Tag Archives: atomism

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

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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