The Negation of Motion
Xenophanes, a poet and philosopher, was a precursor of the Eleatic school in ancient Greece. Xenophanes disproved the idea that gods are like human beings. Gods in Greek myths are thieves, deceivers, liars, and adulterers. As a matter of fact, gods should be free of these human vices and shortcomings. God is god is god is god. God is a far cry from human beings: God is one, but human beings are many; God is perfect and infinite, while human beings are defective and limited; God is immortal whereas human beings are doomed; God permeates the universe, but on the other hand, human beings only occupy a small amount of space around themselves; God does all at a time, but in contrast, human beings can engage in just one thing; God is all in the universe, and need not move at all, when human beings run about in haste. Thus Xenophanes concluded that God abides ever in the self-same place, not moving a bit, that there is only one god, unlike us human beings neither in form nor in thought, and that God sees, thinks, and hears all over. Anthropomorphism is what he intended to refute, I think. A step toward pantheism he took, whether he was aware of it or not.
Parmenides was the founder of the Eleatic school in the Axial Age. He attempted to be logically steady and consistent. His basic thesis was that what is is and what isn’t isn’t. From this simple magic-like proposition he deduced that you find no void, emergence and disappearance, and motion in the universe. He said there is no void; void is a space nothing is in. Since what isn’t isn, which means it cannot be the case that there is nothing, there’s no such thing as void. And he claimed there’s no emergence and disappearance; emergence occurs in nothingness. Since there’s no nothingness, there’s no emergence. Disappearance ends up in nothingness. As you find no nothingness anywhere, you can never see an object vanish.
He even asserted that there’s no motion; suppose you’re a mouse. You want to run down from attic to kitchen to have some cheese. You may think you can enter the kitchen if there’s no one or nothing there. As a matter of fact, since what isn’t isn’t, there cannot be nothing at all in the kitchen. And the fact that you can never find nothing anywhere suggests that there must be something or someone in every inch of the way to the kitchen. Which is why you cannot move a bit. All around you is jammed with something. You are still in the dark attic, the cheese in the kitchen, not able to take a single step, having no idea how to go for that fancy dinner, starving. Parmenides’ mice, not Buridan’s ass, you know.
What Parmenides intended to show can be described as the Law of Thought: What is is meant that a thing is always the self-same thing, never turning into anything other than itself. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. It never changes into a whale nor a hunger or a maggot: The law of identity. By what is is and what isn’t isn’t he meant that if there’s a thing, it is existent and it cannot be the case that it isn’t existent; a thing cannot be both X and not X at the same time. If Socrates is handsome, he cannot be ugly. He cannot be both handsome and not handsome at a time: The law of contradiction. After all, Parmenides’s way of speaking is more mythical and poetical than logical and scientific, but isn’t that all about metaphysics? In any case, it seems to me that Parmenides was the very first step toward logic. He tried to express, in his own way, complicated and mystical as it might be, what we now call the Law of Identity, the Law of Contradiction, and the Law of Excluded Middle.
Zeno of Elea was one of the disciples of Parmenides. He seems to have agreed with Parmenides that there is no motion in the universe, and tried hard to prove that. Zeno claimed that a moving object is not where it is or where it isn’t. Since it’s moving, it cannot be where it is but should be where it isn’t. Sadly, it cannot be the case that it is not where it is. It’s always where it is. Which means that it always occupies a space equal to itself. Then can it be possible that an object is moving when, at any given moment, it always occupies a space equal to itself? It can’t: The arrow in flight is at rest.
In ancient China, In the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States period, there were quite a few numbers of groups of thinkers, Hundred Schools of Thought, including Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Legalism, and so on, one of which was the School of Names. Among them you find Deng Xi, the founder of the school and discoverer of infinity; Hui Shi, who applied the theory of infinity to the reality, kind of a successor to Deng Xi, and a good friend and debater of Zhuangzi; Gongsun Long, a thinker of categories and the negation of motion. They dealt with paradox, logic, infinity, and categories in the main.
Hui Shi negated the difference in place and time. From our finite perspective, we can only see one place at a time; in reality, when I see Mt. Fuji before me, I cannot see Mt. Everest anywhere. On the other hand, according to Xenophanes, from God’s infinite point of view, He “sees all over” at a time. He sees everything all over the world in an instant, and He sees all the events throughout the history of the universe in a flash. Well, Hui Shi didn’t talk about God but infinity. Though he thought about infinity, to tell the truth, infinity is one abstraction of God. Therefore, seen from infinity, as from God, all is one as one.
Seeing from the perspective of Hui Shi, I’m sure you will find no difference in place. You know Tokyo is far from New York. In Tokyo, you cannot see New York before your own eyes. But what if you are in a space shuttle, looking down on our planet? You can see both the two great cities within a looper’s crawl. The farther away you are, the nearer they will be. Then what about from the viewpoint of infinity? In theory, they occupy the self-same place! Tokyo is New York and New York is Tokyo. If so, there’s no space between the two. No, there’s no space anywhere!
Now, what about the difference in time? Let’s suppose you’re 70. You may think today and yesterday are different. It’s rainy today and it was snowing yesterday. What if you think about 50 and 51 years ago? You might hardly see any difference. You were around 20, having a cute girlfriend, and enjoying your life to the fullest. Brightness and happiness colored your life. Everyday smelled like a rose. Not a touch of distinction can you find between them. Now, let’s go infinite. From this point of view, everything is at the same moment. Today and millions of years from now and millions of years ago are totally the same. You find no difference at all.
In conclusion, all difference vanishes before the eye of infinity. You find no difference in position or shape among a variety of things. They share the same place, and assume the same form. And they all occupy the same space of time.
Since all events share the same space of time, there’s no passage of time. Time reduces into nothingness: You may think if you leave Tokyo today, you’ll get to New York tomorrow, which is not really the case. Be it today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, yesterday or the day before yesterday, it doesn’t make any difference. Just as today is the same as tomorrow, so is yesterday no different from the day before yesterday. A Tokyoite starts tomorrow and arrives at New York today, or she starts today and arrives yesterday. Another example: You may think the sun will begin to go down after it is the highest or you may think a living thing is alive and not dying; unfortunately, all hour is one and the same. When the sun is highest, it is also declining. And a cute little kitten is dying at the same time when it is alive.
For this reason, as Hui Shi is thought to have said, mountains and abysses are level. Heaven and earth are alongside each other. I go to Yue today and arrive yesterday (Yue is one of the states in the Age of the Warring States). The sun is both highest and sinking, and a life is both alive and dying.
Now we’re back to the subject of the negation of motion. Motion is the process of covering every inch of the route, from one place to another, in a certain duration of time. Since there’s no space, there’s no route to tread. And since there’s no duration of time, and motion deadly needs time, there’s no such thing as motion, after all.
I don’t know much about Giordano Bruno, a heretic in the Age of Renaissance, but as far as I understand, he posed a theory similar to that of no motion by Hui Shi. Bruno can be said to be one of the successors of Copernicus. Copernicus thought that the universe is surrounded by the fixed stars. But according to Bruno, these so-called fixed stars are flying like an arrow through infinite space, and they are too distant for their motion to be observed by us. In other words, seen from the quasi-infinite distance, a moving object is hard to observe. True you can see it from afar, but you can scarcely perceive it move. The closer you come to the infinite, the less able you are to notice an object move. And if the fixed stars are infinitely distant from the Earth, we can never know their movement. In short, there’s no motion from the infinite viewpoint.
Gongsun Long told us two stories showing that an arrow in flight is not in motion. The first one is the following:
A good archer, when shooting, shoots one after another, the preceding arrow notches being hit by the following arrowheads, the first one hitting the target and never falling down, and the last still touching the bow string being pulled up, all of which make up a line of arrows.
The idea that each of the arrows is hit by the following one, that the first one hits the target and never falls down, and that the last one still touches the string, means that each and every arrow in the line is at rest, occupying a space equal to itself. Which clearly illustrates a world with no motion. As if he were familiar with Zeno’s thesis of no motion, Gongsun Long, be it a success or not, tried to show us a clear picture of what happens when an arrow flies in a standstill.
The second story goes like this:
An archery master once surprised his wife by a shot. He shot an arrow at one of her eyes, and the arrow came into her sight too soon for her eyes to be closed, and was about to hit when it fell onto the ground without dust rising.
Motion means the process of an object moving from one place to another, filling every inch of the track while moving. In the second story, the arrow kind of teleported to her eyes, without being on any track, which is why she didn’t have time to shut her eyes. Why teleported? From the viewpoint of infinity, there’s no such thing as space between things. An object is at one time in a place, at another in another, never covering the distance between them. The movement of the arrow is discrete, not continuous, in a sense. And the reason why the dust didn’t rise is because the arrow again sort of teleported onto the ground, so that there was no wind pressure, no need for the dust to go up, no nothing. A world the logician created was motionless. I think Gongsun Long managed to have a description of whatever happens in a world without motion. He didn’t reason or prove but concluded and depicted what it is that an arrow you see in motion in our world might look like in his logically imagined motionless world.
Ideas in texts in different regions and times often overlap without apparent cultural exchange. An arrow shot by Zeno in ancient Greece reached Gongsun Long in ancient China 100 years or so later. Maybe human beings in the modern world are also shot an arrow by the ancients and the medieval; we just haven’t been able to catch it yet.
Zeno of Elea negated motion in the following way: If you want to reach P, you’re got to reach the half-point, P1, between you and P; if you want to reach P1, you’re got to reach the half-point, P2, between you and P1, and so on and on. Kind of infinite regression. You might call it infinite regression, because to reach P, you have to reach P1; to reach P1, you need to reach P2. From P to P1 to P2. You’re farther and farther away from P in a sense. You might think it’s negation of motion. On the contrary, you are in motion ever. It’s because you’re running and running and running on and on and on so as to reach where you want to be. Motion is the act or process of moving. Now that you’re in the act of moving, it’s quite certain that you’re in motion. You can never be not in motion when you rush to anyplace, even if you cannot get anywhere.
Then why Zeno thought it impossible to move in spite of the fact that you’re running on and on? It’s because Zeno was anthropocentric. A stone will roll down a hill without any purpose; a human being usually has a destination in mind when she walks or runs. For instance, you go out of your house to school every day because you’re a teacher. You come back home every evening because you love your home your family. Most of the moves you make serves a certain purpose. You don’t usually move without a purpose. Zeno seemed to have been of the opinion that all the motion of a thing must have a purpose like that of a human being. If movement in general doesn’t attain some goal, it means that motion is incomplete and so in vain, that is, motion is impossible. Motion is possible only if its purpose is fulfilled. Just as the theory that the sun and the planets go around the earth (because we human beings are at the center of the universe) is anthropomorphic, so is Zeno’s idea that all motion has a purpose. Both of which you might call teleology. It’s not my intention here to show a complete denial of the significance of teleology; rather, I’d like to suggest that teleology, in a sense, especially in its primitive form, is oftentimes deceptive and misleading. It is likely to force us to go astray into an anthropomorphic discussion, which is usually nowhere near what nature really is.
Nagarjuna, a Buddhism thinker in ancient India, had a queer attempt at denying motion. He goes like this:
A man finished running is not running.
A man yet to run is not running.
A man running now is not running.
A man finished running is not running. Of course, because he is finished with running. A man yet to run may run in a second, but not running right now. Then how about a man running now? He cannot be running, either. Why? You cannot do two things at the same time. If you are having a piece of pizza, then you cannot be singing a song. If you are singing, you cannot be having a bite of pizza. You cannot eat and sing at a time. Again, you cannot have two bites at an instant. You’re only got one mouth, which deserves not more than one bite. If you’re biting pizza, you’re only having one piece, not two or more. A man having a bite of pizza cannot be having another bite simultaneously. One subject, one action. One subject can only engage in one action, not two. If you say “A man running now,” then a man, a subject, already has an action of running, so he cannot run or do other things any more. That’s why it is said that a man running now is not running. Hence the negation of motion.
Well, I think his true intention is not to negate motion but to not have any fixed ideas and to be flexible and adaptable. Some may have the imprudence to think that a man finished with running, or yet to run, has the action of running, either of which Nagarjuna repudiates. Others may be sensible enough to say that a man running now has the action of running, which argument he confutes as well. It is not perversity that makes him say no, but his great wish for the emancipation of himself. If I say S is P, then he will argue that is not the case. If I say S is not P, again he will refute me by claiming that S is not not P. If I say S is both P1 and P2, he will likely object that S is not both P1 and P2. If I say S is neither P1 nor P2, he is sure to refute and say S is not neither P1 nor P2. Which means he doesn’t stick to anything. He did his best to free himself in the truest sense of the word. Hence becoming more and more adaptable: Evolution.