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Victor Nuovo on Lucretius: The how and why of things

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Posted on March 10, 2016 |
By Victor Nuovo



The German philosopher G.W. Leibniz (1646–1716), in a short discourse on metaphysics, asked the question, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” He considered this the fundamental question of philosophical inquiry, which was unavoidable in the light of what he believed was a self-evident truth and philosophical axiom that nothing comes to be without a sufficient reason for its being.

For everything there is a reason, and therefore there must be a reason why there is anything at all and not nothing. After all, Leibniz mused, being nothing is a simpler state, and therefore requires no explanation, whereas every something is complex, and this complexity requires an explanation.

The question has traveled far. For many it defines philosophy as a discipline, as a search for the ultimate reasons for things, even more, an inquiry into the mystery of being. It also has a lighter side; Voltaire mocked it in his novella Candide, which was made a Broadway musical with engaging music by Leonard Bernstein. Voltaire may have been closer to the truth of the matter.

Greek philosophers would never have thought to ask this question. Their concern was about how things came to be, not why a thing is, but how it is. For Aristotle, the primary metaphysical question is what it is to be something, to which there is a corresponding physical question, how all sorts of things begin, mature, decay and perish.

The Pre-Socratic nature philosophers premised their inquiries on the principle that nothing comes into being from nothing, and its counterpart, that things don’t degenerate into nothing, rather there is always something that remains throughout all change. It seemed evident to them that there is always something. They wanted to know what that something is, and how things originate from it. These were to them ultimate physical questions, beyond which there was nothing to be curious about.

Therefore, from its very beginning, Greek philosophy was conjoined with physics. Even Plato followed suit. The divorce of physics and philosophy is a modern event; it was part of a more encompassing separation, of the sciences from the humanities, depriving the former of art and imagination, and the latter of real substance, causing philosophy to become orphaned, a mere abstraction, an idle pastime, and higher education to lose its direction and purpose.

It is worth asking how this modern question originated. Its origin is most likely theological. During the later Middle Ages, theologians became preoccupied with the power of God, which they endeavored to define. Their motives were purely religious. Their chief desire was to magnify God and to show his supreme greatness.

So they attributed to God absolute power and absolute freedom, and they credited God with everything that power could or could be imagined to do. They supposed that whatever exists and the value of it is the product of the omnipotent will and the unrestricted pleasure of God. As the philosopher René Descartes would later observe, if it had pleased God at the time of creation to create mountains without valleys, then it would be so.

Leibniz wanted to rescue this notion of divine power from irrationality. His means was the principle of sufficient reason. A sufficient reason is one that requires no further enquiry; the “why” of a thing is all one needs to know to understand it perfectly.

He argued that such a reason could not be found anywhere in the world, only above and outside it, in the mind of God. He imagined a God endowed with supreme intelligence and a will motivated by perfect goodness, a Platonic God. Hence, God was able to conceive in an instant the sum of all possible worlds and to calculate and decide which one among them was best, which one combined the greatest good with the least evil.

This best of all possible worlds is the one that God created, for being supremely good and productive, he wanted only the best. It follows that, since this world is the best, everything in it must be for the best also, even the bad parts, including things rank, gross, horrific and cruel; hence the maxim that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

The early Greek philosophers were not troubled by such theological concerns. It never occurred to them that there was not always something. They wanted to know what this something is and how everything that we see about us originates from it. They supposed that for everything there is an explanation of how it came to be because nothing comes from nothing.

They offered several explanations of how this might work. One was to suppose a process, governed by fixed laws, by which the manifold contents of the world were generated from some primal stuff. Another was that the primal stuff contained the seeds of everything, which germinated in their respective seasons.

Finally, Democritus fashioned his theory of atomism. The primal stuff of existence is an aggregate of infinite magnitude, consisting of atoms, indivisible bodies variously sized, moving about in infinite space in infinite time. Democritus’ hypothesis, appropriated and modified by Epicurus, and clarified and celebrated by Lucretius, was the theoretical vehicle of the modern scientific revolution. It is the ancestor of modern physics.

Now it seems that neither Democritus nor his heirs supposed that there was any rule or set of regulative principles or laws of nature governing the random motions of atoms. Rather the regularities we observe, for example, in the daily motion of the sun, as well as in the generation of things by species, are all inexplicable consequences of an original randomness, so that, whereas materially nothing comes from nothing, yet formally, nature acting randomly produces regularities, as it were, by accident, or, to use Lucretius’ term, covenants that are operative only for a time and under certain circumstances; that is, as long as they were convenient, so that it would appear that Nature “writ large” produces itself, and that by itself, without purpose and through random trials, it creates worlds that display wonderful albeit unintended artistry.

In short, Nature produces itself from nothing. The workings of this process remained a sort of mystery until Darwin’s researches resulted in his celebrated theory of the evolution of species. As I wrote in a previous essay, naturalism is a way of viewing the world from the ground up. From that perspective, we witness unanticipated leaps forward and upward that reveal things rivaling and perhaps surpassing Plato’s realm of ideas. Nature is full of surprises.

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