Monday, 24 August 2009

Greek Void

I've read very little of the holy edifice of Western philosophy, but am reading Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy at the moment, which seems to fit something like my needs on the subject and Russell quite an enjoyable guide. And so to the point. In the initial movements of this history, in the ancient or Greek section, the subject of the void crops up once or twice, and on I think the second substantial mention of this void, Russell quotes from Plato's Timaues:

There in one kind of being which is always the same, uncreated and indestructible, never receiving anything into itself from without, nor itself going out to any other, but invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and of which the contemplation is granted to intelligence only.

The earler mention was again of a void devoid of any interior substance, a space utterly devoid of anything within it. This was cogently dismissed as a concept by Parmenides: "You say there is the void; therefore the void is not nothing; therefore it is not the void." This is in itself sufficient to wholly dismiss the notion of the void, but Plato seems to have gone on undeterred, and so to expand a little on the issue. The essence of the matter is more or less a duplicate of an earlier post on death, repeated below:

"Death is non-existence. Non-existence by its very non-nature does not exist. Therefore death does not exist.
This might seem a mere elegant play on words, but not actually to be taken seriously. However language meaningfully used is meaningful, and there is nothing false about the given logic. But to look at it slightly differently, but heading towards perhaps the same logical destination, putting into perspective, for example, a writer who is 'obsessed with death', or simply anyone's fear of death. This is all a process of thought, and what is the nature of the thought 'death'?
The language term 'death' is an idea or principle of absolute negation and inertia. One cannot be in a state of inertia while engaged in an activity. A concept is an activity of the mind. And so the very idea of death as absolute inertia contradicts its very nature as an idea, or activity in which the mind is engaged.
An activity cannot produce inertia, and existentially of course activity is itself not inertia. 'Death' is an unintelligible concept: the idea that the mental substance of an idea can be devoid of substance; the idea here of death referring to a state devoid of anything, wholly lifeless.
Thought, if true, is a positive emanation of energy. Energy cannot be inertia. It's a contradiction in terms."

In an identical way the void is non-existence, and as pointed out, non-existence doesn't exist. The void as an idea of absolute inactivity, wholly without substance, contradicts its very alleged essence as a substance in the form of an idea. But why, since Parmenides' more prosaic point is so self-evident - that a thought is a something, not a nothing, and so the void as a thought of nothing is senseless - does Plato persist with the notion of the void?

Plato, in himself and also as embodying a broader view of reality, considers the world of sense perception as fallen, ultimately unreal. This is essentially the gnostic and Manichaean position regarding reality. Reality doesn't seem to conform to what - at least in a particular human mind - spiritual experience and understanding expects or desires - presumably a perfect harmony - and so reality is dismissed as debased and delusional, ultimately unreal, while the idea of this perfect harmony is praised as perfection and real. Which in turn leads towards the notion of the void. This is not to be confused with the pure mind of the Void of Eastern philosophy, which "Void" is not expected to be thought of as anything but a linguistic symbol for this pure consciousness.

The Greek void by contrast is specifically a language form, an intellectual creation or form, and revels in the fact of its existence as such. Why are the likes of Plato drawn to this concept of the void as an absolute - the thought which sits atop all other thoughts, the ascendant within the mental hierarchy? It is because, as said, the world of the senses has been decided to be unreal - this in itself of course an idea, and so what is most real should partake least of all of the sensory world, and what partakes least of all being apparently an idea. Ideas are stated to be the purest of substances, and the most pure of these substances is an idea which is utterly self-referential and distinct from the debased world of external reality. And so the void: a pure self-contained idea without reference to the debased world of sense perception. Hence through the ages, and still, the exaltation of the imagined holy landscape of Pure Reason. So again the quote from Timaeus:

There in one kind of being which is always the same, uncreated and indestructible, never receiving anything into itself from without, nor itself going out to any other, but invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and of which the contemplation is granted to intelligence only.

So Plato as the extension of his worldview posits the void as the purest of substances, a wholly intellectual substance, not participating in any degree in the fallen world of sense perception. Its existence can only be inferred by the intellect, though since there is by definition nothing to suggest its being, it being wholly absence from this reality, then there is no basis to make the inference, even if the substance made intellectual sense. However as already shown, this intellectual substance doesn't make sense as it contradicts its very alleged nature as an intellectual substance or idea. It purports to be a substance devoid of any substance, which is nonsensical. In essence it amounts to saying you can think of nothing. Thinking must be about something, not nothing. Try thinking of no apple: senseless. It is all simply a matter of wish fulfilment based on a delusional notion of reality. Plato's position is simply an elegantly structured form of madness - the thoughts in one's head real, all else unreal. (I'll assume the elegance.)

I'd prefer not to have to read such exasperating forms of delusion, but I suppose it's perhaps informative and necessary as to see where more recent delusional intellectual forms are coming from in which reality is allegedly enclosed, and also in relation to the intellectual history of the totalitarian state which Plato elsewhere champions. I suppose this championing another triumph, insofar as possible, of imagined pure intellectual form over debased reality.

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