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The Saints of Atheism III: The Laughing Philosopher

Way back we introduced the idea that even atheism can have its heroes. No, I do not mean the members of what is known as “the four horsemen,” but rather the very foundations of skepticism and doubt. These are the people that advanced the idea that the world can be explained without an appeal to the supernatural, without filling in the gap of not knowing with the plurality of the personal divine. The first was Thales of Miletus, who was the first in Western Civilization to posit a natural explanation of the world that involved the natural world. He doesn’t get the nomination for being correct, his hypothesis–that all is water, is of course, wrong. His method is what made sense, that he used the observable to explain the world, as he did by predicting an eclipse.

This entry’s nomination is one that shows how close to the mark you can actually get with the power of the mind. This person would be Democritus of Abdera. Known as the laughing philosopher, he is also known by some as the father of modern science for reasons that will become apparent in a bit. He is best known, along with his mentor Leucippus (and a much later individual) as being the contributors of what we call “Atomic theory.” I don’t mean to claim that Atomic Theory of Democritus is sort of like our atomic theory in much the way that Empedocles kind of has a notion of evolutionary theory. The only thing that is missing is the empirical evidence substantiating the claim. Like Thales, Democritus only used the powers of observation to arrive at his conclusion. The fundamental aspect of the theory is that if anything that exists is made of material than the foundational thing that it is made of must also be material. While that sounds kind of obvious, anyone that believes in a supernatural origin to the universe does not believe this. They believe literally that there was nothing and that their divine made something out of it. Democritus understood that only material can make material, and that at some point there must be a point of material so small that it cannot be broken down further into smaller pieces. These ultimate blocks of matter would be un-cuttable, or in the Greek “atomon.”

This rules out gods as being different from us in construction. It also rules out the soul as being different as well. This represents a problem that will plague the history of thought until now. Not the existence of the soul (although that’s an entirely different issue) but the interaction problem of how an immaterial substance can interact with a material substance. In Democritus’ formulation there exist only two things: material and immaterial, and immaterial is nothing–the void. The void is that which the material exists in, the atoms float around in the void interacting with each other. These atoms must be partless unable to be dissected into smaller parts. They have different shapes by which they hook into each other and these clumps form into all that exists.

Under the atomic theory of Democritus, if the gods do exist they exist as material beings just like everything else. This is important because while religions (modern and ancient) posited the physical interactions of the divinity, they offered no mechanism by which this could happen. The only explanation given is…well, magic, I guess. Literally they use the deus ex machina. The powers of the gods literally manifest themselves to move the plots of the story along. Democritus’ theory provides at least some consistency in how the interaction ought to take place, the gods are material, their powers are material, and thus everything works along with the matter of the universe.

This view of the world makes things simpler because it shaves off extraneous entities that require further explanation. Democritus wasn’t wholly correct. Dreams and thoughts were constructed of certain atoms that produced the images in the minds of the people. This would of course be necessary because the only alternative is these images are made of void–which is an unbearable consequence. In this view of atoms constructing images he may not be right but he’s not necessarily wrong. Another influence of him is that this is still a matter of debate whether consciousness is a product of material or something else. If it is something else then we have to solve the interaction problem.

I nominate Democritus because his reductionist view has hit the mark as close as any philosopher for nearly two thousand years. For explanations that transcend the role of spirits, souls, and ghosts. The atoms are the material of the world, the void is that which they exist in. Anything else needs to be proven prior to our assumptions. He is the true beginning of the modern scientific reasoning excluding the supernatural.

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