The First Atomists -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The First Atomists

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Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 B.C., in Asia Minor, in the period of wars with the Medes, and the rise of Athens under Pericles. Anaxagoras moved to Athens where he was a contemporary of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Diogenes and Protagoras. He was a far more original and profound thinker, who had a tremendous impact on philosophy in Athens. Aristotle said that he was like "a sober man among drunkards." Anaxagoras, following the best Ionian tradition, believed in experiment and observation. "There can be no question," says Farrington, "but that he regarded sense-evidence as indispensable for the investigation of nature, but, like Empedocles, he was concerned to show that there were physical processes too subtle for our senses to perceive directly." (B. Farrington, Greek Science, p. 62.)

His scientific discoveries were of the first order. He believed that the sun was a mass of molten elements, as also were the stars, although these were too far away for their heat to be felt. The moon was nearer, and made of the same material as the earth. The light of the moon was a reflection of the sun, and eclipses were caused by the moon blocking off the sun’s light. Like Socrates later, he was accused of atheism, probably accurately, since he scarcely mentions religion in his cosmology. These revolutionary ideas shocked the conservative Athenians, eventually leading to Anaxagoras’ banishment.

In opposition to Parmenides, Anaxagoras held that everything is infinitely divisible, and that even the smallest amount of matter contains some of each element. He also considered that matter was made up of particles of many kinds. Thus he asked how it occurs that bread, when eaten, turns into bones, flesh, blood, skin, and the rest. The only explanation was that the particles of wheat must contain, in some hidden form, all the elements necessary for the make up of the body, which are rearranged in the digestive process.

He believed there to be an infinite number of elements or "seeds." But there was one of them which played a special role. This was the nous, usually translated as "mind." Lighter than the other elements, it is, unlike the rest, unmixed, and permeates all matter, as an organising and animating principle. For this reason, Anaxagoras is usually regarded as an idealist. But this is far from certain. The arch-idealist Hegel considered that, while the nous was an important step in the direction of idealism, "with Anaxagoras it was not fully worked out." (Hegel, History, Vol. one, p. 330.) Anaxagoras’ nous can also have a materialistic interpretation, as the inner moving spirit of matter, or, more correctly expressed, energy. Hegel himself understood that it did not mean an external intelligence, but the objective processes which take place within nature, providing it with form and definition.

The idea that matter consists of an infinity of tiny particles, invisible to the senses, represents a most important generalisation, and a transition to the atomic theory, that remarkable anticipation of modern science, first expounded by Leucippus (c. 500-440 B.C.) and Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.). The breakthrough was even more astonishing when we bear in mind that these thinkers had no access to electron microscopes, or any other technological aids. There was therefore no means of corroborating the theory, let alone developing it at that time. More importantly, it incurred the wrath of the religious, and the scorn of the idealists, and was allowed to sink without trace in the long, dark night of the Middle Ages, until, like so many ideas of Antiquity, it was rediscovered by the thinkers of the Renaissance, like Gassendi, where it played an important role in stimulating the new scientific outlook.

About Leucippus, so little is known that some even doubted his existence, which, however was proved by the discovery of papyri at Herculaneum. Most of his sayings have come down to us through the writings of other philosophers. In a startlingly new hypothesis, Leucippus stated that the whole universe was made up of just two things, atoms and the void, an absolute vacuum. He was also the first to establish what later became known as the law of causality and the law of sufficient reason. The one authentic fragment which has survived says: "Naught happens for nothing, but everything from a ground and necessity." (Burnet, Early Greek Philosophers, p. 340). The early atomists were determinists. They placed causality firmly at the centre of all natural processes, but they did so in an unbending way, reminiscent of the later mechanical determinism of Laplace. This rigidity of the earliest atomists was later corrected by Epicurus, who put forward the idea that atoms falling through the void swerve slightly, thus introducing the element of accident into the framework of necessity.

The atomists derived all things from an infinite number of fundamental particles, the "atoma" (which means "that which cannot be divided"). These atoms were alike in quality, but unlike in quantity, differing only in size, shape and weight, although the smallness of their size made it impossible to see them. In essence, this was correct. The entire physical world, from coal to diamonds, from the human body to the scent of roses, is composed of atoms of different sizes and weights, arranged in molecules. Present day science can give a precise quantitative expression to this assertion. The Greek atomists were in no position to do this, because the limitation upon the development of technology inherent in the slave method of production prevented the proper utilisation of the brilliant inventions of the time, including the steam engine, which mostly remained on the level of toys and curiosities. All the more remarkable, then, was the way in which they anticipated one of the most important principles of 20th century science.

The celebrated American physicist Richard P. Feynman, underlines the place of atomic theory in present day science:

"If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed onto the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied." (Feynman, Lectures on Physics, 1-3.)

And again:

"Everything is made of atoms. That is the key hypothesis. The most important hypothesis in all of biology, for example, is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics. This was not known from the beginning: it took some experimenting and theorising to suggest this hypothesis, but now it is accepted, and it is the most useful theory for producing new ideas in the field of biology.

"If a piece of steel or a piece of salt, consisting of atoms one next to the other, can have such interesting properties; if water—which is nothing but these little blobs, mile upon mile of the same thing over the earth—can form waves and foam, and make rushing noises and strange patterns as it runs over cement; if all of this, all the life of a stream of water, can be nothing but a pile of atoms, how much more is possible? If instead of arranging the atoms in some definite pattern, again and again repeated, on and on, or even forming little lumps of complexity like the odour of violets, we make an arrangement which is always different from place to place, with different kinds of atoms arranged in many ways, continually changing, not repeating, how much more marvelously is it possible that this thing might behave? Is it possible that that ‘thing’ walking back and forth in front of you, talking to you, is a great glob of these atoms in a very complex arrangement, such that the sheer complexity of it staggers the imagination as to what it can do? When we say we are a pile of atoms, we do not mean we are merely a pile of atoms, because a pile of atoms which is not repeated from one to the other might well have the possibilities which you see before you in the mirror." (Ibid., 1-13.)

The world outlook of the Greek atomists was naturally materialist. This earned them the hatred of the idealists and the religiously-inclined. A particularly spiteful campaign of calumny was directed against Epicurus, whose philosophical views were so distorted for centuries as to turn them into their exact opposite in the popular imagination. They were self-confessed atheists. There is no room for god in this view of the universe. Democritus found the cause of mutation and change in the nature of the atoms themselves, falling through the vacuum (the "void"), they impinge on one another, arranging themselves in different ways, like combining with like.

Through an endless series of different combinations, we get the constant changes which are everywhere to be seen in nature, and which give rise to the transitoriness of worldly things. There was an infinite number of worlds "born and dying," not created by god, but arising and being destroyed out of necessity, in accordance with natural laws. Knowledge of these things is derived mainly from sensory perception, but this gives us only a "dim" understanding of nature. It must be supplemented and transcended by "bright" reason, which leads to the cognition of the essence of things, the atoms and the void. The fundamental elements of a scientific materialist world outlook are all present in these few lines.

The philosophy of Democritus was further developed and deepened by Epicurus. Like his mentor, he explicitly denied the interference of the gods in the affairs of the world, basing himself on the eternity of matter, in a state of continual motion. However, he rejected the mechanistic determinism of Leucippus and Democritus, introducing the idea of a spontaneous (internally conditioned) "deviation" of the atoms from their course, in order to explain the possibility of collisions between atoms moving at equal speed through empty space. This was an important step forward, posing the dialectical relation between necessity and chance—one of the key theoretical questions over which modern physics is still wracking its brains, although the solution was found long ago by Hegel.

Epicurus’ theory of knowledge is based entirely on acceptance of the information given to us by the senses. All senses are "heralds of the true," nor is there anything that can refute the senses. Here his presentation, while starting from a correct assumption—I interpret the world through my senses—represents a step back in relation to Democritus. It is too one-sided. Sense perception is undoubtedly the basis of all knowledge, but it is necessary to know how to interpret correctly the information of the senses. That is what Heraclitus meant when he said that eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men who have barbarian souls. The narrow empirical approach invariably leads to errors. Thus, according to Cicero, Democritus thought that the sun was immensely large, whereas Epicurus believed it to be only about two feet in diameter. In other respects, however, Epicurus made some startling discoveries. Gassendi, who may be considered the father of modern atomism, praised Epicurus because, exclusively by reasoning, he showed the fact later demonstrated by experiment, that all bodies, irrespective of their mass and weight, have the same velocity when falling from above to below.

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