Chapter 3. Atomism
The idea of atomism has been eleborated and extensively discussed in the philsophical traditions of East and West for many centuries. The concept of the discreteness of spacetime at Planck scale revives ancient atomism in the milieu of modern physics today. Here are some of the works from antiquity on.
3.1 Ancient Greece
As far back as we can see, the atomism thread in Ancient Greece begins with the presocratics.
Parmenides, 450 BCE
According to Popper (1998), Parmenides of Elea – an important presocratic philosopher of ancient Greece – was the creator of atomism (atomos, Greek for indivisible). First of all, he is known for his Two Ways – The Way of True Knowledge (aletheia) and The Way of Human Conjecture (doxa) – revealed to him by a goddess and described in his only work, On nature. The Way of True Knowledge includes the idea that behind the false and illusory world of change perceived by the senses there is an absolute reality that is totally static, a dark sphere of continuous dense matter, called the Being. In our sensory perceptions, we experience a dual world of atoms moving in the void, hence The Way of Human Conjecture.
Democritus, 400 BCE
Democritus, a student of Parmenides, is widely regarded as the founder of atomism. It is said that Democritus’ ideas were formed to contradict Parmenides. Democritus wrote on math, astronomy, and ethics, and had a great inﬂuence on later Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, and hence, on the whole of the Western Tradition.
Regarding atoms, he believed that material bodies were formed as temporary composites of eternal atoms, like ﬂocks of birds. Atoms are variously shaped and sized. The primary qualities of a material body – its shape, size, and weight – and its secondary aspects – smell, taste, etc – all derive from the size and shape of its atoms. Atoms move in a ”void”, which is empty, and yet is not nothing. The soul is made of soul-atoms, which are very small and spherical, and can pass through solid material bodies, like neutrinos.
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On chasing wild geese
A wild goose chase is English slang for a hopeless quest, perhaps due originally to Shakespeare. This comes to mind whenever we try to trace an idea back to its origin. Yet this is what historians love to do, and the history of ideas is wild goose chasing elevated to the level of an academic profession, since the prototypical case of Arthur Lovejoy, in his book, The Great Chain of Being. In fact, Part One of this book is an excavation of one of the great chains, and now, we are digging up the great chain of atomism.
The contemporary French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is a great chaser of wild geese. In his book Diﬀ´erence et Repetition, Chapter IV, Ideas and the Synthesis of Diﬀerence, he deﬁnes Idea (always written with a capital letter) and discusses the conditions under which an Idea may emerge.
The application of these criteria must therefore be sought in very diﬀerent domains, by means of examples chosen almost at random. First example: atomism as a physical Idea. Ancient atomism not only multiplied Parmenidean being, it also conceived of Ideas as multiplicities of atoms, atoms being the objective elements of thought. Thereafter it is indeed essential that atoms be related to other atoms at the heart of structures which are actualised in sensible composites.39
So we see that atomism, since is birth in the 5th century BCE, refers not only to the spacetime-matter level of physics, but also to the higher realms of consciousness.
3.2 Oriental and Islamic Views
It is always a pleasure to follow a thread from Ancient Greece, through trade routes to India, then circuitously to Early Islam, and thence to Europe. There is a long history of atomism in India, in both Hinduism and Buddhism.
On the other hand, the natural philosophy as propounded by the Chinese seems to be more inclined to synechism (the tendency to regard everything as continuous) rather than atomism. The battle between synechism and atomism was revived by Islamic scholars during later years. Next we shall describe the diﬀerent Indian views on atomism.
39(Deleuze, 1994; p. 184)
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3.2.1 Indian Philosophy
The six distinct philosophical systems which accept the authority of Veda are Nya¯ya, Vai´sesika, Sa¯mkhya, Yoga, Pu¯rvamim¯amsa, and Uttara-mim¯amsa¯ or Vedanta. Kana¯da is supposed to be the propounder of atomism within the Vai´sesika system. In fact, the word Kanad is derived from the word Kana, which means atom.
Ny¯aya Vai´sesika and Jaina Views on Atomism
The concepts of Avayavin (whole) and Avayava (part) are the key concepts in the atomic theory of the Nya¯ya Vai´sesika system. Here, the atom is supposed to be indestructible, indivisible, and without magnitude. Substances in this universe are thought to be of nine classes. Among these classes, four (earth, water, ﬁre and water) are considered to be atomic. These classes have their own atomic class with particular attributes. For example, an atom of earth has odour, one of air has touch, etc.
The concept of atom as developed in Jaina is diﬀerent from that in Ny¯aya Vai´sesika. The smallest object that can not be divided further was called param¯anu in Jaina. However, it has the capacity to change under certain conditions.
Jaina philosophy advocates the atomic conception of time where these atoms are distinct and can never be combined. Since they cannot be combined, they cannot be classiﬁed as astikaya. The concept of astikaya plays an important role in Jaina philosophy. The word astikaya consists of two words; asti (exists) and kaya (body, or more precisely individual particles). These individual particles or bodies are supposed to mix up or be added to make a substance. In this sense, time is not classiﬁed as an astikaya. This helps to diﬀerentiate between atoms of space, matter, etc., and those of time. Time atoms in the Jaina framework are ultimate, absolute, and real. This is diﬀerent from the conventional concept of time, as in minutes, hours, days, months, years, etc. The divisions and subdivisions in conventional time are linked to the diﬀerent units of measurements which are generally based on some changes in the physical universe, and hence, never to be unconditional, whereas the timeatom represents unconditioned or absolute time. According to Jaina philosophy, absolute time is described as real existent and being potent, i.e. it brings the changes in other substances, birth, growth, decay of things, etc. Here, conventional time presupposes absolute time.
Atomism in Buddhist Thought
Among Buddhist traditions, Vasubandhu and Dharmakirti (around 650 CE) particularly discussed the existence of atoms. Dharmakirti was a student of Dignaga, a Buddhist logician, and professor at the famed Nalanda University. He introduced in the thread a wondrous
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novelty, namely, that atoms are not eternal, but rather, ﬂash into and out of existence as points of energy. This seemed somewhat outr´e until very recently, when the quantum vacuum emerged into physics, as we discuss in the next chapter.
Yog¯aca¯ra, Ma¯dhyamika, Vaibh¯asika and Sautra¯ntika are the four major schools of Buddhism. The ﬁrst two belong to the Maha¯ya¯na sect and the last two to Hinay¯ ana. The Hinay¯ana schools admit the concept of atomism where as the Maha¯y¯ana schools deny it. According to these Buddhist schools there are two types of atoms, namely Dravyaparam¯ anu (simple) and Samgh¯ ataparam¯ anu (compound). They consider that eight classes of atoms compose the substances in our universe. Four are fundamental atoms associated with earth, water, ﬁre and air. The other four as secondary atoms associated with colour, odour, taste, and touch. Here, one can think of the qualities in terms of atoms also. It is to be noted that Buddhists do not consider atoms in terms of particles of some stuﬀ, but rather in terms of force or energy. The concept of an atom as a dynamic force within the Buddhist framework is compatible with the doctrine of momentariness, where every thing is momentary, and all things change. Here, the universe is simply a process and a system of interconnected activities, and all is in ceaseless motion.
3.2.3 Views from China
Around 290 BCE, the atomistic view was refuted in The Book of Master Chuang. However, Mohists around 330 BCE considered the idea of atoms or instants of time. This is evident from the following passages :
• The ”beginning” means an instant of time. • Time sometimes has duration and sometimes not, for the ”beginning” point of time has no duration.
3.2.3 Islamic Thought
A controversy about atomism began soon after 800 CE between the Islamic philosophers Nazzam, a divisionist, and Abu l-Hudahyl al-Allaf, an atomist. The arguments of Avicenna (980-1037) against material atomism had considerable inﬂuence on the thinkers of medieval Europe. The most inﬂuencial proponant of atomism in Islamic schools was Motekallamin of the 10th and 11th centuries. The views are summarized in Maimonides (1135-1204). Regarding the existence of time atoms it is stated: Time is composed of time-atoms, i.e. of many parts, which on account of their short duration cannot be divided.
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3.3 The Renaissance
Early Renaissance philosophy was dominated by Christian Neoplatonism, and relied on metaphors of continuous spaces and ﬁelds. In the late Renaissance, atomism was revived.
Galileo was famously condemned by the Vatican in 1633, overtly because of supporting Copernicus (that the earth moves) in his book, Dialogues concerning the two chief world systems, published in 1632. However, there is a competing (and controversial) theory according to which his real oﬀense was his earlier book, The Assayer, of 1623.40 This work advocated an atomic theory, according to which (rather like Democritus) the secondary qualities of matter (taste, smell, etc) were determined by the primary qualities (the shapes of atoms comprising the matter). This was of huge concern to the Vatican in that Transubstantiation – the oﬃcial dogma of the Church since the Council of Trent (1545-1563) regarding the consecration in the Mass of the Sacraments (turning the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ) – depended on secondary qualities being independent of primary qualities.
3.4. Modern quantum theory
In this book we are presenting a model of consciousness, not a claim on the structure of reality. The model is intended to be educational, and to present a vision of things that is beyond the usual frame of discussion. The model, as explained brieﬂy at the beginning of Chapter 2 and in detail in Part Two of this book, is a mathematical structure known as a dynamical cellular network. It is outside of space and time, and yet physical space, time, energy, and matter are derived from it. In other words, in this view, consciousness is primary, the universe secondary. In this we concur with the Advaita Shaivism philosophy of Kashmir, and other monist systems.
The dynamical cellular network concept has evolved in the physics of the quantum vacuum. Yet we do not mean to imply that consciousness is identical with the quantum vacuum, as others have done. Here, we brieﬂy review the emergence of the quantum vacuum in modern physics, and its recruitment as a model of consciousness. For the early history we rely heavily on the splendid work of Boi.41
40(Redondi, 1987) 41Page numbers refer to (Boi, 2009). Also see Quantum Mechanics in the Wikipedia, and (Von Neumann, 1955; Ch. 1).
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3.4.1 The beginnings
Shortly following the early death of Descartes, Newton’s universal theory of gravitation laid atomism to rest, where it remained for two hundred years. Then it rose from the ashes in a sequence of developments, collectively known as the quantum revolution. Here is a chronology of some of these developments.
• 1808, John Dalton posed a unique atom for each element • 1838. Faraday, cathode rays • 1859. Kirchhoﬀ, black-body radiation • 1877. Boltzmann. discrete energy levels • 1897. Michelson-Morley experiment (p. 51) • 1897, J. J. Thompson discovered the electron (Nobel prize in 1906) • 1900, Max Planck proposed energy quanta, founded quantum theory • 1905, Albert Einstein introduced the photon as a corpuscle • 1913. Bohr, model of the atom, Nobel Prize 1922 • 1914, Max Planck, black body radiation • 1920. Einstein, the ether (p. 57) Nobel Prize 1921 • 1924. de Broglie, all matter wave-like, Nobel Prize 1929 • 1924, Arnold Sommerfeld, quantum laws • 1925. Heisenberg, matrix mechanics (w/ Born, Jordan) • 1926. Heisenberg, uncertainty principle (at Bohr institute) Nobel Prize 1932 • 1926. The golden age of quantum mechanics (p. 57) • 1926. Pascual Jordan, quantum ﬁeld theory • 1926, Ervin Schrodinger, wave mechanics • 1927. Bohr and Heisenberg, Copenhagen interpretation
And now we come to the beginnings of the quantum vacuum.
• 1926. Paul Dirac, relativistic quantum mechanics • 1927. Paul Dirac, the vacuum as a sea of zero-energy photons (p. 64) Nobel Prize 1933 • 1927, Dirac, Pauli, Weisskopf, Jordan, Quantum ﬁeld theory • 1928. Dirac develops the relativistic theory of the electron (p.64) • 1930. Dirac proposes the vacuum as a sea of negative-energy electrons (pp. 51, 64) • 1930. Dirac, QED (perturbation theory of the quantum vacuum) creation and annihilation of quantum particles, particle-antiparticle pairs, virtual particles, vacuum polarization publication of ”Principles of Quantum Mechanics” • 1931. Dirac, magnetic monopoles
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• 1932. Dirac proposes the positron (p. 51) • 1935. Einstein, EPR paradox • 1939. Sidney Dankoﬀ works on quantum electrodynamics (QED) • 1940s, Feynman, Schwinger, Tomonaga, QED • 1848. Shin’ichiro Tomonaga, renormalisation, QED (p. 66) Nobel Prize 1965 • 1948. Casimir eﬀect (p. 59) • 1949. Richard Feynman, QED (p. 66) Nobel Prize 1965 • 1951. Julian Schwinger, renormalization, QED (p. 66) Nobel Prize 1965 • 1951. Schwinger identiﬁes space-time with the quantum vacuum (p. 58) • 1966, H. Yukawa, Non-local Field Theory and Quantum Vacuum (QV) • 1973. E. P. Tryon, vacuum ﬂuctuation model of the universe, zero-point energy, (pp. 53, 55)
At this point, following QED, we have the theories of QV and the zero-point ﬂuctuation (ZPF) which are basic to the RR model of Requardt and Roy. This view of nature has the vacuum full of activity, in which particles jump out from, and then back into, the vacuum, in pairs. In QED, as one calculates the transition amplitudes with respect to the vacuum state, the vacuum as such does not contribute in the calculations. However, Yukawa proposed the concept of non-local ﬁeld theory where the seat of particles is considered as an extended region or domain in contrast to QED. Now if we take these domains to be quantum theoretical objects, then they are probabilistically connected, and there is no distinction between empty and occupied seats. Eﬀectively, Yukawa introduced a new version of quantum theory of the ether with globular structure.
3.4.2 Dirac and the quantum vacuum, 1930
The origins of the quantum vacuum evolve from the positron, predicted by Dirac in 1928, and ﬁrst observed by Carl Anderson in 1932. We ﬁnd the ﬁrst description by Dirac in his textbook of 1930 (revised last in 1967), The Principles of Quantum Mechanics.
Clue #1. (In the 2nd edn of 1935) In Chapter 11, Relativistic Theory of the Electron, in the ﬁnal section, Sec. 73, Theory of the Positron, we ﬁnd:
It has been mentioned in Sec. 67 that the wave equation for the electron admits of twice as many solutions as it ought to, half of them referring to states with negative values for the kinetic energy ... In this way we are led to infer that the negative-energy solutions of (56) refer to the motion of a new kind of particle having the mass of an electron and the opposite charge. Such particles have been observed experimentally and are called positrons. We cannot, however, simply assert that the negative-energy solutions represent positrons, as this would make
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the dynamical relations all wrong. ... We must therefore establish the theory of the positrons on a somewhat diﬀerent footing. We assume that nearly all the negative-energy states are occupied, with one electron in each state in accordance with the exclusion principle of Pauli. An unoccupied negative-energy state will now appear as something with a positive energy, since to make it disappear, i.e. to ﬁll it up, we should have to add to it an electron with negative energy. We assume that these unoccupied negative-energy states are the positrons. ... A perfect vacuum is a region where all the states of positive energy are unoccupied and all those of negative energy are occupied.
Clue #2. In the fourth edition (signed 11 May 1957) the chapter on QED ( Chapter 12) has been substantially revised. In the Preface, Dirac wrote:
In present-day high-energy physics the creation and annihilation of charged particles is a frequent occurrence. A quantum electrodynamics which demands conservation of the number of charged particles is therefore out of touch with physical reality. So I have replaced [Chapter 12] by a quantum electrodynamics which includes creation and annihilation of electron-positron pairs.
Clue #3. In a revision of the fourth edition dated 26 May 1967, Dirac added two ﬁnal sections in Chapter 12: Section 81. Interpretation, and Section 82. Applications. From Section 81:
The ket |Q > represents a state for which there are no photons, electrons, or positrons present. One would be inclined to suppose this state to be the perfect vacuum, but it cannot be, because it is not stationary. ... Let us call the state Q represented by |Q > the no-particle state at a certain time. If we start with the no-particle state it does not remain the no-particle state. Particles get created where none previously existed, their energy coming from the interaction part of the Hamiltonian. ... which causes transitions in which a photon is emitted and simultaneously an electron-positron pair is created.
3.4.3 Quantum Gravity, 1980s
Beginning in the 1980s, physicists began inventing novel ways to integrate general relativity and quantum theory. To date, none of these attempts, collectively know as quantum gravity, has been successful. But the main candidates all support the idea of discrete space.42
42(Smolin, 2001; p. 95)
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3.4.4 Fredkin and the digital philosophy, 2000
The cellular automaton (CA) ideas of Stan Ulam and John von Neumann in the 1950s rested in obscurity until the appearance of John Conway’s Game of Life in the 1970s. Then CA models of nature became a fad, and many successful models for macroscopic physical systems were made, especially in the circle around Feynman in the 1980s.43 However, computer science models of the individual soul, such as we seek, are rare. In this connection we must mention the work of Ed Fredkin, one of the pioneers of the digital philosophy, and the mainstay of the website www.digitalphilosophy.org, which explains:
Digital Philosophy (DP) is a new way of thinking about the fundamental workings of processes in nature. DP is an atomic theory carried to a logical extreme where all quantities in nature are ﬁnite and discrete. This means that, theoretically, any quantity can be represented exactly by an integer. Further, DP implies that nature harbors no inﬁnities, inﬁnitesimals, continuities, or locally determined random variables.
In On the Soul (2000 Draft Paper) Fredkin proposed a computer science deﬁnition of the soul, concluding: ”The soul is an informational entity, which is constructed out of the states and the arrangements of material things.”
All these recent developments, which we subsume under the classical heading atomism, support the idea that underlying our illusion of continuous space, time, matter, energy, etc (the analog part of the analog/digital dichotomy, and the wave part of the wave/particle duality) is a fundamental layer that is ﬁnite, discrete, and intelligent (that is, law-abiding). Sometimes all this is called the ﬁnite nature assumption.44 This is close to the view of Parmenides described above.
In this chronology of modern physics, we may see a sequence of waves, including General Relativity (GR), Quantum Field Theory (QFT), Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), and the Quantum Vacuum (QV). The birth of the QV is found in Dirac’s work, 1927-1932. We turn now, in the next chapter, to the adaptation of the QV as a model for consciousness, in the works of Fritjof Capra, Fred Alan Wolf, and others.