30 December 2007

Two and a half millennia after Parmenides

Raymond Tallis has written an interesting article about the Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides in the latest Prospect, as a taster for his forthcoming book on the same topic.

The Pre-Socratics suffer from our having relatively little information about them, and the fact that little of their material survives. They were also in the invidious position of having to invent philosophy from scratch, and of speaking to an audience unfamiliar with the flavour and purpose of philosophical thought. We should therefore not be surprised if their statements, while at times profound, are on the simplistic side.

There is a temptation to read more into Pre-Socratic utterances than is justified. It isn't possible to conclude very much from the fragments we have, beyond the fact that there were intellectuals in that period of history having interesting philosophical thoughts. Interpreting an individual's complete philosophical outlook from what survives has a tendency to move from speculation into fantasy. Whole academic papers are written on the question of whether some fragment of Heraclitus should be interpreted one way or the other. (The interpretation sometimes hinges on how a single word in a particular fragment should be translated.)

While Tallis makes some thought-provoking points, he falls into the same trap.

[In Parmenides' thought] human consciousness had a crucial encounter with itself. This was, I believe, a decisive moment in the long awakening of the human species to its own nature. From this self-encounter resulted the cognitive self-criticism, the profound critical sense that gave birth to the unfolding intellectual dramas of metaphysics and science that have in the last century or so approached an impasse.

Well, perhaps, and Tallis is not alone in wishing to make grandiose claims on his behalf — Nietzsche did it, ditto a number of more recent professional philosophers. But it seems highly speculative. While Plato said nice things about Parmenides, this in itself is not conclusive proof that the latter was indeed the essential foundation for the former, let alone the basis of Plato's metaphysics, as some have suggested.

Parmenides' key idea is usually thought to have been that change is an illusion: ultimately, everything that exists continues to exist. This is an insight comparable to Heraclitus's that you cannot step into the same river twice: a useful reminder about the 'boggliness' of reality, and that common sense concepts don't work very well when you try to analyse the fundamental nature of things. Notably, it is also — on the face of it — saying the opposite from the one about stepping into a river. Conclusion? The Pre-Socratics had some interesting ideas, but it's questionable whether they amounted to full-blown philosophical theories, let alone scientific ones. Still, it is good to be reminded that the metaphysical debate about change versus continuity goes back to the 5th century BC.

Tallis is on more questionable ground when he starts to make claims about Parmenides' contribution to epistemology. While it was useful to state that knowledge comes from analysis rather than perception, and to draw a distinction between appearance and reality, as Parmenides did, Tallis surely goes too far when he says that

In his short poem, thought and knowledge encounter themselves head on for the first time. This is such a huge advance in self-consciousness that it is no exaggeration to call it an "awakening." …The pre-Socratic revolution in thought that Parmenides brought to its climax is, I believe, a more compelling epistemological break than any that Foucault claimed to discover in post-Renaissance humanism.

Tallis asks why this development happened when it did. His answers involve giving political developments priority over intellectual ones — a common move, but a speculative one, and based on the ideological assumption that individuals cannot make innovations without being prompted to do so by their social environment.

Why, hundreds of thousands of years after human beings woke to the outside world as an object of knowledge separate from themselves, did they awaken to knowledge itself? What was it that fostered this collision of human consciousness with itself, such that thought came to think about itself and knowledge inquired into its own basis? …
The pre-Socratic awakening was the result of a unique concatenation of circumstances in place by the 7th century BC. In his classic investigation The Origin of Greek Thought, published half a century ago, J P Vernant connects the pre-Socratic awakening with the rise of the polis, or city state. …
Another driver to the explicitness of thought that made the Parmenidean self-encounter of human consciousness more likely was the rise of cities. … There is one more important driver: writing. This is an extraordinary technology: it stores human consciousness outside of the human body.

Such assertions may seem axiomatic in a post-structuralist culture, but they are highly theory-laden. There is no less evidence for the opposite claim, i.e. that socio-political developments were inspired by philosophical ones. In following the standard line, Tallis comes close to the reductionist thesis that consciousness, or at least thinking about consciousness, is a product of social forces.

Tallis's article becomes more interesting at the end when it turns away from its ostensible subject, and talks about our present intellectual situation.

Over the last century, there has been a growing feeling that in crucial areas of knowledge, we have reached an impasse. For instance, the endeavour to turn the scientific gaze on our own consciousness has run into a brick wall. Although you wouldn't know it from the excitement surrounding brain science, we have made no progress in understanding how it is that we are conscious and are aware of being located in a world that we in part construct and in part encounter as a given. ...
Dismissing the importance of subjective experiences, or "qualia"—a common ploy among the champions of neurophilosophy such as Daniel Dennett—keeps the impression of progress alive, but this is cheating. Biological science—evolutionary theory and so on—is increasingly assimilating itself to physics, chemistry and mathematics. Gene-eyed evolutionary theory and the rise of molecular biology forge closer connections between the biosphere and what Richard Dawkins has called "the blind forces of physics." Not only does this deepen the tension between an objective understanding of ourselves as organisms and our sense of being conscious agents, it exposes the biological sciences to the difficulties our understanding of the physical world is encountering. At the apex of contemporary physics, we have two mighty theories—quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity—which are incompatible. The attempt to unite the two theories in "superstring theory" has produced a sterile landscape of largely untestable theories … Quantum mechanics, as Richard Feynman repeatedly pointed out, is incomprehensible, for all its extraordinary effectiveness.

He concludes by making the curious suggestion that a solution to these problems can somehow be found in Parmenides’ original insights.

We need to return to the Parmenidean moment to see whether, without losing all the gains that post-Parmenidean thought has brought us, there might be another cognitive journey from that which western thought has taken.

Tallis is right to point to the impasse and sterility which many fundamental areas of science and philosophy have reached. Hanging this observation on the utterances of a minor philosophical figure some two and half millennia ago, however, seems a little contrived. A more persuasive connection between the two periods might have been made as follows, but would probably have been too ideologically incorrect for Prospect Magazine.

'We need to recognise that the revolutionary insights of the Pre-Socratics were made by independent thinkers operating outside an institutional environment, supported by private capital. If we wish to continue to make significant progress, we need to consider whether a different political route from the one which we have taken might be required to restore to us the cultural advantages of classical Greece.'