Lucretius' Materialism

Odysseus Makridis

Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe

Lucretius is an exponent of Classical Materialism. There are other more recent schools of metaphysics, which are also versions of materialism. Although classical materialism seems at times naïve in its scientific outlook, it is not altogether out of date. Classical Materialism is the standard variety of atomic materialism –[the view that all that exists if composed of matter; matter is constituted by combinations or juxtapositions of ultimate particles, which are called atoms and are solid, indestructible, ever-lasting, and indivisible; and – for Lucretius – all there is in the universe is just matter, and empty space or vacuity.

We will revisit materialism – and we will learn about more recent schools of materialism, including Identity Theory and Eliminative Materialism – later in this course, after we have discussed Descartes’ Meditations.

1) Lucretius expects his materialistic philosophy to inspire confidence and fearlessness and to defeat superstition. What does he mean by this? How can a school of metaphysics [philosophical theory of reality] dispel fear of death? How can materialism combat superstitious fear? [To fully grasp Lucretius’ point, you need first to familiarize yourself with his philosophical position. At that point, try to explain why you agree or disagree with Lucretius’ point.]

2) According to Lucretius’ materialism, matter is composed of atoms. Atoms are the primary particles of matter – they are solid, eternal or everlasting, indestructible, and, of course, [as the Greek name indicates, a-toma] in-divisible. Can Lucretius demonstrate that this is the case? What would count as a proof? [Remember, so far in the course we have seen four kinds of proof: A Priori proofs; pure A Posteriori Proofs (? remember Hume’s point on this); Proof from Analogy – as in the “Design Argument” for God’s existence; and Abductive Proofs – inferring from observations to the best explanatory theory we can think of at the moment. What kind of proof can Lucretius offer for the existence of atoms?]

3) Lucretius means to use his materialist metaphysics to explain – more or less everything! He means to account for celestial phenomena – including the operations of nature down here on earth – as well as human events. Can one and the same theory cover both kinds of phenomena – the operations of nature and human events? How is this possible? Can one and the same theory cover all there is to explain? Is such a comprehensive theory “better” than a theory that would seek to study one kind of phenomenon at a time? [What do we mean by “better” or “worse” theory? What kinds of criteria do we have to judge theories by? Does Lucretius’ metaphysical theory pass a test for being a “good” theory?]

4) Nothing can ever be created out of nothing, says Lucretius. He considers this as a major sign of superiority of his metaphysics over other, “obscure” and obfuscating, schools of metaphysics. What does he have in mind? Why does he think that accepting this proposition will help dispel religious superstition and fear of death? Do you agree or disagree with Lucretius and why?

5) To understand Nature, Lucretius says, you need to be able to grasp two things: a. the outward forms, and b. the inner workings. Is this a good foundation for a school of metaphysics? Can classical materialism account for both external forms and inner workings?

6) Lucretius has two proofs – they are really reductio ad absurdum arguments – for the truth of his claim that nothing can come out of nothing: a. If anything could come out of nothing, then it would be possible to have spontaneous generation or spontaneous emergence of beings; b. If anything could come out of nothing, then nature would not be uniform. Do you agree with the two observations, a and b? If he is right about a and b, does this prove that he is right about the principle that “nothing comes out of nothing”?

7) Lucretius compares atoms to letters of words. What does he mean? How useful is this analogy? Are there any risks that Lucretius can be carried away into making mistakes by over-stretching this analogy of atoms to letters? [Remember here how Hume criticized the argument from design.]

8) Here is an argument Lucretius makes to show that atoms exist: We know there are limits in nature – if there were no limits, there would be giants and gigantic creatures of all sorts, etc. Then, there must be limits inherent to the stuff nature is made of. Therefore, there must be a limit when you break matter down to subdivided parts – a limit beyond which you cannot divide matter. This limit is the atom – the smallest but solid and indivisible particle.

9) Atoms are indestructible for Lucretius – atoms cannot be annihilated. Here is a proof he throws at the reader: The source of destruction of things does not come from within. We know this because it always takes the appropriate kind and direction and magnitude of force to destroy something – to break it down to its constituent parts. How does this prove that there are indestructible and indivisible fundamental particles – the atoms?

10) How does Lucretius try to prove that vacant space exists? Why is it crucial for this theory to show that, besides matter composed of atoms, there are vacant spaces in the universe?

11) Here is one of Lucretius’ arguments for the existence of vacuity in the universe. [This is also a reductio ad absurdum.] If there were no vacuum anywhere, motion would be impossible. But, we know that there is motion in the universe – it would be absurd to claim otherwise. Therefore, there must be vacant spaces through which solid matter moves. Assess this argument.

12) A second argument for the existence of vacant spaces: If there were no vacuities, shrinking would mean that something would be coming into existence out of nothing. But we know that it is impossible for anything to come into existence out of nothing. Therefore, there are vacuities in the universe. Assess this argument.

13) What is Lucretius’ view of time? [See under section 9 in your reading.]

14) Events are accidents of matter, for Lucretius. How do you understand this? Is it consistent with his view of time?

15) Atoms are indestructible for Lucretius. Here is an attempted proof: If atoms were desctructible, everything would have been reduced to nothing by now – which is absurd, of course, as we know that there are still things that exist. Therefore, atoms are indestructible. Assess this argument.

16) For Lucretius, worlds come into existence and perish. Is this view consistent with his thesis of indestructibility of the atoms?

17) How can Lucretius’ atomic or particle- theory account for the vast diversity and variety of objects and organisms we observe in nature?

18) Two more attempted proofs of the existence of atoms: A. If there were no least parts – atoms – then it would be possible to keep subdividing material particles: it would be possible to cut a particle into two – to take ½ of the particle – and then again to subdivide each one into two again – i.e. to take ¼ of the original – and to subdivide again – to take 1/8 of the original, and 1/16, and 1/32 and so on and so on… There would be no limit to subdivision. But, then, says Lucretius, there would be no difference between the whole universe and the smallest of things – both would have infinite parts. Therefore, it is impossible that we can keep subdividing material particles for ever. B. Here is another attempted proof for the existence of atoms. We know that nature has a generative potency – nature can bring things into existence, can generate. This means that there must be some determinate basic material with which nature is working; by recombining determinate particles, nature keeps generating this bountiful variety of objects and organisms we see all around us.

19) How can Lucretius account for human freedom?

20) How does Lucretius respond to the following criticism of his theory? How can insensible atoms – atoms that cannot sense anything – give rise to sensations and perceptions and intelligence by just being combined together in certain ways?

21) There are three kinds of everlasting things for Lucretius: matter [atoms]; empty space; and the whole [the sum total of everything that exists]. Can he defend this view within his materialist metaphysics? Is his view internally consistent?

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