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.