Twelve Elementary Observations About Nature
Epicurus held that the faculties given to us by Nature are sufficient for us to learn enough about Nature to live happily. Happy living requires that we understand enough about how the universe operates to reach a confident conclusion about several fundamental issues. Among the most important of these is the question of whether the universe was created by gods to whom we owe our lives and from whom we must live in fear.
Through his study of the universe Epicurus reached a number of elementary conclusions, of which twelve were of particular importance. These twelve “elementals” are not speculation: they are provable by firm evidence based on true reasoning. We seek out and find this evidence through the three categories of faculties given us by nature, which are (1) our five senses, (2) our faculty of perceiving “anticipations,” and (3) our faculty of perceiving pleasure and pain. We analyze and reach conclusions based on this evidence through the process of “true reasoning.” True reasoning requires that we always search out and hold to be true those conclusions which are supported by clear and convincing evidence, and that we never hold to be true any conclusions which are not supported by clear and convincing evidence.
Because all of our faculties report to us their sensations exactly as they perceive them, with mixture of false opinion, we must always honor what they report to us. Even when they sometimes report information that is distorted by distance or other obstacle, their report is honorable, and no conclusion supported by clear and convincing evidence is ever to be disregarded as worthless. Error occurs only in the mind, and where evidence is insufficient to label an opinion as true or false, we must wait before forming a firm conclusion.
For our understanding of Nature we have no need to rely on any gods, priests, or supernatural claims. These sources of knowledge are false claims that do not exist, but what does exist are the faculties given us by Nature. Proper use of these faculties allows us to be confident in the certainty of our conclusions. It is on the truth of our fundamental conclusions about the nature of the universe, and on our understanding of the process by which they are derived, that the Epicurean philosophy for living is based.
- Matter is uncreatable.
- Matter is indestructible.
- The universe consists of solid bodies and void.
- Solid bodies are either compounds or simple.
- The multitude of atoms is infinite.
- The void is infinite in extent.
- The atoms are always in motion.
- The speed of atomic motion is uniform.
- Motion is linear in space, vibratory in compounds.
- Atoms are capable of swerving slightly at any point in space or time.
- Atoms are characterized by three qualities, weight, shape and size.
- The number of the different shapes is not infinite, merely innumerable.
The method by which these elemental observations are established is illustrated in Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. These elementals are not to be accepted on faith or on the authority of Epicurus. The only method on which we can rely to establish them is “true reason” based on the clear evidence of Nature, and not on opinion. True reasoning is a process which all men must master individually if they are to live happily.
This page will be expanded to illustrate the method here, rather than by reference to the Letter to Herodotus and De Rerum Natura. For the time being, the reader should note that for reasoning to be true, it must go no further than is justified by evidence from the five senses, the faculty of anticipations, and the faculty of pleasure and pain. Authorized Doctrines 22-26 describe essential aspects of this true reasoning process. Speculation base on “logic” or “reasoning” which is not firmly supported by evidence from one or all of the three faculties is certain to lead to error.
This list of twelve elementals has been reconstructed by Norman DeWitt in his book Epicurus and His Philosophy. A similar list has also been documented by Professor Diskin Clay in his work Paradosis and Survival.
Modern discoveries in physics would imply that new terms should be employed in place of terms such as “matter” and “atoms,” which were coined by the ancient Greeks long before men had means to look inside what we today call an atom. But it is a profound mistake to presume that Epicurus’ views are wrong simply because we have new terms to describe the smallest constituents of the universe. Epicurus was very clear in stating that his essential position was that, at some fundamental level, the universe is composed of elements that are indestructible and indivisible.
It is immaterial whether this fundamental indivisible level is best described as “molecular,” or “atomic,” or “subatomic,” or by any other name which might be given to observable phenomena. The essential point established by the “true reasoning” method of Epicurus is that at some point an indivisible level exists. No matter what name we may give to the phenomena at that level, any phenomena which is observable to the senses exists as part of our own universe, and was neither created by, nor is subject to, any supernatural forces.