The Theory of Atoms

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 biographerย Diogenes Laรซrtius, 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.

My Reflections

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!

28 comments

  1. I haven’t thought about this in a long time, but your blog peace reminds me that I used to contemplate that the universe expands ad infinitum into eternity, as far as we can tell, and, on the other end of the spectrum, the smallest substance of the universe seems to reduce ad infinitum. What if they connect? This would be a kind of circular reality not unlike some Eastern thought. I don’t believe that they do connect, according to an Eastern kind of concept. It’s probably more likely that matter breaks down to nothing. Just as the universe was created out of nothing, the end of matter, or the beginning, depending upon how you look at it, is nothing, which was formed out of the mind of God. Just some interesting thoughts as I begin my day on a Friday morning. Thank you for the platform.

    1. Some great reflections, Kevin, thank you for taking the time to share them. You might be right and matter is ultimately nothing. I’m wondering whether that might fit with the Eastern idea of the world being Maya (illusion). Interesting things to ponder!

  2. Interesting dude. ๐Ÿ™‚
    On the Determinist view, you bring up an important distinction which highlights the confusion skeptics often have about the subject. The Determinist view seems to be what Aquinas and Scotus would call an “accidently ordered” causal series. In other words, you look back through the chain sequentially (and chronologically); whereas, Aquinas would look at the causal change as “ordered essentially,” which is not chronological but looking at the parts as dependent on the former member. That’s why he said it didn’t matter if the universe was eternal, it still needs a Prime Mover. As you said, you cannot have an infinite number of (essentially ordered) members unless you have an infinite number of causes, and there still must be a first “uncaused cause,” otherwise you have infinite regress and the whole chain collapses into non-existence.

    1. Very interesting, Mel. Thank you for highlighting the distinction between ‘accidentally ordered’ and ‘essentially ordered’ causes, I don’t believe I was familiar with the terminology. I think I understand the distinction. You’re somewhat of an expert on these matters, so I’m grateful for your input! Have a blessed weekend ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Iโ€™m certainly no expert in philosophy, but when I finally understood this distinction, a light bulb went off in my head, and I realized what Aquinas was getting at.

        You have a blessed weekend, too. ๐Ÿ˜Š

  3. I’m of a different belief system altogether. Science would like to tell us that they have all the answers. Religion and many of the religious would like to tell us that they are the ones with all the answers. For me, I’m okay not having the answers regarding the mysteries of the Universe. From my perspective, everything (including the infinitum of atoms) is emanating through and of God, how it is happening is beyond my comprehension, at least on this plain of existence. To me, everything just is . . .

    I posted a quote on my blog today that fits with my comment here. Thanks Steven. Have a great weekend.

  4. Hey Steven, once again you have launched my mind into the universe, via an ancient Greek philosopher! Thanks for the mental jogging – can’t say I comprehend it all but I do appreciate the post! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hi Lisa! Thanks for reading, and apologies for launching your mind into the universe, I hope it’s on a boomerang trajectory and will be back with you soon! Hehe. God bless you ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Hey Steven! Did Democritus actually use the term “atoms”? I love particle physics, it’s just an amazing field of study and serves to confirm for me the reality of God. Someone once said – possibly C.S. Lewis – that as we search smaller and smaller what we ultimately find is mathematics – the ordered language behind everything.And as we split atoms we realize what incredibly gigantic forces are holding all things together, just amazing. Great post!

    1. Hi Don! Google tells me that Democritus proposed the Greek word ‘atomos’, which means ‘uncuttable’.

      I didn’t know you were interested in science as well. I’m certainly not a scientist, although in the new year I subscribed to a science journal just so I can keep on top of developments ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for reading!

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