Through an essentially anti-Heraclitean approach, our attention will be focused on the physical and often substantially cosmological side of Heraclitean thought, which we will try to correlate with modern Physics and its problematic issues. Issues such as particle-wave dualism, symmetries, broken symmetries, matter, anti-matter or the prediction of the existence of subatomic particles, building blocks of matter and their characteristics, can be discussed under the light of Heraclitean thought, with the unity of opposites in the everlasting cosmic becoming as its core characteristic. This unity of opposites, in Heraclitean philosophy, offers from a methodological point of view, a very challenging framework for developing modern Physics.
As is well known, the core element of Heraclitus’ philosophy is the unity of opposites in the perpetual cosmic movement; a unity of opposites, that is not only realized inside the cosmic becoming, in the philosophy and in our philosopher’s life, but can be also recognized in his different methodological and interpretational approach.
It is noteworthy, that while the Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger1 argues that Heraclitean physical philosophy doesn’t provide an important physical aspect, Werner Heisenberg,2 also a Nobel laureate for Physics, famously notices that modern Physics is conceptually very close to Heraclitean thought and the reference to the cosmic importance of the Heraclitean fire, which Heisenberg identifies with the contemporary concept of energy.
It must be, surely, noticed, that a fragmented approach to the philosopher’s thought, a one-sided “naturalistic” insight, constitutes a sacrilegious fragmentation of Heraclitus’ unifying logos; it is an act, fundamentally opposite to the philosopher’s thought. As it is characteristically mentioned by Axelos,3 an arbitrary partition of his thought in Physics, Theology and Politics is, surely, no Heraclitean at all.
However, despite the dangers of this endeavor, we are often forced to enter roads that will allow us, for an instant, a systematic, though one-sided and surely fragmented philosophical study, continuously aiming at the unity of thought, through a synthesis of its particular approaches. Such a particular approach, focused on the physical – and essentially cosmological – aspect of Heraclitean philosophy, will be presented. It is this approach that we will try to connect with modern Physics, not so much through the detection of simple conceptual and semantic identifications, but rather through an alleged mental dialogue with the Ephesian, based on the methodological “paradigm” that he proposes.
Dialogue with Heraclitus
I wonder what would Heraclitus have to say, today, concerning the issues and deadlocks of modern Physics? It is the answer to this capital question that we aim at, using the above mentioned methodological “paradigm” of the philosopher, proving also the timeliness of his thought.
So, let us begin, presenting briefly, and as simply as we can, some of the most important issues4-6 that deplore today’s Microphysics. We briefly mention:
- The particle-wave dualism problem (concerns, for example, light and electrons), and naturally all the problems of the objectivity of the microphysical systems; problems that could be summarized using the capital question “What is the reality? Actual beings or a mathematical formalism?”
- The monistic problem, and the aim for a unifying monistic theory in modern Physics.
- The mutual interactions and transformations of all states in Microphysics, and the problems of symmetries and breaking symmetries, that often and mainly express concrete unities of opposite states and building blocks of matter.
- The causality problem and determinism, in contrast to randomness and indeterminism.
All these problems of modern Physics could be even more briefly expressed, using the key-words (or key-concepts): “ Symmetry, broken symmetry, harmony and unity of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum), change-eternal movement-becoming, monism-pluralism, scientific realism, law-necessity, determinism, indeterminism”.
Ι wonder again what our philosopher would have to say about these issues and similar other problems, that modern Physics has to face? So, let’s hear what the great Ephesian has to say7,8 :
“(…) all is divided and undivided, born and unborn, mortal and immortal, logos and time, father and son, god and right; hearing, not me but logos, we must admit that it is wise to consider that all is one” (fr. 50), and also:
“Conceive all and not all, converged and diverged, being in harmony and not being in harmony, and from all the one and from one all” (fr. 10).
Concerning the relation of the opposites (opposing states) to harmony, the Ephesian philosopher characteristically and comprehensively argues:
“The adverse directions converse and from the differences the best harmony” (fr. 8), and also: “The hidden harmony is stronger than the evident” (fr. 54).
A thought that directly refers to the harmonic unity of opposite states, which are involved, as obvious or unrevealed symmetries, or even broken symmetries in the changes and the becoming in Microphysics. The unity of opposites, causality and natural law-necessity, the cosmic becoming and the infinity of the universe are also “key-words” (or “key-concepts”), that connect Heraclitus’ thought with modern Physics.
So, what does our philosopher tell us about the eternal becoming in the universe, and about the deterministic law-necessity?
“This cosmos-order , which is the same for all, non of the gods nor of men has made, but it always was, and is and shall be an ever-existing fire, being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures” (fr. 30).
The “ever-existing fire”, that is kindled in measures and is extinguished in measures, is the eternal fire, that deterministically directs everything: “and everything is guided by Thunder (…) meaning with thunder the eternal fire” (fr. 64). It is the cause, the driving force for a becoming based on collision and necessity:
“We must consider war as universal, and that justice is a struggle, and that all happens due to struggle and necessity” (fr. 80).
In an eternal game closure and disclosure, uncertainty and certainty, forgetfulness and truth, obvious harmony or even invisible nature, that according to Heraclitus “likes to remain hidden” (fr. 123), is playing with us hide-and-seek. This eternal cosmic game, the wholeness of becoming, is what our philosopher tried to conceive with his dialectical thought, with his great unifying philosophy, underlying the capital significance of the unity of the opposites in the eternal cosmic becoming, and establishing this unity as the fundamental and major element of his philosophy.
The unity of opposites in modern Physics
Through an intuitive view of the world – entirely anti-scientific, according to the positivistic and neo-positivistic ways of thinking – the Ephesian thought filters into its essence, providing, with the theory of the opposites, a guideline, a methodological “paradigm” towards the understanding of physical phenomena. Exceeding unproductive dualisms, like “monism-pluralism”, “concord-discord” etc., passes with its fruitful thought – which is not entirely irrelevant to experience – from the knowledge of the becoming to its holistic approach. So, his dialectic view, which does not abrogate the scientific intellect (Verstand) but rather transcendentally completes it, does not solely act in a unifying way but it also provides a novel method, a “dialectic tool” for the prediction and detection of new subatomic particles, forms and correlations in modern Physics.
The particle symmetries and the broken symmetries in Microphysics, or the matter and antimatter issue (as, for example, that of an electron and a positive charged electron, which is a positron), constitute characteristic examples of the unity of the opposite states of matter and its different building blocks. Moreover, the study of the symmetries has also led to the prediction of the existence of new elementary particles and their characteristics. The prediction of the Ω- particle – within the symmetries study, that also includes the “strangeness” of subatomic particles – which is finally discovered, in 1964, in the 33GeV-accelerator of Brookhaven,9 could be mentioned, as a representative example. Furthermore, the mutual interactions between the elementary particles are an additional proof for the deeper unity on the basis of variation and contrariety.
How odd would then seem to us, a similar – to the frs. 10 and 50 – answer of Heraclitus, to the problems arising in modern Physics? How wrong would we be, if we imagined him say:
“Conceive particle and wave, electron and positron, matter and antimatter, determinism and indeterminism, confessing that is wise to assume that all is one, and that from all the one and from one all”.
Such an answer, which is not arbitrarily, a sacrilegious adaptation of Heraclitus’ philosophy, but rather its effortless continuation to our times, it seems also to agree – at least regarding the particle/wave dualism – with Bohr’s complementary principle. Moreover, in general, the concept of the unity of opposites is in the core of Microphysics.
According to Heraclitus, the unity of being and not being, consists the truth of Cosmos and the essence of becoming. This theory – that reminds us of the more systematically structured but, perhaps less dynamic Pythagorean table of opposites10 – was the model of Hegel’s philosophy, who tried, with its dialectic, to combine the opposites.11
Beyond any biological, social, sociological but also metaphysical extensions, the unity of opposites in Heraclitus’ philosophy poses, even indirectly, a very interesting, from a methodological way of view, framework, that, if detected and implied by Physics in time, would support its development more timely and efficiently.
- Schrödinger, E., Nature and the Greeks, transl. and edited in Greek by Th. Grammenos, P. Travlos – E. Kostaraki Publ., Athens (1995), p.79.
- Heisenberg, W., Physics and Philosophy, transl. in Greek by K. Konstantinou, Diogenes Publ., Athens (1971), p.83.
- Axelos, K., Heraclitus and Philosophy, transl. in Greek by D. Dimitriadis, Exandas Publ., Athens (1974), p.12.
- Heisenberg, W., op.cit. pp.51-59
- Powers, J., Philosophy and the New Physics, transl. in Greek by T. Kyprianidis and T. Tsiandulas, A. Baltas (scientific ed.), University of Crete Press, Heraklion (1995), pp. 174-185.
- Bitsakis, E., Einstein’s Demon (in Greek), Gutenberg Publ., Athens (2000).
- Heraclitus, Collected Works, introduction.- transl. in modern Greek by T. Ph. Arvanitakis, addendum by I. S. Christdoulou, Zitros Publ., Thessaloniki (1999).
- Vamvakas, K. I. , The Founders of West Civilization Thought (in Greek), University of Crete Press, Heraklion (2001), pp. 231-298.
- Brockhaus, Brockhaus der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, F. A. Brockhaus, 7te Auflage, Wiesbaden (1972), p.204.
- Boudouris, K., (ed.), Pythagorean Philosophy (in Greek), Athens (1992).
- Faraklas, G., Epistemology and Method in Hegel’s Philosophy (in Greek), “Hestias” Bookstore, I. D. Kollarou and Co. Athens (2000).
Joannis N. Markopoulos
Professor of Technology and Philosophy of Techno-Science
Faculty of Education, School of Primary Education,
Dept. of New Technologies, Mathematics and Natural Sciences,
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki/Greece
*This article, presented here in a revised form, was first published in Greek in the Greek Philosophical Review, 19 (2002), pp. 325-329.