Oct 252014

Once they figure out the pointlessness of why-chains, children learn to accept local explanations and move on. Explanations are stories that satisfy us and stop us from asking further questions. Most people are content with short, simple answers. Some other are harder to satisfy and require multiple unfolding. But, sooner or later, we all stop and accept an explanation emanating from a trusted source.

For example: Why did the ball land on the floor? Because I dropped it. This is a wholly satisfactory explanation for most intents and purposes – what else would we want to know? A lot, actually. Why did the ball land on the floor, rather than, for example, stay in mid air? Because of gravity. Gravity? What is gravity? It is one of the four fundamental forces of nature. Forces? What is a force? And why are there four of them? And why does gravity work that way and not in some other way? Or we may ask: Why did the ball land on the floor, rather than go through it? Because the floor is made of a hard material. Hard? What does hard mean? It means that the material consists of tightly arranged atoms. Atoms? What are atoms? Atoms are units of matter composed of a nucleus, made of protons and neutrons, and surrounded by a cloud of electrons. A cloud? What’s in between the nucleus and the electrons? Not a lot, just empty space: if an atom were a football stadium, the nucleus would be a small marble in the middle of it.

‘What? So, going back to my question: why doesn’t the ball – which itself must be made of mostly empty space – go through the floor?’ ‘Because electrons are bound to the nucleus by the electromagnetic force.’ ‘By what? Look, I asked for an explanation, not a headache. I’ve had enough. Whatever you say: I trust you.’ ‘Wait, wait, I haven’t told you about subatomic particles…’ ‘No thanks, I said I’ve had enough. But let me ask you: do you know everything?’ ‘Me? Not at all. I know a lot, but there are still so many unanswered questions. Every answer begets new questions. In fact, I don’t even know what knowing everything means’.

This is mankind’s ultimate enigma: each of us has someone else to trust, but mankind as a whole doesn’t. A well-tried solution to the enigma is to say that there must be an entity – there cannot but be one – which mankind can lean upon. Descriptions vary, but one trait is in common: the entity is such that it needs nothing else – it is self-sustaining. This is a necessary trait: without it, we are just moving the goalposts. But it is a hard one to fathom. It is like trying to figure out the last number: a hopeless endeavour. So, while sympathetic with the goal – enigmas must have a solution – we are at a loss to find one. Hence we revert to the same pattern: trust someone else who knows.

The time-honoured solution approved by trusted authorities has been to evoke some form of supernatural deity, possessing all the required traits, and more. But self-sustainment does not require a deity. The entity doesn’t have to be someone. It can be something, a part of nature or, indeed, nature itself: Deus sive natura. Spinoza called it substance:

By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself : in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception. (Ethics, Part I, Definition III).

Sub-stance is what stands under, or under-stands, everything. In this sense, turning it upside down, it is the subject matter of what the ancient Greeks called episteme: knowledge that stands firm over (epi-) everything, as absolute truth rather than mere opinion – doxa. Episteme is the unquestionable knowledge of the laws that determine what becomes, or comes to be. As such, it enables the prediction and anticipation (pre-capture) of what comes out: events.

Out of where? Good question. If episteme is able to foresee them, events must be somewhere before they ex-ist. Events do not befall out of nowhere, do not become out of nothing: they appear, come into view from where they already are. Not by chance, then, but be-cause:

From a given definite cause an effect necessarily follows; and, on the other hand, if no definite cause be granted, it is impossible that an effect can follow. (Ethics, Part I, Axiom III).

This is the Principle of Sufficient Reason, as well expressed, one hundred and forty years later, by Pierre-Simon Laplace:

All events, even those which on account of their insignificance do not seem to follow the great laws of nature, are a result of it just as necessarily as the revolutions of the sun. (…)
Present events are connected with preceding ones by a tie based upon the evident principle that a thing cannot occur without a cause which produces it. (A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, p. 3).

Famously, Laplace imagined an ‘intelligence’ who knows the causes of everything: ‘For it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes’ (p. 4).

If you were impressed with Dr Wise, who could figure out whether you would open one or two boxes, or with the Janken robot, who would beat you hands down at Rock-Paper-Scissors, you would be utterly awestruck by what has somehow come to be known as Laplace’s demon. The demon knows everything – and I mean every thing – because he knows their causes: the links that tie every event to the events that caused it and to the events that it will cause. Events are not free to happen, but are tied together in a network of causes and effects that explains the past and determines the future.

Is such causal network the self-sustaining entity that solves mankind’s enigma? We don’t know. Our feeble mind is and will always be ‘infinitely removed’ – Laplace’s words – from the demon’s knowledge. All we can do is yearn for it, take care of it, love it. This is the origin of the word philo-sophy, where sophia is wisdom, coming from saphes – clear, evident, true – and in turn from phaos – light. The Principle of Sufficient Reason can only be a Faith: a prior belief that – as Laplace saw it – is self-evident and must be true on the grounds of pure reason.

We may or may not share such faith. But if we do, we need to know what it implies: there is no such thing as chance. All events, no matter how big, small or insignificant, are bound ‘to follow the great laws of nature’. Chance is just mankind’s word for our ignorance – lack of knowledge – of those laws. If you are nodding with approval, you should realise that you were destined to do so, as much as you were destined to exist, your parents to conceive you, and their parents to conceive them, and so on. And that everything you will do tomorrow, and for the rest of your life, is just what you were ordained to do. Likewise, Germany was destined to lose World War II and to win this year’s FIFA World Cup, I was destined to write these words, and the bird that just perched on the tree outside my window was meant to do just that, on that particular branch, with that many leaves, each of them with that shape and cellular composition, each cell with that number of mitochondria, and each mitochondrion… – you get the drift.

Laplace’s demon knows all this, and much, much more. He knows why everything happens, has happened and will happen, because he knows all the laws that determine all events, no matter how complex and chaotic they may be. Besides, he knows why those laws are necessary and cannot but be so. He knows the last ring of all why-chains and the ultimate answer that end all questions. He knows the absolute, untied truth: episteme.

Everything is, and is bound to become according to necessary laws in the only possible way. Laplace found this self-evident. He trusted it to be the solution to mankind’s enigma. I find it nuts. But what is the alternative?


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