We want to know how minds, the soul, and mathematics could be part of the world. Such parts of reality seem strange and could have “objectionable features.” Philosophers have tried to understand these elements since the beginning of philosophy itself and seemed to understand it as the problem of “being and becoming” or the unchanging and change. Some of the most extreme views of reality were proposed by Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Spinoza, which are all attempts to make sense of the world including the strange parts. Our current worldview is primarily based on Heraclitus and Democritus, who thought that reality was a constant flux of matter.
I will discuss the following:
- Being and Becoming
- The Differing Worldviews
1. Being and Becoming
Being (the Unchanging)
Not everything in reality seems to change all the time. For example,
- “1+1=2” seems to be an unchanging fact.
- I am the same person that I was two seconds ago.
- Murder has always been wrong.
Logic, mathematics, the mind, and morality all seem to have unchanging elements.
Becoming (the Changing)
Many things seem to change. For example,
- People come into existence and die.
- All material objects seem to disintegrate.
- We have different thoughts and experiences at different moments in time.
Material reality seems to be constantly changing.
I will discuss my understanding of the different worldviews of reality proposed by Thales, Heraclitus, Democritus, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Descrates:
Thales wanted to understand reality without any superstition or mythology. He wanted a deeper, more concrete understanding. Anything mysterious would fail to live up to his demands to make sense of the universe. He proposed that all of reality was from water. After all, we know water can be a solid, liquid, or gas. He thought that all of reality could be part of one sort of thing, which could help us make sense out of the world without any appeal to ghosts, gods, or mythology.
Heraclitus built upon Thales’s position, but he was concerned with problems of accepting “being.” He decided that the best way to make sense out of the world is to simply deny the existence of being. Everything is becoming. Everything is constantly changing. “No one can walk into the same river twice” because the river is always a different thing, and the person is always a different thing. The fact that we think we are the same person as we were two seconds ago is an illusion.
He said that everything comes from fire rather than water because “water” sounds more unchanging, but fire is clearly always changing.
Heraclitus denied that the universe is eternal. To accept that the universe is eternal seems to be to accept an unchanging fact. Instead, the universe comes into being and then goes out of existence. For anything to change is for something to come into and out of existence.
It is unclear to me what Heraclitus disliked so much about “being,” but it does sound dualistic. If there is both change and the changeless, then there are two completely different elements of reality. By denying that being exists is to endorse a monistic view that there is only one sort of reality.
Democritus proposed that everything changes except for atoms, small particles that make up reality. Atoms are eternal and unchanging, but they can move. Everything is nothing but the movement of these particles. He agreed with Heraclitus that much of our experiences are illusory because we don’t experience everything as the movement of particles. For Democritus the main illusion we experience is that of unity—I might seem to be one person, but I am not really one thing after all. He introduced us to reductionism—the view that something is nothing but something else. For example, a human being is nothing but atoms moving and stuck together in a certain way.
Modern science has adopted Democritus’s reductionism and many philosophers have continued to attempt to prove that many elements of reality are illusions because they are nothing but the activity of particles and energy. However, this tradition is one started by Heraclitus, and we now agree with Heraclitus that the universe is created and destroyed. No material particle is eternal after all.
Parmenides thought that change was a big problem, so he decided that there is only being. Becoming is an illusion for him. Nothing changes or moves. All of our experiences of the material world or ourselves involving change is an illusion. Additionally, Parmenides rejects disunity. Only one thing exists.
Parmenides could have been motivated by Heraclitus’s view that the universe comes into existence. Such a view is unintuitive. It seems wrong that the universe could have come into existence. Nothing could “cause” such an event. If we reject Heraclitus’s origin of the universe, then we might have to reject his entire worldview. If we reject Heraclitus’s view, but share his interest in monism, then we could end up accepting the worldview of Parmenides.
Although his view is extremely strange to us now, it is similar to Hinduism and it could be based on it. Hindus believe that everything is God and our experience of disunity is an illusion.
Parmenides’s worldview is currently taken to be absurd. We reject his view because it is mysterious and “disproven by experience.” By rejecting his worldview, we have to reject almost everything he says about reality. That leads us back to a view much like Heraclitus’s, and we now seem to accept that the universe might have popped into existence.
Plato greatly agreed with Parmenides, but he thought that the material world and disunity both exist. The material world and disunity is caused by the eternal and unchanging realm (of the Forms or “the Good”), much like the universe of Parmenides. Plato has committed himself to a kind of dualism to accommodate both being and becoming, but he sides more with being than becoming.
Plato’s dualism is one of the changing and unchanging, but he proposes that each element is somehow part of a separate realm involving different features. The forms are eternal, unchanging, abstract, and seemingly locationless. It is then impossible to understand how the forms could cause anything to happen to the material world. How could we know anything about the forms? They aren’t something we can look at or experience with our senses.
I believe that Plato’s worldview was greatly motivated by ethics. Many people rejected that morality could have any reality and decided that our moral rules were merely made up cultural customs. The view that morality is an illusion was compatible with the worldviews of Heraclitus, Democritus, and Parmenides. If morality is an illusion, then “nothing really matters.” We might as well hurt other people whenever it would benefit ourselves. If anything really matters and we shouldn’t harm others to benefit ourselves, then we need to know how morality could be a real irreducible part of reality totally unlike the material world. Plato provided the first attempt to answer this question.
Philosophers have mostly rejected Plato, but there are still some supporters. Some philosophers agree that there are eternal unchanging elements of reality, such as mathematics, and something like the forms might be necessary to accommodate for such unchanging elements.
Aristotle shared Plato’s interest in including both being and becoming, but disliked Plato’s dualism. He adopted Plato’s forms, but decided that the forms are part of material reality. Animals each have a “form” or “essence” that is part of them. Each dog is a dog because it has the doggy essence. Dogs have always existed and are unchanging.
Philosophers have rejected Aristotle’s worldview. We don’t think objects have an essence. Human beings are only human beings insofar as their DNA is sufficiently similar. The theory of essence does not accommodate for the fact that each species evolves. There were wolves, slightly more doglike wolves, dog-wolves, and then dogs. The dog-wolves are seen as “transitional,” neither wolves nor dogs. However, we could easily say that both dogs and wolves are transitional instead. All species are actually transitional.
Spinoza decided that there is only one reality and everything is unified, but one reality can have all sorts of properties. Everything is God, but God is manifested in people who have both mental and physical properties.
Although philosophers have rejected Spinoza’s worldview, it has inspired many new worldviews, such as property dualism and emergence. Property dualists think that the entire world is physical, but some physical objects can have mental properties. (One object can have both mental and physical properties.)
Emergence theorists think that the mind is caused by a distribution and movement of particles. There can be parts of the physical world that are made up of particles, but other parts could be mental. Consciousness itself could be a physical part of reality, even though it is a different sort of physicality than we normally think of. Emergence theorists usually agree that most of reality lacks unity, but mental phenomena does seem to be a unified part of the world. Unity is a bit strange, but it can be caused by some sort of distribution and movement of particles.
Descartes proposed that there is a physical substance and a mental substance. Each substance has totally different properties. The physical involves movement, change, location, mass, and extension. The mental involves thought and experience, but it is eternal and locationless.
Descartes’s theory has been rejected by philosophers. The problem is that the mental and physical substances are completely different and can’t interact. When I want to raise my arm, how could my intention (a mental object) cause my arm (a physical object) to do anything? It would be impossible. The mind could never touch the physical or move it.
Most scientists and philosophers have adopted a worldview based on Heraclitus’s monistic world of flux and Democritus’s world of reductionism. This worldview is very compatible with science and it is something many non-philosophers even take for granted. The view has found “being” (the unchanging) and unity to be objectionable. Logic, mathematics, morality, the mind, and the soul are all found to have objectionable elements. Philosophers have often hoped to debunk these parts of reality and show them to be illusions. These parts of reality have features quite unlike the movement of particles and energy. For example, an obligation not to kill people does not seem to just be a configuration of particles and energy. The obligation is prescriptive and it seems to involve some sort of importance. Human life seems to really matter.
Additionally, the human mind seems to be unified, it seems to have an identity, and it seems to persist in time. Our visual experience is understood to be one event that must be grasped by a mind in order to make any sense. It doesn’t seem to be several pixels of information processed as a disunity.
Finally, mathematics seems to be eternal despite the fact that we have no idea how we could know anything about an eternal part of reality.