Philosophical doctrine that material objects are aggregates of simpler parts known as atoms. Atomism in the strict sense is characterized by three points: the atoms are absolutely indivisible, qualitatively identical apart from shape, size, and motion, and combinable with each other only by juxtaposition. Atomism is usually associated with realism and mechanism; it is mechanistic because it maintains that all observable changes can be reduced to changes in the configuration of the atoms that constitute matter. It is opposed to holism because it holds that the properties of any whole can be explained in terms of those of its parts.
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Thus, as regards quarks, electrons, and other fundamental leptons are concerned, the possibility that they too are composed of smaller particles cannot be ruled out. In the mean-time, however, it is these particles (not chemical atoms) which remain the best candidates for the traditional indivisible objects, with which historical atomism has concerned itself.
In the late fifth century BC, Democritus and Leucippus taught that the hidden substance in all physical objects consists of different arrangements of 1) atoms and 2) void. Both atoms and the void were never created, and they will be never ending. Democritus became famous for this idea, but he followed closely what his teacher Leucippus taught. No writings by Leucippus have survived, and we have just a few fragments of the writings of Democritus.
The void is infinite and provides the space in which the atoms can pack or scatter differently. The different possible packings and scatterings within the void make up the shifting outlines and bulk of the objects that organisms feel, see, eat, hear, smell, and taste. While organisms may feel hot or cold, hot and cold actually have no real existence. They are simply sensations produced in organisms by the different packings and scatterings of the atoms in the void that compose the object that organisms sense as being "hot" or "cold."
The work of Democritus has survived only in secondhand reports, sometimes unreliable or conflicting. Much of the best evidence is that reported by Aristotle in his criticisms of atomism, who regarded him as an important rival in natural philosophy.
|Atom||Polyhedron||Number of Faces||Number of Triangles|
|Geometrical Simple Bodies According to Plato|
Plato (c. 427—c. 347 BC) objected to the mechanistic purposelessness of the atomism of Democritus. He argued that atoms just crashing into other atoms could never produce the beauty and form of the world. In the Timaeus, (28B - 29A) Plato insisted that the cosmos was not eternal but was created, although its creator framed it after an eternal, unchanging model.
One part of that creation were the four simple bodies of fire, air, water, and earth. But Plato did not consider these corpuscles to be the most basic level of reality, for in his view they were made up of an unchanging level of reality, which was mathematical. These simple bodies were geometric solids, the faces of which were, in turn, made up of triangles. The square faces of the cube were each made up of four isosceles right-angled triangles and the triangular faces of the tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron were each made up of six right-angled triangles.
He postulated the geometric structure of the simple bodies of the four elements as summarized in the table to the right. The cube, with its flat base and stability, was assigned to earth; the tetrahedron was assigned to fire because its penetrating points and sharp edges made it mobile. The points and edges of the octahedron and icosahedron were blunter and so these less mobile bodies were assigned to air and water. Since the simple bodies could be decomposed into triangles, and the triangles reassembled into atoms of different elements, Plato's model offered a plausible account of changes among the primary substances.
Epicurus (341-270) studied atomism with Nausiphanes who had been a student of Democritus. Although Epicurus was certain of the existence of atoms and the void, he was less sure we could adequately explain specific natural phenomena such as earthquakes, lightning, comets, or the phases of the Moon (Lloyd 1973, 25-6). Few of Epicurus's writings survive and those that do reflect his interest in applying Democritus's theories to assist people in taking responsibility for themselves and for their own happiness—since he held there are no gods around that can help them.
His ideas are also represented in the derivative works of Democritus's followers, such as Lucretius's On the Nature of Things. These derivative works allow us to work out several segments of his theory on how the universe began its current stage. The atoms and the void are eternal. And after collisions that shatter large objects into smaller objects, the resulting dust, still composed of the same eternal atoms as the prior configurations of the universe, falls into a whirling motion that draws the dust into larger objects again to begin another cycle.
Some later philosophers attributed the idea that man created gods; the gods did not create man to Democritus. For example, Sextus Empiricus noted:
Three hundred years after Epicurus, Lucretius in his epic poem On the Nature of Things would depict him as the hero who crushed the monster Religion through educating the people in what was possible in the atoms and what was not possible in the atoms. However, Epicurus expressed a non-aggressive attitude characterized by his statement: "The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life."
Still, "the exile of the atom" is an appropriate description of the interim between the ancient Greeks and the revival of Western atomism in the 16th century, in view of atomism's success elsewhere during that time. If the atom was in exile from the west, it was in India and Islam that atomistic traditions continued.
In the pratishakhya text (ca. 2nd c. BCE), the gist of the controversy was stated cryptically in the sutra form as "saMhitA pada-prakr^tiH". According to the atomist view, the words (pada) would be the primary elements (prakrti) out of which the sentence is constructed, while the holistic view considers the sentence as the primary entity, originally "given" in its context of utterance, and the words are arrived at only through analysis and abstraction.
These two positions came to be called a-kShaNDa-pakSha (indivisibility or sentence-holism), a position developed later by Bhartrihari (c. 500 AD), vs. kShaNDa-pakSha (atomism), a position adopted by the Mimamsa and Nyaya schools (Note: kShanDa = fragmented; "a-kShanDa" = whole).
Between the 5th and 3rd century BC, the atom (anu or aṇor) is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 8, Verse 9):
kaviḿ purāṇam anuśāsitāram aṇor aṇīyāḿsam anusmared yaḥ sarvasya dhātāram acintya-rūpam āditya-varṇaḿ tamasaḥ parastāt
One meditates on the omniscient, primordial, the controller, smaller than the atom, yet the maintainer of everything; whose form is inconceivable, resplendent like the sun and totally transcendental to material nature
The ancient "shAshvata-vAda" doctrine of eternalism, which held that elements are eternal, is also suggestive of a possible starting point for atomism (Gangopadhyaya 1981).
There has been some debate among scholars as to the origin of Indian atomism; the general consensus is that the Indian and Greek versions of atomism developed independently. However, there is some doubt on this, given the similarities between Indian atomism and Greek atomism and the proximity of India to scholastic Europe, as well as the account, related by Diogenes Laertius, of Democritus "making acquaintance with the Gymnosophists in India". The atomist position had transcended language into epistemology by the time that Nyaya-Vaisesika, Buddhist and Jaina theology were developing mature philosophical positions.
Will Durant wrote in Our Oriental Heritage:
Indian atomism in the Middle Ages was still mostly philosophical and/or religious in intent, though it was also scientific. Because the "infallible Vedas", the oldest Hindu texts, do not mention atoms (though they do mention elements), atomism was not orthodox in many schools of Hindu philosophy, although accommodationist interpretations or assumptions of lost text justified the use of atomism for non-orthodox schools of Hindu thought. The Buddhist and Jaina schools of atomism however, were more willing to accept the ideas of atomism.
The Nyaya-Vaisesika school developed one of the earliest forms of atomism; scholars date the Nyaya and Vaisesika texts from the 6th century BC to the 1st century BC. Like the Buddhist atomists, the Vaisesika had a pseudo-Aristotelian theory of atomism. They posited the four elemental atom types, but in Vaisesika physics atoms had 24 different possible qualities, divided between general (intensive and extensive properties|extensive) properties and specific (intensive) properties. Like the Jaina school, the Nyaya-Vaisesika atomists had elaborate theories of how atoms combine. In both Jaina and Vaisesika atomism, atoms first combine in pairs (dyads), and then group into trios of pairs (triads), which are the smallest visible units of matter.
Atomistic philosophies are found very early in Islamic philosophy, and represent a synthesis of the Greek and Indian ideas. Like both the Greek and Indian versions, Islamic atomism was a charged topic that had the potential for conflict with the prevalent religious orthodoxy. Yet it was such a fertile and flexible idea that, as in Greece and India, it flourished in some schools of Islamic thought.
The most successful form of Islamic atomism was in the Asharite school of philosophy, most notably in the work of the philosopher al-Ghazali (1058-1111). In Asharite atomism, atoms are the only perpetual, material things in existence, and all else in the world is "accidental" meaning something that lasts for only an instant. Nothing accidental can be the cause of anything else, except perception, as it exists for a moment. Contingent events are not subject to natural physical causes, but are the direct result of God's constant intervention, without which nothing could happen. Thus nature is completely dependent on God, which meshes with other Asharite Islamic ideas on causation, or the lack thereof (Gardet 2001).
Other traditions in Islam rejected the atomism of the Asharites and expounded on many Greek texts, especially those of Aristotle. An active school of philosophers in Spain, including the noted commentator Averroes (1126-1198 AD) explicitly rejected the thought of al-Ghazali and turned to an extensive evaluation of the thought of Aristotle. Averroes commented in detail on most of the works of Aristotle and his commentaries did much to guide the interpretation of Aristotle in later Jewish and Christian scholastic thought.
One of the first groups of atomists in England was a cadre of amateur scientists known as the Northumberland circle, led by Henry Percy (1585-1632 AD), the 9th Earl of Northumberland. Although they published little of account, they helped to disseminate atomistic ideas among the burgeoning scientific culture of England, and may have been particularly influential to Francis Bacon, who became an atomist around 1605, though he later rejected some of the claims of atomism. Though they revived the classical form of atomism, this group was among the scientific avant-garde: the Northumberland circle contained nearly half of the confirmed Copernicans prior to 1610 (the year of Galileo's The Starry Messenger). Other influential atomists of late 16th and early 17th centuries include Giordano Bruno, Thomas Hobbes (who also changed his stance on atomism late in his career), and Thomas Hariot. A number of different atomistic theories were blossoming in France at this time, as well (Clericuzio 2000).
A more well-known advocate of atomism in the early 16th century was Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 AD). He first published a work based on atomism in 1612, Discourse on Floating Bodies (Redondi 1969). In The Assayer, Galileo offered a more complete physical system based on a corpuscular theory of matter, in which all phenomena—with the exception of sound—are produced by "matter in motion". Galileo found some of the basic problems with Aristotelian physics through his experiments, and he utilized a theory of atomism as a partial replacement, but he was never unequivocally committed to it. For example, his experiments with falling bodies and inclined planes led him to the concepts of circular inertial motion and accelerating free-fall. These notions contradicted the Aristotelian theories of impulse and natural place, which dictated that bodies fall equal distances in equal times and all motion (except that of the heavens) is finite. Atomism could not explain the law of fall, but was consistent with his concept of inertia, since motion was conserved in ancient atomism (but not in Aristotelian physics). Galileo scholar Pietro Redondi has even suggested that the root of the church's persecution of Galileo was his rejection of Aristotelian philosophy and championing of atomism (Redondi 1969). Although that was certainly not the whole story behind the so-called Galileo Affair, it is another intriguing element and may have a germ of truth.
Despite the success (and controversy) generated by 16th and 17th century atomists, atomism was not fully revived until Descartes and Gassendi published their new physics systems based on corpuscular (in the case of Descartes) and atomistic (in the case of Gassendi) theories. Descartes' mechanical philosophy of corpuscularism had much in common with atomism, and may be considered in some sense another version of it. Descartes (1596-1650 AD) thought everything physical in the universe to be made of tiny "corpuscles" of matter. Like the ancient atomists, Descartes claimed that sensations, such as taste or temperature, are caused by the shape and size of tiny pieces of matter. The main difference between atomism and corpuscularism was the existence of the void. For Descartes, there could be no vacuum, and all matter was constantly swirling to prevent a void as corpuscles moved through other matter. Another key distinction between Descartes' corpuscularism and classical atomism is Descartes' concept of mind/body duality, which allowed for an independent realm of existence for thought, soul, and most importantly, God. Gassendi's system was much closer to classical atomism, but without the atheistic undertones.
Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655 AD) was a Catholic priest from France who was also an avid natural philosopher. He was particularly intrigued by the Greek atomists, so he set out to "purify" atomism from its heretical and atheistic philosophical conclusions (Dijksterhius 1969). Gassendi formulated his atomistic conception of mechanical philosophy partly in response to Descartes; he particularly opposed Descartes' reductionist view that only purely mechanical explanations of physics are valid, as well as the application of geometry to the whole of physics (Clericuzio 2000).
The final form of atomism that came to be accepted by most English scientists after Robert Boyle (1627-1692 AD) was an amalgam of the two French systems. In The Sceptical Chymist (1661), Boyle shows some of the problems with Aristotelian physics that arise from chemistry experimentation, and offers up atomism as a possible explanation. The unifying principle that led to the acceptance of this hybrid atomism was the mechanical philosophy, which was becoming widely accepted by Western scientists. Despite the problems with atomism, it was clear by the end of the 17th century that it was a better alternative than Aristotelian physics, especially since it was compatible with the mechanical philosophy.
By the late 1700s, the useful practices of engineering and technology began to influence philosophical explanations for the composition of matter. Those who speculated on the ultimate nature of matter began to verify their "thought experiments" with some repeatable demonstrations, when they could.
Roger Boscovich provided the first general mathematical theory of atomism, based on the ideas of Newton and Leibniz but transforming them so as to provide a programme for atomic physics. - Lancelot Law Whyte Essay on Atomism, 1961, p 54.
In 1808, John Dalton assimilated the known experimental work of many people to summarize the empirical evidence on the composition of matter. He noticed that distilled water everywhere analyzed to the same elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Similarly, other purified substances decomposed to the same elements in the same proportions by weight.
Furthermore, he concluded that there was a unique atom for each element, using Lavoisier's definition of an element as a substance that could not be analyzed into something simpler. Thus, Dalton concluded the following.
Dalton concluded that the fixed proportions of elements by weight suggested that the atoms of one element combined with only a limited number of atoms of the other elements to form the substances that he listed.