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Superstitionblogging 1: Pre-Socratics [Oct. 23rd, 2012|04:51 pm]
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First thing I learned when rereading The Last Superstition is that I may have overestimated the amount of text spent insulting atheists before even getting to the philosophy. I said "half the book". It's really only 27 pages (plus a short prologue) out of 270 - 10%. Mea culpa.

But we skip over that and get to the first piece of philosophy: the pre-Socratics. We rush through Thales ("all is water"), Pythagoras ("all is number"), and so on. Intriguingly, he says of Thales that:
"Given what was then known, this theory was not as weird as it sounds to us today; but you'll have to trust me on this, because we don't have time to go into the details."

This is interesting, not only because it leaves me burningly curious as to what these details are, but because it's something none of the philosophers or historians I've ever read before have done - claim that ancient theories ought to make sense. This will be a recurring theme throughout the book. Thales was a smart guy. He must have had some reason for thinking what he did.

Unfortunately, I've yet to hear a good one. Wikipedia's article on Thales merely says:
"A deeper dip into the waters of the theory of matter and form is properly reserved to other articles."


The key point:
Part of what led to this interest in first principles among the Pre-Socratics was the notice they took of the phenomena of change and permanence in the world around them. A human being differs dramatically in both mind and body from conception through birth, childhoold, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and on until death, and yet we say it is the same human being who undergoes these changes. Individual plants and animals constantly come and go, but the species carry on. Spring gives way to summer, which is followed by fall and then winter; and yet spring always returns, and the cycle begins again. And so on. How do we account for this relationship between change and permanence? Is one more basic than the other? There is also the question of the relationship between the one and the many. There are many individual human beings, and yet they are all nevertheless in some sense one thing: human. There are many individual trees, but they too all seem to be one insofar as they all have the nature of a tree rather than each having its own nature...how do we account for this relationship?

He describes Parmenides and Heraclitus as the two poles of this debate. Parmenides said only permanence is all that's real and change is an illusion; Heraclitus said only change is real and permanence is an illusion.

Parmenides' argument is this: there are only two things - non-being and being. Non-being's not going to do anything cause it doesn't even exist. As for being, since things only change when acted on by some external force, and there's literally nothing else except being, it can't change. Therefore nothing ever changes.

So even aside from the obvious counterargument - that being consists of lots of sub-things, each of which can change each other like those executive swinging ball sets, and even aside from the fact that some things just change for no reason, like decaying radioactive atoms, this just sounds really dumb.

I never got Parmenides. He seems vulnerable to a sort of Cartesian argument. Descartes said that for there to be an illusion, there must be a deluded person, and therefore you can't argue that your own existence is an illusion. I feel like for there to be an illusion of change, the illusion has to be changing, and therefore you can't argue that change itself is an illusion. If I'm deluded into thinking it's Day at time T, and deluded into thinking it's night at time T+1, then my delusion has changed and therefore change is a real thing.

To avoid this, you'd really have to say something like that there's no such thing as time, and that your memory of having ever believed it to be night is an illusion. Sort of like the "The world was created thirty seconds ago, along with all your memories of it" argument. But Parmenides is worse because not only is there no past but no future. It doesn't make it clear how we can think at all, since thought is a sort of process, and if we're incapable of reason then the argument sort of collapses.

If Parmenides were still alive, I think I would troll him by saying "I was foolish and deluded before I heard your theory, but now I'm completely enlightened" and see if he got upset.

Same with his argument that there's really only one thing, Existence, and our belief in a multiplicity of things is an illusion. It seems at the very least, there are many things: our delusion of seeing a cat, our delusion of seeing an apple, and so on. At some point, "is an illusion" stops bearing any explanatory weight and you've just got to go from asking why the universe is so weird to asking why your illusion is so weird.

And I hate to pick on Parmenides, which from my 21st century perspective seems a lot like accusing Hecateaus of being a bad geographer. But I do so anyway, because in fact a lot of the actual thesis of the book is going to involve equally ancient philosophers with equally silly ideas and unless we stop pulling punches we're eventually going to get sprung with "See! And so Catholicism is true after all!"

However, to his credit, Feser does not endorse Parmenides.

Then a short discussion of Zeno's Paradox, which by the way stands out to me as an especially bad example of atrocious reasoning. "My math says that motion doesn't exist. And it's more likely that nothing has ever moved than that I made a math error." The counterspell is Kaas' Law: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains is often more improbable than your having made a mistake in one of your impossibility proofs."

Then the Sophists:
"They gained a reputation for being rather cynical and unscrupulous in their argumentative standards: any old argument would do as long as it persuaded one's listener, even if it was totally fallacious;what mattered was winning the debate, not arriving at the truth, and the line between logic and rhetoric was thus blurred. The Sophists are still with us. Today we call them 'lawyers', 'professors of literary criticism' and 'Michael Moore'.

I was going to say Michael Moore references don't age as well as Parmenides references, but the book was published in 2008 so really there's no excuse.

Last Superstition does miss my favorite Sophist story, which I include here because honestly when will I ever get a chance to talk about the Sophists again? The great Sophist teacher Protagoras offers to teach a young man Euathlus to be a lawyer, on the condition that Euathlus pay him after he has won his first case. Euathlus accepts his instruction, but decides the law isn't for him and never practices.

Protagoras sues Euathlus for the amount owed. His reasoning is the following: the judge may either rule in favor of himself, or in favor of Euathlus. If he rules in favor of Protagoras, then by law Euathlus must pay Protagoras. But if he rules in favor of Euathlus, then Euathlus has won the case, and he must pay Protagoras.

Euathlus makes the following counter-argument: the judge may either rule in favor of himself, or in favor of Protagoras. If he rules in favor of Euathlus, then Euathlus has won the case and is not legally obligated to pay anything. But if he rules in favor of Protagoras, then Euathlus has never won a case and is not obligated to pay any money.

According to Aulus Gellius:
Then the jurors, thinking that the plea on both sides was uncertain and insoluble, for fear that their decision, for whichever side it was rendered, might annul itself, left the matter undecided and postponed the case to a distant day. Thus a celebrated master of oratory was refuted by his youthful pupil with his own argument, and his cleverly devised sophism failed.

After that is a short biography of Socrates, ending with the following:
"Socrates defended himself by claiming that he was divinely called to lead others to the improvement of their souls. Naturally, this democratic assembly had him executed. Today they'd probably just denounce him as a 'neo-con' or part of the 'religious right' and hall him off for multicultural sensitivity training."

...a few people said they're considering buying The Last Superstition on the strength of my recommendation, so I just figured they ought to know what they're getting into.

That was suitably meandering and purposeless. Next: less disjointed history, more analysis of Platonism.

PS: Is there any tag that works the way I think [blockquote] should - indents a paragraph of text without completely messing up the spacing of the lines above and below? I'm getting kind of tired of having to ruin my paragraphing just to make blockquote tags not include huge swathes of white space.

[User Picture]From: Chris Hallquist
2012-10-24 07:08 am (UTC)
As an ex-philosophy grad student, I find the attempt to figure out the pre-Socratics pretty futile. We don't have any of their writings, so we have to rely on other people to tell us what they said.

And one thing I've noticed reading Plato and Aristotle is that they give *very* different accounts of the pre-Socratics. Not sure if it's actual misinterpretation, or just selectively focusing on the aspects of them that each writer found more interesting, but in any case the perspective you're getting is somewhat distorted by the person giving it to you.

Also, general comment on Feser and I'll be curious to know in later posts if you agree: one of my main issues with him is that his main substantiative thesis ends up being that Aquinas has been widely misunderstood... which is actually completely boring if you understand history of philosophy. Any time a philosopher gets famous, there end up being a lot of disagreements on what he intended to say, and since not everyone can be right it follows that the philosopher is widely misinterpreted. What would be interesting, and where Feser is lacking, is actual arguments that Aquinas was right.

(I'm discounting all arguments that begin, "...but on the Thomistic view..." Yes of course on the Thomistic view Thomas was right. We want to know the arguments for the Thomistic view.)

Compare William Lane Craig. Craig is a horrible person in more ways than one, but at least when he presents Kalam, he tries to present an argument for the existence of God and doesn't waste time doing anything else, and especially doesn't devote all his time talking about how philosophers have misunderstood al-Ghazali and are terrible people for having done so.

I'm sympathetic to you're liking of Feser's "unabashedly and unnecessarily nasty polemic," and I wouldn't have a problem with that if it weren't so disconnected from the (boring) theses Feser actually ends up arguing.
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[User Picture]From: tremensdelirium
2012-10-24 01:56 pm (UTC)

Plato and the pre-Socratics

I'm not a proper Plato scholar, but I'm not aware of anywhere where Plato describes the views of pre-Socratics in his own voice. Some of the characters in his dialogues mentioned them, but as the dialogues are philosophical dramas, it's not clear to me how seriously to take any historical claims they may make.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-24 06:49 pm (UTC)

"actual arguments that Aquinas was right."

"We want to know the arguments for the Thomistic view."

That's a very fair complaint. I haven't read TLS (as it has no Kindle edition), but Feser gestures toward justifying Thomism in his other popularizations, "Philosophy of Mind" and "Aquinas." However, for a more rigorous attempt to defend the Aristotelian metaphysics underpinning the Thomistic view, you'd be better off, IMHO, with David Oderberg's book "Real Essentialism," which is aimed at more of an academic readership, and engages contemporary philosophical issues more directly. Feser blurbs the book here:


Hope that's responsive and helpful.

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