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The Theory of Atoms

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Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post, in which we’ll be taking a brief look at one of the ancient Greek ‘atomist’ philosophers, a man named Democritus. We’re actually jumping back in time a little, as Democritus is a presocratic thinker, but it makes sense to group him in with the atomists, as he is considered to have been pioneering in this respect.

Who Was He?

Democritus (c.460-370 BC) lived in ancient Athens and wasn’t recognised as part of the intellectual elite in his day. However, he has remained of interest to philosophers and scientists up until the present day, as his philosophy has a distinctly modern flavour.

At the heart of Democritus’ work was an explanation of the nature of things. He postulated that all matter is divided into indivisible components called atoms. To further explain reality, Democritus realised that these atoms must exist within something, which he referred to as a void.

Many of his writings have survived, and he is also referenced extensively by other writers, including the ancient Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius, who notes that Democritus lived exclusively for his studies. It is thought that he died at the ripe old age of 90.

What’s the Big Idea?

The obvious thing with Democritus would be to talk about his atomic theory, but I’d like to be a little novel and focus on a big idea of his that, although relevant to atomic theory, is a rather different area of wisdom.

Democritus believed that every event in the universe is causally determined by preceding events, and all this activity is an expression of atoms colliding with one another. The classic example of this is the effect of a billiard ball striking another. Modern determinists and materialists would find a lot of agreement with this way of thinking.

My Reflections

Deterministic thinking necessarily causes one to go back in time and postulate what it was that got the metaphorical ball rolling in the first place. Scientists in the modern age postulate a big bang theory, but this always begs the question of what preceded the big bang and how something can come from nothing.

I believe this leads us to a powerful argument for the existence of God. While I believe that every event must have a cause, I don’t believe the universe is unfolding in a mechanical cause and effect way. Instead, I believe that a living God exists, who is in control of all activity in creation, and is unfolding events in accordance with His sovereign will in the single eternal moment.

It is not necessarily the case that the rules of science are absolute, and as one who believes in miracles, and has seen miracles, I know that the laws of cause and effect can be overruled by God in any situation. The universe is not robotic, it is much more like a grand cosmic puppet show, in which God, as puppet master, is unfolding a wonderful story of which scientific laws are only a part.

While Democritus shed light on the building blocks of matter, modern science has proved that atoms can be broken down into smaller particles, and those particles can theoretically be broken down ad infinitum, so the nature of matter which seems so solid to the human senses is really mysterious stuff. Perhaps matter isn’t so material after all.


Next Friday we’ll be looking at another atomist philosopher, Epicurus. He had some novel ideas in the field of ethics, so most likely the big idea we’ll be focusing on will be along those lines. Please subscribe to ensure you never miss a post, and thank you for reading!

32 comments

  1. Hey Steven! Did Democritus actually use the term “atoms”? I love particle physics, it’s just an amazing field of study and serves to confirm for me the reality of God. Someone once said – possibly C.S. Lewis – that as we search smaller and smaller what we ultimately find is mathematics – the ordered language behind everything.And as we split atoms we realize what incredibly gigantic forces are holding all things together, just amazing. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Don! Google tells me that Democritus proposed the Greek word ‘atomos’, which means ‘uncuttable’.

      I didn’t know you were interested in science as well. I’m certainly not a scientist, although in the new year I subscribed to a science journal just so I can keep on top of developments 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

  2. Have you perchance read Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy? He does an excellent job of relating the theoretical issues in modern physics to the philosophical concepts grappled by Aristotle, Democritus, Parmenides, Pythagoras, et al. As an example, he states that the probability wave in quantum theory is an empirical proof for Aristotelian potentiality and its connection to the relationship between form and matter. Brother, I am not suggesting the forthcoming as a substitute for the enjoyment of reading the entirety of this book, nor am I desirous of self-promotion, but I have curated Physics and Philosophy in the attempt to abbreviate and present some of the key-points of this work in my entry Alma Mater if such a thing warrants your attention. I wish I had someone like you to explore the nooks and crannies of nature’s operations with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ronnie,

      Many thanks for your comment. I am not very well read when it comes to science, I’m afraid. While God has given me some wonderful insights into the big questions of philosophy and theology, He hasn’t given me much patience when it comes to the intricacies of mathematics and physics, at least so far in my life. While I find science fascinating, to specialise in that area would constitute a huge time and effort commitment, and in all honesty I am focused on other areas of thought (especially theology and the divine sovereignty versus human free will problem). However, I’ll certainly check out your blog post entitled ‘Alma Mater’ and will comment if I feel I have anything useful to add.

      Out of interest, where in the world are you based (if you don’t mind me asking)?

      Best wishes,

      Steven

      Like

      1. The intricacies of math and physics are unbelievably boring! Goes back to the whole machine outlook, yes? It becomes this meaningless technical affair. I actually have zero training at all in these areas; I was led to it. There is something in the workings of nature that is only glimpsed by discursive thought, but may be apprehended by grace and enacted by an act of the spirit. “You can know everything without ever knowing why”, something I heard in a song.

        I am in the United States, Oklahoma to be exact.

        Until next time,

        Ronnie.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Ronnie!

          Yes I think the ‘why’ questions are the ones that fascinate me most at this stage in my life, so that’s where I choose to direct my attention 🙂

          If I’m ever heading to Oklahoma, we’ll have to have that coffee! Who knows what the future holds.

          Best wishes,

          Steven

          Liked by 1 person

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