Zeno III – Putting the Tortoise to Bed

(begins here)

The value of Zeno’s paradoxes doesn’t lie in what they tell us about the world, rather, it’s in what they tell us about ourselves.
(Yes, if you look deep inside, you’ll find that you love to chase turtles too…)

Let me put it this way,
Zeno’s paradoxes are relatively easy to solve. Aristotle put the boot into them back in his day, and other philosophers have been following suit ever since. However, the value of these paradoxes for us does not lie in any evidence they purport to give about the nature of the Universe, it lies in what they reveal about the structure of our thought-world.

Nood Turtle OlympiadIn case you’re really hung up on the question of why it seems that Achilles can’t beat the tortoise, why don’t you flip over to Wikipedia for a moment and sort it out. Come back here though when you’re ready, I’m not finished with you yet…

If at the end of all this, you just don’t get how to solve the paradoxes, or don’t really care, it probably doesn’t matter.
This matters more:
The paradoxes plainly fly (or not) in the face of our everyday experience. We know that Achilles would beat the tortoise because we see similar things happening all the time (ok, maybe not nude Greeks chasing Turtles – but fast runners beating slow ones, etc). When Zeno’s paradox contradicts our experience we don’t for a minute think that our experience has been flawed, that we have all been subject to a bizarre illusion – no, we reject the paradox.

Of course, in Zeno’s world people also set a great deal of store by knowledge gained through experience. However, it appears that the Ancient Greeks were a little more willing to grapple with the idea that our experiences of the world may not, in fact, give us really true knowledge about the world. Zeno’s paradoxes got a run because people were willing to consider that what their senses had told them was true might not be the final word.

Now that’s not the end of the story. Obviously, most people thought there was something fishy about the Paradoxes, and there were plenty of explanations why. And it’s true that Zeno’s paradoxes are flawed both logically and empirically. However, they provide us with an insight into what these Greek philosophers thought could constitute secure, real knowledge of the world.

‘How to get hold of true knowledge’ was a quest that defined Greek philosophy, and consequently had a gigantic impact on the rest of Western thought. And because Greek philosophy shaped the world into which Christianity was proclaimed, Greek thinking has also had a profound impact on theology.

If we set out to know the world through the medium of our experiences we run into a problem: our experiences are fallible. Our senses do not always give us correct information. Here are a couple of examples:
When I’m asleep I can occasionally have vivid dreams that I will believe to be reality, what if what I currently believe to be real is like that? Sometimes in a crowd of people I will see someone I think I know, only, when I walk up to them I discover that it’s a complete stranger. The light can play tricks.

In seeking to know what is real and true about the world, we quickly realise that our senses cannot be completely trusted. We are subject to mistakes and illusions. At the genesis of Greek philosophy lies the belief that true knowledge of the world must somehow transcend this dependence on our fallible senses. It’s important to pick this up when reading Plato.
When Plato talks about the Real World, he doesn’t mean what we see, touch, taste, hear, or smell. These are lower-order byproducts of what is real – like the relationship between my shadow (senses) and me (reality). My shadow can flicker, change, or even disappear without affecting me at all.

How is the Real World known?
What relation does the Real have with the Apparent?

Well, those are good questions…
…to be asking Plato and Aristotle.

For now, it might be worth chewing over whether we place too much value on knowing through experience. Not only that, we seem to be constantly limiting the kinds of experience that count as valid for knowledge. In this way we create barren wastelands where once we knew, and ever enhance the danger that we will be left knowing nothing.

At the end of it all, mightn’t there also be some things we know but have never experienced – and some of these are the things we know best.

Now, where’s my tortoise?