God and the Atom

From Democritus to Higgs

Prometheus Books 2013

Two millennia and five centuries ago, the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus proposed a simple model of reality: all that exists are material atoms and the void. Atoms were defined as elementary objects that cannot be further subdivided. The universe composed of atoms and void is infinite in extent and eternal in time. Events happen by chance, with no ultimate purpose. Any gods that may exist play no role in the world or in human life.

Atomism contradicted the predominant philosophical teachings of the age, notably those of Aristotle. However, it became the basis of the philosophical school established by his contemporary Epicurus. Later, around the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman Lucretius composed an epic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in Latin that immortalized the teachings of Epicurus and the atomists who preceded him. The atomic model contributed to the significant scientific progress that occurred in Greece and Rome during those centuries.

However, most of this progress, along with atheistic atomism, was suppressed when Christianity took over the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE, initiating the thousand-year period known as the Dark Ages. Only by sheer luck did a copy of De Rerum Natura survive. When it was discovered during the Renaissance, it helped encourage the scientific revolution that followed. The atomic picture of particles moving around and colliding with one another became the essence of Newtonian mechanics.

In the nineteenth century, atoms were identified with the chemical elements. In the early twentieth century, these “chemical atoms” were separated into more fundamental constituents. By the 1970s, these constituents were reduced further to the quarks, leptons, and bosons of the standard model of elementary particles and forces. The ultimate triumph of atomism, and the standard model, came in July, 2012 when it was announced that the Higgs boson, a particle predicted forty-eight years earlier as the origin of the masses of elementary particles, had been confirmed by two independent experiments involving thousands of scientists.

The nature of matter was not the only insight of the first atomists that has found support in modern science. The non-reality of secondary qualities is confirmed by physics. Quantum mechanics and Darwinian evolution before it have established the central role of chance in the world. Modern cosmology strongly indicates an eternal “multiverse” in which our universe just one of perhaps and unlimited number of others.

In none of this do we find any need to introduce immaterial elements into our models to describe observations. The atheism of ancient atomism is confirmed by the science of today.


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