Week 7- Monday: Against Atomism- Aristotle and Plutarch. And Pro-Atomism- Meinel

By Sunday night, please comment on the readings.

Suggestions: Compare and contrast Aristotle’s and Plutarch’s criticisms of atomism.  Discuss reasons for rejuvenating atomism… the wacky hybrids… the potential theological issues… the alterations to Lucretius… the fun… the laughter…

17 thoughts on “Week 7- Monday: Against Atomism- Aristotle and Plutarch. And Pro-Atomism- Meinel

  1. Atomists would have had difficulty in convincing the Church, given the concept of transubstantiation of the Eucharist. As Meinel mentions in his article, this is the idea that the bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Jesus through power wielded by the priest (via God). Though the visual appearance remains the same, it is believed that there is a transformation that takes place, and that the bread and wine are truly the body and blood. Because there was believed to be a fundamental change in atomic structure, Atomists would not have been looked on fondly by the Church. Meinel often mentions how Atomists did not utilize experiments to either prove or refute their hypotheses. He writes how their theories would have been more likely to gain traction and get broader scientific support if they had done so. Though I know conducting an experiment on transubstantiation at the time would have been considered sacrilegious, it made me wonder whether any scientists at the time even attempted to do so. Meinel writes about the strict lengths gone to by the authorities to prevent the Atomist ideas from being spread, so perhaps not. It is interesting, however, to think of how such an experiment would have changed the course of both religion and science.

    • Transubstantiation.
      Atomic structure? define.
      How to experiment with transubstantiation.
      Interesting idea. It was discussed a lot, but I don’t know of any experiments. That doesn’t mean that they were not performed. Let’s think of some experiments to this end….

  2. My favorite topic: emergence! Sort of…

    It seems that Plutarch’s main problem with atomism is that he doesn’t see how higher-level, complex entities with phenomenal properties (such as color, taste, etc.) could comprise nothing more than lower-level, simple entities (atoms) that, by definition, lack those properties. This, I think, is the thrust of his argument against Epicurus: that it is inconceivable that phenomenal properties (or “qualia”) are not intrinsic properties of objects.

    This is, still, the great black box of emergence. Even if one believes that higher-level complex entities can emerge from lower-level simple entities, and that the higher-level entities have properties that are not shared by the lower-level entities it comprises (the higher-level is, in a way, “sealed off” from the lower-level), there is little in the way of explaining HOW or WHY this happens. Even if one believes that it is the quality and not the quantity of the interactions between lower-level entities (and both Plutarch and Aristotle touched on the interactions of atoms in atomic theories, though they used different words) that gives rise to higher-level phenomena, is one any closer to nailing down what “qualities” of interactions are the right qualities?

    If the goal of an atomic theory is to explain why objects have the phenomenal properties they do, then it is certainly the atomist’s job to give an account of where those phenomenal properties come from if they are not properties of the individual atoms themselves.

    There’s a fun moment when Plutarch says: “where the principles are not necessary, the ends and consequences are necessary.” Presumably, ends and consequences consist of principles arranged in relationship to one another, like theorems and proofs in mathematics. Proofs consist of theorems arranged in particular ways such that they arrive at some consequence or end. But this is precisely the type of emergent phenomenon that he seems unable to swallow, that higher-level entities (like proofs and consequences and ends) have properties not shared by their component parts (like theorems and principles)! How, on Plutarch’s view, could the consequences be necessary where the principles are not? I absolutely agree that where the principles are not necessary, the consequences and ends are, I just don’t think Plutarch can be committed to that view while flatly denying the existence of emergent phenomena.

    On another note, Aristotle brought up one of my other favorite things: gunkiness. John McTaggart coined this term in his argument for ontological idealism, and it essentially proposes that all objects are gunky, meaning that they are infinitely divisible. An object is gunky if its whole has parts that themselves have parts, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum — in other words, a gunky object is not made up of atoms. If something is made of atomless gunk then it divides forever into smaller and smaller parts — it is infinitely divisible. Gunkiness is one of my favorite things because the word “gunky” is at once delightfully misleading and altogether appropriate.

    • Plutarch’s argument concerning qualities.
      Is consciousness a subset of what you call “emergence?”
      How do physical qualities emerge from atoms that don’t have those same qualities?
      Plutarch says: “where the principles are not necessary, the ends and consequences are necessary.” I was confused by this statement. Let’s discuss it in class. You clearly have some insights on this. I was thinking… axioms/principles necessarily cause ends. Even false ones. But that doesn’t make sense. The necessary result of dropping a rock is that it will fall. Is the principal of downwardness not necessary for this effect?
      Continuity and the Glunk. A new buddies cop show on NBC. They sound different, but deep down inside, they are both lovable guys. Hilarity ensues.

  3. Aristotle writes of Democritus and Leucippus that’…since they held that the truth consisted in appearance, and appearances are contrary to one another, and infinite in number, they made the “figures” infinite in number… For a tragedy and a comedy are composed of the same letters.’
    I think it’s interesting that Aristotle brings in truth here, as it seems to be the only part of the readings that does so. I wonder how the conception of atoms as the basis of all matter relates to there being one ultimate truth in all things. Surely if atoms are what manifests all matter, then truth exists only in atoms and nowhere else? So to look for ideal forms and ideal truths in the Platonic sense, such as the ‘tableness’ of a table, would that not be simply to look at the formation of atoms in that ideal table, and thus to take atoms as the starting point of truth?

    • I like how Lucretius also uses the alphabet analogy for the atomic formation of substances… which implies finite arrangements if finite figures are assumed.
      Interesting truthiness issue. All of physics and metaphysics/ontology is built from tiny little specks of uncuttable matter.
      Cool idea you propose. Perhaps we could invent a new existent “thing” called arrangement or order. It has no physical existence, but it corresponds to the qualitative properties and existential properties of an object. Tableness is that arrangement. How is this different from Aristotelian universal forms or Platonic ideal forms? That’s an interesting question. Yet another dissertation topic that we can take a stab at in class.

  4. Out of these three assignments, I enjoyed the Aristotle reading the most. I thought it was funny how Aristotle thought that Empedocles “contradicts the facts” because he denies that any one element comes to be from any other element, yet that all other things come to be from these elements (which are all ultimately brought to be by “the one”), when this is actually the view scientists believe to be true today. Aristotle also argues against associations between differing atoms leading to larger compounds because “many impossible situations arise.” I was hopeful when Aristotle noted that while he is confused by coming-to-be via associations, he doesn’t understand how it could be anything else. However, it was frustrating at the end of the reading when he decided it still cannot be associations.

    I appreciated how Aristotle did not say that he was sure there really is anything that is indivisible at a certain point or not, which is still true today. Even if the Higgs boson is proved to exist, I don’t know whether or not it really will be the elementary particle physicists are looking for that is the reason for everything. While it makes sense that the most elementary particle would be the one which imparts a mass upon everything else (forgive me if I completely misunderstood the idea of the Higgs boson), I am sure that at one point people thought it was a great idea that atoms were the most elementary particle as well.

    • The One. Is Aristotle suggesting that his system is has just one type of stuff, just different qualities informing it?

      Your suspicion of ultimate answers, Higgs Boson or Lucretian Atoms, is refreshing. That doesn’t negate the excitement of finding something new, but a little perspective is always good. If we figured everything out, what would we do? I sort of like the balance between thinking we figured something out and thinking that we know nothing.
      It always seems to be the ones who believe that they have figured something out that cause problems. How does absolute faith differ from absolute scientific truth? How does time fit into this?

  5. To be honest, I trouble staying focused on these readings, mainly because importance of “why” it matters if atomism is legitimate or not got lost in all of the theories and ideas of how to prove or disprove its legitimacy. Aristotle and Plutarch held my interest sufficiently, probably because they were a little more related to the the big picture/were more philosophical/knew about as much about atoms as I do. (Here is wherein lies the evidence that I am not a scientist).

    It is an interesting question to theorize, though: at what point does a “thing” lose it’s “thingness?” I wonder at what point I lose my “Emily-ness?” How would I even be broken down into only an atom? Is that possible? If I am burned, is my ash still me? If my loving children turn me into a diamond, is that diamond still me?

    Further…in terms of living creatures– is our (independent) “me-ness” contingent on the presence of our soul in our body? For example, In the context of Hayy commenting that his mother was “no longer” there in her dead body, would her dead body and live body have been composed of different elements by nature of the fact that when her soul was still present within her, her “her-ness” must have been inherently different? Or might it be like water evaporating off of wet clothing in the heat of the sun, which Meinel refers to when speaking about material transport? Although you can’t see it “go,” (vapor or soul) the object from which “goes” (body or clothing) is noticeably changed once it’s gone…

    Sennert: methodology-less quantitative measurements :: Meinel: translation-less Latin

    • A diamond Emily…. How might Aristotle respond?
      Your questions are good ones and suggest the conundrum that people felt when weighing their options concerning a theory of matter. Soul, self, identity, matter,… How do we fit into this physical world? Is there more to it than physical? Are these questions built to fail? Do they imply a false dichotomy? Our questions now-a-days may seem perfectly rational, but do they even jive with past questions? Are we even talking about the same stuff? Is the Higgs boson the giver of mass like an Aristotelian quality or like a Lucretian atom? Force? ….without contact?…. How does that work. Remember playing with magnets? Can you explain what was happening? Can you explain it in vocabulary from the 4th century BC? Can you really explain it…. or are you just using invented words like protons and electrons to whitewash your ignorance? I do that all the time. Whenever my vocabulary gets big, I’m usually in bs mode.

  6. I found it interesting how ancient philosophers and scientists came to think about “atoms” without a “solid” reason to think of it. The idea of their extrapolation is fascinating. Philosophers could come close to describing what is, without proper empirical evidence. They simply observed and sensed that X is this way, so we can infer that Y is this way. I really liked Aristotle’s metaphor of comedy and tragedy both being created out of letters. Also, when Aristotle was talking about infinite divisibility and indivisibility, I could not help but think of the argument: you cannot go from point A to point B without going halfway first, and there are an infinite amount of halfway points, therefore, you can never from point A to point B. Philosophers seem to get into trouble when they try to rationalize the concept of the infinite in the borders of space and time.
    In terms of thinking about atomism without modern technology and knowledge, I definitely see the relevance of observing water evaporation, or solubility, etc… Observationally, water “disappears” into air, or salt “disappears” into water faster when either, the water that is evaporating is of a small amount, or the salt is fragmented. A big chunk of table salt does not dissolve into water as easily as fine grains of table salt. Smaller things interact with each other better than bigger things. This makes one want to consider something like an atom.
    I see a major problem of atomism to be the construction of a soul, or of consciousness. How do all of these inanimate atoms of no quality come together to form things with quality, then further form life?

    • “I really liked Aristotle’s metaphor of comedy and tragedy both being created out of letters.” Me too. Clearly that was a popular argument, since Lucretius uses it 200 years later.
      Ah… Zeno’s paradox. Still very annoying stuff. What if space itself is quantized? … or time? Atomic space.. atomic time. Quantum physics could possibly accommodate this. Why not?
      I like your observation that smaller things interact with quicker.
      The whole soul thing, and the problem of quality-less things amassing to make quality is worth some discussion.

  7. From what I gather, Aristotle’s Coming-To-Be and Passing-Away is his unpacking of other thinker’s “atom” concepts and where each falls short. When he mentions Empedocles’ argument, Aristotle notes that there is a disconnect: given that one element cannot come from another, such as fire from water, the definition of his word “alteration” does not apply synonymously to coming-to-be. However, it should. Empedocles assumes that everything comes from the One. Therefore, the basic components of both fire and water would essentially be the same, in essence, and could be “altered” in such a way that, when broken down, water could be made from fire.
    Aristotle seems to assume that he is the only one to have written about alteration and growth in terms of coming-to-be. He then goes on a well-thought-out rampage about bodies – dividing these bodies, defining these points, unpacking the idea planes, etc. It’s assumed that he concludes that certain things are infinitely divisible into smaller parts of itself. I was confused here as to wether or not this was negating the existence of an atom or asserting it. After reading Jane’s response (gunk), I realize that he is denying the existence of atoms for that object.

    • It is sometimes a bit hard to figure out what Aristotle thinks in these passages where he criticizes other people’s theories… especially when you read just a snippet. I must admit, that I am also a tad confused about Aristotle’s criticism of Empedocles, since Aristotle’s own theory is largely derived from Empedocles… at least superficially with the 4 elements and such.
      We should discuss rhetorical strategies.

  8. I thought it was interesting that in Aristotles argument he spends quite a bit of time defining all of his terms. Yes, this is typical for him, but by trying to fully explain his meanings, the audience is able to really concentrate on his philosophical argument on the whole. Contrastingly, the other arguments seem to accept or dismiss the idea of atomism based on their internal thoughts without giving the audience a good basis on which to evaluate their arguments, which I believe gives Aristotle the philosophical upper hand.

    Also, I was very interested in the idea that atomism clashes with the divine. If the One or God created his beings, should they be allowed to discover his building blocks? And along those lines and with the idea of indivisibility, does the One or God need building blocks to create beings? The role of the divine in the dismissal of atomism seems superficial, like oh God doesn’t need this (not explaining why) and so atomism is a load of huey.

  9. Aristotle seems to always have the “philosophical upper hand.”
    Your sense about divine atomism is pretty much what Galileo, Newton, Boyle, and Locke will argue.
    It is interesting to me that God-arguments seem so out of place to the modern mind, but clearly not out of place to the premodern mind. Are we really that different from our predecessors?

  10. Internet issues… sorry for the late posting!

    I found it interesting to read Plutarch and Aristotle together because they’re both addressing ideas on atomism but through different lenses. Plutarch, on one hand, seems to attack Colotes’s atomism for its inability to explain phenomenal properties–Jane mentioned color and taste, etc. He talks about how gold becomes gold, showing that there are phenomena where transformations take place–the potentiality of changes in properties suggests, for Plutarch, that atoms aren’t hard things that have definitive and unchangeable properties, for that idea does not explain more complex phenomena.

    Aristotle is really thorough in his explanation of how things come to be, which leads him to admit that there is no way of really knowing definitively the point at which something can be divided or split. That he approaches this philosophically leads him to the question of what happens when the body is split–he mentions points of a magnitude. What does he mean by “one point anywhere within it”? It’s interesting but also very difficult to even think of the body in these terms.

Leave a Reply