Atomism is the final development of a school of thought called pluralism, which is an attempt to explain a very fundamental question, “What is the nature of the universe? ” Monism, the opposing view of pluralism, asserts that only one being, or type of being, exists, and that the variety in our everyday experience is caused by the different states of this single all encompassing substance. Pluralism rejects this idea, and claims that the material that makes up our universe is many in nature. However, Pluralism has some problems, and Atomism does it best to avoid the mistakes that the early Pluralist made.
The culmination of all the materialist’s theories since its origins comes to fruition in Atomism. Retaining the idea of plurality of the basic elements and the doctrines of a Parmindean indestructibility (nothing is created or destroyed), Atomism claims that reality is comprised of only two things; atoms and empty space. Surprisingly, there are only 4 known Atomists that history knows of; Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. Almost nothing is known of Leucippus, and from what is known it is impossible to distinguish his ideas from those of his predecessors.
For Democritus, almost all of his work is fragmented cited from another person, though it is clear that his ideas differed from Epicurus and Lucretius. Lucretius, on the other hand, was not even a Greek, but a Roman poet who was so enthralled by the ideas of Epicurus that he wrote a poem about them, and to this day it is the most complete single work of an atomist. And even though he himself did not contribute a single original idea to the evolution of the theory, his translation of the theory into Latin was nevertheless instrumental in our comprehensive understanding of the discipline.
From the time that Leucippus (middle of fifth century BC) to the times of Lucretius (first century BC) the atomist concepts with regards to their ideas on the physical world go relatively unchanged. This is not the case when looking at the atomist’ ethical doctrines however, which turn out to be their greatest obstacle they never seem to quite solve. The first pluralists used the idea of the many to account for change. But was this a plurality of mere numbers, or is there a qualitative diversity among the many?
The most natural assumption is that the objects we see everyday are different looking and feel different and have different smells because there is a qualitative diversity in the variety of the world. It’s the assumption the first pluralist (Empedocles) made when he presupposed a plurality of qualitatively diverse “roots”, and is the basic idea of Anaxagoras’ “seeds”. And even though Empedocles spoke of a finite qualitative diversity and Anaxagoras of a infinite qualitative diversity, it’s the idea of Qualitative many turns out to be there biggest mistake.
The many conceived by the early pluralists was a many of different “kinds. ” These kinds helped Atomists make the stance that particles are qualitatively identical, and that the variety and differences we experience in nature are only differences of particle size, shape, and there relative position to one another. Atomism asserts the existence of a plurality of entities that differ only in shape and size and that are therefore qualitatively indistinguishable. Another problem caused by the pluralist Anaxagoras, was the idea of infinite divisibility.
As Parmenides had said, what is can not be destroyed, implying that an object can be cut over and over without loosing its identity and slipping into nothingness. “Cutting” reality can’t destroy it; for example, if I were to cut a sandwich over and over, my sandwich would just exist as smaller pieces of that sandwich, and eventually bite size, and eventually crumbs, but could never cease to exist or be destroyed by the mere act of a “cut. ” Ironically, Parmenides also proved that reality could not be infinitely divisible. His argument was if a thing were infinitely divisible, then the stuff that comprises the thing must be infinitely small.
But when you add together infinitely small parts, you can never get any object of real size, since the addition of something with no magnitude cant increase the original things magnitude. Atomist have a solution however; the existence of a many, one which is eternal, indestructible, uncreated, and indivisible. (Jones 81-2) The Greeks called these entities of the many “atoms” which in Greek literally means, ‘a’ (negative prefix, like the English ‘un’) and ‘tome’ (cut). The Atomist cleverly saw an opening in the Parmindean arguments, where they could put their Many as long as it was a solid, impenetrable Many, like the atom.
But in order to distinguish this many from one another and make their atoms a true plurality, the atomist needed another idea that Parmenides proved was impossible; empty space. So again the Atomist took a look at the Parmindean argument refuting empty space. Basically, Parmenides showed that since there is no nothing, and that empty space can’t be nothing, reality must be full and empty space must be an illusion. But, if they could prove that empty space was indeed something, then Parmenides’ attack on the concept of nothing wouldn’t even really apply.
This is the basic idea that separates the Atomists from the previous pluralists. Lucretius needed this idea of empty space to account for motion, which is the ‘change’ that all atomist ascribe too. It is a completely different change than the change of the earlier philosophers, which mistakenly conceives of change as ‘transformation’ or ‘replacement’. Lucretius, like Democritus, needed empty space in order for motion to exist, which he needed to account for change. An example of the existence of empty space is as follows; if a sponge were a solid piece of matter, it could not be squeezed.
But since the sponge is really just little bits of matter separated by empty space, the act of squeezing just brings these pieces of matter closer together. (Jones 82) The plurality of particles helps atomist account for phenomena, like the sponge, in everyday life; something a monist had to deduce was all an illusion and wasn’t really happening. Moreover, the empty space that Lucretius speaks of must be infinite. He uses this example to illustrate his point. Suppose that empty space was bounded, then you could imagine finding the bound of the universe and walking up to the edge where the empty space is contained.
If you try to step over the bound, and you imagine you making it to the other side, you would be admitting that obviously there is some sort of space on the other side for you to move into. If however, you claim that you would be stopped before crossing the bound, then you admit that something on the other side is barring you from entry, which in turn would be admitting to something existing on the other side, which in turn is admitting to there being space for which that something can exist in.
Therefore, there can be no bound, and space must exist free of limitations. (quote something) Since space is infinite it follows that the Many that atomist talk about must be infinite too, since a finite number, however large, would become displaced in an infinite void. Since the occurrence of our world and worlds like ours happens, and their form is created by the collision of particles, if a finite amount existed the chances that groups of atoms congregating would be infinitely small.
A common rebuttal to this idea take into account that a ‘foreseeing mind” could have arranged the particles independently of causality, but Lucretius feels he has already rejected this idea on the basis of the first principle of his physics. (jones) Along that line of thinking, Lucretius’ basic principles show that even though atoms are very small, they are not infinitely small, for unless there was a ‘smallest part’ at which we could stop cutting, particles would eventually vanish into nothingness.
Even though Parmenides and Lucretius both agreed in the preservation of things that existed, they did so in very different ways. Parmenides simple logical argument was that since there is no ‘nothing’ creation out of nothing or destruction into nothing is impossible. Lucretius on the other hand, pointed out that if digression into nothingness really did exist, then no matter how slowly, everything would sooner or later disappear. Since he already showed that atoms could not be created, all of the atoms that exist today have been enduring existence for an infinite amount of time.
And if they have existed for an infinite amount of time and infinity is unbounded, then the time in which atoms exist must be unbounded as well. This empirical argument is stronger than Parmenides because it appeals to facts, that is, the empirical fact that something exists now. Where does Atomism fail? Atomism can not account for an objective reality. Since everything in reality is either atoms or space, how can I, a mere collection of atoms, even be conscious of another body of atoms? This is a grave problem and points out that atomism can’t account for sense perception. Atomism also can’t explain how we think.
Atomist account for thought is that fleeting atoms are always being thrown off objects and entering your mind to interact with your brain atoms to produce thoughts and ideas. But that would infer that all thought is random, and that the only way you could think about a specific idea would be if your brain received those atoms that make up that idea directly. The command, “Sit and think about this idea. ” would really mean “Sit and wait for the atoms that comprise this idea to find you. ” Also, this simply reduces your brain to acting as sense organ, reacting to stimuli like your eyes and your ears do.
Atomism fails again to account for civic duty or communal responsibilities. This is the chief reason that Platonism was so successful in ancient society compared to Atomism, since by atomism; our hopes, our fears, and even our questions about Atomism are an illusion. Life for atomists has no meaning, and looking at history threw a religious perspective, it seems to be the reason that Atomism all but disappeared during the middle ages. You may be thinking that this ‘reformulation’ of Thales’ original ideas into the Atomism is not a reformulation at all; that there are too many differences to even associate the ideas with each other.
But there was a fundamental assumption that ran consistent threw all; that all reality is material and the actual processes in which this material undergoes is intelligible (The human mind can understand it). Of course, it was the idea of material that changed, transforming the definition of material from a description of sense properties to a definition of being impenetrable and occupying space. Atomism is fantastic example of a theory that went threw serious logic rigger, and emerges as the core of our physical scientific concepts.
Atomism solves the problem of change showing that change is really relative to position and not transformation at all. It solves the problem of the one and the many, asserting that the idea of change can be reducible to motion. But Atomism was sorely outmatched when asked about questions of the nature of thought and ethics. It could not account for man’s experiences, and held that all values were relative and asserted the idea of no objective truths. Finally, it could not account for any type of free will, and basically concludes that all life has no real meaning or purpose.
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