Category Archives: Physics

Epicurus’ On Nature – Books XI-XIV

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X

Book 11

This book rejects the idea that the Earth is the center of the cosmos, and discusses objects that float in the air. It says “certain people conceive Earth circled by walls … and suppose that Earth is in the center of everything“. Now, since Epicurus believed the universe was infinite, we know that he would have rejected the Earth-centered model because an infinite model of cosmos would not have a center and all things would be relative to each other. Instead, there would have to be innumerable “centers” or hubs. Epicurus had to use the language available to the ancients to explain what orbits are–and the organized dance between many orbiting bodies that acquires a certain balance of pushing and pulling and falling–without having the word “orbit” available.

Epicurus discusses where the sun rises and sets, and its distance from us; He offers various models to interpret this.

Les Epicuriens commentators categorize this book as a polemic against the ancient astronomers who were using certain tools or machines (alluded to in this book) to evaluate the movements of celestial objects, and against Eudoxus’ geocentric model. I found this article about Eudoxus of Cnidus, which says:

An astronomer named Eudoxus created the first model of a geocentric universe around 380 B.C. Eudoxus designed his model of the universe as a series of cosmic spheres containing the stars, the sun, and the moon all built around the Earth at its center. Unfortunately, as the Greeks continued to explore the motion of the sun, the moon, and the other planets, it became increasingly apparent that their geocentric models could not accurately nor easily predict the motion of the other planets.

The next section of the 11th book is on what sustains Earth from below and seeks to explain its stability. Epicurus argued that densities below and above provide counter-balance to each other, to maintain the “appropriate analogical model” for the immobility of Earth. He said that the Earth was “equidistant to all the sides”, and so it didn’t fall in any direction because it had similar pressure from all sides.

Here, from Epicurus’ mention of an “appropriate analogical model”–which he presumably was trying to create–it is clear that he was using the Epicurean method of looking at the things that can be observed and reasoning by analogy about the things that are beyond our observable horizon. This means that he appealed to how we can see that things of similar weight balance each other, and he’s applying that logic to the orbit of the Earth.

Book 12

This book addresses eclipses. Also, according to Philodemus, in book 12 (in a passage that did not survive) Epicurus said that humans had the idea of “certain imperishable natures”. This book appears to also address theology.

We see that in On Nature, Epicurus is addressing phenomena that caused superstitious fear and panic in the ancients, or that inspired mythical explanations. Obviously, the orbits of the sun and moon were a mystery and inspired mythical explanations. Epicurus’ lectures were meant to impress upon the students that, by applying their faculty of empirical reasoning to the study of nature, they would be able to come up with reasonable alternative theories.

We can surmise that some ancients, particularly those who rejected the myths and observed nature, would have observed that eclipses and phases of the moon apparently showed the shadow of the Earth against the moon, and would have reasoned that the Earth was round from the observation of its shadow against the moon. This is not mentioned in what remains of this book, but it would have been consistent with the Epicurean method (which relied on referring all investigations the study and observation of nature) to conclude from the phases of the moon that the Earth was round.

Book 13

This book seems to continue the conversations about gods in the previous book. Philodemus says that here, Epicurus addressed the “rapports of affinity, and also of hostility, that gods have with certain persons“.

Book 14

Based on the condensation of water (which can be seen turning into a gas/vapor, and also into solid ice), some ancient philosophers said that it can be inferred that all things come from a single substance, which changes due to condensation and rarefaction. Some philosophers believed the single primal substance was water (that is, all things could be broken down into water).

Epicurus’ refutation of this theory and his own alternate explanation is incomplete and unclear in the portions that remain of this book. We see him further down discussing the vaporization of water. Centuries later, Lucretius (in On the Nature of Things, Book IV) would describe in accurate detail the cycles of rain and condensation in one of the most brilliant passages of his epic poem. It is clear that these considerations furnished crucial inspiration for the early atomic theory.

The lecture in Book 14  was against monism–the above-cited doctrine that all things are ultimately made up of one single substance. Anaximenes and Diogenes of Apollonia were monists who said the primal substance was “air”, not water.

Epicurus discusses fire, and criticizes Plato’s Timaeus, saying Plato’s and other theories are based on faulty deduction. Epicurus reduces Plato’s physical theory to its absurd contradictions. For instance, he seems to be arguing that if things are really made of Platonic forms (like triangles, etc.), rather than from the atomists’ primal elements (that is, particles), then why are there no physicists creating new chemical combinations out of these Platonic triangles and circles? Here, he was acting in the tradition of the laughing philosophers. In Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon, I wrote:

Democritus, the precursor of Epicurus … was known as the “Laughing Philosopher” for making cheerfulness his key virtue and for the way in which he mocked human behavior. The tradition of the laughing philosophers had to start with the first atomist: materialism liberates us from unfounded beliefs to such an extent that it renders absurd the beliefs and the credulity of the mobs.

This book concludes with a portion that studies the differences between a sage and a compiler, saying that they are quite different. Epicurus tackles the issue of borrowing from other thinkers and mixing up disparate theories that are not coherent with each other. He says that sages do not praise both theories when they cite two opposite opinions. He accuses those who mix incoherent doctrines of “doctrinal solecism“, and indirectly criticizes the rhetors who are fond of empty praise.

A Note on Striking Blows for Epicurus

On Nature makes it clear that Epicureanism was born, and evolved, as a series of polemics. The first Epicureans enjoyed polemics. They relished opportunities to tackle intellectual challenges using their philosophical methods. Almost all of Epicurus’ points in this series of lectures are polemics written against someone else’s theories which are found to be wrong, and we also see many of Philodemus’ works were as well. For instance, we see Theophrastus being cited in Peri Oikonomias (and other works) as a source that the Epicureans of the FIrst Century BCE wrote against and commented on. We must conclude that he was considered a worthy opponent and a philosopher worth reading by them.

Therefore, we can imagine that it’s difficult to understand these arguments clearly without understanding these other ideas that they are refuting. Students of Epicurus must understand his contemporary thinkers, whose works they were reading and commenting on.

Further Reading:

Epicurus’ Instructions On Innovation

Epicurus’ On Nature I-X

I am currently re-reading Epicurus’ Books On Nature in Les Epicuriens, which is based on lectures given by Epicurus. We know that they were given late in Epicurus’ philosophical career because, in some of the lectures, Epicurus refers back to discussions with Metrodorus that they had years prior “back in the day”, and recognizes previous doctrinal mistakes that had been rectified after years of conversations to clarify their philosophical investigations (particularly concerning their “change of names” practices).

All of this means that we must be careful to not attribute too much authority to any extant writings that may have come from the earlier period. It also means that these books are actually transcripts of advanced lectures given by Epicurus after many years of engaging in philosophical discourse with input from his friends. Let’s try to imagine or re-construct what these lectures or discussions consisted of, so that we can create modern dialogues to replace the literature that is missing.

Book 1

Book One establishes clearly that all things are made of particles and void (cites Against Colotes). Les Epicuriens commentators say that this book is summarized in the Epistle to Herodotus.

Book 2

Book II establishes the existence of particles of light (photons, in modern physics), and establishes clearly that the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe.

Much of the following discussion focuses on how it is that bodies emit these particles (called simulacra in the original text). It is clear that these simulacra are particles by the fact that when they encounter resistance they bounce back, like any other particle. The sun emits light, it reaches water and we see blue because the solar “rays” (photons) do not fully penetrate into the depth of waters. Instead, these photons bounce back and reach our eyes. The denser the water, the less photons penetrate. This is how some solid bodies allow some light through, because they are not as dense as other walls.

A light bulb emits light particles, they bounce against a wall, and our eyes receive the “color”. This color is an emergent property of the photons when they bounce against the particles of the bodies that they touch.

Book II concludes by saying that they have just proven that light is made of these particles and that nothing can move faster than photons, and says here that what follows after this book are the “subjects appropriate to treat after this (subject)”. However, Books 3-9 were never recovered.

The following video follows up on the contents of this book. It helps to connect the nature of light as particles that travel at a certain speed through the void, with interesting repercussions of this insight that include the relativity of time and of all things. If the universe is only 14 billion years old, how can it be 92 billion light years wide?

The video also helps to explain why the ancient Epicureans concluded that time was relative and an emergent property of bodies, which was a very advanced cosmological position for them to assume 2,300 years ago. Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus says that “we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies”.

Epicurean cosmology establishes that bodies are made up of particles and void, and their conventional existence and properties are established by the quantity and other properties of the particles that make up the bodies. However, in the process of acquiring increased complexity and interacting with each other, bodies also acquire secondary, relational properties which are no less real than their conventional properties. A magnet’s attraction of certain metals is real. The attraction between two lovers is real, and so is the gravity between a planet and its host star. The chemical interaction that causes an explosion is also real. We observe these phenomena and, although they are not conventionally made up of “particles and void”, they are secondary properties of bodies exhibit according to the observable and measurable laws of nature.

Although those relational / secondary qualities are not eternal, or even essential, the Epistle to Herodotus teaches that we must not banish them from our minds. Incidental qualities do not have a material existence (they are not “atoms and void”), nor do they exist independently in some reality that is beyond our comprehension (some Platonic ether, or heaven, etc.). We must, instead, consider the incidental qualities of bodies as having exactly the character that our sensations reveal them to possess. Today, we are able to measure magnetic forces or gravitational pull, and we know these forces to be emergent properties of the relevant bodies. The epistle then goes on to explain that Time is one such incidental property of nature, that it does not exist apart from bodies:

For example, it is important to grasp firmly that “time” neither has a material existence, nor does it exist independently, apart from bodies. Nor must we think of “time” as a general conception, such as those conceptions which are formed by reasoning in our minds. Instead, we must think of time by referring to our intuitions, our mental apprehensions formed by anticipations, and it is in this context that we speak of a “long time,” or a “short time,” applying our intuitions to time as we do to other incidental qualities.

In evaluating time as an incidental quality, we must not search for expressions that we may think are better than those which are in common use, and we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies. We must evaluate time only in accord with our intuitions or anticipations.

Let’s unpack what’s being said here. Epicureans were known for clear, concise speech and for their insistence on calling things by their proper name, and for names to reflect things as they are observed in nature. Poetically addressing Love as Eros (imagined as a baby with diapers throwing arrows) or Time as Chronos (a scary old man whose approach can’t be avoided and who will, in the end, inevitably swallow us) is good in the realm of poetry and myth, but not in the realm of the study of nature.

Time is also not Platonic (that is, unnatural and unreal, a mere idea). It is not a God (as the ancients believed). All things are conventionally made of atoms and void. So the question that the ancient atomists would have been discussing was something like “Does Time not exist, then? If it does, in what way does Time exist“? And it made sense that Time, as a natural phenomenon, must have been an emergent or relational property of bodies. Ancient Epicureans posited that Time is a natural phenomenon and sought diligently to evaluate the nature of Time based on the study of nature by the use of our natural faculties by which we synchronize to nature’s circadian rhythms. The Letter continues:

For indeed, we need no demonstration, but only to reflect, to see that we associate time with days and nights, and with our internal feelings, and with our state of rest. These perceptions of incidental qualities are the root of what we call “time.”

Interesting to note that Epicurus links time to our anticipation of and attunement with the circadian rhythms. Epicurus here was saying that our own organism has a faculty that apprehends time.

Scientists now know that the Moon used to be a planet the size of Mars that collided w Earth early on, and has slowly been moving a ay from Earth in its orbit. Because of this, our Moon used to be much bigger in our sky billions, and later millions of years ago, and will eventually leave our orbit and become a “ploonet”. Also because of this, and because Earth and Moon are still tidally locked, days and nights used to be much shorter in the past (one day used to be only a few hours long), and they will get progressively longer in the future. Our sense of time will continue to evolve with our local planet-moon dance.

I wish to accentuate that to say that Time is incidental / relational to bodies is to relativize it. One light year is the distance a photon travels between two points in a year. This means that the light that we see coming from the stars was emitted millions of years ago. These stellar photons are (together with time) emergent properties of bodies and, since the speed of light is the speed limit of the cosmos, the photons have been traveling through the void together with time from those stellar bodies to our planet, some of them for millions of years.

Time is an emergent, natural process. This is what is meant by the Epicurean doctrine that “we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies”: that Time is neither a God, nor an “absolute” Platonic idea, but a natural, emergent, relational property of bodies (of matter) in space. We can only measure Time in units which–because all things are moving constantly relative to each other–are tied to orbital movements of bodies in space.

Books 3-4

Les Epicuriens says that these books are summarized in paragraphs 49-53 of the Letter to Herodotus, and Book 4 included Epicurus’ theory of memory–about which we get glimpses in the Lucretian “neural pathways” passage, so we do know that such a theory must have existed.

Books 5-9

Les Epicuriens says that these books are summarized in paragraphs 54-73 of the Letter to Herodotus.

Book 10

Discusses a bit about the nature of time, how to measure it (mentions days and nights), on the importance of using conventional language for it, and the fact that time is real.

Further Reading:

Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition)

Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

Dialogues on the Epicurean Gods

Our tradition is firmly secular and most modern Epicureans would label themselves atheists, humanists, or agnostics, but in antiquity the founders of our School were all pious men, and the ancient atomists had a naturalist theology according to which the Gods were naturally evolved beings who lived in the space between the worlds (metakosmai), and whose bodies were–like all bodies–made up of atoms and void.

The two traditional interpretations of the Epicurean Gods are the older, realist view according to which Gods are natural, sentient beings who live in never-ending ataraxia as described by our Sages, and the newer, idealist view according to which Gods are mental constructs which are, perhaps, therapeutically, culturally and spiritually useful, but nonetheless imaginary. A third view has been proposed in our generation, according to which belief in Gods is neither necessary nor natural, and that their existence can not be justified using our Canon.

But we live in a world governed by fear and awe of Gods, and recently some of the members of Society of Epicurus have been engaged in discussions about the nature of the Epicurean Gods in order to answer questions posed by students of philosophy. Furthermore, we also live in an age where science fiction has begun to explore in detail the repercussions of the possibility of the existence of superior extraterrestrial beings, which is inherent in Epicurean speculation on the innumerable worlds. Portions of these discussions are being published here for the benefit of anyone new to the subject, and to encourage the study of alternative, naturalist views on the Gods as entities within a natural ecology and cosmology rather than as characters in fables and in people’s supernatural fancy.

Dialogues on the Epicurean Gods

First believe that a God is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, you shall not affirm of him anything that is foreign to his immortality or that is repugnant to his blessedness. Believe about him whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality. For there are gods, and the knowledge of them is manifest; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that men do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them. Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus

Alexander. A friend of mine, who is a biology student, has asked me why the Epicurean gods do not experience the emotion of gratitude. After giving an introduction to my view of the gods I ended with my speculation that natural selection has removed the never-invoked vestigial emotion. My answer was:

“Great question about gratitude by the gods. I was stuck there too. There is no single point in any ancient document at which the question is answered directly that I know of. My answer is derived and constructed, and not definitive. All the points I parrot and paraphrase below are found in Epicurus’ three letters, and in Lucretius’s poems, and perhaps some other public and free sources. Many translations exist, and each has their strength and weakness. I have studied them and continue to do so. I understand more upon each reading. I am still learning. Here goes. Its not all my words, but a mix.

When it comes to humans, gratitude is a pleasant feeling. A good feeling. A desirable feeling. A pleasurable feeling. It warms our hearts and puts smiles on our faces. We actively and wisely recall past pleasant moments and actively renew our happiness with such recollections. We humans are not gods, yet, even though we can live a life that can compare to theirs. The virtues of the gods are different from the virtues of humans. In both cases Nature give the animal its virtues. Natural selection gives each life form virtues that help it navigate its natural environment. The Epicurean gods are natural beings that are made of elementary particles just like you and me.

The universe is unbounded. The universe is composed of many cosmos (observable universes). Physics is the same everywhere. The universe is full of life and beings that compare to those animals we know on Earth and similar to beings we can imagine/intuit.

Everywhere on earth that we look, we conclude that human nature has given people the intuition that blessed beings exist. By blessed, we mean happy and able to preserve their nature against the diseases of old age. Hence there must exist beings that we would consider to be gods. Happy and able to preserve their nature against disease. They have all the resources they need to preserve their nature. They have no need to fear for their life, or for their health or for their happiness. They need nothing from us. They gain nothing from interacting with us. The demand nothing of us. They are not unhappy with us. Nature made our cosmos and them. The gods did not make our cosmos.

When our senses are extinguished, during sleep, or when they are unreliable, when we are sick, thirsty, hungry or injured we cannot rely on our mental impressions, which must always be tested via the senses because illusions of all kinds abound, and imagination is encouraged over careful judgement by most people. It is during these times that humans claim to have visions and dreams of the gods. These are never confirmed by a Canonic (scientifically reliable) approach to observation, analysis, testing and thinking.

At this point I tend to IMAGINE an advanced alien species that is self sufficient and happy, and has been for a while, and so natural selection has removed the never-invoked VESTIGIAL faculty of gratitude.

Once again, I have to admit that I am not satisfied with my answer because gratitude is an instrument of pleasure for humans and is invoked in us because natural selection made us that way. Finally you should know, that we do know that the study of the gods is a very advanced Epicurean topic, left for students who had mastered physics, even though having “the proper attitude” about the gods is a beginner topic.”

What do you guys think?

Cassius. Alexander I think THIS in what you said is the key: “They need nothing from us. They gain nothing from interacting with us”. Gratitude would be an emotion of pleasure arising from having a need fulfilled which was not previously fulfilled. If we are postulating a being who already has all needs filled, and needs nothing further, then there would never arise a situation in which gratitude would be displayed, because gratitude is a response to an unmet need being fulfilled. So I think that’s the heart of it. All the rest you said is true too, but I don’t see any way around this being the heart of it.

Ilkka. My answer would depend on the reason she’s asking this. Is this a practical question or is she interested in the minutiae of Epicurean Philosophy … If this is a practical question, my answer would be that they don’t experience gratitude because they don’t exist … This situation would indicate to me that the person is struggling with a lingering fear of the gods, and I’d work on THAT …

On the level of the philosophical theory, Epicurean gods cannot experience gratitude. They are wholly self-contained and self-maintained beings. Gratitude implies that a being has asked for or received help from an other being. An Epicurean god couldn’t be in either position, because it could help itself in any manner required (self-contained and self-maintained). They are Perfect-with-a-capital-P.

Hiram. I remember that the commentary on Philodemus said that gratitude and anger are related to each other, and both are related to their lack of need and their being self-sufficient.

Alexander. Ilkka, what do you mean when you say with a capital “P”?

Ilkka. Perfect in the strongest sense. Not just a garden variety perfect that is thrown around everywhere.

Alexander. That kind of “Perfect” sounds like “imaginary” to me.

Ilkka. Yes, they are 🙂 …

Alexander. The inquirer is definitely struggling with God belief, and is more comfortable sharing thoughts that would incur the wrath of her family and friends in a private space. Here is the initial inquiry:

I’ve been meaning to read this, finally started this morning, and already got stuck wrestling one of the first few lines: ‘Any perfect being has no trouble of its own, nor does it cause trouble to anyone else; and such a being has no emotions of anger or gratitude, as those emotions exist only in beings that are weak”. It says this is one of the principal doctrines, however, I can’t understand how or why gratitude would be frowned upon. Thoughts?

Further on, I appreciate this line “He who desires to live tranquilly without having anything to fear from other men ought to make them his friends. Those whom he cannot make friends he should at least avoid rendering enemies, and if that is not in his power, he should avoid all dealings with them as much as possible, and keep away from them as far as it is in his interest to do so.” (PD 39)

Ilkka. You could say to her that the first doctrine means that the gods (who don’t exist …) don’t repay worship with favours. Gratitude is only frowned upon when people say that gods have it towards those who pray. Humans can, and should, feel gratitude towards those who actually help them. Does she know that this doctrine is talking about the gods?

Alexander. I assume that she thinks that a “perfect being” is a god.

Ilkka. I would make sure of it by asking, because that might be the source of the confusion.

Alexander. Ilkka, I agree that the gods of popular religion, supernatural gods, do not exist. When you say that the Epicurean gods do not exist in practice, what do you mean? Is it that: being able to preserve their nature is impossible due to heat? Is it that: continuous happiness is impossible while at the same time being born beings that pass through a childhood? Is it that physics (Relativity) forbids causal contact between different cosmos? Is it that even if they could arrive in our solar system that they are immediately rendered unable to preserve their nature when they approach our star’s particle emissions? Is it that they are too smart to risk contact with us? Is it that they have better things to do and would avoid us?

Ilkka. Wow! Now that is a headache of questions, a group of questions, like a pride of lions … I’m joking … I mean that if we follow the rules of evidence (the Canon) and apply it to the gods as presented in the works of Epicurus, we see that such beings don’t exist. This is because we know so MUCH more about the universe than was possible for Epicurus. It’s possible that there are extraterrestrial intelligent beings and they could be vastly more powerful than us, but they would be beings LIKE us, not above us like the Epicurean gods. They would need to preserve themselves like us by eating, consuming energy or whatever. Continuous happiness is possible for humans, so it would be possible to ETs as well …

I have no idea what relativity says about contact between the universes of the multiverse … It would be awesome to see what kind of vehicle ETs would arrive in the Sol system. But I’m pretty sure that the vacuum of space would kill them, provided they hadn’t done some serious genetic engineering … Perhaps they are too smart for that. I would avoid most people if I could …

Alexander. Sorry for the barrage of questions. Especially on a topic that we have so little info about.

Yes, we have never met them, and never seen them. Yes, they would need to eat to preserve/remake their particle bonds against the always-existing fast collisions, that knock particles off their bodies, even if they lived in the cold inter-mundial spaces that disconnect the various cosmos, and have few fast particles. Yes they would be made of the same elementary particles as us and so their particle bond strengths would be the same as ours, and if they were in a warm environment like ours they would need to work harder to preserve their natures.

Not sure what you mean by “above us”? As far as I have read, only in happiness and in finding themselves located where they could preserve their nature–ie. in a cool enough place that their particle bonds could be repaired at a faster rate than they’re broken. I suspect we have different ideas about the advanced alien beings, but I also suspect that humans will never encounter them face to face.

Cassius. Alexander, I doubt it is needed for me to repeat what I’ve said in the past, but this is an area where Ilkka and I disagree, so just wanted to make note of that so my silence isn’t misinterpreted. I believe there is nothing in modern science which would render Epicurus’ logic on this point obsolete.

Alexander. Thanks for the reminder. I think my opinion has changed on this topic a bit. I now see the Epicurean “gods” as compatible with the idea of advanced alien beings that take action to be self sufficient, and avoid disease, but could be murdered in principle even if not in practice. They stay away from dangerous beings like us. 🙂

Cassius. That last comment Alexander harks back to (Norman) DeWitt, who makes the point that Epicurus himself never called them “immortal”. Another analogy to this god issue is the “life on other planets” issue. I suspect he considered the points closely related, and they are pretty equally objectionable to the religious types, who want to see men and their redeemer to be the center of the universe.

Alexander. Look at these guys. They live right here on Earth. Everywhere. They are so small we can barely see them and they can preserve their nature from all kinds of danger. I doubt they fear much. Is there any reason they should be excluded?

Alexander then shared a picture of microscopial tardigrades, who “can go without food and water for more than 10 years and can survive the vacuum of space. They can also withstand pressures around six times greater than those found in the deepest ocean trenches, and handle great doses of ionising radiation”.

Cassius. Good question. They may have the “immortality” part covered, but would our anticipation of a perfect being also require that it be intelligent? I gather that the Epicureans thought (or joked) that the gods must speak Greek, so that may be evidence that we’re talking “perfect” in many different aspects …

Alexander. Yes. Intelligence would seem to matter, but I can’t find anything that says that. All that I find is: happy and self sufficient. “Greek” as perfection in language seems to be a big mistake to me. Seems like Diogenes of Oenoanda would take exception to that too. The following tells me that gods are either not immortal or incapable of learning.

For it is fair to assume that every endeavor to transform the mind, and indeed every attempt to alter any other substance, entails the addition of parts or the transposition of the existing parts or the subtraction of at least some tittle from the sum. But an immortal substance does not allow its parts to be transposed, nor does it permit one jot to be added or to steal away. For every change that involves a thing outstepping its own limits means the instantaneous death of what previously existed.

– (Ferguson’s translation of) Lucretius “On the Nature of Things”

Cassius. I see; thanks. I don’t have much insight, other than to say that in regard to “gods”, the key passage to consider is the “on the nature of the gods” section from Cicero where we find the basis of the “waterfall” analogy…

“For the divine form we have the hints of nature supplemented by the teachings of reason. From nature all men of all races derive the notion of gods as having human shape and none other; for in what other shape do they ever appear to anyone, awake or asleep? But not to make primary concepts the sole test of all things, reason itself delivers the pronouncement. For it seems appropriate that a being who is the most exalted, whether by reason of his happiness or of his eternity, should also be the most beautiful; but what disposition of the limbs, what cast of features, what shape or outline can be more beautiful than the human form? You Stoics at least, Lucilius, (for my friend Cotta says one thing at one time and another at another) are wont to portray the skill of the divine creator by enlarging on beauty as well as the utility of design displayed in all parts of the human figure. But if the human figure surpasses the form of all other living beings, and god is a living being, god must possess the shape which is the most beautiful of all; and since it is agreed that the gods are supremely happy, and no one can be happy without virtue, and virtue cannot exist without reason, and reason is only found in the human shape, it follows that the gods possess the form of man. Yet their form is not corporeal, but only resembles bodily substance; it does not contain blood, but the semblance of blood.

These discoveries of Epicurus are so acute in themselves and so subtly expressed that not everyone would be capable of appreciating them. Still I may rely on your intelligence, and make my exposition briefer than the subject demands. Epicurus then, as he not merely discerns abstruse and recondite things with his mind’s eye, but handles them as tangible realities, teaches that the substance and nature of the gods is such that, in the first place, it is perceived not by the senses but by the mind, and not materially or individually, like the solid objects which Epicurus in virtue of their substantiality entitles steremnia; but by our perceiving images owing to their similarity and succession, because an endless train of precisely similar images arises from the innumerable atoms and streams towards the gods, our mind with the keenest feelings of pleasure fixes its gaze on these images, and so attains an understanding of the nature of a being both blessed and eternal.

Moreover there is the supremely potent principle of infinity, which claims the closest and most careful study; we must understand that it has in the sum of things everything has its exact match and counterpart. This property is termed by Epicurus isonomia, or the principle of uniform distribution. From this principle it follows that if the whole number of mortals be so many, there must exist no less a number of immortals, and if the causes of destruction are beyond count, the causes of conservation also are bound to be infinite.”

Alexander. Hmm. Cicero. Less than desirable. I don’t find any mention of waterfall in that. Some immediate reactions: Cicero’s beauty argument seems invalid if we spit on beauty when it does not bring pleasure. But noninteracting gods cannot bring pleasure except by unfortunate dreams and unreliable visions, and we’d rather fail than succeed by fortune.

Seeing with the mind is “imagination”. Right? Humans are not the only animals that reason. Natural selection gives virtues to all animals, to a lesser or greater degree.

I fail to understand Isonomia. It implies that gods reproduce, but that implies they reorganize their elementary particles and so that means they can be killed. Perhaps we are the gods. If only we could be happier!

Cassius. I think I am referring to DeWitt with the waterfall analogy, or the analogy of moving pictures and movies. As far as seeing with mind, I am not sure that means imagination, at least not if imagination means “making it up”.

Isonomia is very interesting. I am not sure that it implies reproduction but the implication is multiple gods because of the other observation that nature does not make only a single one of a kind. Also with isonomia I think there may be some relationship with anticipations or maybe just the standard way that the faculties interact, but it seems to me the core of it is some process or capacity by which we recognize or have the ability to order items into a series of “higher” and “lower”, in other words I think there is something here that helps us think up the series of characteristics that would come together to form a “perfect” being at the top versus a “primitive” being at the low end.

And there might perhaps be the kind of pleasure in contemplating or visualizing higher beings that perhaps it seems dogs have in interacting with people–as an example. They seem to instinctively be happy around humans beyond just a good source. I think that it is possible that such a reaction might be similar to what the ancient Epicureans were suggesting we would feel with the beneficent images from “gods”. Not sure, but something in that direction. Or maybe just the sense of admiration that a young tennis player might feel in personally interacting with Arthur Ashe or John McEnroe–my sports analogies are dated.

I suppose to comment on this point, it is very important for our confidence in the stability of the universe to consider that there is at some level some “smallest” particle which carries the basic characteristics which give the universe stability. I certainly don’t consider a particle a god, but Epicurus appears to have been looking in the isonomia concept at a sliding scale from most primitive to highest, and that just as an elemental particle is absolutely stable and needs/gives nothing, he was probably thinking that a “perfected” form of life would have the same characteristics. I think I do agree that Epicurus would probably say that he had never seen one himself nor expected to, but this kind of logical argument–or, should I say, arguing at this kind of basic theoretical level–is probably necessary for some people, who would otherwise worry that there is some possibility that Jehovah (or Allah, or Krishna) does exist. Remember the passage in Lucretius about arguments that win “coming and going” or something like that–cutting off the enemy’s retreat. I think this is that kind of argument.

… Now that I think further, wasn’t the reference “Greek or a language like Greek”? This phrasing “or an X like X” seems to have been an Epicurean pattern.

Ilkka. Cassius, you wrote above: “I believe there is nothing in modern science which would render Epicurus’ logic on this point obsolete“, in reference to the Epicurean gods.

My point is that it’s NOT his logic, but the evidence that he (could have) had at his disposal. I think that if Epicurus saw the evidence we have, he too would come to the conclusion that the Epicurean gods are not possible.

From particle physics we know that there are only so many possible combinations that material beings can be made out of, and none of them seem to produce gods. We know from looking into the universe in ever broadening range of wavelengths that there doesn’t seem to be intelligent life anywhere near us. And studies of human perception have shown that although many people THINK they have seen ‘gods’, they really haven’t. It’s not that the Epicurean gods are at odds with modern science–though they are–but that they are at odds with Epicurean epistemology. And the Canon of Knowledge trumps theology every time …

Cassius. In a universe that is infinite in size, which is not theology but deduced from the principles of atomism, it is impossible to say that we can ever see far enough to rule out all combinations that exist in the universe.

Elli. From Diogenes’ inscription:

Only a few men among hundreds are conscientious because they fear the gods rather than the laws. Not even these few are steadfast in acting righteously, for even these are not soundly persuaded about the will of the gods. Clear proof of the complete inability of religion to prevent wrong-doing is provided by the example of the Jews and the Egyptians. These nations, while being among the most religious and superstitious of men, are also the most vile.

So what kind of gods or religion will cause men to act righteously? Men are not righteous on ACCOUNT OF THE REAL GODS, nor on account of Plato’s and Socrates’ judges in Hades.

With your permission, my Epicurean friends: in the above paragraph I understand that Diogenes examines the consequences and he declares clearly that both of gods (REAL and FAKE) do not cause men to act righteously.

So, according to the above from Diogenes, we understand that he examines the matter of “gods” under the term of “benefit”. How beneficial are the gods for a human being to live a happy and pleasant life? As we have confirmed with our own senses and history, there is no benefit at all. From Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, we undestand that to live a pleasant life we have to connect it with wisdom (or prudence) as all virtues spring from it.

Wisdom is something more valuable even than philosophy itself, inasmuch as all the other virtues spring from it. Wisdom teaches us that it is not possible to live happily unless one also lives wisely, and honestly, and justly; and that one cannot live wisely and honestly and justly without also living happily. For these virtues are by nature bound up together with the happy life, and the happy life is inseparable from these virtues.

Another point of the letter is:

But, men do not understand that the gods have virtues that are different from their own.

Must we connect the virtues with prudence and pleasure? Yes! Question: which are those different virtues that the gods have to maintain for ever to live pleasantly? OR do the gods not live pleasantly? If gods do not have pleasure this means that they are against all of Nature. For this reason, in my opinion, Epicurus placed gods in metakosmia (intermundia).

Question: Did Epicurus declare whether the atoms and the void exist in the intermundia (the space between the kosmoi)? Our first principle is that the atoms and the void exist everywhere. So, the gods live in a place where Nature gives to those upper beings the same aim: “pleasure”.

Why, then, are gods such kinds of beings that have different virtues from us? Their different virtues based on the fact that they keep their energy and pleasure on the level of 100% constantly and they do not worry about food, water, and there is no entropy. The universe is not a closed system. If we have a confirmation of this, then we have to admit that the gods are obvious.

What is obvious and what has been confirmed? Particles and the void, and endless energy. In my view, when Epicurus spoke about “gods” who are obvious, he meant and described the particles, the void, and the endless energy. In my view, the “void” has the same meaning as the word intermudia. If it was not like this, then we have to call Epicurus “idealist” and not “materialist”.

Hiram. According to Philodemus’ scroll On Piety, Metrodorus proposed a theory whereby immortal gods might be viable, based on an unclear concept of something being numerically indistinct. This sounds like the way in which a beehive or some insect species constitute an autonomous super-being by virtue of being so numerous. It’s a fascinating concept, and I wish we had better and more complete sources on this.

Metrodorus … explained that if a compound is made of things that aren’t numerically distinct, these things may be imperishable and indestructible or divine.  In his work “On Holiness”, Epicurus is quoted as elaborating a doctrine about the physical Gods being eternal and indestructible, and saying that one who exists in this manner “in perfection as one and the same entity, is termed a unified entity“.

Alexander. I have similar, but not identical thoughts. I thought that perhaps the gods were elementary particles, but ruled that out, since such could not be happy. Then I thought maybe they were composites of one kind of elementary particles, but that could not be complex enough to experience happiness, or be able to preserve its nature. With regards to preserving their nature, the inter-mundial spaces provide good shelter.

The inter-mundial spaces must have some particles even if the density is much less and the particles are much slower. Kind of like intergalactic space is said to be cold (less particles and slower particles). But this means a lack of action, and so living longer adds no benefit, since it does not mean more pleasure.

No entropy? How can there be no entropy? No entropy, no change, no sensation, no pleasure, no virtue, no nature to preserve.

Elli. The universe not being a closed system, and having endless energy. And if we base ourselves on the atoms to prove the swerve (free will), we have to base ourselves on the atoms to prove the obvious nature of gods as Epicurus said.

Alexander. The Universe, not a closed system? Do you mean the cosmos? There are many cosmos, but only one Universe. Nothing can enter the Universe from outside it, and nothing can exit the Universe.

Elli. Yes many Cosmos and only one Universe.

Alexander. The Universe is closed by definition. Right?

Elli. Right! Cosmos is not a closed system. Right?

Alexander. The kosmoi are not closed systems. Modern science calls them “observable universe”. We know there are many but we can only observe our own. We only have evidence from our own. The kosmoi are born and die. We can see the evidence of our cosmos birth. Big Bang.

Cassius. There are all sorts of questions here but I think it is useful, because there will be clues to the train of thought by asking these questions. What attributes would a highest perfect being have. Consciousness would seem mandatory. But we know that consciousness comes from / through nonconscious particles. So even if we don’t worry about whether the term “God” is appropriate, we ought to be able to approximate their view by considering how men might “evolve” into deathless, fully self-sufficient organisms. And there’s no need to exclude the idea that this “evolution” comes from scientific genetic engineering. We are making fast progress ourselves, and the time we have to continue making improvements is essentially unlimited. And since the universe is infinitely old, and boundless in space, one would expect and presume that the process of perfection of life forms has occurred an innumerable number of times in the past.

Elli. But Cassius, as we said with Alex above, our Universe is a closed system and there is entropy. The energy one day will finish. How can those beings or gods maintain their energy forever in a closed system, as our Universe? For this reason, Epicurus placed them in metakosmia or intermundia. This means between the kosmoi.

Alexander. Hold on. There is entropy. What does that mean from a particle point of view? It means only that some particles are faster than the average speed transferred between them upon scattering events (collisions, absorptions, and emissions). Meaning change within our cosmos exists for now. Our cosmos will die–change in our cosmos will cease. We cannot conclude the same for the Universe. We can only observe our cosmos, hence we never observe anything that resides “between the (plural) cosmos”. Not that I even know what “between the cosmos” even means. Sounds like “imaginary” to me.

Cassius. I am not sure I am following the closed system implications, but Lucretius clearly states that in total, the forces of creation prevail over the forces of destruction, or the universe would have long ago ceased to exist. If “closed system” conflicts with this, then I would say it is not. Only in the verbal sense of defining universe as “all that there is” would I think the term could be used, and even there it would be necessary to stipulate that “closed” does not mean numerable. I do not claim expertise in this so correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think it is a good idea to talk in terms of observable universes because an infinite universe is going to be infinitely larger than that which is observable to us.

Hiram. Right, if the universe is really infinite, and if so is the number of atoms, then the question of exhaustion of particles and entropy can be in theory overruled because there is no end.

Alexander. The universe is closed, according to the Epistle to Herodotus. Nothing can enter or exit it, but that does not mean the universe will run out of motion or particles (energy). The cosmos we live in will die (reach particle equilibrium) and no further change will occur in it.

Cassius. As I reread what you wrote, Elli, I think we are together. There are innumerable kosmoi …

Elli. We read that this imperishable being has the feeling of pleasure, for it is happy! If this being had not the feeling of “pleasure”, that would be against the Nature. Wouldn’t it?

Principal Doctrine 1. Any being which is happy and imperishable neither has trouble itself, nor does it cause trouble to anything else. A perfect being does not have feelings either of anger or gratitude, for these feelings exist only in the weak.

Do you know, Cassius, that in ancient Greek language PD1 continues: Elsewhere he (Epicurus) says that the gods are perceived by the mind, that some were subjected by number (ie. as individualities), others as their likeness that was formed from the continuous (prosthetics) flow of identical images which end up in the same place, (and that they are) anthropomorphic … (?)

Cassius. Also we have to remember that Epicurus was always constructing plausible alternative explanations, and stating clearly that any number of alternatives consistent with our limited evidence, and not contradicted by our limited evidence, may be part or all of the truth. So by definition with our limited evidence it would be improper to assert that only one explanation can fit the bill where multiple explanations also fit the evidence.

Good point, Elli. He clearly was talking not just imperishable but also “happy”, and that surely implies consciousness …

Elli. Is it true that particles and the void exist all over the kosmoi? Why did Epicurus place the gods in “metacosmia”? This means between the kosmoi. If a sentient being lives between the kosmoi, and it is happy and pleased—as it maintains its energy internally–how can they communicate with other kosmoi and send identical images to us? That is, how does the mind perceive their images? My mind goes to the particles only. These can end up in the same place and be anthropomorphic too.

Alexander. Yes. If they are “between the kosmoi” then it is impossible to bidirectionally communicate to entities within the cosmos, but not impossible to have one way communication from the far past arrive into the future of a cosmos as long as the universe is expanding. Eventually it will be impossible. For example today we have evidence of the birth of our cosmos, but in half a million years, no living being will have access to that fact. The cosmos will look unborn to them.

In the same way, a god could have transmitted a broadcast 12 billion years ago and that could arrive here but the expanding cosmos prevents communicating back. Eventually the god is forever kept from interacting with us too. Even one way communication eventually fails to keep up to the expansion rate.

Elli. “Even one way communication fades”. Alexander, do you mean that they can’t send images and we can’t send our images back?

Alexander. Yes. Eventually the distance and the separation velocity is too large to be overcome even by the fastest particles. Even the unsurpassable particles. Photons.

Elli. Is there somewhere in the kosmoi any other velocity faster than light? In my opinion: yes, our mind, which can run anywhere faster than light. This means that we can imagine everything. So if the gods can perceived by the mind, and if we connect them with justice as Diogenes said … but now, as we know, “justice” is not something that can be perceived by the mind, only Plato said that. So, the perception of the gods is totally useless for human beings and provides no benefit to live a pleasant and untroubled life. Epicurus was right to place them in metacosmia! No communication, just images of our imagination. As Liantinis explained and said it: “GHOSTS are the gods for Epicurus”.

Alexander. I think I agree with your conclusion, but not the premise of faster than light minds. Mind is matter. Our brain neurons communicate by the exchange of ions. Ions are electrically charged chemical elements with significant mass and inertia, but the electrical charges they have are mediated by photons. These are the fastest and lightest elementary particles. Our imagination takes short cuts, and does not generate reliable complete images, and hence can “leap” to conclusions. The conclusions might be wrong.

Elli. Alexander can you tell me please, if the scientists managed to see and watch the particles? Because an Epicurean friend somewhere wrote that we did not see them yet, and we perceive them only by the mind as we perceive the gods!

For the record, there is this and this.

Alexander. Animal/human eyes see by photon collisions changing the shape of retinal molecules that transduce electrical charge. No eye or instrument is capable of seeing chemical elements by photon collisions, of the kind that eyes are sensitive too. It is impossible. Epicurus was right.

However we can collide electrons off of chemical molecules and large atoms. If we collide many many electrons off chemicals and observe their ricochet patterns we can deduce their shape and density. People say “we photographed” the chemical, but its not photography by photons. These instruments are called electron microscopes. “Electrography”.

We can also deduce the shape of some molecules by bombarding them with x-ray photons and observing the patterns of reflected photon on xray sensitive photographic paper.

Epicurus taught us that all sensation is by “touch”. That is why we collide particles with the target that we hope to learn about. The photons that human eyes can detect are not suitable for detecting chemicals. They are even less suitable for seeing elementary particles.

There are three types of “scattering events”. They are:

1. collision
2. emission
3. absorbtion

Epicurus knew this. Collision means that the projectile particle that has been emitted in the direction of a target body is repulsed when it comes near the target body under investigation. This is “touching”. If there is no repulsion, there is no “touching” and there cannot be sensation.

Regarding the forces of creation and destruction. On the Universal scale the creative forces exceed the destructive ones, but not on smaller scales.

I take this as self evident. I mean of the four known forces gravity is always attractive (creative) and the others have both attractive and repulsive actions that cancel, on average, when summed at long distances. At Universal scales gravity dominates despite the fact that at short scales it is the weakest.

Elli. How many things I learn from you, Alexander, and how happy you make me when you say that “Epicurus knew this”! We are “touching” his philosophy, and keeping in touch with each other. I am really so proud for my Epicurean friends all over the world.

I wish to finish my life in that moment when Epicurus’ philosophy helps and gives many people mental balance, as he gave to me. Next year I will start to write a book addressed to my unborn grandchildren. They have to learn everything that I did not know in my childhood, when darkness covered the light of pleasure and happiness. I will write down the punishments from my “teacher” of theology. I still remember his red face, how he goggled his eyes, and that steam in his ears when I asked him questions and I didn’t get the right answers.

And thus ends the record of our dialogues on the Epicurean Gods.

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Atoms Here, Atoms There, Atoms Everywhere: Fields or Particles?

Yesterday, I read a document published by John Avery that says that “force fields and space are the only things that exist”. He wrote that in a document he shared as a Neo-Epicurean Epitome. It begins as follows:

 A Neo-Epicurean Epitome
 
1. Sub-atomic force fields and space are the only things that exist.
2. All other things (such as trees, people, and historical events) are temporary attributes of theseforce fields and space. These compound objects have formed over 13.8 billions of years of trialand error in the natural world and one million years in the human world.

 

After reading that I immediately stopped reading and thought to myself: “An Epicurean has given up on particles when there is no need to do so. Oh no!” The next thought I had was that particle physicist Victor Stenger argues that:

  1. Quantum Field Theory fields and the particles of the Standard Model of Particle Physics are actually a unity and not at odds. The fields are theoretical parts of the model.
  2. The Large Hadron Collider detects particles. See for yourself here.
  3. The phrase “trial and error” of John Avery’s second item fails to explain how the structure of composites arises. It’s sound too random, when in fact forces with deterministic and indeterministic components (an Epicurean swerve) describe the particle motions.

Not being exactly sure of what Victor Stenger wrote, I browsed my copy of his book God and the Atom (Prometheus Books, 2013), the blurb on which says (the bolding is my own):

This history of atomism, from Democritus to the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, chronicles one of the most successful scientific hypotheses ever devised. Originating separately in both ancient Greece and India, the concept of the atom persisted for centuries, despite often running afoul of conventional thinking.

In this book, physicist Victor J. Stenger makes the case that, in the final analysis, atoms and the void are all that exists.

The book begins with the story of the earliest atomists – the ancient Greek philosophers Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, and the Latin poet Lucretius. As the author notes, the idea of elementary particles as the foundation of reality had many opponents throughout history – from Aristotle to …

In conclusion, the author underscores the main point made throughout this work: the total absence of empirical facts and theoretical arguments to support the existence of any component to reality other than atoms and the void can be taken as proof beyond a reasonable doubt that such a component is nowhere to be found.

After reviewing the table of contents of my e-book, I decided to browse some chapters looking for clips to support my thoughts. In what follows, I use clips of Victor Stenger’s God and The Atom to support the idea that modern day Epicureans do not need to give up on the particles of atomism, and to “shout out loudly” that the Standard Model of Particle Physics is our modern day atomism which operates in the modern day space-time of General Relativity. First I start with a quick introduction to Atomism.

Atomism, Ancient and Modern

Epicurus’ Letter to Herodutus says (I’m paraphrasing) that bodies are matter and space, and that matter is composed of elementary particles that: bind (interlace), collide, unbind, and that some very fast particles are also emitted and absorbed as “images”.

It is our Epicurean position that Nature is composed of first bodies, called “elements,” … from them all things in the universe are generated… We Epicureans also maintain that the things that we see are real… The image that we observe in the mirror is proof that particles stream steadily from all things, … These images flow from all objects, and, because they impinge on our eyes, we are able to see external realities, and to have those impressions enter our minds …

And the atoms move continuously for all time, … others swerving, and others recoiling from their collisions. And of the latter, some are borne on, separating to a long distance from one another, while others again recoil and recoil, whenever they chance to be checked by the interlacing with others, or else shut in by atoms interlaced around them.

… these images exist, and that as they move they preserve, in some degree, their respective positions that they held in the solid bodies from which they came. Third, these images move with unsurpassable speed. …

— Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus
Cassius Amicus’ Elemental Epicureanism

Then again,

…when bodies are carried downward through void by their own weight, at uncertain times and uncertain places they push themselves a little from their course by the slightest of inclinations. If these bodies did not swerve, … But that nothing swerves to any degree case from the straight course, who is there that can perceive? … If first-beginnings do not, by swerving, make some commencement of motion to break through the decrees of fate, … For this reason in first-beginnings too you must admit that besides outside blows and weight there is another cause of motion… Weight alone would require that all things were overmastered and caused by blows from outward forces …The swerve exists; it has always existed; it always will exist.

— Lucretius, On The Nature of Things
Cassius Amicus’ Elemental Epicureanism

The Standard Model of Physics also has elementary particles that bind, collide, and unbind with each other, and these are called fermions (leptons and quarks). The Standard Model also has particles that are emitted and absorbed, these are called bosons.

The bodies of everyday ordinary human life are composites formed by fermions and space. These particles bind with each other to form the chemicals molecules of everyday matter such as wood, steel concrete, stones, plants, animals and human beings.

The particles that stream and form images in our mirrors are known as photons and they move very fast, at the “speed of light”. These photons impinge on our eye’s retina’s photoreceptor cell molecules, causing them to temporarily change shape, which causes an signal (phototransduction) to be sent down nerves to our brain where the signal is processed into perceptions and finally mental impressions. The resolution of our vision is limited by the size and spatial distribution of these photoreceptor cells, the perceptions and impressions are further limited by the brain processing (interpretation).

The observed motion (binding and collisions) of the fermions indicates that they are “forced” away or towards each other in a deterministic way (by the exchange [emission and absorption] of bosons). So the particle motion is not so random (“trial and error”), it has a large deterministic component, and a small indeterministic component to their motion (a swerve).

With the rise of quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in the early twentieth century, the “true” randomness inherent in the motion of all bodies became built into the structure of physics. Physicists had (almost) no trouble giving up the determinism of the Newtonian world machine.

Victor J. Stenger, in God and the Atom (Prometheus Books, 2013)

QFT fields and the bosons of the Standard Model of Particle Physics are actually a unity and not at odds. No aspect of reality may contradict another aspect of reality, as that would be a sign of error.

I quote and do not summarize Victor Stenger. Everywhere he writes “quanta” we can substitute “particle”.

The claim that quantum mechanics has revealed a reality beyond matter is based on the mistaken notion that two separate realities exist: discrete, particulate matter and a plenum that is reminiscent of the long-discredited aether. …. You will often see it written that abstract, holistic quantum fields are the deeper reality while particles are simply the excitations of the fields. … Unfortunately, many theoretical physicists have contributed to the impression that quantum mechanics has done away with the concept of matter. …[they] are expressing the Platonic view of reality, commonly held by many theoretical physicists and mathematicians…. The application of Platonic reality to physics is fraught with problems. First, theories are notoriously temporary. We can never know if quantum field theory will someday be replaced … Second, as with all physical theories, quantum field theory is a model a human invention. We test our models to find out if they work;… If there were an empirical way to determine ultimate reality, it would be physics, not metaphysics. Third, quantum fields all have quanta that we associate with the so-called elementary particles. In relativistic quantum field theory, which is the fundamental mathematical theory of particle physics and the basis of the standard model, each quantum field has an associated particle called the quantum of the field. These are the elementary particles of the standard model. The photon is the quantum of the electromagnetic field. The Higgs boson is the quantum of the Higgs field. The electron is the quantum of the Dirac field. I know of no proven example where a quantum field exists without its quantum. Particles are just as much building blocks of our theories as fields. In fact, they are the same building blocks. There are no exceptions. For every field, we have a particle; for every particle, we have a field. So it is incorrect to think that field and particle exist as separate realities. … We have… a field-particle unity.

Now, those who read the popular literature might have received the impression that, in fact, modern physics has not confirmed the picture of atoms and the void or perhaps even refuted it. … Now, maybe Democritus did not imagine quarks. But he imagined material particles, and quarks are material particles. The “new realm of entities” uncovered in modern physics is hardly beyond imagination. They are imagined in the quantum theory of fields, although just imagining something does not make it real— despite what some theologians claim and what some physicists seem to believe.

Far from demonstrating the existence of a holistic universe in which everything is intimately connected to everything else, relativity and quantum mechanics (and the standard model that was built upon their foundation) confirmed that the universe is reducible to discrete, separated parts. No continuous aether exists throughout the universe. Light is not some vibrating wave in a cosmic medium but is best modeled as a beam of photons streaming through the void. Electricity is not some continuous field moving from place to place but is best modeled as a beam of electrons streaming through the void. (A copper wire is mostly void.)

Victor J. Stenger, in God and the Atom (Prometheus Books, 2013)

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