Friday, 4 January 2008

The Nature of Atoms

The first chapter of The Portable Atheist has some extracts from the epic poem On the Nature of Things by a guy named Lucretius who lived around 95BC-55BC. Lucretius was an atomist, that is, he believed that the universe was made up of tiny things called atoms. He was quite ahead of his time, although atoms in his day were considered to be infinite in number and various in size and shape, and perfectly solid, with no internal gaps and eternal.

Lucretius has many ideas about lots of things like how when you die the soul is "scattered abroad [like when you break a pottery piece], and dies much more quickly. / And the sooner resolved back into its primary atoms [which I think sounds very much unlike a broken pottery piece]" (page 5. Book 3.15)

He also says that primitive man learnt that we should pity the helpless because if they didn't learn that the human race would have been wholly abolished and we wouldn't be here. (Book 5.39)

But I want to focus on his main objective of the poem:

And her first rule for us from this premises shall take its beginning;
"Never did will of gods bring anything forth out of nothing."
For, in good sooth, it is thus that fear restraineth all mortals,
Since both in earth and sky they see that many things happen
Whereof they cannot by any know law determine the causes;
So their occurrence they ascribe to supernatural power.
Therefore when we have seen that naught can be made out of nothing,
Afterwards we shall more rightly discern the thing which we search for:-
Both out of what it is that everything can be created,
An in a way all came, without help of gods, into being. (Page 3. Book 1.6)
He cites the objection and then sets out to prove that all came into being without the help of the gods. He claims that naught (nothing of very much importance, something very small) can be made out of nothing. But these small things are not all unified and the same:

As it but normal when each from a fixed seed in a fixed season
Grows, and growing, preserves its kind: thus telling us clearly
That from appropriate atoms each creature grows great and is nourished (Page 4. Book 1.7)
Since trees and animals are different they all must clearly come from a different seed. So it looks like many different small objects can come from nothing. Lucretius doesn't go into that much detail exaclty how, but he just maintains that it wasn't the the gods:

I would make bold to aver and maintain that the order of Nature
Never by will of the gods for us mortals was ever created... (page 4. Book 2.5)
These selected bit of Lucretius poem really hasn't swayed me. I still think that the Greek gods didn't make the universe. I also think that if you consider the universe a closed system (that there is no supernatural involvement), then something can not come out of nothing and so then you are left with the problem that everything exists.

You can read the whole poem here (by a different translator).


Post a Comment