Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ancient and Medieval Philosophy

Parmenides, Heraclitus and Quantum Theory
Heraclitus and Parmenides formed unique theories about the nature of the universe. Today physicists are struggling to understand the universe through the implications of quantum mechanics. To many, the theories of Heraclitus and Parmenides seem absurd. Modern day readers can casually disregard their conclusions as ancient speculations. However, some physicists have reached the same absurd conclusions that Parmenides and Heraclitus reached over 2,000 years ago. Some quantum theories include the possibility of multi-universes and many other interpretations that challenge common beliefs. Parmenides and Heraclitus’s philosophies are both similar to quantum mechanics, specifically the theory of wholeness proposed by physicist David Bohm.
Quantum theory challenges what seems to be the case by providing incredible theories of what might be the case. The entire universe is made up of the quantum particles that behave in ways contradictory to our common sense. A central part of Parmenides’s philosophy was the distinction between what seems to be the case and what is the case. At the sub-atomic level, reality is very different from the reality that humans perceive. David Bohm developed his theory of the implicate order based on the EPR Effect, which states that “two quantum entities that have interacted with each other retain a power of mutual influence however far apart they may separate from each other” (Polkinghorne 96). This was referred to by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”. Bohm thought that it seemed the particles in the EPR effect were communicating because their separateness is an illusion (Pratt). Bohm writes in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order that his “main concern has been with understanding the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment” (Bohm ix). Bohm theorized that there is a wholeness to the universe, a kind of implicate order. Bohm says that we should think of the universe as being entangled like a hologram. If a hologram is cut in two then each piece will have the picture of the whole. The characteristics of the whole interpenetrate every part of the hologram. This is how Bohm envisions the universe (Pratt).
Parmenides had a very similar view of the cosmos. Whereas Bohm came to his conclusion through years of study and research borrowing the ideas of many years of physics research before him, Parmenides came to his conclusion through reason alone. He saw the question of “how can being come from nothing?” to be a paradox that needed to be solved. Parmenides couldn’t understand how something could come from nothing. This problem was one that troubled many of the Presocratics and still troubles thinkers today. Parmenides writes, “How could What Is be something of the future? How could it come-to-be? For if it were coming-to-be, or if it were going to be in the future, in either case there would be a time when it is not” (Wheelwright 97-98). Parmenides solved this problem by stating that the universe simply “is”. Parmenides writes, “there remains, then, but one word by which to express the [true] road: Is. And on this road there are many signs that What Is has no beginning and never will be destroyed: it is whole, still, and without end. It neither was nor will be, it simply is—now, altogether, one continuous” (Wheelwright 97). Parmenides perceives the cosmos as being a whole that just “is”. It has no beginning, nor end. The concept of the implicate order opens up the possibility that past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. Parmenides came to the same absurd conclusion about reality 2,000 years before Bohm.
Although Parmenides and Heraclitus are often thought of as having opposing views, some aspects of their philosophies seem to coincide; these common points also seem to be similar to Bohm’s theory of the implicate order. Heraclitus writes that, “Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one” (Wheelwright 79). This statement seems to strongly coincide with the philosophy of Parmenides and the physics of Bohm. Heraclitus writes, “This universe, which is the same for all, has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is, and will be—an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measures and going out by regular measures” (Wheelwright 71). Again Heraclitus seems to be proposing a monistic view of being and time very similar to that of Parmenides and Bohm. Heraclitus also writes that, “Soul is the vaporization out of which everything else is composed; moreover it is the least corporeal of things and is in ceaseless flux, for the moving world can only be known by what is in motion” (Wheelwright 72). Perhaps the soul can correlate to the Bohm’s ideas of the whole. Bohm believes the whole interpenetrates everything. This seems to be what Heraclitus is saying about the soul, which everything else is composed of.
Heraclitus writes that, “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (Wheelwright 70). This seems to coincide with some theories such as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle which suggests that particles in the sub-atomic world are acting randomly (Hawking). Heraclitus also wrote that “The fairest universe is but a heap of rubbish piled up at random” (Wheelwright 72). Heracltius perceived a kind of randomness in a world that he thought was in constant flux. An essential feature of quantum mechanics is its craziness. It was because of the randomness of quantum mechanics that Einstein rejected it. He stated that “God does not play dice” (Hawking).
Heraclitus’s sense of the flux also has a parallel in David Bohm’s philosophy. Bohm writes, "thought itself is in an actual process of movement. That is to say, one can feel a sense of flow in the stream of consciousness not dissimilar to the sense of flow in the movement of matter in general. May not thought itself thus be a part of reality as a whole?” (Bohm ix). This statement not only corresponds to Heraclitus’s ever changing flux but also to Parmenides’s view of the relationship between thought and reality. Parmenides writes that “Thinking and the object of thought are the same. For you will not find thought apart from being, nor either of them apart from utterance. Indeed, there is not anything at all apart from being, because Fate has bound it together so as to be whole and immovable” (Wheelwright 98). Bohm and Parmenides seem to have very similar opinions about the importance of thought to being. Parmenides’s view also is related to the double-slit experiment.
The implications of the double-slit experiment were that there are probabilities in the quantum world that are not determined until an observer measures the behavior of a quantum object. “The behavior one finds depends upon what one chooses to look for” (Polkinghorne 25). It is as if the observer determines reality. This is very similar to Parmenides’s view that “Thought and being are the same” (Wheelwright 98). Some physicists theorize that things exist because we perceive them. Some physicists such as Bohm theorize that human conciousness plays an important role in the nature of reality. Heraclitus seems to grasp this point when he writes that “Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe” (Wheelwright 79). Heraclitus writes that “Although intimately connected with the Logos, men keep setting themselves against it” (Wheelwright 74). Heracltius again recognizes that we are connected to the all.
Parmenides and Heraclitus came to some of the same conclusions that physicists are coming to today. This shows the power of human reason, and the intelligence that the Presocratics possessed. The history of human thought has come along way. But it also shows that we are wrestling with the same questions today that have been puzzling men since the beginning of time. Einstein once said that, “If quantum theory is correct then the world is crazy”. Many physicists think Einstein was right, the world is crazy.

Works Cited
Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1980.

Hawking, Stephen. Public Lecture: “Does God play Dice?”. Stephen Hawking. 6 Nov. 2003

Polkinghorne, John. Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Pratt, David. “David Bohm and the Implicate Order”. Theosophy Northwest. 6 Nov.
2003 <>

Wheelwright, Philip. The Presocratics. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Prentice-Hall Inc.,

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