Ad Meliora

Lee Hyun / David Lee (Seo In-guk) and Lawyer Jung Sun-Ho / Lee Min (Park Bo-gum) in 2015 Korean crime drama Hello Monster / I Remember You

Most pre-Socratic thinkers, British philosopher Bertrand Russell mused, were adventurous and free-spirited dreamers who explored a great diversity of topics with childlike enthusiasm. Among them, Leucippus and his protégé Democritus developed metaphysical theories that were millennia ahead of their times. In psychological thriller Hello Monster, genius profiler Lee Hyun kept running into a mysterious lawyer, Jung Sun-ho, and the two name-dropped the other duo in a bombastic banter about whether these encounters were mere coincidences. But why let them have all the fun?

The pioneers of a school of philosophy called “atomism,” Leucippus and Democritus, the latter of whom was born around 460 B.C. in Greece, postulated that the universe was composed of tiny solid particles and the void. Historians have found it hard to disentangle the thoughts of master and pupil, a situation not helped by doubts over the actual existence of Leucippus, but the idea roughly credited to the pair is that all objects are formed by groupings and regroupings of these particles into different shapes. All phenomena, too, including sensory perceptionsarise from perpetual interactions among the particles. These matter can neither be created out of nothing nor destroyed and reduced to nothing. In the eyes of the early atomists, the world is of a mechanical and deterministic nature which can be summed up in one statement Leucippus does get sole credit for:

“Nothing happens at random, but everything from reason and by necessity.”

It seems fitting that this line was referenced in a drama debating the roles of nature versus nurture in crimes. Still, if there is a cause for everything, what accounts for the creation of particles and the setting into motion of objects in the universe in the first place? If there is a Creator, who or what created him? Russell thus reflected that all causal explanations “must have an arbitrary beginning.” In a similar fashion, since the genes and environment one is born with (i.e. outcomes of the “biological lottery”) are probably assigned at the whim of some unknowable force, could it be that neither nature nor nurture is ultimately at fault for criminal outcomes?

Animated art in 2015 Korean crime drama Hello Monster / I Remember You

Both Leucippus and Democritus appeared uninterested in the original cause of all particles and motions. Yet, as intriguing as such mysteries may be, it could be that, for our everyday purposes, we need only concern ourselves with our immediate world and the traceable past. The merit of a materialist view of life, another atomist Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) thought, lies in how it draws attention to the substances necessary for physical survival, and away from distracting supernatural concerns we probably can never understand or control. That is the moral beauty of the sciences. Likewise, then, the dynamics of criminal psychology and upbringing remain the pertinent issues in the discourse on lawbreaking.

The apparent absence of the human will in the above account of the universe, though, makes one wonder if the atomists have wrested our fates from invisible gods only to place them in the hands of cold machineries, in a manner of speaking. On further analysis, however, one may argue that Leucippus’ and Democritus’ worldview does not really preclude the role of the will. At their essence, human decisions are really an interplay between atoms in the brain. As such, it seems reasonable to regard them as part of the atomistic model of the workings of the world. The implication that mental freedom is constrained by the physical capacity of the brain need not be a source of despair either. Human creativity has proven so tremendous all the same that we have spun out numerous layers of complexity from the fundamental laws of Nature to generate the modern comforts widely enjoyed, each layer of complexity with its own innovativeness and animated by fresh visions of what life can be.

Child actors playing Lee Hyun / David Lee and Lawyer Jung Sun-Ho / Lee Min in 2015 Korean crime drama Hello Monster / I Remember You

Leucippus’ use of the phrase “by necessity” also seems to contradict our observation that even physical acts, such as the spinning of a coin, can have a range of outcomes. That may, however, be a reflection of the difficulty of keeping conditions identical from case to case. Air turbulence, muscle force and hand movements, for instance, can vary with each spin of the coin. Perhaps, we can repeat the action in a vacuum using a finely calibrated machine, but this takes the analysis far away from ordinary practices. Hence, while Leucippus may be technically correct in that a phenomenon is always the inevitable result of a set of conditions, our day-to-day reality is subject to so many fluctuating variables that many predictions cannot be made with certainty. It is therefore premature in many circumstances to conclude that change is impossible. As long as we live, the justification for re-attempts and interventions is forever there.

In any case, Epicurus introduced an element of randomness into the early atomists’ theory by suggesting that atoms can deviate from their paths, to some minimum degree, in completely erratic ways. Modern quantum physicists did not go to that extreme but they did arrive at the conclusion that an electron’s simultaneous position and momentum are indefinite (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). Even as possible analogies for macroscopic determinism (i.e. on the personal or societal level), it seems, these micro-level phenomena would not be the best candidates.

Back to the drama again: As viewers who have completed the series would know, the men’s meetings were probably no serendipitous events. Lawyer Jung was Hyun’s missing younger sibling, Lee Min, who had been watching him. Both, unfortunately, displayed psychopathic traits. Whereas Hyun grew up under relatively normal circumstances and supported crime enforcement efforts anyway, Min witnessed violent crimes as a child, got raised by another psychopath, and turned into a serial killer. But the drama’s message to at-risk individuals was that choices exist, and to those around them: love conquers all. Right to the end, Min did not understand why he was wrong when those he killed were wrongdoers themselves. Even so, Hyun’s genuine brotherly affection eventually seemed to persuade him to take the high ground to put Hyun at ease. Before that, though, they swapped pedantry for cute bedside feeding, tie-fixing and hair-blowing sessions. In these, alas, we cannot join them!

Siblings (1930) by Paul Klee

Siblings (1930) by Paul Klee

Atomism and Physiology                  The Drama

Philosophy Resources                       Drama Resources


4 thoughts on “Ad Meliora

      • Thanks so much for the support and for the encouraging words! My daughter and I have been having fun on social media together for many years. Grateful! I hope your week is off to a terrific start.

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