Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, and the swerve

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Lucretius‘s book, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), is an amazing work. Jasha Klein, tutor and one-time Dean of St. John’s College in Annapolis MD told a story of a close friend and eminent scholar—Leo Strauss, as it happens—who had only that one book in his possession for a period and read and studied it intensively. It repays such study.

One well-known image in the book is that of the atoms (of which all the universe is made) falling endlessly through the void in parallel streams. From that, nothing would happen, but atoms, as Lucretius describes them, will at times swerve unpredictably in their course, which caused collisions and, ultimately, the world as we see it. The swerve is typically used to account for free will, though a good case can be made (and has been made, in uncounted St. John’s seminars) that the swerve accounts for love—De Rerum Natura is, after all, dedicated to Venus.

Bill Darkey, one of my tutors, pointed out that, if the atoms were falling uniformly through the void, then on looking at them, you could not tell whether they were falling together or simply stationery—what you observe would depend on your own movement. But the falling is needed, because otherwise all the energy that drives the universe would come from the swerve. Since they are falling, the atoms have the energy of their own movement, which drives the reactions following the collisions from the swerve.

But that’s not the point—the point is that once again the movement of atoms is used to account for free will:

“If the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect—what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?”—Titus Lucretius Carus, Roman philosopher and poet, 99–55 BC.

Human free will might seem like the squishiest of philosophical subjects, way beyond the realm of mathematical demonstration. But two highly regarded Princeton mathematicians, John Conway and Simon Kochen, claim to have proven that if humans have even the tiniest amount of free will, then atoms themselves must also behave unpredictably.

The finding won’t give many physicists a moment’s worry, because traditional interpretations of quantum mechanics embrace unpredictability already. The best anyone can hope to do, quantum theory says, is predict the probability that a particle will behave in a certain way.

But physicists all the way back to Einstein have been unhappy with this idea. Einstein famously grumped, “God does not play dice.” And indeed, ever since the birth of quantum mechanics, some physicists have offered alternate interpretations of its equations that aim to get rid of this indeterminism. The most famous alternative is attributed to the physicist David Bohm, who argued in the 1950s that the behavior of subatomic particles is entirely determined by “hidden variables” that cannot be observed.

Conway and Kochen say this search is hopeless, and they claim to have proven that indeterminacy is inherent in the world itself, rather than just in quantum theory. And to Bohmians and other like-minded physicists, the pair says: Give up determinism, or give up free will. Even the tiniest bit of free will.

Their argument starts with a proof Kochen created with Ernst Specker 40 years ago. Subatomic particles have  …

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Written by Leisureguy

16 August 2008 at 9:04 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

One Response

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  1. My dear younger sister, now unreachable to me in her more atomized form, once bought me a copy of this book. It was in the mid ’70s, had a dark blue and redish-brown cover.

    Everything’s packed, and I’d like to see the version she used.

    1. Do you have a favorite translation of De Rerem Natura?
    2. Do you know who might have translated the paperback I have packed away somewhere?

    Thank you for your interesting sparkly post,

    Virginia Browning

    Like

    Virginia

    4 February 2010 at 7:03 pm


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