Friday, March 18, 2016
An Epicurean approach to physics
I'm at the end of chapter 7 of Lindberg, and it's really hard to get interested in ancient science, to be honest. I get why it's historically significant, but most of it does absolutely nothing for me. The only highlight, interestingly, was Epicurus. Like Democritus, he was an atomist. I can't say a lot in favor of the evidentiary basis for Greek atomism, but Lindberg makes a powerful case for Epicurus' analysis of the problem: If all things are made of atoms, and (according to the Aristotelian paradigm of the day) it is in the nature of matter to fall toward the center of the universe (presumed back then to be at the center of the earth) then why isn't the world a perfectly spherical blob of atoms? Epicurus' solution was to include a bit of randomness, thereby preserving room for symmetry-breaking and also non-deterministic behavior (which Greek philosophers contemplated alongside the problem of free will). He was contemplating things that are still central to Big Questions in physics, and he was contemplating them for many of the same reasons that we do. Greek atomism may have been a happy coincidence of speculation that proved to be accurate, but Epicurus' analysis of the problem deserves the respect of even a hard-nosed modern physicist.