Lucretius: What it means to say ‘Nothing comes to be from nothing’

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of essays on Lucretius, an early philosopher who provides a link to “lost classics” through his epic poem “On the Nature of Things.”
The proposition, “Nothing comes to be from nothing,” is the fundamental principle of the system of nature that Lucretius presents in De Rerum Natura. The principle is of great antiquity, which is not surprising, because, on the face of it, it seems a matter of common sense, which may speak well of our species.
 I once believed that it was first employed philosophically by the ancient Greeks, until I learned that its speculative use is older than that, showing up in the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, key parts of the religious literature of ancient India that were composed about a millennium before, around 1500BCE. How the Greeks got it, I do not know. Perhaps each came upon it independently, guided in both instances by the structure of their respective languages, Sanskrit and Greek, which are of the same family, Indo-European, but also by keen observation of how things become.
The ancient poet-priests of the Veda did not suppose that “Nothing comes to be from nothing” is a self-evident truth; some of them denied it, and there was an ongoing dispute among them about it. Likewise, although he based his system of nature on it, Lucretius does not claim it as a self-evident truth. For him, it was an empirical truth, confirmed by experience, which leads to an important point. Philosophical naturalism is not an established religion; therefore, it has no dogmas. Its principles are hypothetical and experimental; they depend upon a careful observation of things, trial and error, and on a keen imagination.
The principle is often taken to be synonymous with another principle, that everything has a cause; likewise with the principle that everything happens according to a law or rule, or in regular order. But although these three principles largely coincide, their meanings are not quite the same.
In any case, these three principles overlap enough to allow us to use them interchangeably: Nothing comes to be from nothing; nothing comes to be without a cause; nothing comes to be outside of the law-like order of nature. And, Lucretius seems to have accepted them all. Yet, once, and only once, he admitted in the scheme of things an exception to one or all of them. The famous swerve of atoms — the random, momentary departure of atoms from their regular rectilinear course — is motion without a cause, according to no rule, an occurrence arising from no prior circumstance, hence seeming to arise from nothing. This will be the theme of the next essay.
Commonsensical though it may seem, the principle that nothing comes to be from nothing has significant contemporary deniers. A well-known physicist, Lawrence Krauss, denied it in a recent book titled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.” He goes on to explain that by “nothing” he doesn’t mean “nothing at all,” or that there is not anything anywhere.
He applies a more subtle meaning to it. He observes that in the evolution of the universe beginning with the “Big Bang,” which begins, as it were, from the very bottom of things so far as we can observe, we perceive things developing from aggregates to systems of lifeless matter, and then, when we come to our own planet, the evolution of life, a chain of beings of remarkable complexity and adaptability and novelty.
Now the evolution of things seems different from the generation of things, inasmuch as things generated according to a scheme of inheritance are in most respects predetermined by it, but so far as we know, universes are not the products of procreation except in myths. The primal stuff does not contain the well-defined seeds of all things within itself, and the process is not intelligently designed or guided, it operates blindly and without purpose; in the evolution of things, nature demonstrates a spontaneous creativity. There is no need of an intelligent designer, when nature does it all.
But, back to the principle that nothing comes to be from nothing, what did it mean to Lucretius? His thoughts about it are surprisingly cogent and fresh. First, it signified to him the orderliness of nature in the generation of things and of cosmic events. Flowering plants, animals, earthquakes, storms, all occur in regular order in spite of their suddenness, as often happens with storms. Chickens don’t spring out of crocodile eggs, water must be carried upwards on currents of air before rain clouds can gather to shower the earth. This orderliness is not a rigid system but an evolving process. Lucretius anticipated Darwin’s notion of descent through modification, whereby species are not unalterable kinds, but varieties that dominate for a time because of favorable environmental conditions.
Secondly, for Lucretius the principle means that there is always something. The universe is without beginning and end. It consists of two parts: matter and void, or infinite space. Matter consists of an aggregate of atoms, of a variety of shapes and sizes, although all too small to be perceived, and of an unlimited number.
Lucretius describes atoms as compound bodies made up parts of infinitesimal magnitude that are held together by an insuperable cohesive force, which Lucretius does not explain. Atoms are in constant motion. When untroubled, not disturbed by the impact of another, they move uniformly in a rectilinear path. But when they collide, they converge and move like streams of water running down an incline towards the same point, they form a moving mass, a vortex, which generates a world, and through a process of evolution that Lucretius cannot explain, but only describes, the sorts of things that inhabit our world arise and perish.
In the dance of atoms, as in children at play, or adults at work, rules or covenants are seized upon, and attain the status of laws of nature. To identify these laws, and to describe how they operate and how regular classes and species of things are formed, as well as world systems that regulate the motions of stars and planets, is the work of natural science, for which Lucretius was here laying the foundation.
Lastly, the principle that nothing comes to be from nothing signifies nature’s conservation of its primary resources, atoms and void. Everything else rises and falls, whereby the death of one thing feeds the emergence and growth of another. “Raindrops perish when they fall into the lap of mother Earth, and then the bright crops arise, the branches upon the trees grow green, and become heavy with fruit … and we behold happy cities blooming with children and leafy woods filled with the song of young birds … young ones gambol in merry play over the delicate grass on their unsteady limbs, their tender hearts intoxicated with fresh milk drawn from the swollen udders of their caring mothers.” These are the wonders of nature and of nature only.

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