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A Historical Introduction to the
Philosophy of Science

Ch. 4: Atomism and the Concept
of Underlying Mechanism

Book cover: A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by John Losee

The following is a summary of the fourth chapter of John Losee's book, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (fourth edition), with some ancillary notes.

Philosophers discussed in this chapter: Democritus and Leucippus

[p. 24] The atomists Democritus and Leucippus rejected the Platonic notion that the observed world is an imperfect copy of the real world. Objects and relations in the world of sense and in the "real world" are only different in kind.

What is real is atoms moving in the void. These motions cause our perceptual experiences (colour, smell, taste).

The properties of atoms are:

  1. size
  2. shape
  3. impenetrability (indivisibility)
  4. motion
  5. various combinations and associations with other atoms

Atomists were highly influential on later scientific thinking: how observed changes are explained by more elementary processes. This was confirmed in the 17th Century by Gassendi, Boyle, Newton and others.

Atomists realized how qualities and processes at one level cannot be explained by postulating the same at a deeper level (e.g., coloured atoms do not explain colour of objects).

[pp. 24–5] Atomists sought to reduce qualitative changes at the macroscopic level to quantitative changes at the atomic level (e.g., salty taste due to the setting free of large, jagged atoms; fire penetrating bodies due to the rapid motions of tiny, spherical fire-atoms [p. 24].

Classical atomism was resisted because its uncompromising materialism:

  1. challenged man's self-understanding about sensation and thought
  2. left no place for spiritual values
  3. banished the notion of purpose from science

It was also resisted because its explanations could not be verified (e.g., could not explain why salt dissolves in water while sand does not).

Questions to Consider:

  1. Were the atomists more successful at explaining sensations, such as colour and taste, compared with the Pythagoreans and the Aristotelians?
  2. How has the atomists' reductive nature of explanations carried forward to current scientific theories?

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