Archive for February 7th, 2017

Measuring atoms

February 7, 2017

Today in CoPhi it’s Democritus and the Sophists. But first, how about that Super Bowl? Less than a week, now, ’til Spring Training!


Democritus, the “laughing philosopher” (did we note that Heraclitus was the “weeping philosopher“?) doesn’t really sound like such a barrel of laughs. He urged repentance, preferred a “well-ordered demeanor” and, Gottlieb tells us, was broadly contemptuous of human folly. Was he laughing with us or at us? But you could ask the same of Mark Twain, who damned us, and Kurt Vonnegut (impatient, as previously noted, with our species’ penchant for unkindness). Is it misanthropic to deplore misanthropy? It’s not unfunny.
Democritus may not been a side-splitter, and he may have been wrong about atoms being unsplittable, but his general outlook was astonishingly ahead of the game even if “he simply made it all up and luckily turned out to be right.” He was a lucky guy indeed, living to an astonishing 109 and then “cheerfully” (according to Simon Critchley’s Book of Dead Philosophers) pulling his own plug. Before that, legend has it, he extended his life by inhaling the aroma of fresh-baked bread.

Some early Christians opposed atomism on the grounds that its explanatory hypothesis displaced divine fiat and jettisoned a personal afterlife (with persons and souls dissolved and remixed). That’s still the kicker behind lots of present-day science denialism, isn’t it?

Leucippus first influenced Democritus with the atoms-and-void idea. Later it was taken up by Epicurus, then Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, “the way things are“:

  • “All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.” 
  • O minds of mortals, blighted by your blindness! Amid what deep darkness and daunting dangers life’s little day is passed! To think that you should fail to see that nature importantly demands only that the body may be rid of pain, and that the mind, divorced from anxiety and fear, may enjoy a feeling of contentment!” 
  • Don’t think our eyes, our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead with… All such argument, all such interpretation is perverse, fallacious, puts the cart before the horse. No bodily thing was born for us to use. Nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use.
  • “What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.” 
  • “The atoms in it must be used over and over again; thus the death of one thing becomes necessary for the birth of another.”
  • The main obstacles to the goal of tranquillity of mind are our unnecessary fears and desires, and the only way to eliminate these is to study natural science. The most serious disturbances of all are fear of death, including fear of punishment after death, and fear of the gods. Scientific inquiry removes fear of death by showing that the mind and spirit are material and mortal, so that they cannot live on after we die: as Epicurus neatly and logically puts it: “Death…is nothing to us: when we exist, death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist.

Atomism grew up “when chemists and physicists developed sophisticated ways to measure material phenomena,” to lift them out of the murky realm of subjective and deniable opinion, and lower them down from the transcendent and resplendent but entirely invisible realm of eternal objects and indestructible objects. And then we learned to blow them up. Growing up is not necessarily the same as maturing. We’ll have done that when all our leaders learn to stop speaking flippantly about “nuclear options” that are nothing but MAD.

We mentioned Richard Dawkins’ rainbow the other day, today we’re invited to consider his related views on meaning and design (see Lucretius above). “Is there a meaning to life? What are we for?” We can answer those questions without reverting to superstition, thanks to what we’ve learned about atoms and the void ever since we stopped proposing fantastic answers to such questions and started charting the world’s actual (not alternative) facts. 


The great legacy of Periclean Athens is the value they and we (some of us) place on the ability to speak and debate persuasively, civilly, and sometimes disinterestedly. The old Greek sophistes, Sophists, the likes of Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, et al, shared that value to a much greater extent than is commonly conceded. They taught grammar, linguistics, rhetoric, literary criticism, music, law, religion, human and social origins, math, and natural science. Big History, some now call such a broad portfolio of academic interest. 
Their undeserved bad name seems to have come from the reigning animus people had to those early teachers for presuming to seek remuneration. Fortunately we no longer expect our teachers to live hand-to-mouth, not entirely anyway. Their deserved bad name, and the bad name of contemporary sophists, is not that they get paid but that they don’t themselves invest in truth for its own sake. They “could not care less about truth,” peddled “ruses,” sought to portray a mere “semblance of wisdom without the reality.” There are some academics and philosophers who fit that description, but you’re more likely to encounter them in law and politics.

In addition, Plato resented the bad Sophists for getting Socrates in trouble. Really he resented Athens and its too-clever satirists (like Aristophanes) for not discerning the difference between a bad Sophist, denizen of the “logic factory,” and a good Socrates.


Protagoras is the most interesting Sophist. What does “Man is the measure of all things” mean, if it means to embrace and applaud subjectivity? Does it have to mean an extreme personal relativism? Or cultural relativism? Or maybe something more innocuous like the view my old mentor Lachs calls “relationalism” – all things must be measured by standards and yardsticks actual humans can wield.  
“Protagoras apparently drowned in a shipwreck after he had been tried and banished (or in some stories condemned to death) for his agnostic religious views. He also wrote a treatise on wrestling.” (Critchley)

Some questions: If everything is composed of atoms, does it follow that there is no life after death? Does atomism in fact “liberate [us] from superstition, fear of death, and the tyranny of priests”? If thought consists in the motion of mind-atoms, can we freely think our own thoughts? Or are we passive spectators of “our” minds? What difference does it make, if particles are inseparable from forces and fields and bundles of energy and thus cannot be proved to be “unsplittable” (as the ancient atomists said)? Is it “reasonable to suppose that every sort of world crop[s] up somewhere”?

==
Happy birthday to Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbitt, Main Street, and the eerily prophetic It Can’t Happen Here, about a 1930s populist fascistic American demagogue who rises to power on a wave of popular discontent. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman… Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

Brian Greene (@bgreene)
The observable universe extends for about 92 billion light-years. No human has ventured farther from Earth than 1.29 light-seconds. http://pic.twitter.com/l7fdzsQocl

5:20/6:44, 61/65/52, 5:18

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