On Nihilism

Some months ago I wrote: “I’m starting work on a paper examining the conception of physical law in Michel Serres’ reading of Lucretius (to be published by EUP in a collection of work on contemporary encounters with Ancient metaphysics, edited by Ryan Johnson and Jacob Greenstine).” The paper is now complete.

I’ll leave most of the original post in place here, and just add an update towards the end.


The paper will focus on the conception of laws as regularities that form as atoms deviate from their path, collide and begin to combine (a Lucretian equivalent of symmetry breaking). On this account, particular combinations favour certain further combinations and discourage others, leading to regularities that constitute the laws of a given system. Thus far, there’s little that would be unfamiliar to many contemporary philosophers of science and theorists of causation. But for Lucretius, and for Serres, the regularities that emerge are always spatially and temporally local, and therefore subject to interference from processes that lie beyond their fringes. Then, there is the clinamen, which can introduce spontaneous deviations within the system itself. Finally, each event that occurs according to a particular regularity itself adds to that regularity in some way, strengthening it, weakening it, modifying it. As a consequence, the regularities that constitute physical law are relatively stable only for a period of time – a period that may be short lived or vast, but not permanent. Physical law evolves with the order it regulates.

Modern physics has tended to regard time as a variable that can be written out of the final description of the universe, in the main because the laws of physics are assumed to be universal and timeless. Serres, following Lucretius, is set firmly against such a view. Interestingly, so is the contemporary physicist Lee Smolin. In books such as The Life of the Cosmos, Time Reborn, and The Singular Universe (co-authored with Roberto Mangabeira Unger), Smolin has argued that time is real, and that a scientific account of the universe requires a conception of physical laws that evolve.

One of the principal motivations behind Smolin’s proposal is that the view of physical laws as timeless depends on partitioning the universe into the bit you’re examining and the external point from which you’re examining it. But if the task is to understand the existence of the universe as a whole, there’s nowhere to go – unless one is happy to take up an ideal or even theological position. Smolin and Unger choose not to do this (for good reasons that they explain) and set about exploring what it takes to treat the universe as in effect an open system, and moreover what follows from doing so.

Is time real, inclusively real, to the point of holding sway over everything? Or is it part of ultimate reality, notably a framework of unchanging regularities of nature and a structure of ultimate constituents of nature, outside of time? If time goes all the way down, must we admit that the laws, symmetries, and apparent constants of nature might change and have in fact changed in the course of the history of this one real world? How should we revise our conventional ideas about causation so that they accommodate change in the laws and other regularities on which causal explanations usually rely? (Lee Smolin and Roberto Magbeira Unger, The Singular Universe, p.89).

These are problems that Serres finds in Lucretius’s text De rerum natura and that he addresses in The Birth of Physics.

The idea of physical law as regularity has been a part of the philosophy of modern science at least since Hume, and in my paper I’ll also review this perspective and the extent to which Lucretius and Serres add something to it.


I said that I’d post updates as I went along, and I’ve signally failed to do this. However, the paper is – belatedly – all but done (I presented a version at the Centre for the Philosophy of Science at the University of Lisbon – the CFCUL – last Monday). There’s quite a bit of interesting  material covered, but three points have emerged as significant.

  1. Smolin and Unger, like Lucretius (and indeed Serres) argue that causality precedes law; or, causality is not law governed – it just looks that way in periods of the history of the universe when things have settled into a stable state.
  2. Lucretius does not think that the laws of nature are ‘fixed.’ The Latin ‘certo‘ actually permits a reading of laws as ‘agreements’ – far more in line with everything else going on in the remarkable text that is De rerum natura.
  3. Serres goes at least some way towards developing this idea in a purely materialist way by introducing the idea of code, thereby avoiding any lingering sense of the universal and the juridical still attaching to the idea of law.

I’ll say a bit more, especially with regard to Serres on matter and code, soon – and this time I really will.



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