Updated: Apr 24
Either a ‘thing’ (res), an ‘actual entity’ (per Whitehead), is – or it is not. Take ‘A’, for example. ‘A’ is a thing (or event). It either exists or it does not. The fact that ‘A’ does not exist doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it; but the fact that we can talk about ‘A’ doesn’t mean that ‘A’ exists.
So far as we know unicorns do not exist; but they could exist so we can talk about them meaningfully. On the other hand, a squared circle does not exist…and cannot exist…so it’s completely meaningless to talk about it. An ‘A’ that does not exist but could, Alfred North Whitehead (above) calls a ‘proposition’ (as opposed to an ‘actual entity’).
Either a thing is, or is not. There’s no middle ground. A 99% likeness to A is not A. If there exists something that is 99% of what A is, that is still not A; it is B.
Yet in spite of the obvious logical attraction of this argument, almost no one actually believes it. Instead, at least since the 4th century B.C., Western culture has held with Heraclitus that “everything flows”. Today, we’re fond of saying that the only constant is change. More fundamentally, we believe that everything is in the process of coming to be or ceasing to be, growing or decaying. (Of course, if that IS the case, then, may I point out, dear reader, nothing ever actually is!)
Our biological metaphor for this process is the cycle of birth and death. Our metaphor from the physical sciences is ‘entropy’; from history, rise and fall; from economics, cycles. But where in these phenomena do we find the thing (res) itself? Nowhere!
We need to ask ourselves, in this world of apparent perpetual change, what would it mean for something actually to be?
Alessandro Carrera (b. 1954), Italian poet and modern day Eleatic (aka ‘monist’) writes about “the pervasive nihilism of a civilization embracing the unquestioned belief that ‘all things must pass’”; he adds, “You should welcome the opposite notion instead, that nothing passes and everything is eternal…”
(Of course, this is a version of Pascal’s Wager. We should believe something because it is overwhelmingly desirable that it should be the case…and if it is not the case, well then it doesn’t matter whether we believed it or not for all is lost.)
It is odd to reflect that we apparently believe in a cosmos that is, but that is made up entirely of things that are not. Or do we doubt the existence of the cosmos as well? The poet and theologian, John Donne (d. 1631), reflected on this: “I am re-begot of absence, darkness, death: things that are not…”
Emanuele Severino (b. 1929), another contemporary Eleatic, writes: “Being is, while Nothing is not…Being is that which is opposed to Nothing, it is this very opposing.”
Since all being is good (Augustine et al.), nothing is the absence of good, i.e. evil. Then “deliver is from evil” is a primal scream for being!
Carrera adds, “Nihilism is not a nothing; it is persuasion, faith, will; it is a being. Therefore, it is eternal. To believe and to will that beings be nothing is not itself a nothing. The West is grounded on this believing and willing…”
According to this philosophy, becoming and decaying are nothing. But to believe that being is nothing or to will that being be nothing, that is something and so it is eternal.
Nihilism makes an idol of time and, synonymously per Hawking, of entropy. Et voila, the true identity of ‘Satan’ is revealed; he is entropy, he is death. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” (The Bhagavad Gita).
In Carrera’s view, nihilism is the ultimate sin. It is akin to the sin of despair in Christian doctrine. Traditionally, ‘despair’ is regarded as a sin against the Holy Spirit (“the Lord, the giver of life”) and therefore is the one and only sin that cannot be forgiven. And this ultimate sin is not without dire consequences.
Carrera summarizes: “Greek philosophy (after Parmenides)…engenders the most dreadful and terrifying meaning of death, that of going into nothingness.” But Christianity has an answer: “Sed libera nos a malo.” (The Lord’s Prayer)
We are mesmerized by time. Generation and decay occur in the past and in the future – only in the past and the future. Because they are spatiotemporal processes they have no meaning in the context of the present. The thing itself, on the other hand, lives only in the present. It simply is. It is present. The present is the domain of Being, period – not becoming, not perishing – Being.
The thing itself has no meaning in the context of the past or the future. The past consists of what used to be, not what is; the future consists of what is coming to be, not what is. The present, on the other hand, consists only of what is.
We imagine time divided into three ‘regions’ that we call ‘past, present and future’. Past and future are easy to understand (above) but where is this so-called ‘present’? When does past end and present begin? When does present end and future begin? The answer to both questions is ‘never’. The inexorable flow of time from past to future is continuous; the border between them (present?) is not a ‘region’ but at most an infinitesimal point. There is no ‘pause button’ on time’s DVR.
At this juncture, it is important to point out (a la Zeno) that the notion of an infinitesimal point is a mathematical construct (and useful tool). It has no meaning in the physical world. An actual entity cannot be infinitely divisible and, even if it theoretically could be, we would be limited by the Planck scale. Mathematics is an incredibly powerful tool, but it is only a tool. We mustn’t confuse mathematical concepts with physical entities. The map is not the territory.
Yet the present is where the thing-itself lives. If there is no present, there is no-thing, and if there is no-thing, there is no being, and if there is no being, neither is there any spacetime. The whole crazy scheme of actual entities and spacetime, being and becoming, depends on the ‘present’ and yet in the standard model of cosmology the present does not exist.
The present does not exist ‘between’ past and future; it does not exist on the timeline at all. Instead, it exists entirely outside of time. It is a-temporal…‘eternal’. ‘Eternity’ and ‘presence’ are denotatively synonymous and entirely different from immortality. In fact, you could argue that eternity (no time, time-less) and immortality (all time) are actually antonyms.
Alessandro Carrera: “That everything exists forever and everything is eternal does not mean that the empirical you and I are immortal in time, but that each moment, every slice of reality is, and therefore is forever, since whatever is cannot come into being or cease to be.”
The thing-itself exists in the present and only in the present. Only that which is present can exist. To exist is to be present. Therefore, a thing either is – or is not. It does not come to be or cease to be. It either is, whole and entire, or it isn’t. Coming to be and ceasing to be happen in time but have nothing to do with the thing-itself which happens in the present.
Carrera: “The existence of every ‘immutable’ being negates becoming…”
This is not to say that actual entities are static entities. In fact, they are themselves pure process; it’s just that the process is a-temporal. R. Buckminster Fuller: “I seem to be a verb.” Every actual entity is a verb.
Every actual entity is a microcosm of the entire actual world. An actual entity is drawn into being by its ‘desire’ to make a novel contribution to that actual world, guided by a complex set of values that it ‘aims’ to instantiate.
(Reader, please do not be thrown off by these anthropomorphic terms. ‘Desire’, ‘aim’ and ‘asserts’ mean something very different at the level of an electron than they do at the level of a human being. Still, they are helpful metaphors for all process across all ontological classes.)
Along with Yahweh (Exodus 3:14), every actual entity ‘asserts’ “I am”. Mark 12: 26 – 27: “…Have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living…”
From God’s perspective, there are only ‘actual entities’.
You could then perhaps think of the coming to be and the ceasing to be of an actual entity as the projection of the internal process that constitutes that actual entity into an external medium we call spacetime. (Of course, it is the projection that gives rise to spacetime. Spacetime is not pre-existent, not substructural; it is epiphenomenonal.)
Just as Prufrock’s evening is “spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table” (T.S. Eliot), so an actual entity is spread out, now also inert, against the spacetime continuum. Reality does not happen in spacetime. Reality only happens in the present; but perhaps reality is in turn projected back into spacetime.
Spacetime is a tool that helps us “see ourselves as others see us” (Robert Burns). The hierarchical process we call an actual entity is deconstructed as a sequence in the medium of spacetime. Think of spacetime as a mirror whose curvature distorts, but preserves, the image. As such, we may conjecture that spacetime is an important, possibly indispensable, construct for consciousness.
Unfortunately, we have come to accept the coming to be and ceasing to be of entities as reality rather than projection. If anything, we view the thing itself as a ‘projection’ of the process of becoming and decaying, not the other way around. We believe in the image in the mirror and forget that that image is merely an inert reflection of something else, something actual, something living…us.
We are like the evil queen in Snow White. We endow our mirror with magical powers: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” We have become idolaters. We worship what is inert; we worship a Golden Calf.
While this understanding of being in terms of presence and in contrast to spacetime has not been popular in recent centuries, it is not at all new. 2500 years ago, Parmenides of Elea (hence our reference to ‘Eliatics’ (above), often called both the ‘father of Western science’ and the ‘father of Western philosophy’, wrote an enigmatic poem called On Nature. The poem consists of three parts: a brief Prologue, the “Way of Truth” (Aletheia) and the “Way of Appearance” (Doxa).
Regarding the Way of Truth, he wrote:
What-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete. Nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one, continuous…Whence did it grow? Not from what is not…It must be completely, or not at all… How could what-is be in the future; and how could it come to be? For if it came to be, it is not… Thus coming to be is extinguished and perishing not to be heard of… Nor is it divisible since it all alike is…it is full of what-is… It is not right for what-is to be incomplete. For it is not lacking; but if it were, it would lack everything.
Regarding the Way of Appearance:
It has been named all things that mortals have established, trusting them to be true: to come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, to shift place and to exchange bright color. Thus according to belief, these things were born and now are, and hereafter, having grown from this, they will come to an end. And for each of these did men establish a distinctive name.
For more than two millennia, philosophers have debated Parmenides’ meaning…without much success. What did he mean by “Truth”; what did he mean by “Appearance”? How do these two concepts fit together? Even the great Plato confessed bewilderment (Parmenides). (Or did he merely feign bewilderment to make a point?)
The most commonly held view effectively substitutes ‘illusion’ for ‘appearance’. This view is almost certainly wrong. Parmenides was a great scientist, an empiricist in fact. It defies belief that he would have regarded his precious natural world as simply an illusion. Plus there is material in the Prologue that argues strongly against this interpretation.
In Plato’s Parmenides. the great Eleatic is portrayed as giving equal weight to the argument that Being is One (Aletheia) and the argument that Being is many (Doxa).
But if not that, what?
My own view has been that Parmenides was propounding an early version of ‘complementarity’. Just as a quantum can only be fully described as a particle AND a wave, the world can only be fully described as truth AND appearance. The argument against this view, of course, is that it is massively anachronistic; but Parmenides was a man out of his own time in other ways…so why not this too?
(Example: Plato credits Parmenides with an early understanding of ‘infinity’ that presaged Georg Cantor’s theory of transfinite cardinal numbers.)
Now, however, I am wondering whether Parmenides actually intended something closer to the view put forth in this essay. According to this interpretation, the Way of Truth describes what-is in terms of ‘the present’ while the Way of Appearance describes what-is in terms of ‘the past and the future’. Following this logic, we need to think of Doxa as a projection of Aletheia, rather than its true compliment.
The simplest, and probably least accurate, analogy is the simple mirror. A better metaphor is offered by considering Doxa as a holographic projection of Aletheia. Perhaps even better, we might think of Doxa as the rainbow projected from an apparently featureless prism refracting colorless white light.
Plato and Aristotle moved philosophy away from Parmenides’ vision, but Christianity restored it in the first millennium. Take the Christian cross, for example. It is a nearly perfect symbol for the reality structure we are proposing. The horizontal beam, of course, represents spacetime while the vertical beam represents eternity. Symbolically, it connects earth and heaven. Paul gives us a tantalizing hint of this in Galatians (6:14): “…The world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”
But we find a much more familiar affirmation of the Christian rediscovery of Parmenides and the other Eleatic philosophers (e.g. Zeno) in the Lord’s Prayer: “…on earth as it is in heaven.” Our true being is not in spacetime but in eternity. This same theme is picked up by Augustine (d. 430) and Aquinas (d. 1274). Bottom line: actual entities are eternal, period.