After 2,500 years of having been misunderstood, Parmenides, a man ahead of his time, is finally being interpreted in the correct way. Parmenides was the most important of the philosophers who predated Socrates. Thanks to some thorough philological research, the doctrine of Parmenides seems today to be really prophetic, given that he was able to prefigure the principal characteristics of the “ultimate reality” as is emerging from the most recent cosmological theories. It is this misunderstanding which has prevented scientists from realising that the existence of superstring was in some way predicted twenty five centuries ago.
But the teachings of Parmenides are also relevant today because, in our super- technological society, many people continue to follow the path of “non being” instead of adhering to the reality of the facts. Parmenides lived between the 5th and 6th centuries BC in Velia, a Greek colony founded on the Cilento coast in the south of Italy by inhabitants of Focea, fleeing from Asia Minor after the Persian invasions of 545 BC.
Soon after, the city took the name of Elea, but the Italic people continued to use the original name of Velia. As a descendent of one of the principal aristocratic families, Parmenides wrote the statues of his city, carried out research, particularly in astronomy, and founded a school of philosophy. He laid out his doctrine and his discoveries in a poem, a real scientific document which was originally composed of thousands of verses, of which only 160 remain.
The founder of the Eleatic school belongs to the tradition of the first Greek Philosophers, who were above all scientists, in an era in which science was not yet divided into specializations. Scientists, or rather wise men, or even better, lovers of the truth (from a translation of the Greek word philosopher).
It is precisely those first philosophers, (so called Presocratics) who laid the basis of western civilization, a civilization founded on scientific rationalism. Those sages began to investigate the nature of things with careful observations. They were the first to carry out systematic observations and measurements, scrupulously, in contrast to a superficial observation of reality and the unquestioning acceptance of myth and legend. It is thanks to them that over 2,500 years ago mathematics, geometry, astronomy, physics, biology and medicine were born, and that the first important scientific conquests were made.
The first “sage” of whom we have any information is Thales from Miletus, immersed in his studies, he was able to predict the eclipse of the sun in 585 BC. Talete discovered various geometric theorems to which he gave his name, compiled an astronomical calendar and realized that the light of the moon is not endogenous but is reflected by the sun.
His pupil, Anaximander made a thorough study in the field of astronomy and tested the first model of the universe which put the earth at the centre (it was conceived as having a cylindrical shape) supported in a void by balanced forces, with all the celestial bodies rotating around; the first version of the Ptolemaic system. He constructed the first sun dial, he claimed, almost anticipating Darwin, that life had its origin in the seas. Anaximenes, another of Thale’s pupils realized that the rainbow was not a magical phenomena but only light refracted by the humidity of the air, and that the sun was a white-hot mass of magma.
Another important representative of the Presocratic group of philosophers is Phythagoras.
Phythagoras is one of the most famous scientists of antiquity, he too founded his own school. He made progress in geometry, inventing a theorem which is named after him. He attributed such an importance to mathematics as to constitute a sort of numbers cult. He did research into astronomy, he realized there was a connection between the length of a vibrating cord and the height of the note, and created the first musical scale which remained in use for the entire period of antiquity.
Parmenides was above all a scientist. With his observations he demonstrated the intuition of Thales, that the moon does not shine with its own light but reflects that of the sun.
He proved that Vesper, the evening star and Phosphor, the morning star (the literal meaning of the word is bringer of light ) are the same celestial body, called after Aphrodites, Venus for the Romans, the goddess of love and beauty.
He described the earth as spherical, concluding the cosmological vision of Anaximander, which has remained practically unchanged for the succeeding 2000 years.
The scientist-philosophers who preceded him did not limit their attentions to investigating nature, they also tried to interpret the multiform reality which surrounded them as part of a cosmological vision. Each of them believed he had identified the “primordial element from which all of nature, the earth, the sea, the sky, the lakes, the rivers, could be traced to, the phenomena of transformation, the stars, the seasons, day and night, animals, plants, human beings of the present and the past”.
“Taking as a starting point that nothing can be born from nothing, and that matter can not disappear into nothing” all reality is interpreted as the result of processes of condensation, rarefaction and reciprocal mixing of eternal and indestructible elements, which were identified one after another in the water, in the air, in the earth and in the fire.
Also Parmenides took as a starting point that nothing is created and that nothing is destroyed, but this led him to its extreme logical consequences. At the basis of his doctrine is the essential axiom: the affirmation that “being is and not being is not”.
That is to say that being cannot begin or stop being, because this would imply that in certain moments “not being” constitutes being. “Therefore outside being, nothing can be created and nothing can be generated from nothing, so only being is, and it is impossible to prove that non being exists”. However to Parmenide’s way of thinking transformation also implies a certain logical step: the intervention from nothing of something new which interrupts the preceding static balance. That of “being” is therefore the way to identify the real nature of things: because being “is”, while appearance is not being, it is something which seems to be but is not. The real difference between being and not being is therefore also the distinction between appearance, superficial impressions, and real knowledge. Truth is not a subjective opinion, and it is a mistake to limit oneself to listing objects, facts, history, without a scientific investigation to unveil the real nature of the facts. “And the continual transformation of things which happen in front of our eyes cannot be other than an illusion, almost a dream with our eyes wide open, because reality remains the same: being”.
However Parmenides, with his being is and not being is not also pinpointed a method, or rather a direction along which knowledge advances. And he even managed to foresee the final result of this journey of research.
Science proceeds by means of affirmations such as A “is” B, relationships of identity, the same type of which are used in mathematics or geometry. Besides, verbal expressions are also the same. The ancient Greeks, for example, would have said that two and two is four to mean that two and two is equal to four. Or else, two plus two is “the same as” four.
Vesper and Phosphor have two names as if they were two distinct things. But scientific investigation has proved that Vesper and Phosphor are the same celestial body: Vesper “is” Phosphor.
“Eclipses are not miraculous events or threatening signs sent to man by gods, but simple alignments which happen from time to time among the stars rotating in the sky. The different celestial bodies, each identified with their own names, are none other than blocks of fire, all the same, incorporated in the celestial sphere. Day and night do not exist as separate, opposing entities but are one and the same thing, nothing more than the never-ending spinning of the sun around the earth, with the consequent mechanics of alternating light-darkness on its surface. If two triangles, thousands of miles apart, have one side and two adjacent angles the same, then they are the same: one is the other.”
In other words, diversity continually proves to be deceptive, and comes to be substituted with an equation – identification.
“The act of understanding is always resolved by the recognition of an identity, which is expressed verbally by a preposition hinged on the premise that equal is indicated by “is”. Things which seem to be different, based on common experience, reveal themselves to be one and the same thing from an intellectual point of view, which derives from scientific experience.”
Scientific knowledge is not made up of fragmentary pieces of information and isolated episodes, but is rather a body of knowledge integrated into a single system, which grows slowly as new relationships of identity are singled out.
“Certainly the scientist is also a long way from having surpassed all diversity into superior identity, but this is due to the partiality of his knowledge, and future developments will continue to lead to more and more identification. In the end, after a long journey, it will be possible to identify and relate everything to a primordial, irreducible entity. It is not possible to imagine that two or more parts remain at the end of the unification process, because they would place themselves in confrontation one against the other, in terms of creation from nothing, and so we must consider one absolute unity: Being is one”.
If Being is one, then it does not allow for inner distinctions. In addition it is eternal, in the sense that it is always present, therefore it is not created, complete in itself, indestructible, indivisible, immutable, without limit, but not infinite.
However, the teachings of Parmenides continue to be topical due to the fact that in our hyper-technological society, we continually discuss not how to interpret reality, but whether reality itself is true or not. Often we reach the point of denying the reality of facts, which is equivilent to saying that being does not exist.
This is the case when, for example, we affirm that cannabis is a drug which causes addiction and damages our health, despite the fact that this has never been proven. Or else, when we say that genetically modified plants cause unacceptable risks to our health and to the environment, while all scientists unanimously assure us that the risks involved are fewer than those caused by plants cultivated in the traditional way. Or, once again, when it is claimed that DDT is one of the most dangerous poisons created by man, while on the contrary it has been established that it is one of the more harmless.
Establishing that the reality of facts is simply a matter of truth, and that we can not expect to change this according to our prejudices or personal desires, is the great, paradoxical revolution formulated by Parmenides more than twenty five centuries ago. But still nowadays, to affirm that being is and non being is not, is to say something revolutionary, almost subversive.
The teachings of Parmenides, despite the passing of time, have not been superseded. In fact today just as 2,500 years ago, too often the culture of “not being” prevails. It happens every time that one does not stick to the reality of the facts, for example when Galileo Galilei was forced to declare that the sun orbited around the earth, despite the fact that he had demonstrated the opposite. Or when politics claims to substitute science, affirming that a certain substance is good or bad for our health. Or again, when in our super technological society people listen to horoscopes.
But Parmenide’s doctrine is valid today for yet another reason, in fact it could be described as being terribly prophetic, given that the Parmenide’s “Being” has the same characteristics of the fundamental matter predicted with the theory of the superstring. The theory of the superstring proposes a unifying theory, unifying classical physics, quantum mechanics and relativity.
Einstein’s theory of relativity, with its unchanging speed of light, the dimension of space-time, the equivalence of mass and energy and the concept of curves in space, identified the laws which govern the celestial bodies, while quantum mechanics had discovered the strange laws of a microscopic world, in addition to tens of participles. However a theory which would unify the physics of large and small scale was lacking, and a theory which would manage to explain the absurdity of many fundamental particles was also lacking. The theory of the superstring, formulated for the first time in 1974 proposed a unifying theory of physics (a term which acquired its full meaning with natural science).
The superstring, tiny filaments which vibrate at the speed of light inside tiny spaces of different dimensions, seem to be the fundamental substance from which the universe is made. The shape of these spaces determines the type of vibration, in the same way as an organ pipe. Depending on the way they vibrate the superstring are perceived at an experimental level like the different fundamental participles, up until now considered distinct entities. The theory of the superstring seems therefore to be the ultimate of the relationships of identity which lead to the identification of Parmenides Being: the different fundamental particles of quantum mechanics “are” the only type of participle: the superstring.
The theory of the superstring allows us to dismiss the absurdity of an universe which is born from nothing (this absurdity was already perceived by the ancient Greeks), and also to dismiss the absurd idea of the universe as infinitively hot and infinitely dense at the moment of the Big Bang. The Big Bang is no other than a turning point among an infinite phase of contractions and expansions of the universe.
Certainly the intervention of a creative act cannot be excluded, but a divine creative act lies outside the field of physics. And, if we remain within the context of physics, also the universe of the superstring, like Parmenide’s Being, is eternal. The only difference is that only a single type of elementary reality, made up of many vibrating superstring exists, therefore Being is not “one” thing as it was for Parmenides, but a “single type” of reality.
There can be no doubt that Parmenides, if he were alive today, would consider the superstring the ultimate reality, moreover it possesses all the characteristics of Being: it is unique (of a unique type), eternal, not created, indivisible, indestructible and irreducible.
And, just as Parmenides claims, transformations can be traced back to a single / unique reality: in fact they are produced by four fundamental forces (strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force and the force of gravity) which in turn are traced back to fundamental participles, so called “mediators”. The mediator participles can also be interpreted as vibrating superstring, and so in the end, both the matter and the forces which modify it, can be traced back to a single substance and to the laws of physics which govern it.
Finally, another characteristic which was guessed at by Parmenides, is the fact that the superstring is of tiny dimensions, but can expand enabling it to surround the entire universe, which is however, according to the theory of relativity, finite but without limit, that is to say spherical, exactly like Parmenide’s Being.
The first part of this article represents a summary of this book, which finally offers a convincing interpretation of Parmenide’s thoughts, the result of a detailed philological analysis of what remains of his poem. The article lifts certain phrases in a literal way, indicated by inverted commas, given the impossibility of expressing the same concepts with the same precision and clarity.
Precision and clarity represent the principal quality of this text, and should be read by anyone who is interested in understanding something about the most important Presocratic philosopher
PARMENIDE DI ELEA
POEMA SULLA NATURA
by Giovanni Cerri
Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli (BUR) 1999 Milan
Every wonderful thing that happens in the universe is the result of vibrations of single units, very ting superstrings hidden in the depths of matter. The “different ways of vibrating”, the “notes” that are sounded by these superstrings, determine the inner composition of matter, like strings of a violin which perform an orderly harmonious cosmic symphony. In this book Brian Greene tells the story of an extraordinary adventure, speaking as the protagonist, he transmits all of the enthusiasm of a scientific discovery. The revolutionary vision that emerges from his account foresees dimensions which are hidden and rolled up in the folds in space, black holes which are transformed into fundamental particles, discontinuity in the fabric of space/time and universes which generate other universes. The Elegant Universe describes the exciting discoveries and the still unresolved mysteries surrounding the universe in an intelligent and lively way, making some of the most complex and sophisticated concepts of contemporary physics accessible to all.
THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE
(Superstrings, Hidden dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory)
by Brian R. Green