Feedback From A User

  • Cassius,


    I am on chapter 13 of Epicurus and His Philosophy by De Witt and thoroughly enjoying this impressive book. Thank your for taking the initiative to direct me.


    In addition to learning much more about Epicurus and Epicureanism, I have also benefited from De Witt’s perspective on the relationships among the competing Greek philosophy schools.


    I have several questions that I am saving until I have finished the book and more carefully read through the the copious amount of information you have posted.


    What you and others are doing here at Epicurean Friends is impressive, inspiring and important. I am delighted to see philosophy flourish in a practical form in our time and independent of the technical and self-serving work done in most modern universities.


    Wishing you the fullness of life’s pleasure.
    JLR

  • Thank you for the kind words JLR! Don't feel the need to accumulate the questions unless you prefer it that way. Ask them anytime, together or separately, here or in any specific subforum.


    Glad to have you, and thank you for affirming my confidence that DeWitt's contribution to Epicurean studies really does stand out from the pack.


    And also, thanks for the reference to the "others" - it's community and participation which make this work and there is no way we could be here without the active support of our moderators and regular users.

  • The most pressing question I have is how Epicureanism accounts for the universal concepts of similitude which we formulate in the mind based on our sense experience. I am referring to ideas like horse, tree, or person. How can these only be material?


    I believe Plato says we recall ideas after having sense experience because they are already present as innate ideas in our soul.


    I recall that Aristotle updated the Platonic theory by saying the intellect abstracts the universal forms that exist in each particular sensible thing after repeated experience.


    I find both accounts difficult to accept and yet it seems incontrovertible that we recognize the sameness of things. Otherwise, the world would appear to be filled with only particular things which we perceive through sense.


    This ability to categorize particular things as the “same thing” (horse, human, etc.) seems to point to universal concepts that are difficult to account for as strictly material (atomic) in origin.


    Are universal concepts real? If not, why/how do we all use them? If they are real, how can they be only material yet exist as the same in each thing and in our minds?

    I hope I have formulated the question clearly.

    Edited 2 times, last by Lee ().

  • Great question JLR, and of course I cannot answer it with certainty, but I can tell you the direction i think the answer will be found: anticipations, in the DEWITT model, not the Bailey / Laertius model.


    I think DeWitt is clearly correct that anticipations cannot simply result AFTER experience, or else they would never have been called PRE-Conceptions (and for other reasons DeWitt mentions).


    I think the physics rules out "universal concepts" as being possible, even from atomic origin. However as DeWitt argues (I think I recall in several places) it is valid to talk about "human nature" as the accumulation of something over large amounts of time, and I think the answer is in following that line of thought.


    DeWitt's chapter on anticipations I think is one of his most important contributions.


    I will also say personally that I think he occasionally goes too far in calling them innate "ideas." I do not think they constitute innate "ideas" but rather dispositions toward the formation of ideas, not ideas themselves.


    I do not expect you to take the time to follow this suggestion, but in my own mind I associate this with a theory that I have seen asserted in a particular place in a particularly engaging way: Jackson Barwis' 1776 work: "Dialogues on Innate Principles" written in response to John Locke's theories (and the "blank slate" argument in general). It seems to me that Barwis is correct in distinguishing innate "principles" from innate "ideas" which is the thrust of that fairly short but very entertaining dialogue.


    I am not sure how i came across that but I found it on Archive.org, and set up this website to make it easier to read: https://jacksonbarwis.com Each of his works is very well written, but "Dialogue on Innate Principles" makes an argument that I think Dewitt would have done well to follow. Strip away the obviously superficial references to a creator and religion in Barwis' work and I think the potential parallels to anticipations being an "innate" facility are obvious.


    I also relate this in my mind to Thomas Jefferson's observation of a similar type as to there being an innate faculty that does not rest on "knowledge" or "Experience" but on something else, which is again not "divine' but a part of human nature:


    Moral Philosophy. I think it lost time to attend lectures on this branch. He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his Nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the [beautiful], truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules. In this branch, therefore, read good books, because they will encourage, as well as direct your feelings. The writings of Sterne, particularly, form the best course of morality that ever was written. Besides these, read the books mentioned in the enclosed paper; and, above all things, lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous, &c. Consider every act of this kind, as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties & increase your worth.


    This ability to categorize particular things as the “same thing” (horse, human, etc.) seems to point to universal concepts that are difficult to account for as strictly material (atomic) in origin.

    So in sum I think your sentence there is very important, but that what you are observing does not point to "universal concepts" but to a human faculty - the faculty of anticipations, which disposes us in the direction you are looking - and gives us the disposition, which not all of us use, to exercise the ability to organize things into relationships, even though there is no divine order, no "essence," and no possibility of truly universal concepts.

  • Ha - I am going to make a somewhat embarrassing admission as to the Jackson Barwis material: Even though it is a computer voice, I had the Dialogue on Innate Principles rendered into "ivona voice" format, and linked it from that website to this location on Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/JacksonBarwisCollectedWorks


    At that location you can listen to a computerized British female voice read the Dialogue, and there is something about the presentation that I find mesmerizing to listen to - it is almost like Shakespeare or some kind of poetry, and to my personal taste it just sounds very compelling. It reminds me somewhat of the way
    Frances Wright wrote about Epicurus in "A Few Days In Athens," which i also think was writ
    ten in fine literary style even apart from the excellent content.


    Ok I forgot I set this page up: https://newepicurean.com/resou…ues-on-innate-principles/


    Probably I will never forget these two paragraphs, particularly the second one:


    The innate principles of the soul, continued he, cannot, any more than those of the body, be propositions. They must be in us antecedently to all our reasonings about them, or they could never be in us at all: for we cannot, by reasoning, create any thing, the principles of which did not exist antecedently. We can, indeed, describe our innate sentiments and perceptions to each other; we can reason, and we can make propositions about them; but our reasonings neither are, nor can create in us, moral principles. They exist prior to, and independently of, all reasoning, and all propositions about them.


    When we are told that benevolence is pleasing; that malevolence is painful; we are not convinced of these truths by reasoning, nor by forming them into propositions: but by an appeal to the innate internal affections of our souls: and if on such an appeal, we could not feel within the sentiment of benevolence, and the peculiar pleasure attending it; and that of malevolence and its concomitant pain, not all the reasoning in the world could ever make us sensible of them, or enable us to understand their nature.




    That last paragraph resonates with me as exactly the way I feel after reading Epicurus explain the nature of things -- I "feel" that his appeal to feeling as the guide is correct, and I think to myself that not all the reasoning in the world could ever explain to me why I take pleasure in the things I take pleasure in, and the way I am repelled away emotionally by the things i find painful. And whatever this faculty or mechanism is, it is at least partly mental, and I don't think it is active only in the area of pleasure and pain.

  • Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful and clear answer to my questions about universals Cassius. I will definitely listen to the Jackson Barwis dialogue and study the principles page you created about anticipations. I am impressed and immensely appreciative that you take the time to share your considerable knowledge with me and others.


    I suspected the answer to my question would center on anticipations because when I read that chapter in De Witt, it seemed to encompass general concepts- especially the treatment of justice. I found the argument about the importance of social relations and justice to be compelling. If bees can cooperate so exquisitely in the hive it seems that nature can cause us to engage in even more complex social behavior or rules by anticipations.


    I also find it quite plausible that a material mechanism could account for how we are born with a recognition of such things. It reminds me of the amazing experience of watching my newborn son search out his mother’s breast and begin to nurse only minutes after being born. I remember thinking how astonishing it was that nature had clearly endowed him with knowledge before he had even seen the world beyond the womb!

    I am beginning to see the wisdom in the Epicurean teachings included in your quote above. I was always a bit uncomfortable with the apparent circularity in Aristotle’s arguments that what appears good is that which we desire and that we naturally desire what is good. Pleasure and pain seem to be the essential natural guides (or telos) that provide the way to really determine the ultimate good.

    I have a further question about anticipations that is a continuation of my original question. I find myself understanding these anticipatory “concepts” or “ideas” as having some sort of real existence- even if only in the mind. I continue to wonder if they are immaterial. Maybe this is just the prejudice of my Platonic and Aristotelian education but it is difficult for me to understand how we can predicate the same anticipatory “concept” of many things and for it to have a common meaning unless the concept itself (like justice) has some sort of real existence. I may be over thinking this but I have spent years studying to make sense of the intellectual world and struggle to understand what kind of existence these things have in Epicureanism materialism. Can you explain this existence any further?


    Appreciatively,

    Lee (JLR)

  • Lee:


    Not sure I can "explain" anything but I can certainly try to give me current understanding from my reading:

    It reminds me of the amazing experience of watching my newborn son search out his mother’s breast and begin to nurse only minutes after being born. I remember thinking how astonishing it was that nature had clearly endowed him with knowledge before he had even seen the world beyond the womb!

    I would be very interested in comments from Elayne on this, as she is a pediatrician. Is it a matter of smell or touch or some other sensation?

    I was always a bit uncomfortable with the apparent circularity in Aristotle’s arguments that what appears good is that which we desire and that we naturally desire what is good. Pleasure and pain seem to be the essential natural guides (or telos) that provide the way to really determine the ultimate good.

    I completely agree - it is embarrassingly circular, and to that I would add that I think the "golden mean" analysis is embarrassingly devoid of substance! ;-)


    I find myself understanding these anticipatory “concepts” or “ideas” as having some sort of real existence- even if only in the mind.

    1. If what we are talking about is a faculty of anticipations with which we are born, I definitely think you are correct to use scare quotes around those words, as I think it is probably bright line unacceptable to believe that we are born with fully-formed concepts of ideas in the way those words are generally used. I believe the "blank slate" is wrong to assert that we are born essentially with nothing, but I don't think it is tenable to assert that we are born with anything requiring words or definitions, which is probably a requirement of the words concepts or ideas. That's why I like the word "preconceptions" almost better than "Anticipations," since this emphasizes that what we are talking about is something that precedes a concept, not something that IS a concept or is some kind of application of a concept.


    2. As for "real existence" that's a hard one too, since that term implies materiality, and everything that goes on the in the mind is ultimately traceable, or ultimately based on, things that are material "atoms." I think what we are probably talking about here are "qualities" of combinations of atoms, rather than "properties" of the atoms themselves, or as some people say "emergent properties" or "emergent qualities." This would be similar to the observation that the atoms themselves do not have color, but when combined into bodies, bodies have color and many other qualities that did not exist in the atoms standing alone.

    . I continue to wonder if they are immaterial.

    I think this is the issue of "emergent qualities" that I just mentioned. Emergent qualities are not any less "real" because they arise from combinations of atoms rather than being a property of individual atoms at the atomic level.

    Can you explain this existence any further?

    How much of Lucretius have you read? There are some really interesting sections that bear on these issues, one of which that comes to mind is the reference to Helen of Troy around line 420. Here Lucretius/Epicurus is saying that "Bondage, Liberty, Riches, Poverty, War, Concord, or the like," are "events" of atoms (a word I think is much more accurate than "accidents") rather than "essential conjuncts" (properties) of atoms. The point that I think is important to realize is that "Bondage, Liberty, Riches, Poverty, War, Concord, or the like," are not any less real to us because they are not properties of the atoms themselves. It's at the "body/combination" level that we experience life, which is what us ultimately important to us, and it should not be a problem for us to understand how the two levels interrelate. The reason I think it IS a problem for most of us is our corruption through religion that we have become acclimated to believe that nothing is really important unless it has some kind of stamp of "divine eternal god-given existence" which is a totally false and nonsensical frame of analysis:


    [420] All nature therefore, in itself considered, is one of these, is body or is space, in which all things are placed, and from which the various motions of all beings spring. That there is body common sense will show, this as a fundamental truth must be allowed, or there is nothing we can fix as certain in our pursuit of hidden things, by which to find the Truth, or prove it when 'tis found. Then if there were no place or space, we call it void, bodies would have no where to be, nor could they move at all, as we have fully proved to you before.


    [431] Besides, there is nothing you can strictly say, “It is neither body nor void,” which you may call a third degree of things distinct from these. For every being must in quantity be more or less; and if it can be touched, though ne'er so small or light, it must be body, and so esteemed; but if it can't be touched, and has not in itself a power to stop the course of other bodies as they pass, this is the void we call an empty space.


    [439] Again, whatever is must either act itself, or be by other agents acted on; or must be something in which other bodies must have a place and move; but nothing without body can act, or be acted on; and where can this be done, but in a vacuum or empty space? Therefore, beside what body is or space, no third degree in nature can be found, nothing that ever can affect our sense, or by the power of thought can be conceived. All other things you'll find essential conjuncts, or else the events or accidents of these. I call essential conjunct what's so joined to a thing that it cannot, without fatal violence, be forced or parted from it; is weight to stones, to fire heat, moisture to the Sea, touch to all bodies, and not to be touched essential is to void. But, on the contrary, Bondage, Liberty, Riches, Poverty, War, Concord, or the like, which not affect the nature of the thing, but when they come or go, the thing remains entire; these, as it is fit we should, we call Events.

    [460] Time likewise of itself is nothing; our sense collects from things themselves what has been done long since, the thing that present is, and what's to come. For no one, we must own, ever thought of Time distinct from things in motion or at rest.

    [465] For when the poets sing of Helen's rape, or of the Trojan State subdued by war, we must not say that these things do exist now in themselves, since Time, irrevocably past, has long since swept away that race of men that were the cause of those events; for every act is either properly the event of things, or of the places where those things are done.

    [472] Further, if things were not of matter formed, were there no place or space where things might act, the fire that burned in Paris' heart, blown up by love of Helen's beauty, had never raised the famous contests of a cruel war; nor had the wooden horse set Troy on fire, discharging from his belly in the night the armed Greeks: from whence you plainly see that actions do not of themselves subsist, as bodies do, nor are in nature such as is a void, but rather are more justly called the events of body, and of space, where things are carried on.



    I stumbled over this section for a long time as something that made little sense to me, and of course I am sure that my understanding of this now is still far from complete. But I think that the point of arguing that the rape of Helen / Trojan war "do not exist now in themselves" is essentially to point out that they are no longer "real" in the sense of existing in some eternal plane of existence like you (Lee) are talking about.


    I used to wonder if this was related to our modern Idea that the Trojan War might have been "myth" and didn't really happen, but now I think the OPPOSITE. I think Lucretius was citing this founding story of Rome as something that was immensely important to the Romans, as something essential to their understanding of themselves, that was nevertheless not "real" in the sense of existing currently as atoms or bodies that could be touched. I think that Lucretius was pointing out to a Roman / to the Romans that the story of the Trojan War, which was of immense "real" importance to them, was important without being something that was "real" in another (Platonic? Religious Heavenly?) dimension. He was pointing out that despite its importance the Trojan war did not possess eternal bodily existence, a fact that we should not be disillusioned by, in the way we are trained by religion to feel disappointed, or to feel nihilisticly defeated, when we realize that this "eternal existence" is not really so.)

  • Cassius, the newborn behavior is best described as innate pattern recognition, which is different from both a faculty and a concept. Newborn recognition of the mother and the breast is similar to a sea turtle recognizing the ocean as the desired direction unless lights from humans disrupt the visual appearance.


    A concept would require the infant to have an abstract thought about what they are seeing, smelling, feeling.


    These pattern recognitions in other animals have been called instinct, and the prevailing belief was that humans didn't have instincts, lol.


    It is more than a faculty-- it is an expectation of a particular pattern appearing and a recognition when it does. So there is definitely a sort of innate knowledge of those patterns, but non conceptual.


    That is why the first time I read about the prolepses, I was flabbergasted that Epicurus figured this issue out. And then it was forgotten, and the "blank slate" took hold.


    I will go even further and say that our innate pattern knowledge is connected to pleasure and pain. We have innate recognition of the sensory data indicating where to go for the pleasure of food. This was retained through evolution, as a memory of our species' common sources of pleasure and pain. Of course with individual variation, because we are not clones.


    As we develop, other innate pattern knowledge emerges on a consistent schedule. Fear of the dark, for instance, is universal in early childhood. If a pattern knowledge were learned or required specific triggers, we wouldn't see it universally.


    The innate pattern recognitions are added to by individual experiences over time.


    Epicurus didn't say enough about the prolepses for me to be 100% certain he was referring to this issue. Part of my thought that he did might be because the word anticipations fit -- not just the ability to recognize a pattern but a prior anticipation of that pattern, followed by instinctive matching.


    However, even though we can't be sure he understood this, which to me is as phenomenal as understanding indivisible particles, what he said is compatible with modern understanding of human development.

  • I will go even further and say that our innate pattern knowledge is connected to pleasure and pain.

    I agree with that too. The nature of pleasure is a highly interesting issue. Sometimes people talk about Epicurus being connected with the term "smooth motion" (although I forget what cite they are pointing to) and that may be related too.


    As to pattern recognition, which I think is an excellent term, I am thinking that a similar distinction between ideas and principles probably applies --- In other words we have a FACULTY of being able to recognize patterns, which some people do better than others or animals do differently than humans etc, rather than that we are born with a particular set of patterns already inscribed in our minds.


    Just as the eyes are born with the faculty of being able to see, but as yet have seen nothing at birth.


    Would you agree with that?

  • Not quite, and that is why it's different from a faculty. The evidence suggests that there is a pre-populated _specific_ pattern expectation. That is, not just the ability to recognize patterns in general but the expectation and then recognition of particular patterns. This is not a concept-- no words or abstract thought is happening. Non-human animals do it.

  • The point that I think is important to realize is that "Bondage, Liberty, Riches, Poverty, War, Concord, or the like," are not any less real to us because they are not properties of the atoms themselves. It's at the "body/combination" level that we experience life, which is what us ultimately important to us, and it should not be a problem for us to understand how the two levels interrelate. The reason I think it IS a problem for most of us is our corruption through religion that we have become acclimated to believe that nothing is really important unless it has some kind of stamp of "divine eternal god-given existence" which is a totally false and nonsensical frame of analysis:

    Hello Cassius. I see the point and agree with you that I carry a bias from years of education (religious and otherwise) which taught the existence of an eternal and immaterial world of ideas. I am beginning to see how emergent properties of atomic combinations and preconceptions could account for our experience and provide a more familiar and plausible description of our cognitive experience.


    The intellectual journey I am traveling is such a surprise. I started at the state university as a student of modern empirical science and a staunch materialist. Then I attended a liberal arts college which emphasized philosophy and the tradition of immaterial ideas about which I then became convinced. Now I am circling back around and reconsidering the merits of the materialist argument.


    I appreciate that you took the time to include the passages from Lucretius. Although I have read his work a couple of times over the last 25 years, I didn’t fully grasp the complexity and sufficiently of those passages until you pointed them out to read more carefully.


    I see now that the passing of time or the existence of the Trojan war can be considered “events of body” without the need for them to exist in an eternal and immaterial plane.


    Here’s another question that has been nagging me: how can The Swerve account for our volition? If all of reality is atoms and void it is difficult to understand how I seem to be able to change my mind at will? If my thinking is subject to the swerve of the atoms, how is it that I seem to be controlling my choices? Is this an illusion of choice? Am I somehow controlling the movement of atoms when I choose?

  • Not quite, and that is why it's different from a faculty. The evidence suggests that there is a pre-populated _specific_ pattern expectation. That is, not just the ability to recognize patterns in general but the expectation and then recognition of particular patterns. This is not a concept-- no words or abstract thought is happening. Non-human animals do it.

    Elayne,


    Your clear and insightful description of innate pattern recognition was extremely interesting. It was helpful that you contrasted this with the blank slate hypothesis because I hadn’t made the connection to compare the blank slate with Epicurean anticipations or prolepses.


    Thank you for providing more interesting ideas for rumination!

    Lee

  • Good evening, Lee.


    Regarding your question about indeterminacy and free will, I'll offer an explanation. But Caveat Emptor—I do consider myself to be less well-versed in the technical side of the philosophy than most who post here. I've read all the really relevant literature, but sadly the better part of learning is trying to remember what you already know ;)


    It can be difficult to approach Epicurus without an understanding of the mental universe of the Greeks with whom he argued. Cassius, and by no means he alone, has observed the degree to which the philosophy of Epicurus is simply a systematic dismantling of Platonism. It's not much different here.


    In the case of free will, the necessary thing to engage with is the objection to free will that was current in Epicurus' time. There are two that come to mind. First, in Greek religion and literature the idea of fate was well-entrenched. The Oedipus Cycle, known to secondary school students everywhere, presents the case memorably.


    The second objection was philosophical and metaphysical. If you take the view as Democritus did that the cosmos was perfectly material and mechanical, then the mechanical universe would push you around like clockwork. In an ancient metaphor, your mind would jostle about in the chariot of your body with no one at the reins.


    Epicurus dismisses the first objection as a corollary to dismissing fate and the participation of the gods. He dismisses the second objection by proposing the Swerve. An indeterminate cosmos is to that extent non-mechanical. Instead of lifting your arm against the full tide and current of atomic motion, there is enough 'play' in the system to allow you to lift your arms through the atomic matrix.


    This doesn't exactly answer your question. Nor have I explored modern objections to free will. But my eyelids are drooping, and this much will be enough to get things started.


    Josh

  • Here’s another question that has been nagging me: how can The Swerve account for our volition? If all of reality is atoms and void it is difficult to understand how I seem to be able to change my mind at will? If my thinking is subject to the swerve of the atoms, how is it that I seem to be controlling my choices? Is this an illusion of choice? Am I somehow controlling the movement of atoms when I choose?

    I agree with Josh and will try to add a little more, but this is such a huge subject that there is a separate subforum for it here: "Free Will" - Freedom of Choice Within Limits And Bounds vs. Determinism


    The first think I would focus on is the part of the question "how can the swerve account...." I don't think that the swerve "accounts" for free will as much as it "allows" for free will. There is no explanation offered for the mechanism of the swerve in Lucretius, and it is strictly a logical deduction of the "it must be" variety in order to explain how atoms began bouncing rather than continuing in straight lines in the first place, plus as you say accounting for the fact that we observe that we do have some degree of agency / control over our actions.


    There really is no attempt to explain a precise mechanism other than to relate speculations about atoms of "soul" or "spirit" being particularly smooth and light and relating atomic aspects like that to particular dispositions of particular animals.


    Two things that come to mind to suggest for further reading would be AA Long's "Chance and Natural Law in Epicureanism" article, which I think is significantly insightful to observe that we need to be careful about how much impact to give to the swerve. The part that has stuck with me is that we need to remember that most things DO in fact operate "mechanically" and that the swerve is so slight that it only "breaks through" in rare occasions (such as allowing for free will and getting the universe started). Long observes I think correctly that the swerve cannot be operating to make everything indeterminate, or else it would destroy the rest of the Epicurean system, which is based on observing that regularity in nature arises from regular movements of atoms rather than from gods or ideal forms.


    Another thing that is deep is I think best summarized in Frances Wright's A Few Days in Athens Chapter 15 where she observes that the implication of Epicurean philosophy is that we much reach and base conclusions on observations WITHOUT attempting to resolve every link in the chain back an infinite distance. Check out the argument here - it is probably best to read the full chapter, but especially the part that begins "“I apprehend the difficulties,” observed Leontium, “which embarrass the mind of our young friend."


    So that's the most i can offer at the moment, other than this argument from Thomas Jefferson, which I think is consistent:


    Jefferson to John Adams, August 15, 1820:   (Full version at Founders.gov)


    …. But enough of criticism: let me turn to your puzzling letter of May 12. on matter, spirit, motion etc. It’s crowd of scepticisms kept me from sleep. I read it, and laid it down: read it, and laid it down, again and again: and to give rest to my mind, I was obliged to recur ultimately to my habitual anodyne, ‘I feel: therefore I exist.’ I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existencies then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need. I can conceive thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter, formed for that purpose by it’s creator, as well as that attraction in an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone. When he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tract of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will, and, by that will, put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart.


    At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us indeed that `God is a spirit,’ but he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter. And the ancient fathers generally, if not universally, held it to be matter: light and thin indeed, an etherial gas; but still matter. Origen says `Deus reapse corporalis est; sed graviorum tantum corporum ratione, incorporeus.’ Tertullian `quid enim deus nisi corpus?’ and again `quis negabit deumesse corpus? Etsi deus spiritus, spiritus etiam corpus est, sui generis, in sua effigie.’ St. Justin Martyr `{to Theion phamen einai asomaton oyk oti asomaton—epeide de to me krateisthai ypo tinos, toy krateisthai timioteron esti, dia toyto kaloymen ayton asomaton.}’ And St. Macarius, speaking of angels says `quamvis enim subtilia sint, tamen in substantia, forma et figura, secundum tenuitatem naturae eorum, corpora sunt tenuia.’ And St. Austin, St. Basil, Lactantius, Tatian, Athenagoras and others, with whose writings I pretend not a familiarity, are said by those who are, to deliver the same doctrine. Turn to your Ocellus d’Argens 97. 105. and to his Timaeus 17. for these quotations. In England these Immaterialists might have been burnt until the 29. Car. 2. when the writ de haeretico comburendo was abolished: and here until the revolution, that statute not having extended to us. All heresies being now done away with us, these schismatists are merely atheists, differing from the material Atheist only in their belief that `nothing made something,’ and from the material deist who believes that matter alone can operate on matter.


    Rejecting all organs of information therefore but my senses, I rid myself of the Pyrrhonisms with which an indulgence in speculations hyperphysical and antiphysical so uselessly occupy and disquiet the mind. A single sense may indeed be sometimes deceived, but rarely: and never all our senses together, with their faculty of reasoning. They evidence realities; and there are enough of these for all the purposes of life, without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence. I am sure that I really know many, many, things, and none more surely than that I love you with all my heart, and pray for the continuance of your life until you shall be tired of it yourself.



    Edit: Also, if someone were going to devote themselves to fleshing out arguments in favor of how human consciousness and free will arise from atoms, I would study the arguments collected and made by Jefferson's friend Thomas Cooper. I have found Cooper's "The Scripture Doctrine of Materialism" to be particularly interesting in dealing with my Christian upbringing. But again, this is philosophy, not an explanation of the workings of the brain.

  • Right now, I am reading "The Biology of Wonder" by Andreas Weber-- only midway through, but I was thrilled to learn that there are biologists who now recognize that subjectivity is not just a side effect of organic matter (living organisms) but integral to it. No study of organisms which attempts to segregate behavior from subjective experience and feeling is complete. He talks about not just mechanical evolutionary selection for fitness but the organism's own internal drive for existence -- and about behavior being driven by pleasure. Matter which can subjectively choose has to be recognized as different from matter which cannot- and it has to be researched with that recognition. I'm going to email the author when I'm done and ask if he is interested in how the science agrees with Epicurean Philosophy!


    IMO, biology is part of physics and has been artificially divided.


    I don't think Epicurus' literal description of the swerve has turned out accurate, but the general understanding that the future is not pre-determined is still the prevailing view-- and that is what I personally would take away from his thoughts about the swerve. The current prevailing view in physics is that future events are probabilistic. Exactly how that works, we don't know. Exactly how matter which can experience itself participates in those probabilities, we don't know. We do know it is not in the form of a ghost in a machine, because there's no interface for that-- which rules out the kind of free will almost all modern people are talking about, where they imagine choices of a self which has become completely unhinged from prior events. It is more like what we call agency. But nobody yet has any idea how that is accomplished.


    If the future were predetermined, however, even agency would be an illusion.

  • I'm going to email the author when I'm done and ask if he is interested in how the science agrees with Epicurean Philosophy!

    Excellent idea!

    I don't think Epicurus' literal description of the swerve has turned out accurate,

    Since I am not sure that he really gave a "literal description of the swerve" then I might not go that far. As far as I know there is very little left about it except a couple of passages in Lucretius, all of which are high level descriptions on the order of "we see this effect, and so it 'must' be...." But clearly yes, Epicurus' theories about atoms have to be considered more 'high level analysis" than exact clinical science.

  • Josh,


    Thanks for your willingness to share your understanding of the indeterminacy in Epicurean materialism.

    It can be difficult to approach Epicurus without an understanding of the mental universe of the Greeks with whom he argued. Cassius, and by no means he alone, has observed the degree to which the philosophy of Epicurus is simply a systematic dismantling of Platonism. It's not much different here.

    This dismantling of Platonism seems to be an important theme. As I read De Witts book I see more and more how Epicurus was arguing against the errors of idealism.

    Epicurus dismisses the first objection as a corollary to dismissing fate and the participation of the gods. He dismisses the second objection by proposing the Swerve. An indeterminate cosmos is to that extent non-mechanical. Instead of lifting your arm against the full tide and current of atomic motion, there is enough 'play' in the system to allow you to lift your arms through the atomic matrix.

    The two objections you referenced help put in context the purpose of the Epicurean argument. It isn’t to explain HOW the indeterminacy operates as much as it describes that it MUST be happening in the context of the atomic matrix. Although we would all like more details, I accept the fact that our understanding of the mechanics is limited and that something which we can call The Swerve must be at work.

  • Hello Cassius. Your answer was helpful as always.

    The first think I would focus on is the part of the question "how can the swerve account...." I don't think that the swerve "accounts" for free will as much as it "allows" for free will. There is no explanation offered for the mechanism of the swerve in Lucretius, and it is strictly a logical deduction of the "it must be" variety in order to explain how atoms began bouncing rather than continuing in straight lines in the first place, plus as you say accounting for the fact that we observe that we do have some degree of agency / control over our actions.


    There really is no attempt to explain a precise mechanism other than to relate speculations about atoms of "soul" or "spirit" being particularly smooth and light and relating atomic aspects like that to particular dispositions of particular animals.

    I now better understanding what level of precision to expect from the theory of The Swerve. The fact that we do not have a more detailed account from Epicurus is understandable given that even with the scientific progress in our time we still debate the phenomenon of human agency. It is even now common for people to doubt it exists.


    The Thomas Jefferson passage you shared was delightful! His substantial intellectual talents always impress me. I will take your advice and read Frances Wright's A Few Days in Athens Chapter 15 and Cooper's "The Scripture Doctrine of Materialism“. I wish there were more free hours in the day to devote to all the delectable readings you are suggesting. 😉

  • I don't think Epicurus' literal description of the swerve has turned out accurate, but the general understanding that the future is not pre-determined is still the prevailing view-- and that is what I personally would take away from his thoughts about the swerve. The current prevailing view in physics is that future events are probabilistic. Exactly how that works, we don't know. Exactly how matter which can experience itself participates in those probabilities, we don't know.

    Hello Elayne. I believe you are referring to the quantum world of matter when you mention probabilities. I have read a little of Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy about the surprising behavior of matter in the microcosm/quantum level of reality. I keep thinking that this indeterminacy of particle behavior may eventually help explain the indeterminacy of human agency. We seem to understand very little about much of the workings of matter.


    I also find it intriguing that Aristotle described matter as “potential” all those years ago. I’m tempted to call it simply coincidence and yet his insight into the world was extraordinary for his time and I wonder if he was inferring this behavior of primary matter by observing change at the macro level in everyday life.

  • The Thomas Jefferson passage you shared was delightful!

    If you found that interesting, then i would add  Jefferson's "Head and Heart" letter to your reading list too for a comparison of reason vs emotion that most people with a casual understanding of Jefferson will find very surprising, Although it does not reference Epicurus directly, I think it helps illustrate how deeply Jefferson understood the Epicurean viewpoint on the role of reason, which probably one of its positions that Academia / the Platonic establishment hates the most.