On Motion

The following is the conclusion of the book review of Thomas Nail’s Ontology of Motion, with links to all previous entries.

Intro: On the Subject of Definitions

Ontology of Motion vs. Epistle to Herodotus

The Tao of Lucretius

Gravity Versus Freedom

On Relativity

Lucretius’ Venus

To speak of particles in space is to speak of either stasis or motion. The ancient atomists decidedly solved this in favor of motion. Since space is empty, it offers no resistance, and therefore it yields, and particles move into this yielding space. Nail states:

“The atoms,” Epicurus writes, “move continuously for all time.” Their movement has no origin and no end, no God and no immortal soul. There is only matter in motion. There are no static phenomena to appear to a stable observer but only kinomena, or bodies in motion. All of being is produced by a curvature in the flows of this motion that subsequently generates a series of spiral vortexes that appear as solid discrete material. Stability and stasis are therefore products of a more primary vortical movement.

While poetically referring to how Lucretius observed a “mote of dust dancing in a ray of light” of the Sun, Nail claims that Lucretius invented Brownian motion (page 184-5), but it’s very likely that the source for this is originally in Epicurus’ books On Nature. The above quote from Epicurus–on how particles move continuously for all time–should suffice to trace back the origin of this doctrine.

A Scientific “Animism”

While reading Nail, it became clear to me that the swerve–the doctrine that particles exhibit chaotic movement–was meant not just as a tool to explain the observable nature of things, but also as a resource against superstition and animism–the belief that all things are animated, have spirit and will. It’s meant, more fundamentally, to explain sentience and the animation of living bodies as a natural phenomena (rather than a supernatural one).

“Matter, for Lucretius, has within it an inner power of motion, since if it did not, material collisions would have to come about ex nihilo.” – Thomas Neil, Ontology of Motion, page 203

Matter is autonomous and pedetic (that is, chaotic in its movement); it moves on its own and requires no animating force–whereas in animism, there IS an animating force, a Platonized “spirit” that is supposed to exist “outside of nature”. The movement of matter is instantaneous, ergo no gods or movers are needed. Motion is an inherent property of particles. It’s not supernatural, but natural.

And so Neil points the finger at one of the great projects of Epicurean philosophy: to redefine phenomena that are observable in nature but that have often produced awe or inspired superstition in those who lack philosophy, so that the definitions of these phenomena are in accordance with  nature and science. It is here that the utility of poetry in Lucretius becomes most relevant. In page 198, we see that Neil explains how voluptas (desire) is the self-movement of matter (when bodies are attracted to other bodies), and a property of it. In page 199, he discusses the material nature of will: a “regional transfer of motion from one part to another“.

The author acknowledges the complexity of the subject. There are many wills and (conscious or unconscious) drives in the body (pages 200-201). Here, he echoes Freud’s and Nietzsche’s concept of humans as occupied or inhabited by many tendencies, instincts, and drives. But the key point to remember is that voluntas (will) is fully organic, bodily (which is to say, partly unconscious), not purely mental but material, even atomic, and ergo tied to matter’s chaotic motion. It’s only mental insofar as mind is an emergent property of bodies, but it’s not purely mental (which is how the idealists prefer to see the will).

The rejection of the Platonic designation of the mind as somehow being other-than nature is another front in the intellectual battle that Nail joins on the side of the Epicureans. This false duality is what produces what Onfray calls the great psychosis at the heart of Western civilization.

“By defining freedom in purely mentalistic terms, the philosophy of free will introduces two presuppositions that Lucretius rejects: 1. free will can only be an unconstrained conscious mental activity, and 2. free action must have a necessary and causal effect in the world. First, the restriction of the type of substance which can have freedom (the mind) is arbitrary, if for no other reason than that the mind is an emergent historical product of a long material process to which it is connected. The mind has no meaning independent of the matter which composes and supports it. The idea of an independent mental substance adds nothing to what we know of the brain. Mental activity is material activity and there is no reason to suppose that freedom exists only in one type of matter and not others.” – Thomas Neil, Ontology of Motion, page 202

There are several repercussions to the constant movement o matter. First, complexity is compounded by pedesis (chaotic movement) at all levels. In other words, this has a role in the increased complexity of compound bodies. The author (in page 253) presents us with the challenge to predict the movement of falling drops of water, which is never the same. Another repercussion is that “subatomic particles all move continuously, ergo have a frequency of some kind” (page 212), that is, their constant motion explains why particles behave like waves.

In page 223 we see a more dubious claim: “matter is sensitive and requires no mental substance to sense“. This one, I’m not so sure about, as sentience emerges from the neurological tissue of living bodies. Non-living bodies do react to each other chemically, but is this evidence of sentience? I don’t see this.

Motion also has an ecological role. In page 158, we see a discussion of entropy, and how we must understand entropy in light of there being an infinity of particles. Nature never exhausts itself, but keeps spending itself and forming itself into new things forever. Particles of the sun feed algae and plants, which feed animals, whose excretions feed other animals and the soil, which feeds plants, and so forth in numerous such loops. Because all beings are embedded into these cycles, their lives are both particular to them, as well as part of a process of inter-being. All the cells in a human body are recycled about every seven years.

Motion and Identity

One final note I wish to make on the book Ontology of Motion is that the author, in page 181, describes identity as an interval through motion. If all things are in constant motion, they are changing constantly and–like rivers–can only have an identity as changing things, as processes. This concept is worth elaborating further, as it fits into the ongoing materialist discussions on the nature of the self–again, not in the context of animism or superstition, but as a fully embodied, concrete self.

This concludes my book review of Ontology of Motion which, in spite of disagreements, provided me with enjoyable intellectual challenges, and a fresh perspective on the Epicurean classic On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius.

Further Reading:

 A Concrete Self
The Materialist Conception of Identity

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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