Atomic Man

When I think of the most important ideas in history, right up there with evolution by natural selection is the atomic theory. I’m not talking about Bohr’s, or Rutherford’s, or Dalton’s – all those ideas that lead us to splitting and fusing atoms – I mean the ideas of Democritus, also known as the Laughing Philosopher because of his happy disposition. He formulated the basic ideas of the atomic theory, i.e., the particulate theory of matter, which is to say, he is the founder of materialism.Everything is just particles, interactions of particles, and characteristics of particles. Without this fundamental idea, a scientific, mechanistic, materialistic explanation of the universe is not possible. Sure, maybe you have waves and particles, but you need those particles! Not for Mr. D. the fuzzy mysticism of the Pythagoreans and their number worship! Not for him, the eternal ideas which exist…somewhere…of Plato. There is a void, nature is eternal, all is matter, divisible into tiny specks of something.

As I drive along the highway, I think of this, how the shiny metal skins of the cruising automobiles are actually mostly empty space. (Atoms are mostly empty space, just as our solar system, is mostly void.) If you could look at the world from the vantage point of an atom, sort of like the people in the old movie Fantastic Voyage, or like the viewer in the Eames book, Powers of Ten, you would see everything dissolve into bundles of particles with no clear edges or boundaries. Bundles that are held together by internal forces, but that are filled with voids – endless lattices that somehow deflect forces from moving through them. And nowhere would you see the will, perception, consciousness…

Supposing that there were a machine whose
structure produced thought, sensation, and
perception, we could conceive of it as
increased in size with the same proportions
until one was able to enter into its interior,
as he would into a mill. Now, on going into
it he would find only pieces working upon one
one another, but never would he find anything
to explain Perception.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

This was hinted at crudely in “The Matrix” in the shots where characters ‘see’ the underlying reality of numbers that form the ‘illusion’ of their material world. The problem with this point of view, as Pynchon had a character observe in Gravity’s Rainbow, is that once you’ve broken everything into little bits, don’t you want to try and put them back together again? How else to understand the “we, I, you,” that seems to be here? Well, I don’t have the answer to that, but I know that postulating a Spirit, a Soul, a Geist, a Ghost in the Machine, a Vital Force, is just a way of making the question go away without answering it. Sort of like when your kid asks you why he can’t do this or that, and you reply, “Because.” “Because, what?” And so it goes on.


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