Two founding philosophers of ancient atomism are Leucippus and Democritus. The former is an obscure figure, whose exact birthplace and life are not known, while the latter is a more famous thinker, whose fame has not been always positive, and may be the cause why his writings are so badly preserved (out of seventy of them, none is complete). Leucippus was the first, who developed atomism, and Democritus, considered his main follower, applied it to natural phenomena and developed the theory of knowledge based on it. Together they created a response to the Eleatic challenge that is considered the most complex and intricate. Some features of it have resurged in modern thinking.
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As the name suggests, the ancient theory of atomism offers that only two substances exist: atoms, which make up matter, and their absence. Democritus calls it the void, in other words the absence of matter, simply “nothing”. There is the infinite number of indivisible atoms moving about in an infinitely big void. All of them are homogenous and have only three qualities: shape, position, and order relative to other atoms. They have no other characteristics (color, temperature, and others). What qualities they have can never be altered. It means that atoms in a single compound cannot move relative to each other and cannot affect each other. They are always passive. Therefore, when some kind of change in the world happens, atoms themselves remain unaffected, but the way, in which people perceive them changes. “Truth is in the appearance” (McKirahan, 2011). Atoms cannot only change their spatial properties (they do not have other qualities), they are also indivisible, definitely neither physically or probably even geometrically. If one accepts that an atom has shape, one also has to accept that it is geometrically divisible. The reasons why Democritus states that atoms are indivisible are the following: 1) they cannot be affected (they have no inner void, for instance, which allows them to break); 2) they are too small, though still physical and not representative in nature, unlike the atoms in modern physics; 3)they have no parts.
Naturally, no one of these arguments is conclusive. On the other hand, as Zeno has shown, a finite-sized object cannot be divided into infinite parts (McKirahan, 2011). There has to be an indivisible unit at some point. Any object in the world is finitely divisible into indivisible atoms. This kind of thinking lets atomists avoid Zeno’s argument and makes the existence of atoms possible, even if it offers no conclusive evidence.
The second component of the atomists’ universe is the void, namely “that which is not” (McKirahan, 2011). It must exist between atoms (but not inside them); otherwise they would form one indistinguishable, infinitely large mass of matter. The same void allows atoms to move about without bumping into each other. It has spatial dimension, and like atoms, it cannot be perceived by humans. The void is not air, which also consists of atoms. Furthermore, atomists state that it is not space. This point of view (as on many others) is challenged by Aristotle. After all, if the void is literally “nothing’, it cannot fulfill its primary function, keeping atoms apart, and not letting them merge into a single mass. Perhaps, it is best to understand this “nothing” in the sense of a gap between atoms. After all, atomists themselves acknowledge that the void is unthinkable and unimaginable to human beings. Perhaps, it does not even have spatial properties, aside from its infinite amount.
To clarify the strange statement that atoms are unmovable, it is important to explain that they are in constant motion. After all, in an infinite void, there is nothing to keep them still. Likewise, there is no static point that can be said to stand still relative to everything else. There has never been the initial static condition and no initial form of moving, but every motion of an atom is determined by its contact with other atoms, or rather, by the contact of a compound, in which it exists, with other compounds. One factor, which affects atom’s movement, is its weight. Apparently, ancient atomists believed that everything was composed of atoms only in relation to other bodies, but not to immaterial forces, such as gravity or magnetism. After all, postulating the existence of electrons and similar particles means to accept that atoms are divisible. It is an anathema to ancient atomism. If all atoms’ actions are determined by collisions with other atoms, then the picture of the world, offered by atomism, is a mechanistic and determinist one (in ethical sense as well), although these ethical implications have not been recently recognized in Greek philosophy.
As it has been already pointed out, atoms do not have different properties; therefore, the only thing that distinguishes different bodies is the number of contained atoms and their position relative to each other. Even between atoms in a single compound, there is a void – again. In different bodies, the spatial property of a void is different. However, it means that atoms cannot strike each other. It arises the question how they can interact with one another and how any sort of motion is possible. Democritus never offers an explanation.
The atomist also had some idea of a cosmos, according to which the Earth is at the center of it, with all planets revolving around it and the Sun being the furthest. Interestingly, Democritus is the first to postulate that the Earth revolves around the centre due to the vortex that is present in all collections of atoms, and which causes lighter atoms revolve around the core made up of “heavier” ones not due to gravity, but solely due to atomic collisions and motions. It is how planets and starts are formed.
Finally, as it has been above, the ethical view of the atomist theory is also a mechanistic one. The human soul also consists of atoms, and all thoughts and sensations, which a human being experiences, come from the interaction between these atoms, not different from a simple atomic motion in the physical world.
Therefore, the body and the soul are one, and subject to the atomic motion. The world of phenomena is replaced by the world of atoms, which is subject to strict deterministic laws. The latter are true in relation to thoughts and sensations, and sense-data got from the outer world via the five senses. It leaves some space for being skeptical about sense-data, since people do not experience the world and its laws, but the appearance of its atoms, which is worse or mediated by fallible senses. Whether Democritus was skeptic about knowledge or not is open to debate. Still, a human being can affect his or her soul-atoms, and therefore the feeling of pleasantness (or unpleasantness). Some degree of self-control and responsibility for thoughts and emotions is retained.
Finally, it is time to stress the key differences between ancient atomism and modern one. The former sees atoms as material, though very small objects, while the latter considers them much less material. Then, there is also the principle of atom’s indivisibility, which is violated by the concepts of gravity and other nonmaterial forces. The concept of energy is also one, which is absent in the theory of ancient atomists.
Considering that Aristotle was hostile towards the atomists, there may be some room for doubt whether his description of their theories was an accurate and objective one. However, more importantly, the fact that atoms cannot be affected inside a compound is a problematic one. How would atomists explain the example of grey iron turning red (it stays such even after the fire has stopped being administered), if iron atoms cannot move relative to one another? In addition, how would they explain the fact that compounds react with one another, changing into other compounds? It means the fact that the existing order of atoms is broken down, reformed and that atoms are again moving in relation to each other, while maintaining a kind of structure, being something impossible according to the atomist conceptions. Finally, their theory of knowledge is unclear: is truth really in the appearance of atoms, or is there some sort of rationally deducible order? Is atomic movement random, or are there some regularities, which are not just a product of humans imposing structure on chaos?
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