You are viewing squid314's journal

Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz - Book Review: The Swerve, Part 1 [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

Book Review: The Swerve, Part 1 [Nov. 18th, 2012|01:04 am]
Previous Entry Add to Memories Share Next Entry
[Tags|, , ]
[Current Location |On a train RIGHT NOW]

The Swerve by Steven Greenblatt is an educational and informative book, but in the end it raises more questions than it answers. For example: was the fourth century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus a time traveler, or an alien?

We think of science as a process of climbing up the shoulders of giants, each generation ascending higher than the one before. Lone geniuses can occasionally make great discoveries, but even they must await experimental confirmation before going further or else they will inevitably fly off course, error compounding upon error until they are lost forever in the outer void.

Except Epicurus. After being unimpressed by the philosophical speculations of his time - he lived just after Plato, and contemporaneous with Aristotle - he bought a little garden in Athens and hung out there trying to piece together the mysteries of the universe by reason alone.

He decided that the world was made of tiny particles he called "atoms" after the Greek word for "indivisible". Although Democritus and others had previously pushed this idea, Epicurus took it much further. He said there were many different types of atoms, and these combined and stuck to each other to form various compounds. Atoms were always in motion; even the atoms in solid objects were vibrating among themselves. There were no absolute space and time, merely spatial and temporal relations between atoms. Space and time had smallest possible units, but atoms were much larger than these and they were not a significant factor in atomic physics. And most intriguingly, atoms sometimes experienced clinamen: an unpredictable and nondeterministic tendency to change locations ever so slightly.

But Epicurus didn't stop just because he had invented atoms, molecules, relativity, and quantum indeterminacy three centuries before Christ. He went on to say that the universe was made mostly of void, that within the void were millions of worlds, that many of these worlds had life on them, and that the Earth held no special place in the Universe. Since he mentioned life, he proposed that the first life-forms had come about as random arrangements of atoms, and that other more complicated life-forms evolved from these first forms by natural selection. Humans were merely another life-form that had evolved in this way, albeit the most advanced and rational. They originated as primitive hunter-gatherers, but formed more complicated societies when they realized the advantages of the rule of law, eventually creating the complicated city-states and empires of his own day.

And since coming up with evolution by natural selection back while the rest of the world still thought Aristotle's hylomorphic dualism was a cool idea wasn't enough for Epicurus, he went on to bring philosophy forward - I was going to say two thousand years, but I really don't know how many years since most of the world still hasn't caught up to him. He began by saying that the gods, if they existed at all, were as far beyond mankind as we are beyond insects and have zero interest in our affairs. He denounced religion as fearmongering and a great social evil. He declared that the soul was just another bodily organ and did not survive death, and that death was indeed a simple end. And he topped it all off by saying that the greatest good was pleasure and the greatest evil was pain and that by the Golden Rule we should make our own lives as happy as possible and try to help others do the same.

His practical ethics - his ability to live his own life contently and in accordance with his own ideals - seemed pretty good too. Wikipedia quotes the following as the last letter he ever wrote:
I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by [painful kidney stones], and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.

(of course, if he really was a time traveler or an alien, this was probably just his cover story to go back to his home planet. Maybe that's why he sounded so happy.)

Before he died, he started a rationality cult. He turned his garden into the center of a community of friends dedicated to helping each other live as happy a life as possible. Unlike Aristotle and all the other philosophers of his day, he happily let women and slaves join his group as the equals of free men. Understanding the importance of ritual in people's lives, he told his cult to observe a joyous annual festival: his own birthday. In anyone else I would call this hubris. Given his accomplishments, I'm prepared to allow it.

Were his accomplishments genuine? By this I mean - there is a method of criticism which looks for modern insights in ancient works and inevitably finds them. For example, the Bible, in claiming the world had a beginning and that this beginning took the form of light, clearly was a divinely inspired work that anticipated the Big Bang millennia before modern science was able to reach the same conclusion. This form of argument is profoundly annoying. Any work no matter how bizarre will vaguely resemble modern science in some way. Thales said that all was water, but he just meant to assert the false fact that all was water. He wasn't prefiguring the modern discovery that hydrogen is the most basic element in the Universe.

But Epicurus' ideas seem to not only resemble modern science, but to resemble it for the right reasons. The philosophers of his day were obsessed with the question of the relationship of matter and form - hence Platonic and Aristotelian forms. Epicurus correctly saw that the solution to the puzzle was that objects were composed of tiny particles smaller than themselves, which could be of only a few varieties themselves while giving rise to all other objects through their combination. He understood that if there was nothing but atoms and void, there was no particular reason our agglomeration of atoms should be the only one or even a particularly special one, and so deduced the existence of other planets by something like the Copernican Principle. Even his weirdest discovery, his quantumesque clinamen, was for the right reasons: he said that if the universe was originally created as a perfectly uniform "soup" of atoms following deterministic laws, it could never become differentiated unless the atoms somehow ended up in different places despite their original starting conditions. As far as I know this is how the universe ended up differentiated; quantum fluctuations in the pre-inflationary universe that got magnified into the gross structure we see today.

To be fair, he also got some things wrong. He located the mind in the chest instead of the brain, in accordance with the prevailing beliefs of his day. His theory of vision was kind of silly, although less silly than those of the medievals. And his theory of earthquakes involved wind rushing through underground caves. But if you think about it, this isn't so bad when you consider that as recently as two years ago prominent Iranian clerics believed that earthquakes were caused by God getting angry at women wearing slutty clothes. At least Epicurus was on the right track. This seems to be the take-home lesson here: that once you really really understand on a gut level the basic materialistic worldview, the rest follows, if you'll excuse the pun, naturally. Once you stop being Plato and thinking that everything must be a shadowy reflection of some more perfect world of forms, and you stop being Aristotle and believing that everything happens to achieve some goal, and you just accept that the stuff you see is the stuff there is, then you can get quantum physics in 300 BC.

Except that he also claimed, mysteriously, that the sun is "only about as big as it looks". I'm not even sure what this means. Sounds like some kind of elaborate troll.

Vastly more later.

[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-11-18 06:51 am (UTC)


Book was good, and made medieval bookhunting surprisingly interesting, with a sideline in handwriting reform, which after some steps led to my using Garamond for everything.

He is cool, though I think you give him too much original credit on the physical side of things; do you have a source? We don't have much surviving from Democritus, but I've always seen the 'swerve' as the only original Epicureanism, with the rest being Democritus. (Edit: Democritus thought 'weight' was a secondary property, not intrinsic to the atoms.) And the motivation wasn't necessarily good: it was to make room for "free will", as if randomness was free will. Bad philosophy!

He wasn't original on the hedonistic philosophy bit, either; Democritus was "the laughing philosopher" to the Greeks, and a book I looked at years ago (_Democritus, Epicures, and the Pre-Socratics_, or maybe Pre-Atomics? I dunno) said, I don't know with what basis, that Democritus granted politics sucked but said you should get involved to keep the world from sucking even worse, while Epicurus just said you shouldn't get involved. Of course Democritus lived while democracy was developing, while Epicurus lived under the Macedonian bootheel.

And I think the proto-natural selection -- it doesn't have the refinement of Darwin, just a vague "random animals and the bad ones die" -- comes from another philosopher, A-something. (Lots of those.) Give Epicurus credit for knowing what to steal, though.

Democritus is said to have thought the Milky Way was a bunch of stars too far away to see. Of course, at this point we can just dub Democritus our time traveling alien instead.

And this all led to Lucretius and the only epic poem about physics and de facto atheism, which had even detractors like Cicero praising its Latin.

Even in childhood I felt I was a Democritan/Epicurean, and that this wasn't an entirely good thing; great physics and private morality, but public disengagement fails the optimal outcomes test.

For one of my last grad school papers, a Hofstadter class on "Mind and the atom", early philsophy stuff, I had fun reversing things, arguing that Heraclitus ("the weeping philosopher", "everything is change and fire") was right instead. After all, atoms aren't indivisible or immutable, and his 'fire' was obviously just what we'd call energy, the ultimate cosmic currency.

Edited at 2012-11-18 07:28 am (UTC)
From: Ray Perlner
2012-11-20 01:45 am (UTC)


"And I think the proto-natural selection -- it doesn't have the refinement of Darwin, just a vague 'random animals and the bad ones die' -- comes from another philosopher"

I think Empedocles was the first to propose something like that.
[User Picture]From: Risto Saarelma
2012-11-18 09:02 am (UTC)


The graphic novel Epicurus the Sage by William Messner-Loebs and Sam Kieth is a fun romp that sets Epicurus as a straight man with quite modern day sensibilities against the weird stuff from Greek mythology that keeps embarrassingly popping up into existence. Not very serious overall, but it does seem to pick up on the idea that Epicurus had strangely modern and reasonable ideas compared to his Greek contemporaries.
[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2012-11-18 11:26 am (UTC)


It is very good fun. Sadly, completely out of print now.
[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-11-18 04:42 pm (UTC)


It is fun, though it has the same respect for historical accuracy -- or anything -- as Xena, Warrior Princess.

"He even walks like Democritus".

Out of print maybe but I was able to find copies easily online. I mean to order, not scans.
[User Picture]From: James Babcock
2012-11-18 04:57 pm (UTC)


> Understanding the importance of ritual in people's lives, he told his cult to observe a joyous annual festival: his own birthday. In anyone else I would call this hubris. Given his accomplishments, I'm prepared to allow it.

February 4th, by the way. The nearest competing holiday is groundhog day which, despite being a cool movie, is pretty clearly antireductionist.
[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-11-18 08:35 pm (UTC)


Hm. I was going to link to this article about how "The Swerve" is a whole lot of nonsense, but then this post went off in an entirely different direction.
From: Ray Perlner
2012-11-20 02:06 am (UTC)


I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. On one hand, secular writers do often exaggerate and oversimplify history to make their points. On the other hand, I can't really reconcile "there were never any dark ages" type views with the fact that the vast majority of the science and math I've learned about in school either comes from the Hellenistic era, or from the 1500s or later, with precious little in between, despite the intervening period representing quite a long period of time.

Those who claim that progress was retarded by the intellectual dominance of supernaturalist/idealist type views, such as Neo-Platonism and Christianity, over empiricist/naturalist type views at least have a plausible mechanism for explaining the observed pattern, and it would be nice if opponents of these views would offer an explanatory framework in its place rather than just picking holes in particular examples.
From: farwideserenity
2012-11-18 10:07 pm (UTC)


Thanks a lot! Thoughtful and thought-provoking as usual. As I specialize in the ancient science and thought I too should say you give Epicurus too much credit. Nearly all the discoveries you attribute to him was made by Democritus and other Ancient Greek scientists and thinkers.

There was an interesting discussion of the subject in LJ concerned with Armand Leroi's claim that Aristotle was a biological genius
(Armand Leroi is a Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College, London, answers the question "Who is the greatest biologist of all time?": "the answer is absolutely clear. It's Aristotle." )

I pointed out there that S. Hawking (unwillingly) attributes the discovery of quantum mechanics to Aristotle

also that in the opinion of M. White

[Michael J. White: The Continuous and the Discrete: Ancient Physical Theories from a Contemporary Perspective. Pp. xiv + 345, 8 illustrations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.]

the math and physics of the Ancient Stoics clearly resemble modern math and physics (in particular - String theory)

Charles Hignet wrote in his "A history of the Athenian constitution to the end of the fifth century B.C.". Oxford. 1970

"The historical survey in the Athenaion Politeia resembles a careful essay written by a modern research student who brings to his task much industry but no judgement"

The rest is in Russian :(