Maybe Democritus Wasn’t So Bad

This is a piece against dogmatism, fundamentalism in religion, scientific “fact” and political correctness. This is a piece against people, who refuse to think and who are too enthralled in their phones and daily habits and themselves to experience and learn about the world.

'Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul'

source: By Léon-Alexandre Delhomme – Jean-Louis Lascoux (13 January 2008), CC BY-SA 3.0,

Who am I?

I am a devout Christian and shall expound my views on the world in a series of these pieces. But I am fundamentally doubtful. My views are contradictory, complex and ill-formed because of neglecting to and straight up refusing to think about them enough up to now. I will have to change at least some of them. That does not scare me. What we do not understand is not necessarily wrong and there is much that I do not understand. We must strive to understand more and to accept the new truths that we discover.

How does this relate to Democritus at all?

Yes, yes. Lucretius (a philosopher and poet in the first century BC) wrote the “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things) which is an exposition of Epicurean philosophy and more importantly the atomic hypothesis. It considers the phenomenon of Brownian Motion[1] to explain the atomic hypothesis. This phenomenon (and much of the reasoning) was then used by Einstein, two thousand years later, to “prove” (to the satisfaction of the scientific community) the atomic hypothesis. TWO THOUSAND YEARS.

You still haven’t gotten anywhere with the explaining about Democritus thing.

Okay, okay. This atomic hypothesis is generally attributed to Leucippus (5th century BC) and his pupil Democritus (460-370BC). It is unclear whose ideas were whose, but it is known that Democritus also wrote about a vast number of other topics. Unfortunately, neither of their works directly survive. Fortunately, some of their ideas concerning the atomic hypothesis survive through rebuttal in the works of Aristotle. They cited many everyday physical phenomena, such as the gradual wearing down of a wheel, to support the theory.

Can you move?

But there is also a metaphysical grounding to the philosophy. They turned Zeno’s paradox on its head. They said that clearly, we can cross a room, so we must not be able to divide up distances infinitely and so there must be atoms.

They also combat Melissus’ argument that we shouldn’t be able to move because we would have to move into nothing. Melissus says that nothing does not exist, and Q.E.D. movement does not exist. They responded that we can move, so clearly nothing, or the void as they termed it, must exist.

In both cases their opponents had assumed that something was ridiculous because it didn’t immediately mesh with their worldview. In both cases it turned out that their worldview was too small, and they were simply refusing to extend it.

This is an interesting type of Philosophical argument. If a set of premises lead to a conclusion, yet you know that the conclusion is wrong, then one of the premises must be wrong. Rather than stick with the premises and conclude that motion doesn’t exist (which is absurd), we should ditch one of the premises.

But I don’t understand why you ever thought this guy was bad; he seems pretty great.

Upon reading Lucretius’ poem, it was very easy to say that it was just another crack-pot theory thought up by the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. It was thought that because the Pre-Socratics had also proposed ideas such as magnets having souls and there being atoms the size and shape of giraffes that all of their work should be dismissed.

It now seems obvious to us that matter is made up of atoms. But if someone now announced that through some abstract reasoning they had disproved the atomic hypothesis, would you be able to accept or even consider their argument? If someone told you that it is possible for a cat to be both dead and alive at the same time, would your first reaction be to say that that is ridiculous or to ask how and why? This proposition seems preposterous and challenges a fundamental part of our worldview. This is Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment and it comes from Quantum Mechanics, but examples can be chosen from any field: that your friends and family don’t actually exist or that Schoenberg might actually be beautiful or that there may be more to modern art.

Our worldviews are too narrow

I choose science because it illustrates the point well that our worldview is challenged because our worldview is too small. We do not exist on a quantum scale but that doesn’t mean that the rules governing the quantum scale are ridiculous.

It seems to me that if, just occasionally, we considered that there is a world beyond what our eyes and senses and mind and experiences can currently perceive and comprehend and if we were constantly searching for it, then we may be able to appreciate the beauty of the world around us a lot easier.

Plato's cave

Plato knew this millennia ago. We are trapped in a Plato’s cave! We must be careful not to miss the people who have escaped – they have seen a world which is much grander than our narrow worldview.

Democritus was inspired with an idea and it was the right one. He had a glimpse of a world beyond himself. All he had to do was to look for it. This glimpse was an intuition, a feeling, an idea – it was a correct one. There are some wrong ones. We are not infallible. We will see the mirage in the desert and may mistake it for an oasis, but this does not mean that every gypsy, shaman, priest, fortune-teller is scamming you. Only those who pretend to understand the world fully, who pretend that their hypotheses are facts, are scamming us.

Our Glimpses

We have all experienced things beyond ourselves. We have been on a walk and seen the beauty of nature. We have heard a piece of music or read a book or seen a play that inspired us. We have looked up at the stars and seen something more, something calling us. This may just be curiosity. And I know that, when I identify those experiences with my God and I tell you that I have experienced a small part of his infinity, that is not a proof to you. But it is enough to satisfy me. When people conclude that it is curiosity and they chase after it they have found their own God. When people deny that there is a world beyond what they currently know, when they don’t even convince themselves that they have found meaning, when they just blindly follow their assumptions – that is when they are truly lost.

Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. – Stephen Hawking.

This article was written by co-author 'Devout Doubtful'

[1] by which particles of dust are moved in macroscopically still air.

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