## Overtaking Zeno

### Shared Article from Slate Magazine

**Zeno’s Paradox Is a Trick—But a Very Interesting Trick**

The Greek philosopher Zeno wrote a book of paradoxes nearly 2,500 years ago. “Achilles and the Tortoise” is the easiest to understand, but it’s …

David Plotz @ slate.com

**O.K., so, briefly:** If you think that the point of Zeno’s Paradoxes of motion is to prove that *the arrow never will reach its target*, or that *Achilles never does pass the tortoise*, &c. — then I think that you are mistaken about the point of raising the paradox in the first place. Of course, it’s hard to be confident about the motives of dead philosophers who have no surviving books. But what we do know is that Zeno was a student of Parmenides; and Plato tells us that his books were written to defend Parmenides’s doctrines, by negative means,^{[1]} showing that the views of his opponents led to contradictions.

So the most charitable understanding of Zeno’s aims is not that he’s trying to show you that Achilles can never catch the tortoise. Of course he does; just watch them race and you’ll see it happen. His point is to ask, *given* that Achilles passes the tortoise, well, how is that possible? And, for good or for ill, to argue from the paradox that you can only make sense of Achilles passing the tortoise if you reject presentism, and accept eternalist and Parmenidean conclusions about the nature of time and being.

Maybe he’s right about that, and maybe he’s wrong. (I’m inclined to think he’s wrong.) But note that if your solution is to try and settle the issue by introducing a lot of mathematical notation and conceptual apparatus from modern calculus — for example infinitesimal limit processes, convergent and divergent series, etc. — as is done in the Slate article here, and as is probably the overwhelmingly most common first response to Zeno’s paradoxes by mathematically-trained writers — then probably you are doing a better job than any pre-classical Greek philosopher could do in *elaborating the precise nature of the problem.*^{[2]} But you’re not obviously *refuting* Zeno’s claims in any way, at least not yet. At the most you’re kicking the can down the road, and really you’re sort of strengthening Zeno’s own position. After all, naive formulations of mathematical notation are more or less always going to involve you in all kinds of *specifically eternalist* language, for example about moments in past and future time actually existing,

instantiating the value of functions, etc. You cannot normally take the limit of ΔS(t) over values of t that don’t exist (no longer exist, do not yet exist).^{[3]}

Or perhaps you can. But if you can, then doing so, and explaining what you’re doing when you do it, will take some very non-naive reinterpretation of ordinary mathematical language — and some nice metaphysics, too, to justify your reinterpretation. In any case the solution is going to have to be deeply philosophical, not just a matter of applying a technical innovation in maths.

## Roderick T. Long /#

Plato tells us that his books were written to defend Parmenides’s doctrinesI think Plato’s interpretation is unlikely. By having Socrates present his interpretation as a hypothesis which Zeno then confirms (in a conversation Plato invented), Plato makes clear that it’s not obvious from Zeno’s book that its goal is to defend Parmenides. And the fact that the real-life Zeno, when asked why he didn’t write about the Parmenidean One, replied that he was waiting for someone to explain to him what the heck it was (Testimonium A16), doesn’t make him sound like a faithful disciple of his teacher. I suspect Zeno’s goals were closer to those of Gorgias in

On Nature or What Is Not.