God and the Atom: Book Review

Victor J Stenger, who passed away a couple of years ago, was one of the staunchest defenders of the classical model of physics, the one that remains truest to the original model invented by the Leucippus-Democritus dynamic duo and perfected by Epicurus and his friends thousands of years ago.

The book is of particular importance today against the background of “What the Bleep Do We Know” and other, similar, documentaries that use quasi-mystical misinterpretations of quantum theory (neo-Pythagorean sorcery, it seems) to advance obscure New-Agey teachings. Stenger sets the record straight: the quantum field, like all fields and everything else, is made up of particles and void. Fields are made up of points, each with its own value. They are not etheric or liquid or of some substance other than particles and void.

Like Lucretius does in his De Rerum Natura, Stenger gives us familiar observations to explain fundamental aspects of nature. For instance, while explaining how more density = less space available, he notes that the difference in atmospheric pressure in the mountains and at sea proves that a void is possible.

The title of this book, some may argue, is misleading. The book is about the achievements of atomism, and for someone uninitiated like myself, it’s mostly over my head (particularly the algebraic formulas used by particle physicists). The conclusion is the most valuable chapter, and gets closer to the point that the book is making: particle physics may be complicated but it is not, and should not be appropriated by, hocus pocus. The book simply does not delve much into theology because, frankly, there just isn’t any evidence to consider in this regard, and physics requires evidence.

One of the key blows to the God hypothesis, or any other supernatural hypothesis, is the predictability and stability that is represented not by God or any other supernatural agency (which, the author reminds us, is unnecessary in the atomic model), but by the laws of nature. These laws create a model that can be relied upon and which has no underlying intelligences or entities.

Religion peddlers have been always accused of inventing gods of the gaps. In atomism, we leave the gap as it is, without projecting our supernatural fantasies against it: we accept the existence of the void, and also of a natural measure of chaos. The swerve, which in modern physics is compared to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, introduces randomness into the nature of things. It turns out that many people have difficulty accepting randomness, chance, as a factor in nature.

The author also pays attention to the Platonic nature of the supernatural claims against science, and paraphrases my own insights into what I called the emergence paradigm in my article On Why Materialism Matters. There, I argued that the study of nature produces a universe that is organized from the bottom up, never from the top down.

Notice the sense of emergence that is presupposed in materialism.  We believe that, first, there are atoms and molecules, then progressively more complex things.  We believe that from inert matter emerges living matter, and that living things evolve by developing complex symbiotic relations with each other, and only then there emerges egoism, the self, the me versus another in struggle or cooperation, identity and consciousness.

But for the idealist, consciousness is a mysterious word that gets thrown around as if it automatically evidenced a non-natural or supernatural realm.  Worse yet, and in spite of all the evidence that can be attained from the study of nature, they believe that consciousness came first (although it is more complex than inert matter).  While it’s true that living entities have the power to influence their environment, this influence only occurs once they have emerged, once they have evolved consciousness.  But all the living entities emerged from progressively simpler forms, all the way down to the stardust at the dawn of all things.

The book gives us some perspective on how the rejection of Epicurus’ atomic theory halted the progress of scientific thought for an entire millennium, and how Aristotle (who denied the theory of the atom) was revered throughout the Middle Ages by Christians who thought that he vindicated their religious worldview. To this day, the excessive reverence of Aristotle and Plato, together with the demotion of the philosophers who DID describe reality accurately (Democritus, Epicurus) still dominates academic philosophy, as Michel Onfray argues when calling for a Counter-history of Philosophy.

There are many other ways in which Stenger vindicates Epicurus: for instance, he posits that there are primary and secondary properties. Epicurus labeled these secondary properties as “relational”, and they are central to the theories he expounds in his Epistle to Herodotus.

The book God and the Atom is about the many achievements of atomism, focusing more on the scientific ones than in the philosophical, religious or ethical ones–but these other achievements, argued Epicurus, were just as important!

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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