Posts Tagged ‘atoms’

Spiritual form?

If you read yesterday’s dialogue, you will certainly want to know whether anyone really thought that spiritual things were made of atoms.

The answer is yes, and it generated a lot of confusion.

Keep in mind that up to the time of Galileo it was not clear that the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars were governed by the same physical laws as grass and spoons and lobsters. It was a great and profound thought that earthly objects were governed by physical laws at all; that the celestial objects were governed by the same laws was beyond concept at least until they could be seen more clearly. Quintessence was thought to be naturally luminous – are not all the objects we see in the sky luminous? And God is light, right? “In him there is no darkness at all.” And all the celestial objects are also round, perfectly round as far as those men could see. Our moon has slight imperfections of luminosity, and this was thought possibly due to its relationship with the imperfect earth…

And so forth.

So spiritual things were thought to have their own atoms – at least that meant they had a physics — and earthly things had four kinds of atoms and some of them – people at least – might have some quintessence too.

A Greek idea?

My dialogue is written as if there had been a single “Greek” idea. Not at all! There were so many ideas over a long period of time! Ideas of Greeks, Romans, Islamic scholars, the schools of Europe… When ideas are not disciplined by facts, they meander all over the place, and at a time in history when atoms were just an idea, and the tools to check that idea were not available, the idea took many forms. One very important aspect of the atomic concept, from a historical point of view, was its long history of association with atheism.


Atheism? How can a purely physical concept have an atheistic implication?

We ask that question because our own idea of atoms is just chemistry, or just physics, actually, and the more fundamental issue of deep causality – of creation – is, in our thinking, separate from the concept of an atom.

But for Democritus, the original Greek atomist, atoms and their random motions were the cause of everything. He was the first Darwinian, really. Random, accidental motions of non-descript minute scraps of reality are the total cause of everything in the universe – so he thought. And, by the way, he didn’t even believe in the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. He just had these little pellets and their motions.

Before you laugh that off, however, let me remind you that the concept of an atom was the concept of an unbreakable part. The things we call atoms can be disassembled. If you think of protons and electrons, you are closer to the concept – the Democritus concept – of an atom. Nobody can break an electron. And though protons are said to have parts —  quarks and gluons — those “parts” are mathematical descriptions of how protons work. As far as I know, the proton has never been disassembled. To that extent, he would have been happy, I think.

The issue of atheism in relation to atoms was just this: are the things we see in the world, such as trees and lobsters, caused by and made of atoms? Or are they just made of atoms but designed and caused by some other agent? And then: if they are caused by another agent, is that agent physical – because then the causal agent would be made of atoms and we would have to ask about its cause. Yet if the lobsters and trees and things are made of atoms and designed and caused by a non-physical entity, then you have spiritual things causing physical things. How is that possible? Can your thought make a single blade of grass? No, indeed. It is silly to think of it.

So that was the problem, and there was a big split between those who thought that atoms and their motions were eternal and were the source of all causation, vs. those who thought that the atoms had a cause which was not physical, and motions which were somehow given to them from the beginning.

As you reflect on these things, consider again that an electron is never at rest. Whether a proton is at rest is no longer under discussion only because a proton is now considered only mathematically by most people. At the last juncture when it was generally considered to have a shape, it was thought to be in motion: a slender, twisting torus (doughnut) with an electric charge running around. Some people still view it that way. The idea of eternal motion in the unbreakable smallest parts is not so very far out of line with what we now know.

In sum, the atheists, Democritus, Lucretius, and various others over a long period of time, thought that the atoms and the forms that they accidentally produced were the whole of reality and had no need of cause or creation. The theists sometimes rejected atomism completely, but in any case asserted that the forms of real things — fishes, roses, oceans — must have a cause greater than the accidental collisions of mindless small parts.

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If we are to speak of the history of chemistry, we must begin, not with Lavoisier, but long ago, with the fundamental question the Greeks sought to answer: what are things really made of? Here is a dialogue, full of ridiculous anachronisms which begins with Walter de la Mare’s poem Miss T and seeks to show what the original concept of atoms was all about.

Dialong on Atoms:


  • It’s a very odd thing
  • As odd as can be
  • That whatever Miss T. eats
  • Turns into Miss T

Simpleton: Well, when I was in the orchard, I saw a lot of little children with rosy cheeks, and I couldn’t help thinking that they had got the apples’ cheeks right into their own. Somehow, I think one does become what one eats. I like an apple myself, now and then.

Greek: Don’t be silly. Old ladies eat apples too, and so do pigs and birds for that matter, and none of them have rosy cheeks.

Poet: Porridge and apples,

Mince, muffins and mutton,

Simpleton: There you go! The old ladies have cheeks like porridge.

Poet: Not a rap, not a button it matters…

Greek: What I was thinking was that apples and mutton must both have very small parts that can turn around and become parts of people and birds and pigs. I wonder what those parts are like, and how small they are.

Poet: Very small indeed, I should think, for even if you grind flour ever so fine, it won’t make applesauce when you add the water back.

Greek: No indeed. The parts must be much smaller than the finest flour.

Simpleton: If you can’t see them, why should you talk about them? I would rather talk about bread than flour any day of the week. What say we have a bowl of chocolate pudding right about now. Why should we stand here talking about things we can’t see?

Greek: I just like to understand things. And think about it: you use the same words every day, but you always say slightly different things. I’m thinking there must be words or an alphabet that things are made of.

Poet: When I see my daughter’s hair in the wind, I always think she should be able to fly.

Simpleton: Yet however many ducks she eats, it never happens, does it? I should know: I eat only ducks and pigeons, and drink only the sap of trees whose seeds fly, such as the maple. Yet here I am, as much stuck on earth as ever.

Greek: Indeed, the matter cannot be so simple or we’d all be flying, to be sure. Yet since one thing changes to another, I must believe that everything is really, truly, at the bottom, made of just one kind of material, one kind of little pellet, too small to see. Sometimes it gloms together in balls, sometimes in strings, perhaps sometimes in wings. Different patterns for different things; but I’m sure everything can be broken down into these simple pellets and reconfigured.

Poet: I cannot understand this. How could it know which way to regroup itself? I think you have given your pellets too many options for as orderly as the world really is. There must be more than one kind of pellet.

Greek: Well, then. How many do you want?

Simpleton: Certainly the pellets that make fire cannot be the same as those that make water for one would douse the other. I am quite sure of it, for I have tried many times to build a fire in the damp, and it will not do.

Poet: And I suppose those that make the wind and air cannot be the same as the heavy earth. I think my daughter must have more of the airy kind than I. And horses must have much more of the airy kind than pigs; that is why they move with such swiftness and grace.

Greek: So we might have four kinds of unbreakable pellets: earth and air for the heavy and light; fire, and water for the wet and dry. That’s a nice accounting. Each thing has different amounts of each and different configurations. What do you think?

Simpleton: I can’t say I much like the name pellets. Sounds like rabbit droppings.

Greek: Well, we could call them “atoms” because that means unbreakable ones.

Simpleton: Atoms. The unbreakable ones. Why didn’t I think of that? I believe I remember the word from my Greek studies, long ago. Atoms.

Poet: But what of the mind, the mind!? Minds also travel from one person to another and are reconfigured. I have several ideas that my mother says that I received from my great-grandfather, though I never met him. And I have often reconfigured your thoughts, also, Greek.

Simpleton: My thoughts are always completely new. I don’t need pellets or atoms for them.

Greek: Perhaps your thoughts are new, perhaps not; I had not noticed any. The words you use, however, are old, or we would not understand you. Words – or perhaps letters – are the atoms of thought.

Poet: Letters, I think. Indeed, my task is to change the meanings of words, making them richer with every verse, but the letters do not change. Yes, it is the letters that are like atoms. Alone, they have no meaning, and the same letters can mean rose or sore, just as the same atoms could be in acorns or in pigs.

Simpleton: Do we need not an atom for metal? Surely metal is different from earth?

Greek: You will be having a thousand atoms, if we let you go on. Did you never see a rusted sword? Metals return to the earth from which they are born.

Simpleton: I had not thought of rust. You are right. You are entirely right. As always!

Poet: But the soul, the soul! Clearly the soul needs its own atoms. A very fine atom which can slip in among the earthly atoms of the human body.

Greek: Yes. We must have a fifth element for the parts of the soul. We will call it quintessence – quint because it is the fifth type of atom, and essence because it is the most important of all the atoms.

Simpleton: Quintessence. The fifth. I have never seen that. It must be very clear, clearer than water. Perhaps I have seen it once.

Poet: It is not likely that you have seen it, for I have not.

Greek: So that is settled: we have five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and quintessence. All things are made of these and these alone.

Poet: It is settled with me and here’s the proof of it:

  • Earth and air
  • Water and fire
  • And essence of quint
  • Is all we desire.

Simpleton: And the dove has more airy atoms than the pig. I will keep trying to fly. It must be possible. I know it must!

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