Heraclitus and Parmenides

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.

-- Heraclitus


Heraclitus and Parmenides were Pre-Socratic philosophers which means they lived in Greece before the time of Socrates.

Because philosophy is said to have only really taken off after a guy named Socrates made it cool, those who came before him are often relegated to obscurity. Nevertheless, philosophy did exist before Socrates and a lot of interesting thought went on about what is possibly the oldest branch of philosophy, metaphysics, which basically asks the most fundamental question there is: What?

More specifically, what is the nature of reality, all this stuff around us, what's it made of, how did it get here, and where is it going?

Heraclitus and Parmenides both agreed that the world could be reduced to one thing, but they came into a fundamental disagreement about what that one thing was.

Heraclitus thought that everything was made out of fire, because a fundamental property of the universe was that it was always changing and the only other thing that he could think about that was always changing was fire. Fire, then, became the uncaused source of change in the universe, and the incarnation of the will. Essentially, fire was god.

Parmenides couldn't disagree more, in fact, he thought that the entire idea of change was impossible and the world was basically a huge unmoving solid chunk of stuff. Parmenides then went ahead and used logic to disprove the possibility that anything can ever move.

When Heraclitus put forward a counter-argument, by moving, Parmenides simply argued that just because his arm was in one place one second and in another place the next second didn't mean that anything had moved. Parmenides was a very annoying person to have lunch with.

But basically Parmenides' arguments were a precursor to the proven scientific principle of conservation of mass and energy. A more philosophical implication however is the theory of the block universe.

The block, or eternalist, universe is the theory that time and space exists as a four-dimentional block and every event from the beginning of time to the end of time is set. Just as the past is unalterable, so is the future. This means that there is no change, and if you could step outside the block and look at the past and the future at the same time, you wouldn't see anything changing, just a big solid brick of set events. The only reason that we can't do that now is that, purely by chance, the laws of the universe have dictated that we remember the past but not the future, giving the illusion that there's something called time happening and that something is being written.

This is called FATALISM, and combined with the idea that every event is caused by a prior event, we get DETERMINISM. The thing about determinism is that it's mostly incompatible with the idea of free will. The determinist therefore makes the bold claim that free will, the idea that we are in any way in control of our actions, is a total illusion, because every thought we have is as much subject to cause and effect as the movement of billiards on a pool table.

The opposing view, which argues that we do have free will, is called LIBERTARIANISM, but despite the fact that all experience attests to the existence of free will, nevertheless it's the libertarians who have a more difficult argument to make, because free will seems to require something like Heraclitus' fire to be possible, an agency or source of influence lying outside of causality. This is often mocked by determinists as the "little gods" hypothesis, the idea that we ourselves are unmoved movers who can kick off a chain of events without being subject to the laws of causality, which is a power that absolutely nothing else in the universe appears to have.

Even though their philosophies were in direct opposition, Parmenides and Heraclitus were both named by Plato to be among the wisest of the early Greek philosophers, which seems like much less of an accomplishment when you consider they never really had any choice in the matter.
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