The Pre-Socratics part 3 – Atomic theories

Welcome back to our exploration of the beginning and development of philosophy. In this text, I will be discussing an idea that originated with the ancient Greek philosophers and has actually been shown to be true by modern science – the idea that all bodies (living and non-living) are composed of very small particles that are not visible to the naked eye, and which the interactions of explain most, if not all, phenomena we see in the world (Adamson, 2014; Russell 1946). These particles are atoms and yes, the idea of atoms originated in 5th century BC Greece (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). Looking at the origins of the word ‘atom’ itself, in ancient Greek, tomein means “to cut” and atoma means “uncuttables”, things that cannot be cut or divided into smaller parts due to being indivisible by nature (Adamson, 2014). We now understand that the concept has since evolved, as ancient atoms are different from modern atoms, which are actually divisible into smaller protons, electrons and neutrons, which in turn are divisible again into quarks – I apologize if I there has been a recent development about the name or nature of these last ones, but as a physiotherapist trying to dip into philosophy, I’m still a victim of my own ignorance.

The idea of atoms first originated with two philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus (Adamson, 2014; Russell 1946). To understand how they have reached this idea, I first have to briefly mention a previous philosopher who was known for coming up with mind-boggling paradoxes: Zeno of Elea (Adamson, 2014), as often the atomists developed their theories in response to these paradoxes (Adamson, 2014). One of such paradoxes was the dichotomy paradox: let’s say you want to walk across any distance, for example from your couch to the kitchen to grab a piece of chocolate or some nice hummus. To walk that distance you first have to walk half that distance, and for you to do that you need to walk half of that half distance, but before you do that you need to walk half of that half of half the distance, and so on to infinity (Adamson, 2014). Because there are a infinite number of halves to the distance you have to travel, it is impossible to actually travel it – no hummus for you.

Another example was a paradox regarding how many things existed in the world, if reality is a unity like proposed by Parmenides (if you don’t know who this is, check my previous text on the pre-socratics here) or if more than one thing exists. This one goes like this: Imagine two objects, for example a mug and a laptop. We can see they’re not a single continuous object, so they must be separated from one another. We then assume then there is a third object, separating them. But then, who are the mug and the laptop different from this third object? There is probably a fourth and fifth object separate the mug from the third object and the laptop from the third object (Adamson, 2014) – I think you see were this is going.

I’m not going to answer these for you. I’ll let you think about them while they keep you awake at night due to the existential dread of your understanding of the nature of reality shattering before you.

The value of these paradoxes is that they made us and philosophers think about the nature of motion, time and physical boundaries (Adamson, 2014). It was also in response to these paradoxes that atomists theorized that if you just kept dividing something, you would eventually get to something that you’re unable to divide any further (Adamson, 2014).

Together with atoms, the atomists were also the first ones to come up with the concept of empty space, or void (Adamson, 2014). This may not seem that revolutionary of a concept, but if we take into account Parmenides rejection of non-being and Zeno’s paradox about what separates objects, we can appreciate that empty space was out of the ordinary for the time. But what were these ancient atoms like? Leucippus and Democritus proposed that all larger bodies are made of atoms, which can both collide and be gathered together. There are an infinite number of atoms and they are of many varied shapes, in contrast to present day uniform shape of modern atoms (Adamson, 2014; Russell 1946). Some are even hooked or have several curves, so they nicely attached if they come together, just like the pieces of a puzzle (Adamson, 2014). The different shape of the atoms would also explain the different shapes of the larger bodies they make (Adamson, 2014). Leucippus and Democritus also attempted explaining how the universe formed out of atoms. Going with their tendency to collide with each other, atoms don’t just bounce of each other, but due to their matching shapes, atoms will aggregate with other atoms similar in shape and size (Adamson, 2014). Together with this aggregation, massive groups of atoms throughout the cosmos will swirl around in vortexes, with the heavier atoms grouping in the middle and forming the earth and the lighter atoms grouping on the outside, forming the heavens (Adamson, 2014; Russell 1946). Following this reasoning, the atomists also thought that the infinite amount of atoms that exist means that there will be an infinite number of cosmos (Adamson, 2014). These cosmos would basically be parallel Earths that are either completely different – like an Earth made completely of hummus – or with just a slight difference – hummus is golden – with everything else being the same (Adamson, 2014).

Note to self: Stop writing while hungry

I find this whole theory fascinating as, besides predicting atoms as one of the fundamental constituents of matter, it also closely resembles how galaxies, stars and planets formed after the big-bang, with groups of molecules ending up nearby and their own gravitic pull aggregating them together. Even though in part this theory was developed in response to Parmenides, Democritus did express some things in common with him. Just like Parmenides described his way of truth as following deductive arguments due to the senses deceiving us to the truth of reality, Democritus also argued that the world as seen by the senses is unreal as it does not capture the fundamental reality of atoms and void (Adamson, 2014) – if something looks blue, feels hot, or tastes salty, there is no blue, hotness or saltiness, only the interactions of atoms that create the appearance of those (Adamson, 2014). In this theory we continue to see the ancient Greek tendency to value deductive means of reaching knowledge as opposed to the inductive process of direct observations (If these terms are confusing you, go check part 1 of the pre-socratics, were I provide a full explanation). Which in itself is not inherently wrong, we are often deceived by our own senses and personal experiences. They can provide us a very limited view of the universe and the phenomena in it. However does that mean reality isn’t, well, real? Present day science confirms the existence of atoms and other particles that we can’t perceive with our eyes. Adamson (2014) raises a pertinent question in regards to this. When a scientific theory is proved and shows that the world is very different from how we perceive it, does the scientific theory replace the phenomenal world (world as perceived by the senses) with a world only perceived by specialized means, or is the phenomenal world maintained with our understanding and experience of it being enhanced by science?

I would argue that both deduction and induction are needed. We can have the starting point of formulating a theory through deduction, but the only way to prove that theory is through putting it through the test in how it explains the phenomena of the world. If the conclusions of testing don’t match reality, than that theory is not a good one. And then we are back to updating our theory through deduction, but even this deduction is inductively informed by the previous observations from experimental testing. Deduction and induction actually appear to work better together, why set them against each other?

But what do you think? Are deduction and pure reason the means through which we can actually understand how the world works? Or even though the senses can sometimes elude us, only by observing the world through our senses can we understand it? Or have you been sold on my perspective of both have their role and can contribute to improving our understanding of the world?

We haven’t finished the Pre-Socratic philosopher yet – there are a lot more than I thought. So stick around while I try to better understand where knowledge comes from. Not that you can really move according to Zeno.

And as always, if you learned something and/or found this text interesting, please share it all over social media so you can help others learn. See you in the next one.


Adamson, P. 2014. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1. 1st edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Russell, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy. Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group: New York.

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