To What Extent, If Any, Does Modern Physics Invalidate Epicurean Philosophy?

  • alan:


    Ilkka - I agree with everything you said except for the "still swerving" statement, as specifically applied proactively in the context of modern physics. What you are suggesting is a basic redefinition of what we mean by the swerve, and I would also be for that. The swerve as first formulated by Epicurus (that is, the reason for why there are macroscopic objects and why we have free-will in an otherwise deterministic universe) is not attested to by modern physics. What you are now suggesting we understand the swerve to be is perhaps quantum indeterminacy, or perhaps Brownian motion, or perhaps Heisenberg uncertainty. This is all well and good, but it is not what Epicurus originally had in mind.

  • Cassius: (to Alan)


    "This is all well and good, but it is not what Epicurus originally had in mind." <<< Well, it's probable also that Epicurus had more than one thing in mind when he suggested the theory of the swerve. In apparently making no effort to explain the "mechanism" of the swerve, he was simply stating the effect rather than speculating as to a cause or even really a manner of operation. I am all for further exploration and discussion of possible mechanisms, as I am sure that Epicurus would be -- the point I keep emphasizing is that in engaging in speculation we should never lose site of the big philosophical picture, nor should we open the door in our own minds, or specially in the minds of those who are not trained in the speculative sciences, that we are suggesting that Jehovah or Allah are possible explanations.


    I know that you personally are committed to not doing that, but there are many scientists (apparently) who are all too willing to make those connections, and we need to be careful in consideration of our own peace of mind, plus (or more) that of others who are neither equipped nor disposed to deal with these issues. Standing in the theatre and yelling "the atoms are divisible and they are on fire and may explode at any second" would be improper from many perspectives. Of course YOU Alan are not doing that in any way shape or form, but the world got to the mess it is in today in large part because there are so many people who ARE willing to do that, and no debate ever takes place in a totally contextless vacuum.

  • Ilkka to Alan:


    Alan, the swerve is "random movement by a particle". Whatever consequences it has further down the line, it also has a physical definition. I'm sure that Epicurus didn't have any of those things you listed in mind when he formulated the swerve, but that doesn't change the fact that there is random movement. Several different kinds in fact, if I've understood it correctly.


    Swerve was an attempt to ground the self evident facts, of compound objects and choice making, in the physical structure of the world. It was the best that could have been done at the time, and something we're still trying to figure out. Maybe we should cut the ancients some slack in matters not settled yet. ;)

  • Up the line in this thread I promised a cite to a David Sedley article with an interesting description of how Sedley thinks Epicurus came up with the swerve, more from a "Determinism" standpoint rather than simply due to physics theory. Your mileage may vary, but in my experience Sedley is one of the most perceptive commentators on Epicurus alive today. The article is "Epicurus' Refutation of Determinism" and can be found here:

  • Alan to Ilkka:


    Ilkka I agree with all of that. I only disagree with those who vehemently say that we need the swerve to have agency or even that the swerve of Epicurean atoms really truly exists in the very precise context that Epicurus stipulated them to serve in. You're not saying that, so we don't have a disagreement. The swerve of Epicurean atoms is a very different thing than the random motion of particles in a gas or fluid or the superposition of quantum states or the fundamental inability to register both a particles position and momentum to arbitrary accuracy (all those things that I suggested above that could be considered a 'modern swerve').

  • Cassius:


    "If the elementary particles are quanta, for example, would pleasure cease being the foundation of human morality? I think not." That is a great example of an update in physics that does not change the conclusions an iota. On the other hand, if the elementary particles are found to be inscribed "Best wishes, Jehova" then that would be a scientific discovery that WOULD change the conclusions rather dramatically. As humans we will never see these elementary particles ourselves, so we need a framework for having confidence in our conclusions in the absence of seeing them with our own naked eyes. Are we to say to ourselves, "Yes it's POSSIBLE that they are so inscribed, because I haven't seen them"? I feel confident that even given our advances to date, Epicurus would still say "no." One might want to qualify that with "reasonably possible" or other hedge words, but at some point you're simply playing a word game rather than dealing in useful concepts, because once you truly believe that "anything is possible" then you're a long way toward totally losing touch with human reality.

  • The title of this forum is so misleading and against the ethos of why I posed the questions in the first place. A more appropriate title would be "Is Epicurean Physics in Need of Revision?" or "Does Epicurean Philosophy Need the Old Physics?".

  • Philos the reason for my turning this thread into a FAQ is that it is indeed frequently asked in varying forms and will best be found in the future by a title which describes the topic. Were the issue here solely your personal question it would not rise to the level of general interest, and were the issue personal to you and not in need of a FAQ I would not have been able to devote so much extended effort to discussing it with you as I have done. Thanks for posting your comment as that can serve as your caveat that the way the question is phrased was not your intent. That's why I explained in the opening post the nature of the topic I intended to address, on a broader level. I will add to the opening post a note with a link to your comment and I think I can modify it to help with your concern.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “"Doesn't Modern Physics Invalidate Epicurean Philosophy?"” to “To What Extent, If Any, Does Modern Physics Invalidate Epicurean Philosophy?”.
  • Okay, I am satisfied with that. Thanks for appreciating my concern. I look at the effects of actions as well the intent of actions, and while your intent more or less seems honest to me, by using the original title you may have unknowingly had the effect of casting my responses in a bad light, at least from the perspective of new readers who were not familiar with my intended goals for this discussion.

  • I have found this thread fascinating and greatly appreciate those who have participated. It has been enlightening and intellectually stimulating.

    But...

    1) Epicurus and the ancient Epicureans cannot be held to a modern standard of scientific accuracy and detail. They had no instruments, no experimentation (other than the most rudimentary processes). They didn't have the benefit of centuries of hypotheses and theories. They had no Newton, Einstein, Hawking, et al. Those scientists stood on the shoulders of the giants before them. The ancient philosophers were basically building the scaffold for the later giants to stand on, then the scaffold got wrecked by Christians and barbarians and had to be repaired before science could even become a thing.

    2) The fact that Epicurus and his predecessors used the word ἄτομος atomos "un-cuttable" is, in some ways, unfortunate. The fact that the ancient term was repurposed by John Dalton in 1805 entices us to place all our modern interpretations and discoveries backwards onto the ancient Greeks. "We use the same word, we must mean the same thing." While there are similarities between the modern "atom" and the ancient ἄτομος, they are not the same and we cannot impose a modern interpretation on the ancient term.

    The same can be said about φύσις physis and Physics, the modern sense being applied in 1715. Again, the similarities are there but only in the basic outlines. The ancients were attempting to explain "natural things." Modern physics has narrowed its focus and has had access to increasingly more sophisticated processes and equipment.

    3) If we want to call ourselves Epicureans, we can't lose the vision of the forest for the trees. My perspective is that we have to focus on Epicurus's intent: The Universe is material. There are no supernatural causes. This, in turn, means there is no existence after death. I fully realize that's overly simplified, but I think we hold Epicurus to an unrealistic standard if we insist on fitting an Epicurean φύσις peg into a quantum physics hole. We can muse over the similarities and be impressed with what Epicurus had glimpses of from his observations and reasonings. But I think we have to, as Illka mentioned above, cut the ancients some slack.

  • Hi Don. Thanks for your reply. You are undeniably correct in your appraisal. I agree completely that we must cut the ancients some slack and realize when we have transcended beyond the domain of knowledge which they would have had access to (i.e. modern quantum physics, etc.)


    The only point that I feel the need to emphasize is that there are indeed some people who even now insist on clinging to the results of the ancient atomist hypothesis (infinite universe, the swerve, immutability and indestructibility of atoms, etc.) on faulty deductive grounds (in like manner to Plato's idealisms which are not in contact with reality), which I have been arguing all along that we need to re-evaluate. The Epicurean physics needs to have a modern adjustment, while at the same time not losing any of the most important consequences for the ethics.

  • Thanks and agreed.

    Just as we shouldn't hold Epicurus to our modern understanding, we shouldn't hold ourselves to maintaining ancient ideas that have been better explained by modern science. If we don't, we fall into the trap of textual fundamentalism and requiring *belief* in things like the idea that the universe is 6,000 years old like some *other* fundamentalists believe. Again, forest not trees.

    From my perspective, those three that you mention (infinite universe, the swerve, immutability and indestructibility of atoms, etc.) should not be impediments to acceptance of Epicurean philosophy. We had a thread elsewhere on the forum on infinite vs innumerable. Ultimately, it doesn't matter to me whether the universe is infinite *in fact*. From my puny human perspective, it is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. On the swerve, there is minimal surviving textual evidence or information on this topic from Epicurus and the early Epicureans. Personally, I don't think we should get hung up on it. On the "immutability and indestructibility of atoms", whether we *interpret* this to mean the fields of quantum physics or something else, this points to Epicurus's concept that things just don't change willy-nilly. There is *something* "natural" that holds up or undergirds our - and the universe's - physical existence. It does a gross disservice to Epicurus to say, "He said atoms are indestructible. What a dummy! We are so much smarter than him!" We need to ask what was he getting at with *his* interpretation of existence. Why was that *idea* important to him?

    If we take that tack, I think we can have an interesting conversation on the similarities between Ancient "Physics" (quotes used deliberately) and modern Physics; but we should neither denigrate the ancients for their understanding nor require ourselves to maintain outdated scientific ideas.

  • We will address some of these issues in the podcast that was recorded today in a way that most should find satisfactory.


    To the extent that "some" in Philos' comment refers to me, the point I am making is that physics does not exist alone in its own world. Epicurus confronted in his day, and we confront today, arguments that are based on "words" - "logic" - and that those arguments are of concern to many people. We are always going to be faced with questions that are essentially "You don't know because you haven't personally been there / done that / seen that / etc." It is important to understand how we respond to those questions, what is involved in "waiting," what kind of standards of "certainty" we should expect to hold ourselves to, and what is an appropriate level of skepticism to hold toward various things.


    Those who are primarily immersed in scientific pursuits are not generally going to be as concerned with those contentions as those who are not. However in Epicurus' day it was considered a serious philosophic argument to contend that it was impossible to walk across a room, and even today there are all sorts of logical and ontological arguments for the existence of god and similar questions waiting to trap the unwary.


    Not everyone needs help in those areas, but there are a lot of people who get concerned with arguments like those who need help in responding. For them, no amount of "physics" is going to be enough.


    So when Philos says:


    Quote

    The Epicurean physics needs to have a modern adjustment, while at the same time not losing any of the most important consequences for the ethics.



    I would say that Epicurean philosophy is ultimately not about any particular and precise physics position (and in that I think we are agreed). The issue is more that Epicurean physics were derived using a particular approach to knowledge (the canonical faculties vs "rationalism") and if we don't learn the details of that method then we'll never understand the appropriate consequences for the ethics.


    It is very important to observe the resistance that Epicurus displayed toward accepting contentions based on mathematics, geometry, or other aspects of logical modeling. Such conclusions can actually or apparently contradict what we observe through the senses, and that is why we are talking about these issues and need to continue to do so.


    Studying the reasoning behind "the swerve," for example, will always be more useful for understanding Epicurus' thought process than it will ever be for explaining the movement of atoms.


    The same goes for the infinite universe, life on other words, immutability, indivisibility, and the rest. That is why these issues cannot be dropped as if they were unimportant to talk about.


    I'll close this comment by observing that in my ten years of internet involvement in Epicurus, I do see this as a recurring issue. People who approach Epicurus purely from the scientific perspective don't tend to appreciate the "logical" issues. People who approach Epicurus from a "history of philosophy" perspective or an "ethics" perspective don't tend to appreciate the physics of Epicurus and Lucretius, and they hardly spend any time at all on the letters to Herodotus or Pythocles, or on Lucretius' poem.


    Both perspectives are important to understanding Epicurus, and we should not let the varying perspectives become at war with one another.

  • Here is one example that I see of the kind of attitude that is appropriate for an Epicurean to take even when we don't have the amount of evidence we would like to have, as illustrated by what Lucian thought was the proper Epicurean attitude toward a religious imposter, from "Aristotle the Oracle Monger"


    And at this point, my dear Celsus, we may, if we will be candid, make some allowance for these Paphlagonians and Pontics; the poor uneducated ‘fat-heads’ might well be taken in when they handled the serpent—a privilege conceded to all who choose—and saw in that dim light its head with the mouth that opened and shut. It was an occasion for a Democritus, nay, for an Epicurus or a Metrodorus, perhaps, a man whose intelligence was steeled
    against such assaults by skepticism and insight, one who, if he could not detect the precise imposture, would at any rate have been perfectly certain that, though this escaped him, the whole thing was a lie and an impossibility.

  • I would say that Epicurean philosophy is ultimately not about any particular and precise physics position (and in that I think we are agreed). The issue is more that Epicurean physics were derived using a particular approach to knowledge (the canonical faculties vs "rationalism") and if we don't learn the details of that method then we'll never understand the appropriate consequences for the ethics.

    Agreed. I think this reinforces what I was saying: forest not trees. It's more important to understand *how* and *why* Epicurus arrived at his conclusions than the "scientific" proposals themselves that can be refuted by modern science... with the understanding that modern science hasn't answered all the outstanding questions.

    It is very important to observe the resistance that Epicurus displayed toward accepting contentions based on mathematics, geometry, or other aspects of logical modeling. Such conclusions can actually or apparently contradict what we observe through the senses, and that is why we are talking about these issues and need to continue to do so.

    That being said, our understanding of mathematics has progressed well beyond what was available to the Ancient Greeks. I'm not sure if the Greeks even accepted the idea of zero (and I'm not trying to be hyperbolic here).

    Studying the reasoning behind "the swerve," for example, will always be more useful for understanding Epicurus' thought process than it will ever be for explaining the movement of atoms.

    Yes, agreed, and ultimately more satisfying. This process is less shoe-horning Epicurus's ideas into an anachronistic, modern context (and vice versa) and more understanding Epicurus's thought process so we can apply *that* to our modern lives.

  • At this point we are branching off in this discussion to a different aspect of this topic: How Supporters of Epicurean Philosophy Should Approach The Effect of Modern Scientific Discoveries


    That thread is going to be primarily devoted to "organizational" aspects of how Epicureans should relate to each other and/or incorporate new scientific discoveries in their organized activities.


    This thread should continue on the original topic, primarily addressed to individuals in their own studies and thoughts:

    To What Extent, If Any, Does Modern Physics Invalidate Epicurean Philosophy?