On Relativity

The following is part of my book review of Thomas Nail’s Ontology of Motion.

All motions are relative to other bodies or to observers. When one studies the nature of things, particularly considering that there is no center of the universe–only perspective–, it become clear that all things are relative. For instance, because weight is relative to gravity (and gravity is the relative attraction between bodies), gravity is redefined in the book Ontology of Motion as energetic momentum. There is no up or down if all motions are relative, only up or down as it relates to the dominant bodies in any given space. On Earth, the obvious dominant body is our planet.

“By weight, Lucretius can not possibly mean how much a corpora weighs on a scale. Corpora cannot be weighed on a scale because they are fundamentally insensible. Their motion yields no sensible quality of weight. Lucretius therefore must mean something similar to what physicists today would call energy and momentum … In contemporary quantum physics, weight, space and gravity are interrelated terms … created simultaneously insofar as weight is reducible to gravity, according to general relativity, where gravity is nothing other than a certain curvature of space-time.”  – Thomas Nail, Ontology of Motion, p. 191

When a car is traveling at fast speed through a noisy street, we notice the relativity of sound waves: as we get further from the source of sound, the sound wave is distorted. This means that sound waves, like all things, are moving in space.

The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
in scarce determined places, from their course
decline a little–call it, so to speak,
mere changed trend. – II-217-220

Similarly, time is relative: there is no beginning or end, only a constant motion or expansion of time. In page 197, Nail says that the assertion–attributed to the Epicureans–that “initially, the atoms were falling in void mechanistically, and after some time, there was a swerve” is an abstraction, a hypothetical. There never was such a time, it’s counterfactual. This makes sense, considering that there IS NO beginning to the cosmos. Nature has always existed. Instead, it is understood that chaotic, random serving motions are part of the inherent behavior of particles for all time. (As I said before, even this idea of “falling” is relative, as there is no absolute up-or-down, only momentum, which is influenced by gravity, which is relative to the dominant bodies in any given space). EH echoes this:

Tenth, the motions of the ultimate particles had no beginning point in time. We conclude this because both particles and space have existed from eternity, since nothing can be, or has ever been, created from nothing. – Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus, Section 2

The author further claims that space is relative to bodies, and that space only exists in this relation. Here, he is updating our understanding of Epicurean atomism in accordance with Einstein. In page 263, he says that space-time are a by-product of corpora (particles), while the ancients saw space or void as eternally coexistent, and time as relative, a relational product of them.

I do not believe Epicurus or Lucretius actually teach that space is produced by bodies–although, considering that all of nature exists as matter, the only way to understand space is in relation to it. As for time, in Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus we find that it is considered an incidental property of bodies. This means that it can not exist on its own, but only in relation to bodies, as an emergent property of them.

Although those qualities which are incidental are not eternal, or even essential, we must not banish incidental matters from our minds. Incidental qualities do not have a material existence, nor do they exist independently in some reality that is beyond our comprehension. We must, instead, consider the incidental qualities of bodies as having exactly the character that our sensations reveal them to possess.

For example, it is important to grasp firmly that “time” neither has a material existence, nor does it exist independently, apart from bodies. Nor must we think of “time” as a general conception, such as those conceptions which are formed by reasoning in our minds. Instead, we must think of time by referring to our intuitions, our mental apprehensions formed by anticipations, and it is in this context that we speak of a “long time,” or a “short time,” applying our intuitions to time as we do to other incidental qualities.

In evaluating time as an incidental quality, we must not search for expressions that we may think are better than those which are in common use, and we must not believe that time has any properties other than being an incident to bodies. We must evaluate time only in accord with our intuitions or anticipations.

For indeed, we need no demonstration, but only to reflect, to see that we associate time with days and nights, and with our internal feelings, and with our state of rest. These perceptions of incidental qualities are the root of what we call “time.”

– Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus, Section 7

In the above passage, it seems that our apprehension of time is tied to the canonic faculty known as “anticipations”. In today’s scientific language, this faculty might be best understood as our instinctive ability to observe solar light, and then attune our bodily rhythms to the planet’s circadian rhythms–a very primal faculty that must originate in the reptilian part of our brain, the most ancient part of it, as these creatures were generally cold-blooded and they depended greatly on the circadian rhythms in order to preserve their body heat.

Einstein, on the other hand, demonstrated that time does not exist as a thing in itself, but as space-time, and that it’s a distortion in the fabric of space caused by gravity (that is, by the interaction of bodies moving in space). Here is the Nail’s definition of time:

“Events do not happen in time, but they produce time itself. Just as corporeal flows do not occur in space, as we saw in previous chapters, but rather produce space through curvature and folding, the same is true of time. Time is the product of ordered sensations and not the fundamental or transcendental condition in which all sensations occur as such. Time does not exist in itself, as Lucretius says [tempus item per se non est, I.459], but rather flows [consequitur, I.460] from our sensation of things [sed rebus ab ipsis consequitur ssensus, I.459-60]” – Thomas Nail, Ontology of Motion, p. 111

Again, the author is mistaken in thinking that these ideas are attributable only to Lucretius because he seems to have forgotten to read Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus. Here, I wish to bring up the third Scholarch of the Epicurean Garden in Athens to demonstrate that this idea of incidental (or relative) qualities of bodies was one of the ideas that the Epicureans had to defend constantly from early on. In Irrational Contempt, Polystratus argues in favor of a moral realism, saying that “the beautiful and the ugly, like the pleasant and the unpleasant, are not the same for all creatures” and that they are relational qualities of bodies. When the human body encounter another body (or bodies) in nature that is beautiful or pleasant, its own nature apprehends the beauty (or the pleasure, etc.), and he compares this to how some herbs have medicinal effects on some people (who are sick) but not on others, or how some things (peanuts) produce allergic reactions in some people, or how only certain stones are attracted to certain other stones (magnets).

In this way, Polystratus argues for a relative morality that is observable in nature, based on the apprehension of pleasure and aversion–and he firmly establishes that these qualities exist in a different way from how conventional objects exist as atoms and void, but are no less real as they are incidental properties of bodies (just like time). Epicurean morality is therefore impossible to remove from its contextual roots in the canon and the physics: the entire doctrine is one, comprehensive and complete.

And so, we see from the beginning that, to the Epicureans, non-particle phenomena are explained with the argument that “some things can exist in a different way” form others, as Polystratus argued, with the intention of insisting that these relational (or emergent) properties of nature are no less real than bodies made of particles, and their existence is of course confirmed by our faculties.

The further Nail delves into quantum physics, the more obscure and esoteric his writing becomes. The author seems to argue for the multiverse as relativity at distances far enough. In other words, in an infinite cosmos where particles spread apart continually, time and space in one branch of the cosmos is eventually so remote that we can speak of there being other universes. Maybe? But if the laws of nature there are the same as here, then we could argue that it’s just another corner of the same universe.

I personally have difficulty understanding how another universe can exist in a “different space”, as the non-continuity of infinite space is confusing to me (this claim is made in page 263 of Ontology of Motion). Similarly, does Lucretius (in 2.1064-6) say that there are innumerable planets, or a multiverse? It seems to me that the author is possibly trying to accommodate multiverse theories into verses that make it plain that there are innumerable planets. For instance, in page 264 he interprets (very liberally) Lucretius II.1067-1076 (the doctrine of innumerable worlds) as a doctrine of innumerable dimensions–a highly speculative hypothesis is being imposed here upon a text that clearly speaks of exoplanets.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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