Epicurean Cosmological Argument

Over at the ex-apologist blog, another highly respected online advocate for naturalism/atheism has posted a very interesting argument which is much more up my alley than some of the more contemporary type arguments I’ve been responding to (although Mr. Lowder also has an argument which is related to this present one that we’ll look at within a few weeks or so). The ex-apologist labels the argument an “Epicurean Cosmological Argument for Matter’s Necessity”, and it acts as a kind of metaphysical counter argument to some of the theistic cosmological arguments, including Aquinas’s first three Ways, which I’ve written about on this blog.

The basic argument goes like this:

“One can find, through the writings of Lucretius, a powerful yet simple Epicurean argument for matter’s (factual or metaphysical) necessity. In simplest terms, the argument is that since matter exists, and since nothing can come from nothing, matter is eternal and uncreated, and is therefore at least a factually necessary being” [1].

This argument, apart from being interesting in its own right, is actually pretty significant, in that the materialism (atomism) of ancient philosophers such as Epicurus is one of the main adversaries to the Platonic/Aristotelian transcendental worldviews adopted by and implicit within classical theism. And, unlike some of the more contemporary arguments I’ve been examining recently, this argument gets down into the very fundamental nature of reality.

The argument is built on one of the favorite principles of the ancients: nothing can come from nothing. Since matter exists, and since it cannot have come from nothing, then it must have always existed.

This alone already raises a whole host of extremely interesting questions/implications. But before we begin our discussion of these, let’s look at the conclusion of of ex-apologists’s post:

“It seems to me that this broadly Epicurean line of reasoning is a cosmological argument of sorts, but one that concludes that matter, and not an immaterial creator, is the uncaused cause of contingent concrete reality. Let us therefore call any argument that deploys the principle ex nihilo nihil fit to infer the factual or metaphysical necessity of matter (or matter’s ultimate constituents) an Epicurean Cosmological Argument” [2].

Here we’ve gone from matter being eternal and uncreated to matter being the “uncaused cause of contingent concrete reality” (with intermediate steps in his post being matter as essentially uncreated and metaphysically necessary). Even if one were to grant the first step, the second seems to me not to follow. But we’ll come to that a bit later.

I’m going to be responding to this argument from my Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view. This post in itself is not meant to be a defense of the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical position; it is rather just an examination of the present argument on the basis of Aristotelian-Thomism.

One immediate question is to ask what in the world matter is in the first place. Unless we answer that, the argument is just meaningless. A second question might be to ask whether the ex nihilo nihil fit principle really has the implications being used here. For example, if matter must be eternal because it exists and cannot have come from nothing, could we not say the same thing about anything, one might wonder? That lamp on a table exists, and it could not have come from nothing, so that lamp on a table must have always existed, right? Not quite. The issues here are that of the Aristotelian principles of substance and causation. We’ll be going much more in depth on these in my Aristotle series, but for now we’ll just review Aristotle’s four causes: 1) Material cause, what something is made out of, the material from which it is composed. 2) Formal cause, the form/essence/nature of a thing, that which makes it what it is. 3) Efficient cause, also known as the agent cause, that which  brings a thing about or, more technically, actualizes its potencies. 4) Final cause, the end/goal/purpose of something, that towards which it is directed.

A related argument to the Epicurean cosmological argument is (somewhat) based on the notion of material causation, specifically concerning the coming into existence of beings; and it is actually an argument on Mr. Lowder’s list that I will be looking at individually within the coming weeks. The present argument, however, isn’t so much concerning material causation as matter itself. Matter itself exists, and nothing comes from nothing, so matter must exist eternally. The lamp, we know, is something composed of matter, something which comes from matter, not matter itself. The idea is that things like lamps and trees and people and elephants aren’t eternal because we don’t have to posit them coming into existence from nothing; they come into existence from pre-existing matter. But if everything in our experience comes into existence from matter, what does matter itself come into existence from? And the answer, the argument contends, is that matter would have to come into existence from literally nothing, which is impossible, so it must not have come into existence at all; it must be eternal and uncreated.

Now some theists might automatically object that matter doesn’t have to come into existence out of nothing, because God created it, and God isn’t nothing. But an advocate for this Epicurean argument might respond something like this: “The traditional doctrine of classical theism is that God created the material universe ex nihilo, or literally from/out of nothing. So even positing the existence of God, God is still creating matter out of nothing, and thus matter is still coming into existence out of nothing, which is impossible.” As we’ll see when we examine the similar argument on Mr. Lowder’s list, one way to argue this is to insist that everything that begins to exist must have a material cause, so if God created the universe, the universe itself must have a material cause. So some sort of matter must have been co-eternal with God, from which God crafted the universe, much like Plato’s “demiurge” conception in his Timaeus. This is posed as a dilemma for classical theism and the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

The problem here is in understanding/defining what exactly matter is. Epicurus lived after Aristotle, and in many ways his ideas were directly antithetical to the transcendental worldviews of his predecessors Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle in his works does discuss the atomism of Democritus (see a brief mention here), upon which Epicurus’s own materialism is based; but Epicurus had a more thoroughly worked out model of atomism that attempted to correct some of Democritus’s flaws which Aristotle had critiqued. The atomism of Epicurus holds that:

“the elementary constituents of nature are undifferentiated matter, in the form of discrete, solid and indivisible particles (“atoms”) below the threshold of perception, plus empty space . . . he distinguished between the atom, which by its nature cannot be broken apart, and the minimum conceivable expanse of matter: atoms have such minima as parts, but are not minima themselves — there can be no free-standing entity one minimum expanse in size. This resolves the problem of atomic edges, and also that of how atoms can come in different shapes and sizes (though never large enough to be seen): to have the hooks and crevices needed to form compounds, they can scarcely be theoretically partless” [3].

Of course, modern science has given us a somewhat different, more complex and advanced understanding of atoms and the fundamental nature of physical reality, down to the subatomic particles and fundamental forces. But let’s just take Epicurus’s atomism as it is,  where his “atoms” will just refer to whatever the most basic constituents of physical reality actually turn out to be. The problem is that these atoms themselves would not (an Aristotelian would say) be pure matter in itself; the atoms would still have a substantial form, and thus themselves would be compositions of matter and form. Actual matter, all by itself, with absolutely no form, is known as “prime matter”, and it is pure potency.

To see this, let’s take a stone house as an example. The stone house consists of the form of a house imposed in the stone material. But that stone itself also contains a form, which is imposed in the material of whatever combination of metals it is made up of. And those molecules of metal also contain a form, imposed in the atomic material. And the atoms themselves contain forms, and the electrons and protons and so on. Eventually we must get to some underlying level of formless matter which we completely abstract from all actual objects, and this is prime matter. Prime matter does not and cannot exist on its own, without form, because it is pure potency. Only when it is actualized by forms does it gain actual existence. But that is what matter truly is at its deepest, most abstracted, most fundamental level.

So let’s go back to the argument itself:

  1. Matter exists
  2. (If matter were to have come into existence, it would have had to have come from nothing)
  3. Nothing that exists can come from nothing
  4. Matter cannot have come into existence
  5. Matter must be eternal and uncreated

Now premise 1 is obviously true if by “matter” we mean “material substances.” But if that is the case, then premise 2 collapses, because material substances can come from prime matter. If, however, we mean in premise 1 pure matter all by itself, then the premise becomes a lot more complicated, because pure prime matter all by itself cannot exist in actuality without being instantiated with forms. The instantiation of forms in matter is the actualization of potency and, as we have seen from the Prime Mover and First Cause arguments, all actualization of potency ultimately requires the existence of a Being of Pure Act as the source and cause of all actuality.

So the actual matter of our experience, the “atoms” or subatomic particles that we are aware of through physics, did not have to come from nothing. They came from prime matter, which is pure potency, but not equivalent to “absolute nothing”. Consider this quote from Aquinas:

“All of these philosophers were deceived because they did not know how to distinguish between potency and act. For being in potency is, as it were, a mean between pure non-being and being in act. Therefore, those things which come to be naturally do not come to be from nonbeing simply, but from being in potency, and not, indeed, from being in act, as they thought” [4].

So, at the very most, this Epicurean argument might establish that matter exists eternally along with God, but it in principle cannot reach matter as an “uncaused cause of contingent concrete reality”. An uncaused material cause perhaps, but by its very nature matter requires the existence of some uncaused efficient cause other than itself. And, famously, Aquinas was willing to grant that matter might be eternally existent (even though he actually believed the universe to be finite and created ex nihilo).

So even if it works completely, the Epicurean cosmological argument does not warrant naturalism over theism; quite the opposite in fact.

The dilemma of creation ex nihilo for theism is complicated and interesting in its own right, but I’ll be discussing that in my examination of Mr. Lowder’s related argument in the coming weeks.



[1]. “Epicurean Cosmological Argument for Matter’s Necessity.” ex-apologist. Blogger, 10 Nov. 2016. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Konstan, David, “Epicurus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/epicurus/&gt;.

[4]. Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Books I-II translated by
Richard J. Blackwell, Richard J. Spath & W. Edmund Thirlkel
Yale U.P., 1963. <http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/Physics.htm&gt>.


4 thoughts on “Epicurean Cosmological Argument

  1. I’m a bit confused. You say that prime matter cannot exist on its own and comes into existence only when actualized by a form. It seems to me that when actualized, matter is no longer prime, but ordinary, matter. Or are you saying that prime matter and ordinary matter come into existence together and exist side-by-side?


    • Hi, sorry for the delayed response. I think it would be more correct to say, rather than that prime matter is pure potency, that on its own it WOULD BE pure potency, but that when instantiated with a form it is actualized. Ordinary matter that physicists make reference to is defined as that which has mass and extension in space. Of course, Aristotle would point out that “having mass” and “having extension in space” are both accidents, or properties OF SOMETHING, so that ordinary matter must have some substantial form in order to have those properties. Whatever the very must basic, fundamental level of ordinary matter it is, it will be that substantial form instantiated in something, some material that could not exist on its own without the form. On its own it would be pure potency, but with the form it is actualized into some material out of which the basic level of physical reality is composed. It is not that prime matter and ordinary matter exist side by side, but rather that ordinary matter is made OUT OF, or consists of, prime matter plus some form. One philosopher I recently read thought that prime matter might be formless energy, because of Einstein’s discovery that matter and energy are convertible. I’m not sure of this, since I wouldn’t be sure if that energy had a form of its own or not. There’s really not much we can say about prime matter, since by nature we can’t detect or observe it. We know it must exist because it’s necessary to explain certain things such as change. I’ll be writing more about specifically prime matter and why Aristotle thought it must exist probably within a month.


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