Titus Lucretius Carus
And the Nothing that isn't
As old as recorded history, there have been people who
described the universe as infinite. Born near the year 100 B.C. the philosopher
Lucretius argued that space can never end, for what would happen, he asked,
if you throw a dart at the outer edge of the universe. "Wherever you may
place the ultimate limit of things, I will ask you: 'Well then, what does
happen to the dart?' The universe has nothing outside to limit it", said
Lucretius. We know today that space is curved, and so the present universe
can be finite if it is closed into a circle of some kind, but the point
Lucretius made still holds true. There are no walls or edges where space
It is interesting to imagine how Lucretius envisioned
the universe from his poetic writing. In his book entitled, The Nature
of the Universe, he writes:
If all the space in the universe were shut in and confined on every
side by definite boundaries, the supply of matter would already have accumulated
by its own weight at the bottom, and nothing could happen under the dome
of the sky -- indeed, there would be no sky and no sunlight, since all
the available matter would have settled down and would be lying in a heap
for all eternity. As it is, no rest is given to the atoms, because there
is no bottom where they can accumulate and take up their abode.
Lucretius viewed the infinite as endless and boundless, but
he always described it as having a consistent reality of space, time, and
atoms. He made the age old mistake of defining atoms as separate things
in an independent space. Albert Einstein would one day show that space,
time, and matter are interdependent, but you may have noticed that he recognized
the universe has no bottom or top, long before anyone knew anything about
outer space in a scientific way. It was his ability to reason out such
rules with argument, and his belief that such rules formed some basic eternal
reality, that gave Lucretius his place in history. In another passage Lucretius
Things go on happening all the time through ceaseless movement in
every direction; and atoms of matter bouncing up from below are supplied
out of the infinite. There is therefore a limitless abyss of space, such
that even the dazzling flashes of the lightning cannot traverse in their
course, racing through an interminable tract of time, nor can they even
shorten the distance still to be covered. So vast is the scope that lies
open to things far and wide without limit in any dimension.
The most famous quote from Lucretius was, "Nothing can be
created out of nothing." He deduced this from carefully observing his environment,
noticing that plants died without rain, that things needed time to grow
and required raw materials. He wrote, "Surely because each thing requires
for its birth a particular material which determines what can be produced.
It must therefore be admitted that nothing can be make out of nothing,
because everything must be generated from a seed before it can merge into
the unresisting air."
Lucretius in my mind is a great example of how science
often fails to acknowledge its heritage with philosophers. I have never
heard Lucretius given credit for developing the First Law of Thermodynamics,
which states that energy is neither created nor destroyed, yet he was arguably
the first to state the first law, deriving it simply from intuitive reasoning
and observing his environment.
The second great principal is this: nature resolves everything into
its component atoms and never reduces anything to nothing. If anything
were perishable in all its parts, anything might perish all of a sudden
and vanish from sight.
From the principle that elementary things are never destroyed,
or something never becomes nothing, Lucretius recognized that the universe
must exist some way in a forever time. He wrote:
If throughout this bygone eternity there have persisted bodies from
which the universe has been perpetually renewed, they must certainly be
possessed of immortality.
His cosmology was rather complete considering he lived two
thousand years ago. He derived the second law also, which states that a
system moves from an ordered to a disordered state, stating that all things
eventually return to their constituent parts, writing "nature repairs one
thing from another, and allows nothing to be born without the aid of another's
death. He even had his own version of the anthropic principle.
Certainly atoms did not post themselves purposefully in due order
by an act of intelligence, nor did they stipulate what movements each should
perform. As they have been rushing everlastingly throughout all space in
their myriad's, undergoing a myriad of changes under the disturbing impact
of collisions, they have experienced every variety of movement and conjunction
till they have fallen into the particular pattern by which this world of
ours is constituted.
One of my first questions in the development of my own
philosophy of time was, where did the world come from? I must have been
around eight or ten, but I remember asking how it began, arguing like Lucretius that time
couldn't begin from nothing. The answer I received was exquisite. I was
told by my aunt that a god that had always existed, God had existed forever, and had created
the universe. I had taken her by surprise, put her on the spot by asking her
such a bold question and I could see that she had improvised in her answer. I think she surprised
herself with what was a great answer. After that I remember thinking a
lot about the idea of God, or anything, having no beginning or end and
so existing in time forever. But I eventually realized this could not be
the whole story, because the answer still did not explain how something
might exist infinitely without having been created. All she had really done was
move the mystery of how something came from nothing from the universe to God, a
sort of slight of hand.
As my questions improved I realized no one actually knew
answers, they just chose to believe something. And not everybody improvised
as well as my aunt had done. Eventually like Lucretius I asked myself a
deep but most obvious question. How did the first thing come to exist?
In answering this question I eventually concluded that there could never
have been a beginning. My reasoning in this was simple. Before the first
thing there would naturally have been nothing, and whatever the first thing
was, it could not have begun from nothing, simply because there wouldn't
be anything to cause a change in the original nothingness. So if there
had ever been a nothing in the beginning then it would still be right now,
and would remain so forever.
I look back and laugh at myself because this led me to
the obvious conclusion of a young thinker, that the universe should not
exist. It seemed to me then that we really shouldn't be here, because everything
should never have begun, and so it seemed obvious to me that nothingness
should be here instead. And so I went around for weeks with that in my
head, believing completely that the universe shouldn't be here. Eventually
I just became amazed that the universe had somehow cheated past what was
unquestionably, logically true.
As an adult I came to understand a profound extension
of these ideas and it now seems the complete opposite is true. Rather than
it being impossible for the Universe to exist, I now realize it is impossible
for the Universe to not exist. There is no alternative to the existence
of a universe. I eventually realized that Lucretius and I were both wrong,
but only because there are two different kinds of nothing. There is nothing
and then there is non-existence. They are very different. Nothing is an
idea that refers to real qualities of the Universe. Non-existence cannot
be. By its own definition, there cannot be a non-existence. Now I realize
there is no place the universe is not and in fact the Universe is inevitable.
As an adult I did some research and discovered that Parmenides
and Zeno recognized that non-existence cannot be long before
I did. I have come to know that one gains a good deal of contentment when
this is understood. Is very nice to understand why the universe is forever.
A page called Why We Exist explains my own philosophical
thoughts and how I understand this principle which is a universe.
Find out more about timelessness at: