Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post, in which we’ll be taking a brief look at one of the ancient Greek ‘atomist’ philosophers, a man named Democritus. We’re actually jumping back in time a little, as Democritus is a presocratic thinker, but it makes sense to group him in with the atomists, as he is considered to have been pioneering in this respect.
Who Was He?
Democritus (c.460-370 BC) lived in ancient Athens and wasn’t recognised as part of the intellectual elite in his day. However, he has remained of interest to philosophers and scientists up until the present day, as his philosophy has a distinctly modern flavour.
At the heart of Democritus’ work was an explanation of the nature of things. He postulated that all matter is divided into indivisible components called atoms. To further explain reality, Democritus realised that these atoms must exist within something, which he referred to as a void.
Many of his writings have survived, and he is also referenced extensively by other writers, including the ancient Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius, who notes that Democritus lived exclusively for his studies. It is thought that he died at the ripe old age of 90.
What’s the Big Idea?
The obvious thing with Democritus would be to talk about his atomic theory, but I’d like to be a little novel and focus on a big idea of his that, although relevant to atomic theory, is a rather different area of wisdom.
Democritus believed that every event in the universe is causally determined by preceding events, and all this activity is an expression of atoms colliding with one another. The classic example of this is the effect of a billiard ball striking another. Modern determinists and materialists would find a lot of agreement with this way of thinking.
Deterministic thinking necessarily causes one to go back in time and postulate what it was that got the metaphorical ball rolling in the first place. Scientists in the modern age postulate a big bang theory, but this always begs the question of what preceded the big bang and how something can come from nothing.
I believe this leads us to a powerful argument for the existence of God. While I believe that every event must have a cause, I don’t believe the universe is unfolding in a mechanical cause and effect way. Instead, I believe that a living God exists, who is in control of all activity in creation, and is unfolding events in accordance with His sovereign will in the single eternal moment.
It is not necessarily the case that the rules of science are absolute, and as one who believes in miracles, and has seen miracles, I know that the laws of cause and effect can be overruled by God in any situation. The universe is not robotic, it is much more like a grand cosmic puppet show, in which God, as puppet master, is unfolding a wonderful story of which scientific laws are only a part.
While Democritus shed light on the building blocks of matter, modern science has proved that atoms can be broken down into smaller particles, and those particles can theoretically be broken down ad infinitum, so the nature of matter which seems so solid to the human senses is really mysterious stuff. Perhaps matter isn’t so material after all.
Next Friday we’ll be looking at another atomist philosopher, Epicurus. He had some novel ideas in the field of ethics, so most likely the big idea we’ll be focusing on will be along those lines. Please subscribe to ensure you never miss a post, and thank you for reading!