Dissertation: Epicurus on Reductionism, Determinism, and Freedom

Dissertation director: R. J. Hankinson
Committee members: Alex Mourelatos, Stephen White, Dan Bonevac, Fred Kronz

Epicurus posits the "swerve," an unpredictable atomic motion which renders determinism false and saves us from fate. Because of this, it is often thought that Epicurus is the first philosopher to have discovered the "problem of free will" in something resembling its current form, and the first to offer a libertarian solution to it.

I argue that Epicurus is not a libertarian. The attribution of a libertarian position to Epicurus is both anachronistic and does not fit in well with the rest of Epicurus' philosophy.

In the first part of the dissertation, I show that the rest of Epicurus' philosophy is incompatible with the view that he is a libertarian. Epicurus is a materialist and reductionist. Only atoms and void exist per se, and all events are explicable in terms of the mechanical interaction of atoms. This reductionism is true in his philosophy of mind as well: the mind is identified with a group of soul atoms. It would be difficult to accommodate a libertarian version of agent-causation with such views. Also, given Epicurus' egoistic hedonism in ethics, he would not be concerned with the libertarian question of whether or not one is "really morally responsible" for one's actions, as long as the effectiveness of one's deliberations and actions is preserved. Finally, even if Epicurus were a libertarian, a random swerve at the atomic level is an unpromising basis for free action, and none of the past interpreters of Epicurus has been able to devise a cogent account of how the swerve is supposed to be necessary for Epicurus to defend libertarian free will.

In the second section of my dissertation, I turn to my positive account of how the swerve is supposed to preserve our freedom. Using Cicero's De Fato as my main source, I argue that Epicurus is an incompatibilist of a certain sort, but that his concerns differ significantly from those of modern libertarians. He is not trying to show that the agent "could have done otherwise" as a necessary condition of moral responsibility. Instead, he is trying to solve the problem Diodorus Cronus poses in the "Master Argument" and Aristotle addresses in De Interpretatione 9, the seeming incompatibility of logical determinism and deliberation: e.g., if it has always been true that there will be a sea-battle tomorrow, how can my deliberating about it now make a difference? Epicurus' response to this problem is similar to Aristotle's: he undercuts the determinist's arguments by denying that all statements about the future presently have a truth-value. The swerve is his means of doing so, since Epicurus thinks that causal determinism and logical determinism are inter-entailing. Given the swerve, there do not presently exist sufficient conditions for the truth of all statements about the future.

Unfortunately, the position I end up attributing to Epicurus suffers from deficiencies of its own and must ultimately be judged as not cogent. The correct answer to the Master Argument is that given after Epicurus' time by Carneades, one of the heads of the skeptical Academy, who argued that there is no incompatibility between the principle of bivalence and human freedom. What makes some statement about how I shall act in the future true now need not be some presently obtaining state of affairs that will, through chains of cause and effect, inevitably lead to my future action; it can be made true by the simple fact that I will freely choose to act in a certain way, just as what makes a statement about how I acted in the past true now is the simple fact that I did act in that way, not the present effects flowing from that action.

Nonetheless, even if the the position I ascribe to Epicurus is judged in the end not to be satisfactory, it has three great advantages over past interpretations: (i) it fits in better with the rest of Epicurus' philosophy, particularly his ethics and philosophy of mind, (ii) it has Epicurus responding to an already existing philosophical controversy, instead of anachronistically attributing libertarian concerns to him, and (iii) it has better textual support than past interpretations, since the De Fato is one of the only texts that we have that describes in any detail how the swerve is supposed to preserve our freedom.

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