Sunday, October 26, 2014

Atomism and Its Irrelevance to Classical Theism

The original atomists, Democritus and Lucretius, for example, held that all that exists are composites of atoms.  Today we might replace atoms with quarks or strings (the latter, assuming M-theory is true).  However, the gist of the position remains the same.  Peter van Inwagen, for instance, holds to mereological nihilism: that no composite material thing really exists.  He does, nevertheless, make an exception for living things.  I won't get into the details of his arguments, since they are not pertinent to this post.  While Peter van Inwagen is either a classical theist or a neotheist, Democritus and Lucretius still believed in polytheism, and a materialistic version at that.

Now, let's assume that mereological nihilism is true: mountains aren't real; they're just composites of quarks arranges in a specific way.  What relevance does this have on classical theism?  I honestly can't see any relevance.  The argument from change, the argument from contingency, the design argument, and the argument from desire are each consistent with atomism, or mereological nihilism specifically.  Suppose that mountains really don't exist.  Does that mean there is no change?  Of course not.  Obviously, the classical theist will have to defend the arguments in favor of classical theism, but the point is that atomism does nothing to undermine it.


  1. Interesting take. I'm an occasional reader of your blog and an agnostic of the "soft" sort (I don't know what to believe, but I don't subscribe to the notion that the existence of God is simply unknowable). I can see what you are arguing for in that an atomistic metaphysic is not necessarily inconsistent with classical theism in isolation from the metaphysical system which grounds it. However, since the Aristotelian-Thomistic system of metaphysics is usually the supporting framework for classical theism, it would seem that there is at least the possibility of an indirect conflict. If, for example, all difference and change is merely accidental, as atomism would seem to entail, then where do final and formal causality fit into such a system? And, if those fundamental forms of causality are dispensed with, what happens to the argument from finality?

  2. Hi Dave,

    A classical theist could be a mereological nihilist (very rare to find one, though, I'm sure), it seems to me, and even maintain the reality of formal and final causality so long as the cause in question is ultimately found in God. For example, if all that exists are quarks, it can still be asked whether certain composites of quarks have functions/purposes distinct from one another. I think atomism and mereological nihilism only succeed in pushing the question back a step.

  3. "Peter van Inwagen, for instance, holds to mereological nihilism: that no composite material thing really exists. He does, nevertheless, make an exception for living things."

    Sounds like me (and I'm an uneducated yahoo); I came to those conclusions all by myself in considering the 'Perseus' Ship Paradox'

    1. One of the differences between the two of you (and correct me if I'm wrong) is that you hold to the immateriality of the human soul. So, while non-living composite things do not really exist, living things do. In fact, I regularly cite the Ship Paradox as evidence for the immateriality of the human soul. We are, after all, the same persons we were a decade ago.

  4. Sure, I hold to the immateriality -- and the real existence -- of the human soul, or 'self'.

    "We are, after all, the same persons we were a decade ago."

    Exactly. I am the same person, the same self, that I was several decades ago, despite that most, if not all, the molecules and atoms of which I am materially comprised have been replaced by other atoms and molecules several times over.

    On the other hand, if we sequentially replace all the parts of Perseus' Ship, and then reassemble the parts we've removed, what do we have? Is it that Perseus' Ship now exists in *two* instantiations? that *both* ships -- and we can see with our very eyes that there are now two "identical" ships where there was just one -- are the *same* ship? Of course not.

    Or, if we start with two "identical" ships, one of which was Perseus', and one of which was not, and sequentially swap "identical" parts between them, do both ship become simultaneously Perseus' Ship and *not* Perseus' Ship? Of course not.

    One could go on and on in like vein. The only solution to the paradox is that Perseus' Ship doesn't really exist -- it doesn't exist intrinsically -- but rather that we (who do exist intrinsically) ascribe existence to Perseus' Ship.

    The same reasoning applies to *most* physical objects of which we speak: sun, moon, stars, earth, mountains, rocks, and so on. It turns out that they don’t really exist -- for they have no identity nor “selfhood” -- but that we ascribe existence to them by speaking as though they possessed identity of selfhood.