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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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In the European West, atomism since Democritus
has been persistently associated with forms of atheism,
or at least with suspicions of it. But, as against this,
in the Islamic Middle East, in the tenth and eleventh
centuries A.D., when Islam's philosophy and theology
were at their height, Islamic theologians—most of
whom were of Persian extraction—based their ortho-
doxy, which was philosophically articulated, on a radical
form of atomism and discontinuity in nature. (For a
balanced recent account see M. Fakhry, Chs. 1 and
2.) From the Islamic approach it was the avowal of
continuity which represented atheism, and the avowal
of discontinuity which represented theism.

It is worth noting that a late Victorian scholar, a
leading one, finds “Mephistophelian humor” in the fact
that Islamic theists could embrace “atheistic” atomism.
The scholar concludes that this came about because
Aristotle had depicted Democritus so engagingly in-
stead of warning theists against seeking refuge with
him (L. Stein, pp. 331-32).

This Islamic doctrine, whatever its origin, was part
of the so-called Kalam. Its intent was not so much to
deny continuity as to deny causation, but it strongly
correlated the two. And it denied causation, because
any general law of causation would circumscribe, and
even inhibit God's freedom of intervention and thau-
maturgy. Thus, within this intellectual setting, the
physical atomism of the Kalam became a scientific
occasionalism of its philosophy.

A famous account of this atomism is incorporated
in the Guide of the Perplexed (Maimonides, Part I, Chs.
71-75). As usual with Maimonides, his report is some-
what over-systematic, but the account seems very reli-
able and adequate. Now, according to this account,
the Mutakallemim—that is, the professors of Kalam—
atomized, or rather quantized (in the sense of our
quantum theory) everything: matter, space, time, and

Specifically they taught that the seemingly continu-
ous locomotion of a body is in fact not really continu-
ous but a succession of leaps between discretely placed
positions; and they apparently took it for granted that
there is a universal minimal distance between any two
positions. Also, what is important, a leap from position
A to position B consists of two interlocking subevents;
the original body in position A ceases to exist, and an
“identical” body comes into being in position B. This


sounds surprisingly like the leap of a Bohr electron,
when rotating around a proton, from one energy level
into a neighboring one; except that in the Kalam, the
second subevent follows on the first “occasionalisti-
cally,” that is by an act of God, and not “causally,”
that is by a law of nature.

Somewhat more occasionalistic, but still compatible
with our physics of today, was the insistence of the
Mutakallemim that if a white garment turns red by
being dipped into a red dye then it is wrong to say
that red pigment has been transferred from the dye
to the garment. Rather, by God's volition, an amount
of red pigment ceased to be in the dye, and a corre-
sponding amount of the pigment was created in the

Most alien to our thinking is the “Hypothesis of
Admissibility.” It apparently asserted that anything
which is “imaginable” is also possible. It is “imagin-
able” that man might be much larger in size than he
is now, and he might indeed so be; in fact, he might
be as large as a mountain. Fire usually goes upward,
but we can “imagine” it going downwards, and so
indeed it might go.

Even more striking than the atomistic pronounce-
ments, were the accompanying occasionalistic theses,
and the latter were displayed most dazzingly in the
work of the Iranian Muslim theologian al-Ghazali.
Nevertheless, they were leading Islamic philosophical
thought into a cul-de-sac, and it was very fortunate
for the nascent medieval civilization on the European
continent that the leading European schoolmen,
Muhammadan, Jewish, and Christian, were refusing to
be drawn into this blind alley. In the twelfth century,
the Spanish Jew Maimonides was opposed to the occa-
sionalistic doctrines of the Kalam, and so were also,
very systematically, his contemporary Averroës (a
Spanish Muslim), and, almost a century later, the Latin
schoolman Thomas Aquinas in his Summa contra Gen-
Book III.

It is regrettable, though, that this opposition to the
Islamic occasionalism also kept the West from becom-
ing generally acquainted with its scientific atomism.
Saint Thomas, for instance, has very little about it.
Almost a century after Aquinas, a Karaite schoolman,
Aaron ben Elijah of Nicodemia (1300-69), who stood
intellectually between West and East, made a last
major attempt to keep Islamic atomism alive, but to
no avail (Husik, Ch. 16).

It appears that the atomism of the Islam had been
greatly influenced by the atomisms of Democritus and
Epicurus, but it is not easy to say why the metaphysical
and religious evaluations were so divergent. It has been
suggested that Islamic philosophers were exposed to
Indian influences (S. Pines), and also that a primitive
atomism may have arisen within the Kalam indige-
nously (O. Pretzl). There are intimations that, from the
beginnings of Islamic thought there had been reflec-
tions, naive ones, on the concentration of space and
matter in elemental units. Also, the problem of the
differences between Islamic and Greek atomism is
compounded by the fact that there had been diver-
gences of philosophy even between Democritus and
Epicurus themselves.

It is reported that Democritus was of a serene dispo-
sition in his personal deportment. This serenity in
manners may have corresponded to a determinism in
scientific outlook which takes it for granted that, ordi-
narily, the physical constellation of today will deter-
mine the physical events of tomorrow. In the universe
of Democritus, atoms were unceasingly in motion, by
fixed laws and unchangeable rhythms. In the course
of their motions atoms would combine to form
“worlds”—which we may take to be solar systems, or
galaxies, in our experience—and the worlds could also
fall apart by dissolution of the combinations of atoms
which constitute them. Also, by their structure, the
worlds of Democritus were mostly (spiral) vortices, and
once upon a time the vortices emanated from some
kind of “turbulence,” that is, from some kind of
“primordial chaos” (Diogenes Laërtius).

All this sounds astonishingly “modern.” Primordial
turbulence, and spiral-shaped galaxies are giant-sized
discontinuities in nature, the account of which fills the
pages of any book on cosmogony of today; and it must
not be held against the first atomists that they did not
explain their provenance, because present-day cosmol-
ogy cannot explain it either (J. H. Oort, p. 20).

The system of Democritus was not “atheistic” in a
militant sense, but it was indifferent to divinity in a
passive sense. Since everything in nature and life was
presumed to follow predictably by laws and rhythms,
there was apparently no need, or rather no room, for
a Divine Providence that would affect the fate of man,
or the course of the world, by acts of willed interven-
tion and prodigy. Very much later though, mostly in
response to Islamic occasionalism, the counterargu-
ment was fashioned that it is noncontinuity and inde-
terminacy which bespeak the absence of divine Provi-
dence; and that it is continuity and causality in nature
which testify to a rule by Providence and perhaps even
to an original creation by a divine resolve.

While the system of Democritus has the mystique
of an incomparable classical creation, the atomic sys-
tem of Epicurus, over a century later, bears the mark
of an important but epigonic adaptation. It had a great
appeal though. But the appeal was not due to the
power of scientific inventiveness in Epicurus, who had
set “Epicureanism” in motion, but to the beauty of


Lucretius' De rerum natura in which it is poetically
enshrined. The latter work is not an essay in science
but a poet's sweeping vision of the Great Chain of
Being in its manifold manifestations; however, by some
irrationality of inspiration, which has been a puzzle
to many a poet and literary critic since, Lucretius
transported his vision through the rather amorphous
medium of Epicurus' system of knowledge, and thus
immortalized Epicurus' variant on atomism in the
process. Democritus had been a physicist, first and
foremost, and very genuinely so. Epicurus however was
first and foremost a moralist and a social critic, even
if he elected to transmit his philosophemes in a setting
of physical assumptions; and it was this humanism
which attracted Lucretius to him.

With regard to discontinuity in the universe Lucre-
tius avers, as did Democritus long before him, that,
by conjunction and disjunction of atoms, numerous
“galaxies” are formed and dissolved. He even alludes
to a primordial turbulence (nova tempestas), but, re-
grettably, not to vortices (P. Boyancé, p. 273). Lucre-
tius even seems to suggest, in words of his own—what
is apparently not in the extant reports about
Democritus—that the separate galaxies of the universe
are likely to be distributed throughout the universe
with a certain uniform frequency of occurrence (De
rerum natura,
Book II, lines 1048-66; C. Bailey, 2,

Lucretius also has the significant report—which most
regrettably does not occur in the extant remains of
Epicurus himself, but has also been confirmed by
Cicero, Plutarch, and others—that the atom of Epi-
curus was endowed with a so-called clinamen of his
invention. It was a small-scale swerving motion of the
atom, and Epicurus superimposed it on the large-scale
rectilinear motion that had been advocated by De-
mocritus. This clinamen was designed to temper the
basic determinism of physics by an element of inde-
terminism; and as a suggestion in physics it was a
remarkable adumbration of indeterminacies in the
physics of our day. But Epicurus, and his followers ever
since, went much too far in using it as a physical
justification for indeterminacies in the science of man,
namely as a justification for the freedom of human will
and for man's self-mastery, in a moral, social, and
theological sense.

Epicurus was adopted as the ancestral creator of the
nineteenth-century Marxist doctrine that certain fixed
assumptions in physics are an unfailing indicator of
certain fixed attitudes in sociology. Thus, the Dialectics
of Nature
of Friedrich Engels, and, much more shrilly,
the Materialism and Empirico-Criticism (1908) of V. I.
Lenin, were proclaiming the doctrine that a philosophy
which affirms the primacy of human freedom must be
based on a certain kind of metaphysical “materialism,”
and that this materialism must more or less be predi-
cated on a form of atomism.

Developments in twentieth-century science have
been undermining the possibilities of such firm corre-
lations. In the nineteenth century there were firm
distinctions and separations between materialism and
idealism, reality and imagination, phenomena and ob-
jects, experience and theory, experiments and explana-
tions. But in the twentieth century, the spreading prin-
ciples of duality for particle and field, for corpuscle
and wave, and the progressive and unrelenting mathe-
matization of all of theoretical physics, have been
dissolving the scientific foundations for such distinc-
tions and separations. Therefore, not only standard
“Marxist” tenets, but also, many other Victorian and
Edwardian correlations are losing their obvious justifi-
cations, and they will have to be re-thought from the
ground up.