Being Is Uncaused
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 6 - Metaphysics
Parmenides, (untitled fragment)
Kem Stone - 13 December 2007
When I was young and before I had any real familiarity with philosophy, I used to believe I could figure out how
reality worked at its most fundamental level just by thinking about it. I came to several conclusions, among them
that Existence—meaning everything there is, the sum total of all being—must have always existed and could never
pass out of being, and that it must be a singular indivisible entity. Years later, when I got to studying ancient
philosophy and discovered the work of Parmenides, I was astounded. Here was a man who had lived thousands
of years before me who came to the same conclusions about Existence that I had. My first reaction was that such
a coincidence supported my beliefs, because if two people living millennia apart could come to the same
conclusions about reality through rational thought alone, perhaps this meant that these conclusions were true. But
having given it more thought, I now believe that the only thing it proves is that rational thought will lead people who
ponder the nature of being to similar conclusions. It says nothing about the veracity of those conclusions.
This fragment of an ancient text begins with a poetic passage describing a journey by chariot up to the heavens,
through the gates of the paths of Night and Day, and arriving at last at the foot of a goddess who promises to
reveal the truth of all things. She begins by drawing a distinction between the two ways of enquiry into the nature
of being. “The one, that [it] is and that it is impossible for [it] not to be, is the path of Persuasion (for she attends
upon Truth); the other, that [it] is not and that it is needful that [it] not be, that I declare to you is an altogether
indiscernible track: for you could not know what is not—that cannot be done—nor indicate it” (325). This is a
simple and solid claim. One cannot discover the nature of what is through an enquiry into what is not. It is
impossible to even conceive of what is not, as once you have thought of anything, whether real or fancied—it is—
by the very fact that it is in your thought.
After firmly establishing that the only path to understanding the nature of being is by enquiring into what is, the next
great claim that Parmenides’ goddess makes is that what is must have always been, that being must be uncaused.
“Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressible nor thinkable
that what-is-not is. Also, what necessity impelled it, if it did not spring from nothing, to be produced later or
earlier? Thus it must be absolutely, or not at all” (325). Because we have established that not-being cannot be,
we now make the inference to the conclusion that being could not have sprung from not-being. Simply put,
something can not have come from nothing. Why? Because if it had, what we had just called “nothing” must have
been something—the thing from which our original “something” had sprung.
We now make the somewhat less intuitive inference to the fact that being can not perish. It would be illogical to
insist that being can not come from not-being, yet that it can become not-being. I draw the same conclusions in
my own essay. I begin by establishing that non-existence cannot exist, because this would be contradictory. The
very essence of the concept of non-existence precludes its existence. If non-existence existed, it would be
existence. Therefore any claim about the nature of existence that necessitates the existence of non-existence must
be false. Thus we cannot say that existence either sprung from non-existence, or that it will pass into non-
existence, as both claims establish non-existence as an existing phenomenon. This is exactly the logic of
Parmenides, but in much less colourful terms.
The next step I take is the same step that Parmenides takes: “Nor is being divisible, since it is all alike. Nor is
there anything there which could prevent it from holding together, nor any lesser thing, but all is full of being”
(326). In my own words, Existence must necessarily be singular. Even if the universe itself is just one among
many universes, all of these existing universes would be part of Existence as a whole. The concept of separate
Existences is actually contradictory a priori to the meaning of Existence as I define it: the sum total of all being.
The existence of one thing may be separate from the existence of another, but they both make up the total of all
existing things, and therefore Existence itself must by its very definition be singular and indivisible, as Parmenides
The next claim, however, is where Parmenides and I part ways in our metaphysical conclusions. “And remaining
in the same place, it rests by itself and thus, remains there fixed; for powerful necessity holds it in the bonds of a
limit, which constrains it round about, because it is decried by divine law that being shall not be without boundary.
For it is not lacking; but if it were (spatially infinite), it would be lacking everything” (326). I understand the
logic of Parmenides’ conclusion, but he makes a logical error. He believes that if Existence were infinite, it could
not hold itself together as a singular entity. How can something be both singular and infinite at the same time?
Can there be anything farther apart logically than the concept of one and the concept of infinity?
This, I believe, is a fallacy. I believe both concepts are actually the same in essence. Indeed, an infinity is
contained in the concept of one: 1 is the sum of .4 and .6, the sum of .42 and .68, the sum of .423 and .687, and
so on to infinity. Conversely, the concept of one is contained in the concept of infinity by the same logic I used to
prove that Existence must be singular. If we have an infinity of being, then all things are contained in that infinity,
and thus all things are part of one infinite whole. So not only can being exist without boundaries—it must. If
Existence has a boundary, then beyond that boundary is non-existence. And since non-existence cannot exist, as
we have already established, we must reject the notion that Existence is anything less than limitless.
Parmenides then devotes the next part of his argument to respond to the objections that he foresees will come
from the “mortals” who are so blinded by what is in front of their eyes that they do not see the truth of the idea
that all things are one. “All things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name: becoming
and perishing, being and not-being, and change of position, and alteration of bright colour” (326). The realm of
ordinary experience certainly does not seem to suggest the idea that all things are connected, as we clearly seem
to live in a world of divided entities. If I can move from one place to another, I have now stood in two places, so
how can you say all things are one? Parmenides’ response is only that the names we have for things suggest this
apparent separateness. It may appear that this table is not this chair, but they are both a part of being, and are
therefore the same, but we just have different names for them.
Not all objections need to be made from common-sense however. Parmenides’ vision is monistic, whereas most
religions (both then and now) embrace a fundamental dualism to being, with the forces of darkness and evil
forever at odds with those of light and good. “But since all things are named light and night, and names have been
given to each class of things according to the power of one or the other, everything is full equally of light and
invisible night, as both are equal, because to neither of them belongs any share (of the other)” (326). Parmenides’
response to the dualists is surprisingly weak. Night and day have divided our concept of being into darkness and
light, but there is really no division because all things have a share in darkness and light. There is no place on earth
in which it is always day or always night. Therefore this division is a false one.
That all things have an equal share of darkness and light does nothing to indicate that there is no division between
these two concepts. Day and night are every bit as separate regardless of their presence in all places. But
Parmenides has at least pointed in the direction of a stronger refutation of dualism, which appeals to the same logic
I used to prove that Existence is singular. Even if light and darkness are fundamentally different concepts, and
even if all of Existence is divided into these two diametrically opposed forms of being, they both exist and are
therefore both parts of the sum total of all being. Day exists everywhere just as night exists everywhere, and since
both night and day have being, they both have a share in the one being.
It appears that the rest of this fragment of text is Parmenides’ description of how all things came into being, which
abandons logic and lets fancy take over. “For the narrower rings were filled with unmixed fire, and those next to
them with night, but between (these) rushes the portion of flame. And in the centre of these is the goddess who
guides everything; for throughout she rules over cruel birth and mating, sending the female to mate with the male,
and conversely again the male with the female” (327). It is amazing how quickly such a brilliant logical argument
can descend into dogmatic nonsense. This is not to diminish the artistic value of any man’s vision of the creation
of the universe, but it just seems disingenuous to me that a philosopher who has just championed the logical
necessity of the oneness of being in the face of all common-sense beliefs will now go back and describe the
beginning of a world which he had just proved could not have had a beginning.
Finally, I would like to briefly comment on Parmenides’ claim, “First of all the gods she devised Love” (327) as
this struck me greatly when I first read it and I believe it bears more consideration than most philosophers give it.
When I first came to my own metaphysical conclusions, I too placed Love at the centre of all being, the most
fundamental reality in Existence. Love was all things, I believed, and all things are a part of Love. I have long
since come to doubt that conviction because it certainly bears the mark of irrationality, but I leave the possibility
open that it is not so absurd after all. Modern science may be able to tell us exactly what sorts of chemical
reactions are going on in our brain and our body when we say we are experiencing “love” but although this seems
to diminish the emotion to just another human concept, it actually does not. These chemical reactions need not be
the cause of love, but they may in fact be the effect of Love—an experience of the deepest and most profound
nature of being—on the human brain and body.
My conclusions about this matter have wavered back and forth throughout the years, but here I would only like to
state that if Parmenides’ logic is correct, and all things really are one, this one must be characterised by some,
strong, all-pervasive force that exists in all things in all universes and in which all things and all universes share their
being. If we call that thing “Love”, the implication would be nothing short of the most wonderful conclusion of all
time—that there is an all pervasive force and that this force is good. That no matter what happens to us
individually or even as a species, Existence will go on infinitely, and Existence itself is good.