Reasonings About Epicurus’ On Nature (Book 18): Against the Use of Empty Words

The video Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words is inspired in this writing.

One must rely on sharpness of perception to separate the notions of nature from those that are designed with difficulty or obscurity … Pay full attention to the power of the empirical reasoning. – Epicurus, On Nature, Book 18

The above mentioned volume was originally the 18th section of a series of talks given to an audience by Epicurus himself and was written between 296/295 Before Common Era.

The book invites us to call everything by its name based on empirical evidence whenever possible and to avoid empty words. Another founder of this tradition, Polyaenus, devoted a treaty to Definitions. The idea is that every word that is used must have a clear correspondence in nature, in reality, as is evident to our faculties.

The result of this doctrine is that the first Epicureans often changed the names of things with empirical justification, so that the words were in line with the things signified and with their own descriptions. The notion of the inconceivable is derived from this process because in order to refer to something, we must first clearly conceive it. In the treaty, the distinction is also discussed between the knowable and the unknowable (i.e., what can and can not be known through the senses and faculties).

The practice of clearly establishing the definitions before starting a debate or philosophical speech also originates from this concept.

Epicurean Terms

Following this line of thinking, a number of terms are introduced and used in the treaty. Today, we often like to refer to terms in modern languages so that the meaning is clear.

The word epíbole, which can translate as focusing, means the concentration of sight or hearing on the observed object. It is listening, not just hearing. It is observing, not just seeing. Epíbole involves an impression (Greek phantasia), which is received from the perceived object.

Other terms used in the treaty are: conceptual knowledge, attestations or testimony, similarity (for when we reason about the non-evident, we must always refer to it by analogy with the evident and what has already been conceived and perceived), and conceptual process (by which an opinion concerning a being or imperceivable phenomenon undergoes the conceivability test).

How to Reason about Actions and Theories

As we can see, all these terms attach importance to evidence and things perceived. This is consistent with an atomistic, materialistic and realistic philosophy. But what methods are used to reason about actions and theories?

Epicurus says that we think empirically concerning the actions based on the results observed from any course of action.

Concerning theories that do not seem to have empirical basis, they can be destroyed if they are false (whether rational or not), either if some other theoretical view based on it is false, or if when we establish a link with the action, this proves to be disadvantageous. If any of these things happen, it will be easy to conclude that theoretical arguments are false.

The Veiled Father

Epicurus uses an example from the philosophers of other schools who like to carry out verbal juggling. To make a long story short, when asked whether it is possible to know and not know something at the same time, a man is presented with his father wearing a veil. This supposedly proves that it is possible to know and to not know the same thing (because the man knows his father, but does not recognize him when veiled).

Epicureans, and men in general in ancient Greece, were often confronted by the rhetors and the philosophers of logic who liked to play with words. Epicurus makes use of this example to show that one can not conclude a universal (in this case, that it is possible to know and to not know something at the same time) based on a particular example. To reach a satisfactory conclusion to a universal proposition, its truth must be 1. based on empirical grounds and 2. translated into practical behavior by the person who admits it.

Epicurus not only forces us to consider the evidence provided, but establishes a relationship between practice and theory, which should both be aligned.

Why We Must Call Out Empty Words 

In a recent Spanish-language debateI had with a Christian, he made frequent reference to an arbitrary ideal: objective morality.

Many Christians use this supposed argument to justify the need for God (which is distinct from proving his existence), and even Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, goes running after this specter invented by Platonized theologians to confuse people.

The idea is that there is “objective good and evil” (again, Platonic concepts whose definition is not at all clear as it would be observable in nature) and that in order for these to exist, there must be a God. That is the entire argument. Here are some of my answers to this fallacy:

It’s problematic when you speak of “good and evil” as Platonic concepts without contextualizing them. That means nothing at all. It can mean anything. For a Muslim, submission is good … and so is beating his wife, per the Qur’an 4:34. To a Westerner, both are hateful concepts. It could make sense to speak of “good and evil” in a particular non-platonic, non-conceptual way, but these goods and evils still should be described in detail. When we study nature what we do see is pleasure and aversion: a baby is born, and without being corrupted by culture, instinctively seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain. These are real experiences for living entities. Why then not speak of pleasures and pains, so that we clearly know what is meant when we speak of “morality” without juggling of words and without arbitrary authoritarianism?

… Because a supernatural moral theory does not include everyone and therefore can not be useful. People who do not believe in the particular religious beliefs of others will not be able to agree on anything. An objective morality can only be scientific, or based on the observation of nature.

… you never explained where you got this arbitrary criterion of “objective morality” and then you said that it comes not from religion but from God … you never confronted the Bible verses that show God as a grotesque monster and the dehumanizing and harmful effects that these defenses of religious morality have today. Taking again the example of Exodus 32:27-29, Moses has 3,000 people killed because GOD DIRECTLY supposedly commanded him, and then he praises the Levites for killing their siblings and neighbors for merely not sharing their beliefs. 3,000 people died that day, as under Osama Bin Laden on 9/11. If Moses were alive today, he would be considered a terrorist and would have to appear before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. How do you defend this “objective morality” that you say comes “from God”?

These discussions were accompanied by several other examples of atrocities committed in the name of religion. The debater never confronted the grotesque verses in the Bible, and we never even took the time to look at examples of the long bloody history of theistic religions like Islam and Christianity.

Nowhere in our observations of nature, no-thing gives indication that there is an “objective morality”: it is only hedonism, the pleasure and aversion faculties, that appears to be the closest thing to morality in nature (the debater admitted this) and appear to be essential components of what we could call our moral compass, and are observable and real in nature, direct perceptions of experience or, to use one of the neologisms we mentioned above: they are attestations.

Notice how theologians and their spokesmen use arbitrary terms (such as “objective morality”), never bother to define them, much less clearly and in terms observable in nature, and they run with these concepts and build castles in the air, and when one comes to realize one is being carried away by their arguments, entire audiences have been abducted into a fantasy world, or a paradise with 72 virgins, or some other religious or non-religious fantasy entirely divorced from reality, from matter, from the world.

So this is not how we should philosophize. Let’s put our feet on the ground and use the Canon. Inventing words that mean nothing to talk about things that are not observable in nature, dear friends, is called quackery, and Epicureans will always be repudiated for refusing to call it by another name.

The above reasonings are based on the French translation of Book 18, On Nature in Les Epicuriens [Bibliotheque de la Pleiade] (French Edition) .

Epicurus: Against the Use of Empty Words