In the Atomists, we see pluralism taken as far as it could possibly
go. We see Democritus and Epicurus divide all the world, as well as the
universe, into two categories; atoms and empty space. Everything else
is merely thought to exist. The atoms are eternal, infinite in size and
number and they are moving through the empty space. There is no motion
without empty space. Both Democritus and Epicurus agreed that motion was
impossible in a plenum, but it is here that their theories diverge. In
the cause of the motion, we begin to see a variety of opinions.
Both Democritus and Epicurus agreed that the "qualitative world of
sense perception arises from the motion of qualitatively neutral atoms.
They believe that the immense qualitative variety results from the
'jostling' of atoms...as they collide and bounce apart, and so,
constantly form new groupings" (Jones 84). They believe it to be a
mechanical process occurring completely by chance. Furthermore, although
new groupings are constantly being formed, only the few that can survive
are considered the "right" combinations. These are the combinations we
recognize through our senses as being "real", although they are not.
However, the way in which this complex motion begins is a source of
controversy and disagreement amongst the Atomists.
Democritus assumes that the atoms' motion is perpetual. The atoms
are never at rest. He presumes that their nature is to move, thereby
avoiding "the problem of explaining the origin of the complex motion of
atoms by simply affirming that it is in their nature to move so" (Jones
85). He believes that atoms are born along with the whole universe in a
vortex. The vortex is not an outside influence, but rather the motion of
the atoms themselves. He never accounts for the initiation of this
motion. He simply states that it is an inherent quality of the atoms
Epicurus, on the other hand, wanted to find a reasoning behind the
initial movement of the atoms; to find the cause of the initial
collisions which start the creation process of the universe.
Through observation of objects falling "down" within our limited
perceptual space, Epicurus concluded that in the vastness of infinite
space there can be no "down" since there is no point from which, or to
which, an object (in this case an atom) is falling. Since an objects'
natural state seemed to be rest, Epicurus decided that it was not motion,
but lack thereof, that is in a things' true nature. Therefore it is
motion which requires an explanation (Jones 85).
Since it is agreed that the atoms must collide in order to form
"objects" that possess different qualities, the frequency of these
collisions must be infinitely large. How else can one account for the
variety of objects recognized as "normal"?
The space in which the atoms are traveling is large beyond our every
conception of size, and the atoms are small on the very same scale. The
probability of even two of these atoms colliding while they fall through
the void is minute, if not non-existent.
Epicurus attempts to explain these collisions with his "swerve"
theory. In this, he holds there is an arbitrary, imperceptible swerve in
the straight "falling" path of the atoms. Rather than contribute the
collisions to the nature of the atoms themselves, he is attempting to
account for the frequency of collisions, and in effect increase the
probability of two atoms colliding in infinite space.
There are many problems with this postulation. In effect, it is
no better an argument than Democritus' nature theory. If we begin to
assume that events simply "happen" arbitrarily, we do not gain any deeper
insight than we do by saying that these events are in the nature of
things. Both of these positions lead us away from Atomism, since we are
beginning to affirm the creation of something out of nothing, a position
to which the Atomists are diametrically opposed.
Modern philosophers like Dr. Jones, allow for Epicurus' swerve
theory since "given one swerve the system can develop, for it is
plausible to suppose that colliding atoms react in different ways. 'Some
leap back at great space apart, others are thrust but a short way from
the blow'" (Jones 88). Ambiguous as it is, Epicurus could not logically
come to another conclusion without violating his earlier teachings.
Another point on which the Atomists disagree is the nature of
qualitative differences such as weight and color. Although both
Democritus and Epicurus agree that atoms are without these qualities,
their explanations of the phenomenon of their existence are quite
Democritus, attempting to maintain the integrity of Atomistic
physics, says that qualitative differences are, in fact, illusions.
Neither atoms, nor empty space possess these characteristics, therefore,
Democritus concludes, they must be illusions. He supports this theory by
saying that the motion of the atoms that constitute the sensed object
causes some of the atoms of that object to be flung into the path of the
atoms of the sensory organ, which in itself is a collection of atoms in
motion. Thereby, the collision of the atoms which are moving from the
object being sensed set the atoms of the sense organ in motion. The
motion perpetuates the illusion of qualitative variety. With this
argument, Democritus is able to account for the differences of opinion
regarding an objects' qualities. What smells sweet to one, may smell
foul to another.
Antithetically, Epicurus attempts to explain sensory phenomenon in
a clearer way. His explanation, however, again deviates from the core
declarations of Atomism. Epicurus agrees that atoms themselves have no
qualitative differences. Nonetheless, he declares that groups of atoms
can develop a quality such as color. He theorized that the qualities we
perceive are a by-product of the motion and collision within atomic
groups themselves. As the group moves, the qualities change. These
qualities Epicurus called "'properties' not 'accidents' of combinations
or collections of atoms. A property is a characteristic that some entity
necessarily has; an accident is a characteristic that is temporary and
transient. Thus, in accordance with these definitions, color is a
property of atomic collections (for all such collection have some color
or other), and 'red' is an accident. Though a collection is necessarily
colored, it is not necessarily "red" (Jones 89).
Therefore, Epicurus attributed the qualitative differences not to
our perception, but to the atoms themselves. We come to an impasse here.
We have already decided that all that exists are atoms and empty space.
Epicurus then goes on to state that the qualities are not illusions, yet
they do not exist as part of the atoms, nor do they exist within the
void. Where, then, are these qualities? Epicurus ambiguously calls
these qualities "accompaniments" yet never explains how they can exist
outside of reality and still be considered real.
Epicurus changed the doctrine of Democritus in many ways in an
attempt to clarify some of the more questionable postulations. Epicurus'
theory is not necessarily superior, but certainly progressive. There is
room for discourse on a variety of the Atomists' theories. Since they
are the first school of thought from which we have so much written
record, there is bound to be divergence of opinion. The areas I have
discussed relate only the area of physics. Epicurus attempts to resolve
some of the dilemmas Democritus leaves unresolved in ethical and
psychological dilemmas as well.
Of course, lingual and interpretive constraints play a part in all
philosophical theory of the classical period. Yet in our "modern" world,
we rely heavily on the ideas set forth by these great thinkers. It would
be foolish to take one concept as superior over another because the scope
of ideas given to us by these thinkers is too great a wealth to judge
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