[Marxism] quantum physics as metaphor

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Tue May 11 15:22:39 MDT 2004

From: Les Schaffer 

This does not address Les's question of impact on current politics; and it
is definitely funky old "physics", but I was once struck by the fact that
the difference between Democritean and Epicurean physics has at least a
superficial analogy to modern quantum mechanics and uncertainty in its focus
on the deviation of the path of an atom from a straight line, a sort of
"uncertain" deviation.

Marx goes with Epicurus , I believe.


Difference between Democritean & Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, Marx's
Doctoral Thesis


Chapter One: The Declination of the Atom from the Straight Line 



Epicurus assumes a threefold motion of the atoms in the void.(1)
<http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1841/dr-theses/ch04.htm#1>  One
motion is the fall in a straight line, the second originates in the
deviation of the atom from the straight line, and the third is established
through the repulsion of the many atoms. Both Democritus and Epicurus accept
the first and the third motion. The declination of the atom from the
straight line differentiates the one from the other.(2)

This motion of declination has often been made the subject of a joke. Cicero
more than any other is inexhaustible when he touches on this theme. Thus we
read in him, among other things:

"Epicurus maintains that the atoms are thrust downwards in a straight line
by their weight; this motion is said to he the natural motion of bodies. But
then it occurred to him that if all atoms were thrust downwards, no atom
could ever meet another one. Epicurus therefore resorted to a lie. He said
that the atom makes a very tiny swerve, which is, of course, entirely
impossible. From this arose complexities, combinations and adhesions of the
atoms with one another, and out of this came the world, all parts of it and
its contents. Besides all this being a puerile invention, he does not even
achieve what he desires."(3)

We find another version in the first book of Cicero's treatise On the Nature
of the Gods:

"Since Epicurus saw that, if the atoms travelled downwards by their own
weight, nothing would be within our control, for their motion would be
determined and necessary, he invented a means for escaping this necessity, a
means which had escaped the notice of Democritus. He says that the atom,
although thrust downwards by its weight and gravity, makes a very slight
swerve. To assert this is more disgraceful than to he incapable of defending
what he wants."(4)

Pierre Bayle expresses a similar opinion:

"Before him" (i.e., Epicurus) "only the motion of weight and that of
reflection were conceded to the atom.... Epicurus supposed that even in the
midst of the void the atoms declined slightly from the straight line, and
from this, he said, arose freedom.... It must he noted, in passing, that
this was not the only motive that led him to invent this motion of
declination. He also used it to explain the meeting of atoms; for he saw
clearly that supposing they fall] move with equal speed downwards along
straight lines, he would never be able to explain that they could meet, and
that thus the creation of the world would have been impossible. It was
necessary, then, that they should deviate from the straight line."(5


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