An earlier post introduced one aspect of Lucretius’ poem On The Nature Of Things - the attack on priestly mediation. Another feature of the philosophy espoused by Lucretius is the idea that the universe is made of atoms - solid indivisible units of matter - quanta of matter, we might even say. This is the ancient atomic theory of matter taught, among others, by Democritus, adopted by Epicurus and later by Lucretius.
Why did the ancients attach such importance to atomic theory and how did they arrive at it? In addition to those two questions, why was atomic theory such an unwelcome idea? Well the ancient philosophers who espoused it certainly didn’t do much in the way of formal experiments as we would recognise them. They used observation, but primarily they used ancient logic.
Lucretius’ physics rested on the twin ideas that nothing can be resolved into nothing and nothing can come from nothing.
Firstly, matter cannot be divided and divided again into infinitely small amounts as Aristotle maintained. This would mean that matter could be destroyed as an infinitely small bit of matter would be a point with no dimensions. It would be nothing.
Secondly, if matter could be created from nothing then there could be no law dictating what can turn into what. This argument rests on the idea that nothing can have no properties, so there is no way of creating A from nothing as opposed to creating B from the same nothing.There can be no law to dictate that A must be created rather than B, because as nothing has no properties, no laws apply to it.
For if from nothing things we see were made,
All things could come from all things, and no seed
Would be required. Man from the sea would rise,
The scaly fishes from the earth come forth,
Birds dart from heaven, horned beasts and herds,
And all wild animals, born here or there,
Would hold alike the forest and field.
And all things cannot be from all things made,
Because in certain things, and them alone,
The power which can create anew resides.
Why was such a philosophy so unwelcome? Why were atoms so important to the ancients? Maybe it was because this is logic and observation rising from the swamp. Atomic theory, however primitive is bound to lead to more theories of the natural world. Theories not owned by the elite, not easily manipulated to support the status quo. In these ancient theories, maybe we see the first green shoots of intellectual independence.