no such thing, no such property as not-ness. ‘Not’ is a word we use for various practical purposes, but it does not refer, cannot refer, to anything in reality. Reality is what is, and only what is. Anything on top is something we have added, something that is not ultimately real.

Think about that for a while, and your head will start spinning.

You might, for example, consider that the very idea of things existing contingently — say, the Big Bang might not have banged, the solar system might not have formed, I might not have been born etc. — is absurd. If you are talking about what is real, then contingency can be no part of reality.

The God theory is just another example of an attempt to ‘customize’ Parmenides’ One, like the theories of Empedocles or the Atomists. Just like those theories, it requires a compromise, going back on what Parmenides considers that he has proved. There is only the One, and the One cannot be described in any way other than saying that, ‘It is.’

Give it time, and you will begin to see Parmenides meant. And then you will understand why he is considered one of the giants of Western Philosophy.

Politicians’ expert-led fallacies

Natalie asked:

What fallacies do you find most interesting and why?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In responding to this question, I follow its spirit and give a very indulgent answer by demonstrating a particular type of fallacy that I find to be interesting: other panel members may have their own favourites. Often fallacies are grouped into two types: ‘formal fallacies’ used in logical structures where an incorrect premise may invalidate a whole argument; and ‘informal fallacies’ common within semantic reasoning and discussion. Here, I demonstrate a type of informal fallacy which often originates from of a group of persons who are experts in their field and their opinion contains much credence and immediately convinces many of its validity. The problem starts where the experts have drawn the incorrect conclusion from the information available; and this is further compounded by persons in power adopting the conclusion, without too much questioning of its validity, as it supports their cause. Often such fallacies are the first argument opening a debate and beg to be repudiated. Furthermore, being quite original, they generally do not involve the deliberate weakening of another’s argument or the deflecting of attention from another’s argument.

Here, I will provide a recent example of such a fallacy, which eventually collapsed. It originated from the world of economics and was fervently endorsed by some politicians. It occurred during ‘the Brexit debate’: which discussed whether the United Kingdom (UK) should relinquish its membership of the European Union (EU) prior to a referendum being held to decide the matter; (now, I hasten to add that this does not indicate a stance for or against Brexit, as it attempts to be impartial and allows us to learn by recounting events which actually took place).

Two events preceding the referendum held on 23 June 2016 are quite telling. Firstly, on April 2016 the British government distributed a leaflet to all households in the UK describing why they felt it would be better for the UK to remain within the EU; they believed that a ‘leave’ vote would rapidly bring forth disruption in society resulting in an ‘economic shock’ (  The document was replete with references from notable economic experts including banks, reputable universities and the International Monetary Fund.

Secondly, anticipating the referendum on the 15 June 2016, a member of the government’s opposition, namely Alistair Darling, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, joined with the then current Chancellor of the Exchequer to warn of the need for an emergency budget if the UK voted to leave the EU; the budget would require the populace to suffer tax hikes in order to fill a predicted government deficit ( This type of fallacy may be said to fall into the category of fallacies known as ad baculum: where the arguer attempts to sway the undecided by disproportionately emphasising the consequences of not supporting the arguer’s stance (and the reader may like to review the entry ‘argumentum ad’ in The Oxford dictionary of Philosophy for definition of many common fallacies; other dictionaries are available).

However, after voting to leave the EU, the immediate economic hardship failed to materialise and to this day, the UK’s economy remains stable. Many experts have been forced to backtrack and reassess their contribution to the debate; (see as one example). However, it provides an example of politicians seemingly throwing a deliberate fallacy into the debate in both a Machiavellian and clumsy manner.

The questioner also asks ‘why’ some fallacies may be interesting.  For me, this example reminds us that we must have the confidence to form our own opinions and maintain a healthy scepticism towards both the experts and those in power. Such fallacies may grow unchecked until they face the acid test which is their undoing. They may be compared to the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes as they convince many of their validity; but when they are disproved, they are rejected rapidly.

Personal identity and the Eternal Recurrence

Lee asked:

Hello! I was wondering if there is any relationship between personal identity and Nietzsche’s ideas of eternal recurrence. I know that time and personal identity are two concepts that are constantly interwoven, but I wonder if there is a way to think of eternal recurrence in this frame as well. Thanks!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The best way I can answer your question, Lee, is to tell you a story:

Born in 1846, in Frankfurt, just two years after Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Schmidt was the son of a prominent banker. It is known that he wrote one philosophical work, whose title has been sadly forgotten. He gave up philosophy and joined the family business after the one and only manuscript was destroyed in a fire at his publishing house before the book went into print.

Friends commented that Karl appeared to show little concern for his tragic loss. ‘I feel no less sorry for all the other Karls than I do for myself,’ he is reported to have said. It was only years later after his death that a notebook was discovered, in which Schmidt described his theory of ‘Endless Duplication.’

According to Schmidt’s theory, the universe is one of an infinite series of identical universes, existing side by side in space. ‘All the other Karls’ refers to the infinitely many Karl Schmidts.

“Be glad! You are not alone in your suffering, you are not alone in your joy. Every action that you do is done an infinite number of times, each time with the same result. If you hit the target once, you always hit the target and never miss. If you miss the target, then there is no point in regret because you miss the target every time.”

Commentators have noted that Schmidt’s theory bears a remarkable resemblance to Nietzsche’s theory of the Eternal Recurrence. However, the date of the notebook entry is five years before the first mention of the Eternal Recurrence in Nietzsche’s published works. Could it be that Nietzsche adapted Schmidt’s idea, applying his ‘endless duplication’ to a series of identical universes in time rather than in space?

Though the supposition is initially plausible, the problem is that there is no record that Nietzsche and Schmidt ever met. Also, it is also known that the Eternal Recurrence was first formulated by the Stoics two thousand years earlier. Maybe, like Nietzsche, Schmidt was intrigued by the Stoic theory, but for reasons of his own replaced the temporal series with a spatial one.

Although Nietzsche attempts a proof of the Eternal Recurrence in his notebooks posthumously published as The Will to Power, the point of the theory is a test, a thought experiment: are you mentally strong enough to will that in the infinite number of times that you will get the chance to relive your life, you will make the same decisions every time, and everything that happens in your life will be the same?

But will it be you? What makes the two Nietzsches, or the two Schmidts, the same person, rather than someone exactly like the previous Nietzsche, or the previous Schmidt?

In his book Theories of Existence (1985), Timothy Sprigge in a chapter on Nietzsche admits that the question about identity or non-identity in the Eternal Recurrence is one where there is no convincing proof either way, although he would ‘like to think’ that if the Eternal Recurrence is true then he, Timothy Sprigge, will live the same life, over and over again.

Maybe Schmidt considered the implications of this embarrassing loophole, and decided to improve on the Stoic theory by substituting space for time. In the next universe along in the spatial series of universes, there is no possibility that the GK typing these words at this moment is ‘one and the same’ as the GK in this universe.

Using Schmidt’s ‘endless duplication’, a stronger argument can be made, that there is no reason why the ‘next GK’ in the infinite temporal series of universes should bear any closer relation to the GK in this universe than the ‘next GK’ in the infinite spatial series of universes. If there are an infinite number of GKs in Schmidt’s Endless Duplication, then there must be an infinite number of GKs in Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.

There is a counter-argument, however. Although Nietzsche doesn’t explicitly state this — and it appears inconsistent with the argument sketch in The Will to Power which assumes a deterministic Newtonian Universe in infinite time — an alternative interpretation of the Eternal Recurrence would be a circular time. Time is finite and circular rather than infinitely extended in a straight line. If time is circular, then the ‘next GK’ is none other than me because the universe has gone back to a previous time.

Just in case I get accused of promulgating ‘false facts’, the story about Karl Schmidt is made up. Any resemblance to any actual historical figure is purely coincidental. The original version of my story can be found here.

Facts and alternative facts

Fred asked:

Are the facts always the facts? Or can there be alternative facts?

Answer by Eric DeJardin

I think that the expression ‘alternative facts’ is ambiguous. That is, there are (at least) two senses in which it might be understood.  Let’s (somewhat tendentiously!) call the first sense the ‘innocuous sense’ and the second the ‘destructive sense’. But before we discuss that distinction and then answer your question, we should first get (somewhat!) clearer about what a fact is.

I take it that a fact is not a linguistic expression, e.g. like a sentence. So, the fact that I’m now writing this post is distinct from the sentence, ‘Eric is now writing this post’. However, we can use linguistic expressions to express or represent facts, e.g. ‘It’s a fact that Eric is now writing this post.’ So although facts can be expressed or represented linguistically, they’re not themselves linguistic items. But then what are they?

One way of thinking about facts (albeit a controversial way – more on this below) identifies them with certain states of affairs. A state of affairs could be conceived as comprising objects (e.g. a computer and a desk) with certain properties (e.g. being gray and having four legs) standing in specific relations to one another (both in time and space, so e.g. being on top of the desk at such and such a time). But not every state of affairs is a fact. So, the state of affairs in which Obama is now serving his third term as president of the United States is not a fact, for that state of affairs doesn’t ‘obtain’; that is, Obama is not now serving his third term as president. Rather, the state of affairs in which Trump is now serving his first term as president of the United States, and in which Obama is now an ex-president, obtains. Hence, on the state-of-affairs conception of facts, to say that such-and-such a state of affairs obtains is roughly what saying ‘it’s a fact that such-and-such’ amounts to.

With that rough sketch of what a fact is out of the way, we can now look at what I’ve called innocuous alternative facts. Take the (epistemically) open question, ‘Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia during the 2016 election?’ Most of us couldn’t say for sure one way or the other. But we could point to certain facts to support a case for one conclusion or the other. However, when we make a case for a conclusion we sometimes ignore facts that harm, or minimally don’t support, our position. When we do so, those who defend the opposing view could say that they have alternative facts that support their position, and not ours.

This notion is innocuous because it doesn’t bring the ordinary idea of a fact into question. Rather, it merely supposes that people sometimes choose specific facts from a larger set of (relevant) facts to focus on depending on which conclusion they’re defending.

However, if one were to deny that there were any facts of the matter at all — or, more weakly, concede that there are facts, but deny that we can access them — and proceed to use that claim to support one’s conclusion, then one would be appealing to alternative facts in what I’ve called the destructive sense. According to the destructive sense, the modifier ‘alternative’ is a privative adjective, for it functions like the modifier ‘toy’ in the expression ‘toy gun’ – that is, just as a toy gun is no gun at all, an alternative fact is no fact at all.

But how can we make sense of the notion that there are no facts? I’m not sure if we can. (For example, if someone claims that there are no facts, is that claim a fact? Or, is it a fact that she made that claim? This stuff gets bizarre quickly!) What folks who appeal to destructive alternative facts seem to have in mind is something like this: the world as we conceive it isn’t the world as it is. Or, a bit more weakly, even if we conceive the world as it is, we’re not justified in concluding that we conceive it as it is. For we all conceive the world with cultural, linguistic, experiential and historically conditioned concepts. It’s as if we’re all wearing world-distorting glasses (etc.), and we can’t remove them. So, this view goes, you see the world as you do, and I see it as I do, and neither one of us is in a position to delegitimize the way the other sees it. You have ‘your truth’, and I have ‘my truth’ (as folks who endorse this sort of view commonly say).

What I’ve called ‘destructive’ views of alternative facts can get very complex and very sophisticated. Further, defenders of this view can point to problems with the more commonsensical view of facts that I sketched above. For instance, if facts are obtaining states of affairs, and states of affairs comprise objects and relations, then how do we account for modal facts (e.g. I might not have written this response), or moral facts (genocide is wrong), or negative facts (I’m not writing this on a Mac)? In addition, the appeal to facts seems to add a category to our ontology that is not obviously necessary, e.g. the world not only contains a computer, a desk, and an on-the-top-of relation, but also contains the fact that the computer is on top of the desk. So we must concede that even the commonsensical view is not unproblematic.

In light of all this, I’d now suggest that we can clarify your question in the following way: are there facts or not? For I take it you’re not concerned with innocuous alternative facts, and as we’ve seen, the notion of destructive alternative facts amounts to the claim that there are no facts (as they are commonly conceived, i.e. as obtaining states of affairs).

I’d argue that of course there are facts. First, even the defenders of destructive alternative facts appeal to facts in the commonsensical sense when it benefits them. So, when it was erroneously reported that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was removed from the Oval Office, the White House wasted no time demonstrating that this claim was false – that is, that it was not a fact that the bust was removed. Second, defenders of destructive alternative facts must appeal to facts in the commonsensical sense. For instance, they explain the existence of destructive alternative facts by appealing to what they believe to be, well, facts about human cognition. (If the claim that we’re all wearing world-distorting glasses is yet another alternative fact in the destructive sense, then what are we to make of their conclusion that you have your truth and I have mine? Does it even follow anymore?). Third, it’s difficult to understand how we’d make sense of science or the law or mathematics or much else in human experience without an appeal to facts (or something very like them) in some substantive sense.

So, my answer to your question is that the facts are always the facts, for there plausibly cannot be destructive alternative facts (though there are innocuous alternative facts).