References to Epicurus' Attitude Toward The "Place of the Sciences And Liberal Arts"

  • This is an effort to collect in a single place the references that are available to the Epicurean attitude toward the place of "the sciences and the liberal arts" (to borrow the phrase from Frances Wright).

    Epicurus was criticized both in the ancient world and by today's commentators for this attitude, which on its face would conflict with Epicurus' focus on physics and observation as the foundation of his philosophy. There is an issue here which needs to be understood in order to understand Epicurus' perspective.

    Here is an example of the issue from Cicero's On Ends:


    "You are pleased to think him uneducated. The reason is that he refused to consider any education worth the name that did not help to school us in happiness. Was he to spend his time, as you encourage Triarius and me to do, in perusing poets, who give us nothing solid and useful, but merely childish amusement? Was he to occupy himself like Plato with music and geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, which starting from false premises cannot be true, and which moreover if they were true would contribute nothing to make our lives pleasanter and therefore better? Was he, I say, to study arts like these, and neglect the master art, so difficult and correspondingly so fruitful, the art of living? No! Epicurus was not uneducated: the real philistines are those who ask us to go on studying till old age the subjects that we ought to be ashamed not to have learnt in boyhood."

    Here is another, that while not mentioning Epicurus in this passage, is from Lucian, who can be argued to have held many Epicurean viewpoints:

    Lucian’s Dialog “Icaromenippus, An Aerial Expedition:”


    “Menippus. Ah, but keep your laughter till you have heard something of their pretentious mystifications. To begin with, their feet are on the ground; they are no taller than the rest of us ‘men that walk the earth’; they are no sharper-sighted than their neighbors, some of them purblind, indeed, with age or indolence. And yet they say they can distinguish the limits of the sky, they measure the sun’s circumference, take their walks in the supra-lunar regions, and specify the sizes and shapes of the stars as though they had fallen from them. Often one of them could not tell you correctly the number of miles from Megara to Athens, but has no hesitation about the distance in feet from the sun to the moon. How high the atmosphere is, how deep the sea, how far it is round the earth— they have the figures for all that. Moreover, they have only to draw some circles, arrange a few triangles and squares, add certain complicated spheres, and lo, they have the cubic contents of Heaven.

    Then, how reasonable and modest of them, dealing with subjects so debatable, to issue their views without a hint of uncertainty; thus it must be and it shall be; contra gentes they will have it so. They will tell you on oath the sun is a molten mass, the moon inhabited, and the stars water-drinkers, moisture being drawn up by the sun’s rope and bucket and equitably distributed among them.”

    Although this does not qualify as an ancient text, Frances Wright comments at length on this issue in A Few Days In Athens Chapter 9:

    There are other examples that discuss this issue, especially in regard to Polyoenus. If you know of others that should be added here, please post.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “References to Epicurus' Attitude Toward The Claims Of "Science"” to “References to Epicurus' Attitude Toward The "Place of the Sciences And Liberal Arts"”.
  • I'm glad you started this, Cassius . This has been a hang-up for me with regards to Epicurus' teachings.

    On the one hand, one would think Epicurus would want to get the most accurate view of the universe - το παν - available through the senses with regard to the "sciences."

    On the other, I get the impression from some readings that once you get a "good enough" explanation of, say, meteorological phenomena (ex., DRN VI:96-160, different possible causes of thunder), you accept one and move on. That part makes it sound like Epicurus or Lucretius were not advocates of any kind of deep "research" for lack of a better word right now.

    I find it hard to reconcile these two so I'm looking forward to more in this thread.

  • Thanks Eugenios. I think this is really the topic of Philodemus' "On Methods of Interfence" and does not in any way contradict your statement "one would think Epicurus would want to get the most accurate view of the universe." I completely agree with you.

    The issue as I see it is sort of a preliminary rule of evidence, like a judge ruling on what comes into court. As you probably know there are elaborate rules of evidence about things such as hearsay that have evolved over time so that certain kinds of out-of-court statements are allowed in fully, or allowed in for limited purposes, or are kept out entirely.

    And there is also a court parallel in regard to expert testimony as a whole, with very elaborate rules about when and how experts are allowed to testify, so that the expert does not do things such as "invade the province of a jury."

    Another consideration that these rules of court apply to is to prevent "speculation" by the jury, in order to ensure that all decisions of a jury are based on evidence, and not left to simple speculation without evidence on which to ground it.

    As I see it, it will never be possible to develop exact rules of "what comes in" and "what doesn't come in" and so in court, judges have to examine the facts of each case and take testimony and hear both sides and then evaluate whether to let the jury hear the testimony at all, which serves as a sort of "gatekeeper" function.

    That's where I think Epicurus was going. He was saying that we all need "rules of evidence" so as to decide what kind of evidence is open to any kind of consideration at all, and what kinds of "evidence" should be thrown out of court and not even considered. Issues of claims of divine revelation would probably fit the type to throw out entirely - unless there is some other proof of the communication being claimed, someone saying "God told me to" is not even going to be listened to as evidence, other than perhaps evidence of insanity.

    It will take a long thread and discussion to go through all of the examples, but as I understand part of the crux of the problem was that unlike our mathematicians and geometers of today, those "scientists" of that period were using math and "science" to argue that the supposed "order" they were finding was proof that the world was governed by divine commandment. They were arguing that the alleged hugeness of the stars was evidence of their divinity, and that the earth's place in the center of the universe was proof that it was specially ordained by god.

    As such, Epicurus might not have been concerned with their calculations as such, but he was concerned with OVERREACH of their calculations to support theories that were not in fact supported by their contentions. I think that excerpt from Lucian maybe illustrates this as much as anything other.

    I realize so far that we've barely introduced the topic, much less made any headway in discussing it, but it's my understanding that this probably lies behind the ejection of "reason" from the canon, and many other attitudes by Epicurus. Again, the best text I have found so far to discuss this is "On Methods of Inference" and the DeLacy commentary at the end of this edition.

  • In regard to expert testimony in court, here is a summary as to the current state of federal law, applying the well known "Daubert" case and criteria:…nce-and-expert-witnesses/

    These are all "threshold" issues on which the judge has to pass before the expert is even allowed to testify at all to the jury, and I think there is a strong analogy here that applies to Epicurus' view of what kind of evidence should be considered. Then as a second step there are going to be issues about what happens if the evidence does meet this criteria, but seems to conflict with other evidence (presumably evidence of the senses), and how we then choose to weigh and balance which to believe. Because of course "admissible" does not mean that the jury has to believe and follow the testimony of the expert.

    Rule 702 – Testimony By Expert Witnesses

    Rule 702 is arguably the crux of Article VII, as it guides the court’s analysis in determining the admissibility of expert testimony. It states that an expert’s opinion is admissible if:

    1. the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue
    2. the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data
    3. the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods
    4. the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case

    The overarching aim of Rule 702 is to establish the relevance and reliability of the expert’s opinion. Rule 702 was amended in response to the seminal Supreme Court decision, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), which outlines a non-exhaustive list of factors for the courts to consider when determining the expert testimony admissibility.

  • I'm revisiting this thread for my own peace of mind...ataraxia if you will.

    This idea (as I understand it) of having a "good enough" explanation of phenomena is *almost* enough to make me question my commitment to Epicurean Philosophy. I'm looking for all of you to "talk me down."

    AsI read the Letter to Herodotus (and other selections), I get the impression that an Epicurean only needs to have an explanation of phenomena that doesn't conflict with the senses and that doesn't cause them distress. If one's explanation of (for example) the size of the sun or why it thunders is corroborated by the senses and makes you less anxious, but doesn't equate with how we (now) know thunder happens now, that's alright.

    Now, I know we know why thunder happens now and how big the sun is, but what about things like the size and age of the universe, how quantum physics works, how the brain works, and other topics of science research. I find reading and wondering about these immensely pleasurable. The contortions of my mind amuse me and make me more curious. I don't understand the how's and why's, but that doesn't make me question the material non-supernatural nature of the universe.

    My question is primarily: If I'm going to call myself an Epicurean, do I have to "pick an explanation" for these phenomena and move on? Is curiosity an Epicurean trait? Or do I need to choose and declare (dogmatize)?


  • My question is primarily: If I'm going to call myself an Epicurean, do I have to "pick an explanation" for these phenomena and move on? Is curiosity an Epicurean trait? Or do I need to choose and declare (dogmatize)?


    Oh No no no! Absolutely I would argue curiousity is an Epicurean trait. But the big enemy of peace of mind is doubt and gnawing anxiety that some people have about gods or life after death, and the Epicurean theories give good reason to rest from constantly worrying that those are going to zap you. To me, what you're talking about is the kind of thing that i love to do, which is to explore the implications of the issues like infinity, life on other planets, etc. But it seems that not everyone thinks that way, and maybe as people get older or sick or just tired of the search some people seem to just want to "rest" and not to think that they have to constantly reexamine whether the gods love or hate them or whether they are going to hell.

    I think THAT is the ultimate point that epicurus was making, not that scientific inquiry should ever stop or be limited -- so long as you personally see benefit or pleasure in it!

    When you get a chance to listen to the podcast released today you are going to see how directly related this post is to what was discussed. I don't think I did as good as job with the conversation as I should have in keeping it tied to the high-level conclusions, but I am sure you will have a lot to think about from listening particularly to Elayne on this.

  • This is a very important topic where we need to be absolutely clear so that the best people - the people who ARE curious and want to pursue science - are not turned off. It is so ironic that Epicurus, who spent so much of his time studying nature rather than dialectical logic, should be accused of a position of anything less than full scientific inquiry. But that's just one of the ways his arguments are twisted. Yes, in the end, he comes to the conclusion that pleasure is the final and ultimate goal, so therefore even scientific inquiry has to be judged by whether it brings pleasure or pain. But surely for most of us in so many ways it's absolutely clear that it DOES bring pleasure and reduce pain, in so many ways, and so within the scope of the observation that everything is contextual, surely scientific inquiry is probably right up there with "friends" and other high level "instruments" for the achievement of pleasure and reduction of pain.

  • Don it would be very good if you would hammer home questions and observations about this topic as much as you possibly can, for the reasons I mention above. This is something where there should be NO room for a "passivist" or "anesthesia" interpretation of Epicurus!

  • I'm about 3/4 of the way through episode 27. I swear I didn't know this was the topic before I posted here ^^ Talk about serendipity! I'll listen to the rest then review Epicurus's writings and continue to post.

    I agree this is an important topic!

  • Yes please post your thoughts Don. When I was editing today I realized that I did a very poor job of digging in to this issue, and that is why in the notes for Episode 28 I am going to go back to the basics of the epistemology before we go further. This is a subject that needs to be very clear so that there is no hint that any advance in science would or could conflict with Epicurean theory - unless that "science" supposedly came up with something supernatural, and that would be unacceptable because it would violate the position that is set by the anticipations that true gods are totally self-sufficient andnot involved in such mundane affairs

    This is an example of the "tension" between the observational side and the logical side. I personally differ a little with those who think there is a tension, because I do not believe Epicurus saw it that way, because he would say that his logical positions were ALWAYS tied back to observation. And that is what I should have hit home in Episode 27 - ultimately the issue on the size of the atom being limited in size is tied to OBSERVATION - we have never seen a visible object that is undividable, rather than resting purely on logic.

    But then there is the question of "well there are a lot of things we haven't seen" and how do we deal with those questions. Ultimately those are issues which need development through study of Philodemus' "On Methods of Inference" and there is always going to be the "logical" question of whether it makes sense to entertain the idea that the conclusions we derive from observation should ever be suspended just on the "possibility" (which is without observed evidence) that something different "could" exist elsewhere. That is a very thorny question but I am solidly convinced that Epicurus would say that it is NOT logical to accept that observed rules "could" be violated just on pure speculation without a shred of evidence. That may get uncomfortably close to "faith" for some people (and therefore I think we see part of the reason DeWitt was willing to "go there") but ultimately I do think it rests on sound reasoning.

  • My primary concern is with my interpretation of (especially) portions the Letter to Herodotus that sounds like "We don't need to investigate phenomena to find how they actually happen. All we need is an explanation that fits with our sense experience and doesn't make us wonder at our fear the phenomena anymore." I see this (admittedly maybe an incorrect interpretation) as unsatisfying personally. I'm curious as to the workings of the universe, the large and the small. So, I'm both airing my concerns and asking for other interpretations.

    I also need to read Philodemus's treatise on methods of inference. But Let's start with the Letter to Herodotus. That's what brought me to this point most recently.

    To make it easier to follow the argument, I'm going to replace "solstices, settings and risings, eclipses and the like" or "risings and settings and solstices and eclipses and all kindred subjects" with the simpler "them." The letter text is bold. My notes are italic.

    Letter to Herodotus (excerpt)

    [79]"But when we come to subjects for special inquiry,there is nothing in the knowledge of them that contributes to our happiness (μακάριον); but those who are well-informed about such matters and yet are ignorant what the heavenly bodies really are, and what are the most important causes of phenomena, feel

    quite as much fear as those who have no such special information--nay, perhaps even greater fear, when the curiosity excited by this additional knowledge cannot find a solution or understand the subordination of these phenomena to the highest causes.

    The basic argument here as I see it is:

    • We have people with special knowledge of phenomena.
    • There is nothing in knowledge of the phenomena that contributes to our happiness (μακάριον)
    • Those who are well informed are just as fearful as those without special knowledge.
    • Those with special knowledge may even be more fearful due to their curiosity exciting/agitating them and their inability to find a solution.

    "Hence, if we discover more than one cause that may account for them, as we did also in particular matters of detail, [80] we must not suppose that our treatment of these matters fails of accuracy, so far as it is needful to ensure our tranquillity and happiness (ἀτάραχον καὶ μακάριον ἡμῶν).

    This seems to be saying "If we come up with more than one possible cause, that's fine." I don't know what he's saying in " we must not suppose that our treatment... Fails of accuracy." It seems to be we only have to consider it accurate if it ensures our tranquility and happiness. That's enough. It doesn't matter if it accurately reflects reality.

    When, therefore, we investigate the causes of them, as of all that is unknown, we must take into account the variety of ways in which analogous occurrences happen within our experience ; while as for those who do not recognize the difference between what is or comes about from a single cause and that which may be the effect of any one of several causes, overlooking the fact that the objects are only seen at a distance, and are moreover ignorant of the conditions that render, or do not render, peace of mind impossible --all such persons we must treat with contempt.

    Who do we treat with contempt? Those who don't recognize what comes from single or multiple causes and are ignorant of what provides for peace of mind. Is the research into the causes of phenomena itself contemptible? Or is it the ignorance of what brings peace of mind?

    If then we think that an event could happen in one or other particular way out of several, we shall be as tranquil when we recognize that it actually comes about in more ways than one as if we knew that it happens in this particular way.

    My hang up here is the "if we knew" phrase. If we *think* something happens a certain way (with no proof other than our "good enough" speculation), we can be done and don't need to investigate further. Or is this saying we can accept it could happen *this* way, we can be tranquil. Then later we find out it's another way, we're still tranquil. It doesn't affect us IF we're open to multiple explanations? But we don't go looking to solve which way is correct?


    [82] But mental tranquillity means being released from all these troubles and cherishing a continual remembrance of the highest and most important truths.

    So, we need to continually remember the "most important truths." Is this what Cassius was talking about when he mentioned we need to keep in mind no supernatural explanations, etc.,in podcast episode 27?

    "Hence we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or those peculiar to the individual, and also attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth. For by studying them we shall rightly trace to its cause and banish the source of disturbance and dread, accounting for celestial phenomena and for all other things which from time to time befall us and cause the utmost alarm to the rest of mankind.

    Here Epicurus says explicitly that we "study" the feelings and sense perceptions and "clear evidence" to arrive at a "rightly-traced" cause of phenomena. Then we banish fear and dread. No supernatural causes. No superstition. But by study, can he mean research as we would understand it. I get the impression Epicurus didn't want his students studying astronomy and other subjects. Is the clear evidence just what we sense? I see the sun as that large, then it must be that large. Thunder could be produced by A, B, or C. A is good enough for me, I'm not going to investigate whether it's B or C. I shouldn't care which one as long as the one I choose makes me not fear something.

    I'm still getting the impression that Epicurus was not advocating open-ended, empirical research into a topic. I'm reading this letter as his advocating:

    • looking at a particular phenomena
    • gaining information through your senses
    • feeling pleasure/pain in your reaction to it
    • thinking of analogous events/situations
    • coming up with a satisfactory "good enough" explanation that assuages your fear of that phenomena
    • and moving on.

    If at a later date, someone says "it happens this way," you go "oh, okay" and accept that. But you don't go looking for explanations if more than one will suffice. Maybe this, maybe that. It doesn't matter as long as I accept a non-supernatural explanation but don't get hung up on the "right" answer. That doesn't appeal to me. I personally enjoy contemplating this kind of thing, reading about theories, having my brain twisted in a pretzel by quantum physics, string theory, black holes, etc. I don't fear these phenomena. So does that lack of fear matter here?

    I also realize we're dealing with a 2,000 year old philosophy. Epicurus didn't envision string theory, etc. Am I putting a round Epicurean peg in a 21st century square hole?

  • Quote

    It doesn't matter as long as I accept a non-supernatural explanation but don't get hung up on the "right" answer. That doesn't appeal to me. I personally enjoy contemplating this kind of thing, reading about theories, having my brain twisted in a pretzel by quantum physics, string theory, black holes, etc. I don't fear these phenomena. So does that lack of fear matter here?

    Don, this is a really short reply to a question that deserves more, but I think this statement of yours (if I'm reading it right) is a good illustration of not getting hung up on the "right" answer. Is string theory absolutely correct? Are multiverses fact? These are ideas of theoretical physics and they may or may not be correct; they haven't yet been proven to be true or false. But are you going to study these until you can prove their correctness? If not, then you're not getting hung up on the right answer. If you enjoy the mental gymnastics involved in contemplating these ideas (I do, until I don't) there's nothing anti-Epicurean about that until it starts to drive you batty.

    Proven and observable science is another matter entirely. But my take is that Epicurus was dealing with theorizing, as he didn't have the technology to verify many of his conclusions. So rather than spend his life trying to prove that, say, lightning is caused by x but not y or z, he was satisfied that any of x, y or z could be proven correct. Since he worked out all of these from logic based on observation, consistent with his overall theory (atoms and void), it wouldn't matter which might turn out to be correct. When it came to his "big picture" theories I wouldn't expect him to be so loosey-goosey.

    For us, I think it comes down to the distinction between experimental and theoretical physics. Experimental physics is verifiable and doesn't typically allow for multiple explanations, while theoretical physics deals with currently unverifiable ideas. Theoretical physics is where you can play with multiple explanations but not get hung up on the "right" answer.

    That turned out rather verbose for a "really short reply"!

  • Don's questions are great, and Godfrey's short reply is too. Mine is early in the morning and necessarily going to be short too, but here's a start, focusing on one part of Godfrey's answer:

    But my take is that Epicurus was dealing with theorizing, as he didn't have the technology to verify many of his conclusions.

    Epicurus didn't have the technology, and Epicurus (nor any single man) didn't have the time, to put in an unending 24/7 exploration of all of natural science.

    And here's the big point:

    NOR DO WE! Nor does ANY individual person!

    And yet we must live, and yet we need a single overarching perspective which allows us to organize our lives, and not live in fear from moment to moment that we are totally wasting our time because we are not on our knees before god, and not facing eternal damnation in hell, and not hopelessly doomed by "fate," nor blindly needing to follow some ideal form that would condemn us to needing to acknowledge the concept of "a horse" without ever being confident that the large animal with hoofs and mane and tail in front of us is actually a horse.

    Before I read these comments I was going to say that I was confident that Epicurus, if he had the opportunity, would strap himself into a spaceship and be among the first to blast himself off into space, because he clearly had that kind of drive to know more so that he could improve his understanding of nature.

    But we need to realize that that might NOT in fact be what Epicurus would do, if he were alive today. He might look at the risks and benefits of space travel and decide that as for himself, particularly depending on his health and his age and his likelihood of return, that it was more satisfying for him personally to stay here on earth and, using whatever time and resources were open to him, to improve his philosophy and share it with his friends and gain enjoyment from that while acknowledging that his choice would forever deprive him of personally seeing (for example) the other side of the moon.

    Does everyone have to devote themselves to being a physicist in order to make the best use of their lives? Certainly not. But how do we are they have confidence that we are "making the best use of our lives"? These are philosophical issues (questions of epistemology, and ethics, and the study of nature) where we cannot demand "perfect knowledge" before having confidence in our answers, because "perfect knowledge" is NEVER available to ANY of us, nor will it ever be so long as mankind continues to exist.

    What we have instead are our canonical faculties - the senses, feelings/affections, and anticipations/preconceptions, and we judge our success at life by how well we use those, just as we judge a dog or a cat by how well they employ their own natures as dogs and cats. We can't / shouldn't hold ourselves as humans to a higher standard than we would hold any other living thing, but that is what is going on when we look for "perfection" and criticize anyone who has confidence in their decisions on how to live life simply because they are consumed with doubt because they don't have "perfect and complete knowledge of everything."

    We don't have that, we never will, but we need a philosophy for living now in our current state of less than "perfect" knowledge. That, it appears to me, is the direction Epicurus is pointing.

  • I'm taking a look at the Yonge translation of the Letter to Herodotus and getting an interesting take on this subject (emphasis added):

    Here is where my rudimentary Greek is a handicap. I *so* wish I was more fluent to be able to read the original text better. I'm working on that. In the meantime, Yonge provides another perspective.

    In this section, Epicurus is specifically discussing with Herodotus celestial phenomena (many explanations of the motions of the sun, of the rising and setting of the stars, of the eclipses and similar phænomena) HOWEVER he does also mention everything which is not known but indirectly. That last part is still a hang-up for me. But isn't the Epicurean atomic theory something that is "not known but indirectly"? I really need to read Philodemus on this. What is only know "indirectly" must be only ascertained through analogy with what is sensed directly, right? And once we come up with a satisfactory explanation that dispels terror, we can stop our investigation. Or do I have that wrong?

    Epicurus says that what principally contributes to trouble the spirit of men is that men think the sun, planets, moon, stars, etc., are gods out to punish humans for actions in contradiction to the will of these superior beings.

    So, Epicurus states that "if we attend to these points (i.e., material causes of these phenomena), namely, whence confusion and fear arise (i.e., when we attribute divine properties to the planets, etc.), we shall divine the causes correctly (i.e., they are only material objects composed of atoms and void)."

    SO, am I reading too much into the Bailey translation? It definitely appears from my reading here that Epicurus is not necessarily talking in the general sense about researching the causes of all phenomena although he does bring up the "everything which is not known but indirectly." And is talking about "all [other phenomena] which present themselves at every step" which may "inspire the common people with extreme terror." It appears to me that Epicurus is talking about confronting all phenomena, both the directly sensed and indirectly known, with a commitment to the fundamental teaching that The Universe Is Atoms and Void. Which, for us "moderns" - shall we say - is not a huge stretch for our minds. I'm getting stuck on the multiple explanations for phenomena within that "All is atoms and void" mindset. Do we go after the "real" cause or surmise a "good enough" cause and wait for someone else to say it's not A it's B. And as long as B is a material and not a supernatural cause, we incorporate that into our knowledge and move along. But we OURSELVES as Epicureans shouldn't go looking for THE cause if we have a "good enough" explanation?

    If a scientist is troubled by their search for the "real" cause of a disease or the "real" cause of the birth of the universe or the "real" cause of the mass of a particle in the Higgs Field (I'm out of my depth here!), can they be an Epicurean if that search troubles their mind? They don't feel fear or terror from a vengeful deity, but is that anxiety/trouble incompatible with an Epicurean art to living?

  • My sense from reading this is that you are eventually going to come out in the right place in all this once you satisfy yourself by rereading the texts and then go back to the basic fundamentals, which include that the observations that there no "absolute truths" in the universe that apply to everyone everywhere, and you focus on the practical aspects of using the canonical faculties to do the best that you can with any given situation, and especially on what the conclusion is about the "ultimate end" - which is the search for pleasure and avoidance of pain within the context of what is possible to each entity.

    I think DeWitt rightly stresses how much Epicurus was devoted to practicality, and how also he was developing a general philosophy that applies to everyone regardless of their capabilities and circumstances, and that as a result he is giving broad guidelines about the nature of things rather than specific advice to specific people (since that differs so much according to circumstance).

    Formulations like this would bother me greatly too if I thought they accurately reflected Epicurus:

    Do we go after the "real" cause or surmise a "good enough" cause and wait for someone else to say

    But I reject the idea that this is what Epicurus was saying, for the same reason I reject the "absence of pain" interpretation of Epicurus: the goal of life is PLEASURE, which means as much pleasure as possible and is reasonable to us under our circumstances -- we should NEVER simply go for "anesthesia" and waste our lives avoiding pain as the ultimate goal. The reason that science would advance more under an Epicurean regime than any other, in my view, is that science is the lever by which we use our minds to achieve pleasures and avoid pains in ways that would never be possible without that lever.

    So in other words, I think your motivation to see Epicurus as a champion of science and opponent of ignorance is the same reason I see Epicurus as a champion of pleasure and a crusader against pain, without there being any real tension between the two sets of goals.

    And once we come up with a satisfactory explanation that dispels terror, we can stop our investigation. Or do I have that wrong?

    That's why an Epicurean would never be satisfied with anesthesia, or accepting a "least common denominator" approximation of an explanation in scientific matters when a better one is possible. The reason - to restate it - is that the goal of life is the pursuit of pleasure, and we will never achieve the pleasure that is possible to us if we accept a "good enough to avoid pain" strategy toward living.

    To wheel back and cover a specific point, my interpretation of the difference between astronomical issues and issues about atoms appeared to Epicurus to be another issue in practicality: with the stars, we simply have no way to get "up close and personal" to really get our hands on what is going on.

    With atoms, on the other hand, we CAN get up close and personal with the bodies that are formed from the atoms, and even though we can't see or touch the atoms themselves, we can (to use an example from the Lucretius covered in Episode 17) see enough around us to conclude that EVERYTHING we can see and touch is divisible, thus we are justified in concluding that atoms never grow large enough for us to touch ourselves, and thus we conclude that there is a limit to their size.

    The standard question that seems to me that follows after that is always going to be "Well what about atoms on the other side of the moon, or other places you can't see? How do you know that there aren't super-huge atoms there?" And there I think we have to turn to the arguments in "on Methods of inference" or other fragments that are left to us. I don't recall that the material there is particularly as clear as I would like it to be either, but in referring to the DeLacy commentary (which I recommend probably before even reading the text itself) I think the main issue becomes choosing between inferences based on human senses/anticipations/feelings vs inferences based on dialectical/logical/syllogisms. I gather Epicurus interpreted the conflict as posing a choice between (1) we do the best we can with our human faculties, and (2) we defer to an inhuman form of "logic" which is not tied to reality but which is ultimately mystical even in the way that Plato and Aristotle advocated it.

    And I think the final answer therefore involves coming to terms with our limitations as human beings and our willingness to be like all other animals, and to work within the confines of our abilities without being cowed into the submission of priests and other manipulators who are willing to lie to us that they have access to a superior knowledge to which we, due to our lesser status, do not have access. That's a lie, and we avoid it by understanding that in the nature of things no one has such knowledge, nor is it proper for us to think that it can exist.

  • Here is a related thought on this topic. Don please correct me if I am wrong, but speaking for myself, at least, and I bet this applies to you too:

    What gives us our confidence or persuades us or attracts us to the viewpoint that the pursuit of science MUST be the correct answer? Or that the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate goal has to be the right answer?

    Even though we are talking about science and philosophy, to me the answer is that it's FEELING, and not "logic" or "rationalism," that ultimately motivates us toward the view that to be correct, Epicurus "had" to have take the position that we intuit can be the only "best" position on these issues.

    There's NO WAY that Epicurus would ultimately have been satisfied with a life of bread and water if it were "reasonably" available to him (unless he was compelled to accept it) and NO WAY that Epicurus would turn away from the pursuit of more scientific knowledge if it were "reasonably" available to him either. But the meaning of "reasonably" in this context is not some question of abstract logic, but a question of "reasonable cost" in terms of pain and pleasure. We're not choosing science just for the sake of the abstraction, but because it leads to the most pleasurable life, just like with virtue. All Epicurus was doing was describing science just like he described virtue and everything else, within the global framework of judging it in terms of its instrumentality in the pleasure/pain question.

  • Don -- I am going to summarize my opinion about this issue, so I have it in one place. I might change my mind with a strong argument against this, but right now I feel pretty definite about my position.

    I find the strong assertion of "this is how it is", based on reason and analogy, in the section of Lucretius we just read as incompatible with Epicurean philosophy as I understand and practice it. The philosophy is just fine, in my opinion, but this particular approach of stating hypotheses about unobserved processes in a manner as if the hypotheses are factual is a mistake.

    It is inconsistent with the Canon of knowledge, that we know what is true by observation, prolepsis, and feeling. The insistence on not using reason to determine truth (vs practical use of reason to decide on wise action, based on _observed_ truth) was one of the primary things that drew me to Epicurus.

    I have for years said the atheists should not celebrate a Day of Reason. They should have a Day of Evidence.

    I don't have any trouble with Epicurus saying that the possibility of multiple explanations for a single phenomenon is not a problem-- I agree. What I have trouble with is the way Lucretius is saying, to paraphrase, "it's like this, and we know it by analogy and reason." No. We do not know, because that is not how we "know" things.

    I feel like Epicurus' language about these things, in the full context of his work, is more adherent to the Canon than the way Lucretius is presenting it. But anywhere that he presents a hypothesis as if it were decided fact, I disagree strenuously.

    And it wouldn't have mattered if I had lived back then and not known the physics we know now-- my fears would _not_ be relieved if someone tried to reassure me using a method of determining truth that I already knew to be faulty. If the goal is to relieve my anxiety, it would not work to use that kind of extrapolation. I wouldn't trust it, and I would remain anxious about what was really going on. I would not trust someone who made assertions without evidence about the _rest_ of what they were telling me.

    And leaving things that are unknown as so far blank spots on our map is fine with me, as it also appeared to be for Epicurus. That is completely different from the Skeptic position of saying we can't know anything at all.

    Hypotheses are fine-- sometimes they lead to experiments which can test them, and sometimes they are just interesting.

    Most importantly, because everything comes down to pleasure, why do I want to avoid confusing hypotheses with facts?

    1) Because I would know my ideas about reality were derived from reason, not observation, and I would remain anxious and doubtful about my conclusions

    2) Because misinformation can lead to unwise choices, more pain than pleasure, whereas being aware of unknown areas is fine. One can still make pragmatic decisions while remaining aware of uncertainties.

    The issue of how much inquiry and science learning relates to pleasure is an individual preference. Like people who enjoy opera or the Three Stooges or both. I definitely get a lot of pleasure from science.

    My argument against the supernatural gods going around interfering with humans has more to do with a complete _lack_ of evidence, and this was also true in Epicurus' time. Observing nature helps a person notice that supernatural action does not show up, and a lot of this is from the predictability of natural processes that Lucretius has already made note of, that we never see the bizarre things happen that would be frequent if reality were not material. That is a reasoning process, to be sure, but it is tightly tied to observations and is not the same as the leaps of analogy in the section we just read. One does not need to be a physicist or neuroscience to understand that line of argument.

  • Here is my take:


    And once we come up with a satisfactory explanation that dispels terror, we can stop our investigation.

    We can stop there but we do not have to. Stopping there is OK for those for who do not get much pleasure from studying science or who do not have the time or ability to investigate further.

    For Don, me and any other science geek, Epicurus puts no limit on how far we go in our investigation. It is our own decision based on hedonic calculus, with our curiosity and even obsessions driving us beyond Aristotelian moderation.

  • I "liked" Elayne's comments and I agree with her conclusions about proper procedure, but I think that I am also aware of my own limitations in studying the details of what Lucretius is presenting, so I don't think I would characterize Lucretius in the way stated there I think someone who was trying to advocate for Lucretius' particular presentation could probably argue that Lucretius *does* ultimately point to observable facts such that he is in the end reasoning in the way that Elayne is advocating.

    Trying to resolve any particular point in dispute (as to whether Lucretius goes "too far" on a particular conclusion) would require us to get really specific about exactly what he said on that point, and compare it to what else he said in the remainder of the book, plus whatever other record we have from the Epicurean texts, and that would probably take a Martin Ferguson Smith or some other true "expert" to marshal all the evidence for and against that particular point.

    In general, from my personal point of view, the "higher level" conclusions about the nature of the universe, infinity and innumerably, etc, remain very convincing, and I personally take what I understand to be modern theories to be just that - theories - which are in some instances an improvement but probably no more the "final word" than many other theories that have come about in the past.

    That's why I am much more comfortable saying in many cases that Lucretius' views "appear to conflict with current theories" before I would say "Lucretius was *wrong*" Of course there are some specific examples where I agree and would say "Lucretius was "wrong" about some specific phenomena, but the closer the issue comes to bigger-picture issues of infinite/boundless universe, life elsewhere in the universe, etc, the more comfortable I am that his views probably remain the most persuasive.

    Having said all that I want to come back to the big picture that I think Elayne's stress on proper procedure is correct and that is the take-home point. Whether or not Lucretius's particular statement in a particular passage fits the definition of "wrong" is a much less important question to me.