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Atomism (from Greek ἄτομον, atomon, i.e. "uncuttable", "indivisible") is a natural philosophy that developed in several ancient traditions. The atomists theorized that nature consists of two fundamental principles: atom and void. Unlike their modern scientific namesake in atomic theory, philosophical atoms come in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, each indestructible, immutable and surrounded by a void where they collide with the others or hook together forming a cluster. Clusters of different shapes, arrangements, and positions give rise to the various macroscopic substances in the world.
References to the concept of atomism and its atoms are found in ancient India and ancient Greece. In India the Jain, Ajivika and Carvaka schools of atomism may date back to the 6th century BCE. The Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools later developed theories on how atoms combined into more complex objects. In the West, atomism emerged in the 5th century BCE with Leucippus and Democritus. Whether Indian culture influenced Greek or vice versa or whether both evolved independently is a matter of dispute.
The particles of chemical matter which chemists and other natural philosophers of the early 19th century found experimental evidence, were thought to be indivisible, and therefore were given the name "atom", long used by the atomist philosophy.
However, in the 20th century, the "atoms" of the chemists were found to be composed of even smaller entities: electrons, neutrons, and protons, and further experiments showed that protons and neutrons are made of quarks. Although the connection to historical atomism is at best tenuous, elementary particles have thus become a modern analog of philosophical atoms, despite the misnomer in chemistry.
- 1 Reductionism
- 2 Greek atomism
- 3 Indian atomism
- 4 Islamic atomism
- 5 Atomic renaissance
- 6 Atomic theory
- 7 See also
- 8 External links
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
Philosophical atomism is a reductive argument: not only that everything is composed of atoms and void, but that nothing they compose really exists: the only things that really exist are atoms ricocheting off each other mechanistically in an otherwise empty void. Atomism stands in contrast to a substance theory wherein a prime material continuum remains qualitatively invariant under division (for example, the ratio of the four classical elements would be the same in any portion of a homogeneous material).
In the 5th century BC, Leucippus and his pupil Democritus proposed that everything is composed of fundamental and invariant atoms, in order to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought on the nature of reality. On one side was Heraclitus, who believed that the nature of all existence is change. On the other side was Parmenides, who believed instead that all change is illusion.
Parmenides denied the existence of motion, change and void. He believed all existence to be a single, all-encompassing and unchanging monism, and that change and motion were mere illusions. Parmenides explicitly rejected sensory experience as a path to understanding the world, favoring pure reason. He argued against the existence of void, equating it with non-being (i.e. nothing).
In response, Democritus provides a reductive account of changeable figure, order and position as the aggregates of irreducible unchanging atoms.
The work of Democritus only survives in secondhand reports, some of which are unreliable or conflicting. Much of the best evidence of Democritus' theory of atomism is reported by Aristotle in his discussions of Democritus' and Plato's contrasting views on the types of indivisibles composing the natural world.
Geometry and atoms
|Element||Polyhedron||Number of Faces||Number of Triangles|
|Geometrical Simple Bodies According to Plato|
Plato (c. 427 — c. 347 BC), were he familiar with the atomism of Democritus, would have objected to its mechanistic materialism. He argued that atoms just crashing into other atoms could never produce the beauty and form of the world. In Plato's Timaeus, (28B – 29A) the character of Timeaus 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.
The rejection of atoms
Sometime before 330 BC Aristotle asserted that the elements of fire, air, earth, and water were not made of atoms, but were continuous. Aristotle considered the existence of a void, which was required by atomic theories, to violate physical principles. Change took place not by the rearrangement of atoms to make new structures, but by transformation of matter from what it was in potential to a new actuality. (This theory is called hylomorphism.) A piece of wet clay, when acted upon by a potter, takes on its potential to be an actual drinking mug. Aristotle has often been criticized for rejecting atomism, but in ancient Greece the atomic theories of Democritus remained "pure speculations, incapable of being put to any experimental test. Granted that atomism was, in the long run, to prove far more fruitful than any qualitative theory of matter, in the short run the theory that Aristotle proposed must have seemed in some respects more promising".[unbalanced opinion]
Later ancient atomism
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. He understood gods' role as moral ideals.
His ideas are also represented in the works of his follower Lucretius, who wrote On the Nature of Things. This scientific work in poetic form illustrates several segments of Epicurean theory on how the universe came into its current stage and it shows that the phenomena we perceive are actually composite forms. The atoms and the void are eternal and in constant motion. Atomic collisions create objects, which are still composed of the same eternal atoms whose motion for a while is incorporated into the created entity. Human sensations and meteorological phenomena are also explained by Lucretius in terms of atomic motion.
Atomism and ethics
Some later philosophers attributed the idea that man created gods; the gods did not create man to Democritus. For example, Sextus Empiricus noted:
- Some people think that we arrived at the idea of gods from the remarkable things that happen in the world. Democritus ... says that the people of ancient times were frightened by happenings in the heavens such as thunder, lightning, ..., and thought that they were caused by gods.
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." 
The exile of atomism
While Aristotelian philosophy eclipsed the importance of the atomists, their work was still preserved and exposited through commentaries on the works of Aristotle. In the 2nd century, Galen (AD 129–216) presented extensive discussions of the Greek atomists, especially Epicurus, in his Aristotle commentaries. According to historian of atomism Joshua Gregory, there was no serious work done with atomism from the time of Galen until Gassendi and Descartes resurrected it in the 17th century; "the gap between these two 'modern naturalists' and the ancient Atomists marked "the exile of the atom" and "it is universally admitted that the Middle Ages had abandoned Atomism, and virtually lost it." However, scholars still had Aristotle's critiques of atomism, and it seems unlikely that all ideas of atomism could have been lost in the West. In the Medieval universities there were rare expressions of atomistic philosophy. For example, in the 14th century Nicholas of Autrecourt considered that matter, space, and time were all made up of indivisible atoms, points, and instants and that all generation and corruption took place by the rearrangement of material atoms. The similarities of his ideas with those of al-Ghazali suggest that Nicholas may have been familiar with Ghazali's work, perhaps through Averroes' refutation of it (Marmara, 1973–74).
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.
The Indian atomistic position, like many movements in Indian Philosophy and Mathematics, starts with an argument from Linguistics. The Vedic etymologist and grammarian Yaska (c. 7th century BC) in his Nirukta, in dealing with models for how linguistic structures get to have their meanings, takes the atomistic position that words are the "primary" carrier of meaning – i.e. words have a preferred ontological status in defining meaning. This position was to be the subject of a fierce debate in the Indian tradition from the early Christian era till the 18th century, involving different philosophers from the Nyaya, Mimamsa and Buddhist schools.
In the pratishakhya text (c. 2nd century 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).
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:
"Two systems of Indian thought propound physical theories suggestively similar to those of Greece. Kanada, founder of the Vaisheshika philosophy, held that the world was composed of atoms as many in kind as the various elements. The Jains more nearly approximated to Democritus by teaching that all atoms were of the same kind, producing different effects by diverse modes of combinations. Kanada believed light and heat to be varieties of the same substance; Udayana taught that all heat comes from the sun; and Vachaspati, like Newton, interpreted light as composed of minute particles emitted by substances and striking the eye."
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 to 1st centuries 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 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.
The Buddhist atomists had very qualitative, Aristotelian-style atomic theory. According to ancient Buddhist atomism, which probably began developing before the 4th century BC, there are four kinds of atoms, corresponding to the standard elements. Each of these elements has a specific property, such as solidity or motion, and performs a specific function in mixtures, such as providing support or causing growth. Like the Hindu Jains, the Buddhists were able to integrate a theory of atomism with their theological presuppositions. Later Indian Buddhist philosophers, such as Dharmakirti and Dignāga, considered atoms to be point-sized, durationless, and made of energy.
The most elaborate and well-preserved Indian theory of atomism comes from the philosophy of the Jaina school, dating back to at least the 6th century BC. Some of the Jain texts that refer to matter and atoms are Pancastikayasara, Kalpasutra, Tattvarthasutra and Pannavana Suttam. The Jains envisioned the world as consisting wholly of atoms, except for souls. Paramāņus or atoms were considered as the basic building blocks of all matter. Their concept of atoms was very similar to classical atomism, differing primarily in the specific properties of atoms. Each atom, according to Jain philosophy, has one kind of taste, one smell, one color, and two kinds of touch, though it is unclear what was meant by "kind of touch". Atoms can exist in one of two states: subtle, in which case they can fit in infinitesimally small spaces, and gross, in which case they have extension and occupy a finite space. Certain characteristics of Paramāņu correspond with that sub-atomic particles. For example Paramāņu is characterized by continuous motion either in a straight line or in case of attractions from other Paramāņus, it follows a curved path. This corresponds with the description of orbit of electrons across the Nucleus. Ultimate particles are also described as particles with positive (Snigdha i.e. smooth charge) and negative (Rūksa – rough) charges that provide them the binding force. Although atoms are made of the same basic substance, they can combine based on their eternal properties to produce any of six "aggregates", which seem to correspond with the Greek concept of "elements": earth, water, shadow, sense objects, karmic matter, and unfit matter. To the Jains, karma was real, but was a naturalistic, mechanistic phenomenon caused by buildups of subtle karmic matter within the soul. They also had detailed theories of how atoms could combine, react, vibrate, move, and perform other actions, all of which were thoroughly deterministic.
Atomistic philosophies are found very early in Islamic philosophy and was influenced by earlier Greek and to some extent Indian philosophy. Like both the Greek and Indian versions, Islamic atomism was a charged topic that had the potential for conflict with the prevalent religious orthodoxy, but it was instead more often favoured by orthodox Islamic theologians. It was such a fertile and flexible idea that, as in Greece and India, it flourished in some leading schools of Islamic thought.
The most successful form of Islamic atomism was in the Asharite school of Islamic theology, most notably in the work of the theologian 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). Al-Ghazali also used the theory to support his theory of occasionalism. In a sense, the Asharite theory of atomism has far more in common with Indian atomism than it does with Greek atomism.
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 (AD 1126–1198) 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.
With few exceptions, much of the curriculum in the universities of Europe was based on Aristotle for most of the Middle Ages (Kargon 1966). Scholasticism was standard science in the time of Isaac Newton, but in the 17th century, a renewed interest in Epicurian atomism and Corpuscularianism as a hybrid or an alternative to Aristotelian physics had begun to mount outside the classroom. The main figures in the rebirth of atomism were René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, and Robert Boyle, as well as other notable figures.
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), 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).
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was an advocate of atomism in his 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 identified some basic problems with Aristotelian physics through his experiments. 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. The current Aristotelian theories of impetus and terrestrial motion were inadequate to explain these. While atomism did not explain the law of fall either, it was a more promising framework in which to develop an explanation because motion was conserved in ancient atomism (unlike Aristotelian physics).
René Descartes' (1596–1650) "mechanical" philosophy of corpuscularism had much in common with atomism, and is considered, in some senses, to be a different version of it. Descartes thought everything physical in the universe to be made of tiny vortices 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 Descartes' concept was the existence of the void. For him, 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' view and classical atomism is the mind/body duality of Descartes, which allowed for an independent realm of existence for thought, soul, and most importantly, God. Gassendi's concept was closer to classical atomism, but with no atheistic overtone.
Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) 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).
Corpuscularianism is similar to atomism, except that where atoms were supposed to be indivisible, corpuscles could in principle be divided. In this manner, for example, it was theorized that mercury could penetrate into metals and modify their inner structure, a step on the way towards transmutative production of gold. Corpuscularianism was associated by its leading proponents with the idea that some of the properties that objects appear to have are artifacts of the perceiving mind: 'secondary' qualities as distinguished from 'primary' qualities. Not all corpuscularianism made use of the primary-secondary quality distinction, however. An influential tradition in medieval and early modern alchemy argued that chemical analysis revealed the existence of robust corpuscles that retained their identity in chemical compounds (to use the modern term). William R. Newman has dubbed this approach to matter theory "chymical atomism," and has argued for its significance to both the mechanical philosophy and to the chemical atomism that emerged in the early 19th century. Corpuscularianism stayed a dominant theory over the next several hundred years and retained its links with alchemy in the work of scientists such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton in the 17th century. It was used by Newton, for instance, in his development of the corpuscular theory of light. The form that came to be accepted by most English scientists after Robert Boyle (1627–1692) was an amalgam of the systems of Descartes and Gassendi. In The Sceptical Chymist (1661), Boyle demonstrates problems that arise from chemistry, and offers up atomism as a possible explanation. The unifying principle that would eventually lead to the acceptance of a hybrid corpuscular–atomism was mechanical philosophy, which became widely accepted by physical sciences.
By the late 18th century, 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.
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.
- Therefore we may conclude that the ultimate particles of all homogeneous bodies are perfectly alike in weight, figure, etc. In other words, every particle of water is like every other particle of water; every particle of hydrogen is like every other particle of hydrogen, etc.
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.
- Chemical analysis and synthesis go no farther than to the separation of particles one from another, and to their reunion. No new creation or destruction of matter is within the reach of chemical agency. We might as well attempt to introduce a new planet into the solar system, or to annihilate one already in existence, as to create or destroy a particle of hydrogen. All the changes we can produce, consist in separating particles that are in a state of cohesion or combination, and joining those that were previously at a distance.
And then he proceeded to give a list of relative weights in the compositions of several common compounds, summarizing: 
- 1st. That water is a binary compound of hydrogen and oxygen, and the relative weights of the two elementary atoms are as 1:7, nearly;
- 2nd. That ammonia is a binary compound of hydrogen and azote nitrogen, and the relative weights of the two atoms are as 1:5, nearly...
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.
Atomic theory controversy
Dalton's atomic theory remained controversial throughout the 19th century. Whilst the Law of definite proportion were accepted, the hypothesis that this was due to atoms was not so widely accepted. For example in 1826 when Sir Humphrey Davy presented Dalton the Royal Medal from the Royal Society, Davy said that the theory only became useful when the atomic conjecture was ignored. Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie in 1866 published the first part of his Calculus of Chemical Operations  as a non atomic alternative to the Atomic Theory. He described atomic theory as a 'Thoroughly materialistic bit of joiners work'. Alexander Williamson used his Presidential Address to the London Chemical Society in 1869  to defend the Atomic Theory against its critics and doubters. This in turn led to further meetings at which the positivists again attacked the supposition that there were atoms. The matter was finally resolved in Dalton's favour in the early 20th century with the rise of atomic physics.
- Becoming (philosophy)
- History of chemistry
- Infinite divisibility
- Ontological pluralism
- Physical ontology
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