Distant Echoes of a Road Not Taken
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods' will. Ah but men's eyes are frightened
Because they see on earth and in the heavens,
Many events whose causes are to them
Impossible to fix; so they suppose
That god's will is the reason. As for us,
Once we have seen that nothing comes from nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no "god's will" about it.
-- Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
W here did we come from? What sort of creatures are we? What is the nature of this existence of which we are a part, and how did it come to be? How can we distinguish what is real? How can we know the good? What causes people to believe and value and behave as they do? What effect, if any, do human actions have on the scheme of things?
For at least twenty-six centuries, a minority of human beings in each generation have found the courage to express a dissenting viewpoint on these issues. They have risked animosity, ridicule and even personal danger in order to formulate explanations that did not rely on supernatural entities and essentially mysterious forces. They have dared, instead, to look for answers in the observable surroundings: answers involving previous history as well as current conditions and the natural consequences of these. Their answers have been the kind that lead to ever-more-penetrating questions, rather than to the end of inquiry. It is in such answers, as expressed by some of the earliest recorded thinkers, that we find the first stirrings of a philosophy of evolutionary naturalism.
For it seems that Western cultures are the heirs of not one but two currents of philosophical thought: currents co-existing in uneasy and unequal relationship since the sixth century BCE. One has been a powerful tradition, usually