After doing some research on Heraclitus, I noticed that a few of his views are very compatible with quantum mechanics. For example, he is paraphrased as writing:

Into the same river we both step and do not step. We both are and are not.

Based off my limited knowledge of quantum mechanics, this can be viewed as somewhat compatible with superposition, in that the metaphorical river holds multiple states at once.

Are there any more such links between ancient philosophers and quantum mechanics? (Or more links in Heraclitus' works)

  • Welcome! Some of this ground has already been covered here; is there any chance I could persuade you to tell us a little bit more about your context and motivations here? What else might you be studying or reading that made this an interesting or urgent problem for you? What have you found out so far?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 20, 2011 at 21:01
  • 3
    In passing, my quick answer would be "probably not"; at least without further evidence, Heraclitus's assertion of a mystical principle of cosmic unity-of-opposites likely has very little to do with modern theoretical physics, but is rather something like a dark precursor of the sort of 'grand rationality' which would make quantum mechanics possible.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 20, 2011 at 21:09
  • @JosephWeissman Thanks for the link to the other question, I hadn't found it. I'm currently taking an introduction to philosophy class, and we're looking at a really wide range of topics, but coming from a science/engineering background my interest lies more in these kind of metaphysical topics than, say, ethics. Thus I'm doing some research of my own, partially for personal interest and partially because I'm looking for some potential topics to write a short essay on for the class.
    – jli
    Nov 20, 2011 at 21:12
  • I'm just closing this for the time being so you might have a chance to update the question to maybe talk a little bit more about your motivations and context
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 21, 2011 at 18:37

1 Answer 1


It is absurdly anachronistic to attempt to look for 20th or 21st century physics in the works of the classical philosophers. Heraclitus was not writing about superposition, he was writing about something else.

Now, I would argue that it is a worthwhile pursuit to attempt to understand what this something else is, but we're not going to be able to do that if we are attempting to reduce Heraclitus's thought to contemporary notions he had no knowledge of.

Similarly, while Epicurus, Democritus and Lucretius all wrote about atoms, their notion of atoms is very different than the modern notion, and one must be careful to keep this in mind when reading them. None of these thinkers was Einstein or Bohr; if they were, Einstein or Bohr wouldn't have been necessary.

  • I'm looking more for compatibility than actually intended links. I do agree with your points though, obviously the ancients weren't coming up with modern physical ideas.
    – jli
    Nov 21, 2011 at 17:46
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    @jli, but why? You still haven't told much about your motivations. What might you be reading or studying that makes "compatibility" an urgent or even interesting criterion? As Michael indicates, it's perhaps an injustice (or at least discourtesy) not to read Heraclitus just for Heraclitus rather than to find it somehow 'compatible' with modern theoretical physics -- which I'm still not exactly sure what that might mean.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 21, 2011 at 18:29

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