From stones to atoms


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Book Review: The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms by Alan Chalmers

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Publisher: Springer
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9048123615
ISBN-13: 978-9048123612

It’s reasonable to see philosophy and science as natural partners, complementary in their application and intimately related. However, there is some distrust between the disciplines. Massimo Pigliucci discussed the problems in his paper: The borderlands between science and philosophy: an introduction. The March 2008 special issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology has other papers dealing with these problems.

Scientists often feel that some philosophers can be hostile towards, or misrepresent, science. Some philosophers have an “armchair approach” which inhibits a proper understanding of the scientific process. But there are other philosophers who promote a respectful relationship with science.

Alan Chalmers textbook is an example of the healthy relationship that can, and often does, exist. It is therefore a welcome addition to the philosophy of science and should benefit students of philosophy and science alike.

In particular, it will help put the relationship between science and philosophy into the right perspective. And what better subject to do this than atomism with its clear roots in philosophical thought but is clear proof in experimental science. Chalmer’s epistemological history shows how “the philosophical atomists’ miniature stones were replaced by the scientist’s quantum-mechanical atom.” This serves to provide a comprehensive history of the relationship between philosophy and science.

Epistemological history of atomism

The book describes the epistemological history of atomism. The author makes his approach and terms clear in the early pages. He sees “philosophical, as opposed to scientific, claims about the structure of matter are not confirmed by, but at best only accommodated to, the phenomena.”

The origin of modern science is also revealed by Chalmers as he shows “the emergence of scientific knowledge that was both general and experimentally confirmed as distinct from what was referred to as natural philosophy.” This was “very much tied up with the story of the emergence of atoms as a scientific theory.”

Chalmers begins with the philosophical ideas of the Greeks – Parmenides (early 5th Century BCE), Leucippus, Democritus, Aristotle and Epicurus (late 4th and early 3rd century BCE).  Concepts of the atom as the basic indivisible particle of matter did not dominate. There were contrasting ideas such as Aristotle’s ideas of form and natural minima and these were taken over and developed by the Romans, medieval Islam and Christian Western Europe of the 13th Century CE.

democritus3 Democritus’ theory that one basic indivisible particle, the atom, makes up all things. The variety in the world results from differences in the shape, arrangement, and position of atoms. The diagram shows how he imagined the same element making up different kinds of substance.

The mechanical philosophy of Peirre Gassendi and Robert Boyle in the 17th Century CE revived the ancient atomism. Chalmers discusses Newton’s atomism, alchemistry and emerging chemistry, Dalton’s atomic chemistry, thermodynamics, Avagadro’s ideas, statistical kinetic theory and Brownian motion. What comes through clearly is that even until the late 19th Century CE atomistic ideas were still philosophical. They were not being confirmed by experimental practice; rather they were being accommodated to experimental findings. Even when researchers talked about atoms they remained philosophical ideas rather than experimentally determined entities.

Final contact – with electrons

Experimental contact with atoms was made only at the end of the 19th Century. And then it was via the electron – which sort of destroyed the whole indivisible atom concept of the philosophers. Zeeman and Thomson were able to make fairly direct identification of charged atomic and subatomic particles. Of course the seemingly late contact depended on the development of appropriate pre-conditions, such as development of the necessary electrical, vacuum and spectroscopic technolgies.

First atomic resolution AFM image of a reactive surface [Silicon(111)] using atomic force microscopy. Image size 18 nm x 18 nm. Science 267, 68 (1995). first atomic resolution AFM

This epistemological history is fascinating and instructive. I would welcome its extension to include details of the philosophical, technological and scientific contributions from other cultures. In particular those of medieval Islam, China, India and Egypt. Sensibly, though, the research in these areas has probably yet to reach fruition.

From “natural philosophy” to science

From the modern perspective it’s interesting to consider the divergence of “natural philosophy” into philosophical and experimental science tracks in the 17th century. Here we begin to see attempts to validate philosophical atomistic hypotheses in practice. This separation has lead to the clear distinction of today’s demarcation.  As well as producing a distinct discipline of science, with a strong empirical and experimental basis, it has also lead to a change in the character of philosophy. Although there are still philosophical trends which would love to return to the past and impose some “parental discipline” on what they consider an “unruly child.”

Modern philosophy is more abstract and has largely left behind speculation on what today we would see as untested scientific hypotheses about reality. Many parts of the old philosophy are now incorporated into science.

Chalmers also provides some brief discussion at the beginning of the book on the nature of science and philosophy, what claims they make and how they set about confirming them. He discusses experimental activity and conceptual innovation. Also of use is his description of inference to the best explanation which provides a useful description of scientific epistemology. This is valuable to the student and advanced reader alike.

A positive evaluation of science

The book helps counter a common assumption equating early philosophical atomism with modern scientific concepts of the atom. It also provides a much more sensible and positive appraisal of science than we sometimes meet in philosophical presentations. As Chalmers points out: “Scientific knowledge has a validity that has no analogue in philosophy.”

And he finishes the book with this: “Because of the stringent way in which scientific knowledge is required to pass experimental tests, it is the best kind of knowledge we have. As far as providing knowledge of the deep structure of the world is concerned, science has progressed in a dramatic way and proved itself capable of answering questions that were once supposed to be the province of philosophy. This does not render philosophy redundant. Many areas of philosophy, such as moral philosophy or philosophical logic, do not contest ground claimed by science in a way that some tradit6ional metaphysics does.”

Science and philosophy can co-operate fruitfully in the modern world. We are seeing this in fields like cognitive science and the study of consciousness.

This book encourages a respectful attitude between the disciplines and will contribute to such fruitful cooperation.

I just wish it was available in a less expensive edition.


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40 responses to “From stones to atoms

  1. Thanks for the review! Sounds like another fabulous book to add to my reading list.

    I’m intrigued by how humans respond to new ideas. Atomism provides a marvelous case study. The early atomists were “Epicureans,” who reasoned that if reality consisted solely of matter in motion, then the highest human value would be to seek (reasonable) pleasure in the here and now. Epicurean ethics made pleasure the highest good, but in a nuanced way. The Epicurean ideal was of the gourmet, not the glutton.

    Fast forward twenty-three centuries, and the human response to atomism hasn’t really changed all that much. People are still trying to find the meaning of life, whether we can “see” atoms or not.

    Philosophy tends to take the “meaning of life” problem head-on. Here’s a question for the committee: is that a weakness of philosophy, or a strength?


  2. Only time for a quick comment:

    I’m failing to see the connection between the “epistemological history” of the atom and the later statement: “Modern philosophy is more abstract and has largely left behind speculation on what today we would see as untested scientific hypotheses about reality. Many parts of the old philosophy are now incorporated into science.”

    You seem to still be treating science and philosophy on the same plane/level, as if an advance in one demands (automatically) a loss/decrease/adjustment in the other?

    Also interesting (very quickly!) browsing the wiki for Pigliucci and finding this:

    while he considers atheism a perfectly respectable metaphysical position, he believes that science does not necessarily demand atheism, because of the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism and the distinction between matters of fact and value judgments. He believes that many scientists and science educators fail to appreciate these differences.

    Also found his comments here interesting (on what he calls “organized and confrontational atheism”).


  3. Yes, I find Massimo a bit confrontational himself. I tried to comment on one of his articles about his use of terms like “naturalism” and found him too ready to jump to conclusions and miss my point. I interpreted his response as a bit of “philosophical chauvinism.”

    My comment on the evolution of philosophy and science is based firmly on my reading of the book. On the history of that evolution. It was clear to me that the nature of philosophy up until and around the 17th century did incorporate much of what we now see as science. This has changed (for the good) and science has incorporated most of that sort of speculation (again for the good) and applied it extremely successfully. That’s implicit in the title – stones do not reveal anything like the modern concept of the quantum mechanical atom.

    Perhaps you problem is that this historical look at the evolution of both philosophy and science is of necessity an exercise in studying things in their development. In their change and in their environment (which was also changing).

    Perhaps you could make a more specific comment after considering the review. I am certainly interested in discussing the way both science and philosophy have evolved over the years. And I firmly believe atomist concepts do reveal a lot of that evolution.


  4. We’re all confrontational in one way or another. 🙂
    Could it be that he is just simply not afraid to admit that he advocates philosophical naturalism?

    And I’m interested to hear a more specific, detailed explanation as to how modern quantum theory has ‘replaced’ the ‘stone’ concepts. This is where the term ‘stone’ may be misleading. Are the ‘stone’ concepts not merely the idea of a basic, indivisible particle which is at the ‘bottom’, so-to-speak, of enquiry? As far as QM is concerned, how do we know how ‘close to the bottom’ we are? Entire ‘worlds’ may be (in principle) discovered ‘within’ what we now call gluons, or other sub-atomic ‘particles’. One way of saying it may be to ask “have we merely gone from talking about atoms as ‘stones’, to subatomic particles as ‘stones’?

    That may not be too clear, but I’m just wondering how the philosophical assumption of “a basic indivisible unit” has been changed by QM?

    (btw, just to be clear, I’m not arguing at all that there is – or that we have or ever will find – a “basic indivisible unit” of our natural world)


  5. If you want an interesting/relevant discussion from another (Thomistic) philosophical pov, then I recently read this article by James Chastek over at Just Thomism:


  6. Thanks for the link, Dale. From skimming it I notice that the author agrees with me in that the word “materialist” is, at least, outmoded.

    The original atomism did look on “atoms” as the smallest divisible quantity of a substance. This has come to be presented by stressing the substance (i.e. go any smaller an it is no longer the same substance). So that had very much a concept of a sterile stone. And usually the stone was the same universal matter for all substances. Properties varied because of shapes, etc., of the basic unit. That’s why I consider it ironic that our first real contact with the atom was actually with a sub-atomic particle, the electron.

    Yes, we can go to sub-atomic particles but they are no longer the substance. Both philosophy and science have, or should have, modified their concept of what it means to be a basic indivisible particle – no longer the atom.

    Of course, science has gone much further by recognising the indeterminacy of everything – which becomes practically manifested at the smallest size – the “quantum world.”

    I think this raises all sorts of issues for philosophy – or at least for the good philosophy which learns from science. Philosophers should take note of Frank Wilczek’s comment about classical logic not being adequate for understanding physical reality at this level.

    This was at issue in my debate with Glenn (and to some extent Matt) about the understanding of what is meant by knowledge. I very much get the impression that they cannot get past a mechanical deterministic understanding of reality and dogmatically insist that classical logic must be applied where it is inappropriate. This dogmatic enforcement of their philosophical concepts preventing them from understanding what I was saying.


  7. Ken, I took to heart what you said elsewhere about “quantum mysticism” and other inappropriate uses of what-we-don’t-understand-about-quantum to advance some subjective and/or wacko agenda. But you just lost me on the classical logic bit.

    I’m VERY much into qbits, so I have no problem with true/false and something yet to be determined. I’m comfortable with the basic Heisenberg problem of measuring location or momentum but not both. I can see how both those factors don’t fit easily into “classical logic.” But I have no idea if that’s what you’re talking about.

    I don’t want to be pushy, but how about a post on classical v. quantum logic?


  8. I think it’s another case of meaning and words. I still cannot imagine ancient philosophers being hugely shocked (i.e. ‘gosh we were wrong!’) by QM.


  9. @Dale. I don’t know how you could say that. I think a fairer statement about QM is that it shocks everybody that learns about it. (I.e that’s absurd). Unfortunately, it also seems to be true, no matter how unlogical it is.


  10. Ahhh, My english is disappearing. The correct word of course is illogical. I couldn’t think of that a minute ago, so ignored the spell checkers protestations. Perils of living in a country with a different language to your native. I sometimes fear that I am going to end up not being able to speak any language well.


  11. Nick,
    From what you’ve written, I’m not sure where we disagree?
    However, I do think rather than saying “QM is true”; it may be better to say this is our current best formulation, etc.


  12. Dale,

    it may be better to say that about everything “we know”.


  13. Ken, I’m still puzzling over what “quantum logic” looks like. I went back and read (with delight) the interview of Frank Wilczek, which prompted your original comments, but I’m not sure I could flesh that out into a description of quantum logic other than “it’s not what Aristotle taught.”

    Aristotle might have been more comfortable with “quantum logic” than the rest of us. He has a famous passage on the truth value of the statement, “There will be a sea battle tomorrow” which fits well with my layman’s notion of the weirdness of QM. Aristotle argues that statements about the future are neither true nor false–which fits badly with Einstein’s vision of a “block universe” but fits well with the Cophenhagen interpretation of an undefined future.

    That’s one feature of “quantum logic” that diverges from what I learned at college. Complementarity would be the other big ticket item–you can precisely measure location or momentum, but not both.

    Are there any other implications you’re aware of?


  14. Dale – from your comment “rather than saying “QM is true”; it may be better to say this is our current best formulation, etc.” – I wonder where you stand on Matt and Glenn’s formulation of “knowledge = warranted true belief.”

    I still think there is a hornet’s nest in there – I think Glenn (secretly) does too as he has deleted (or wouldn’t approve) my last comment at his blog on this subject.

    Frustrating that the apologists refuse to discuss this properly.


  15. Ken,
    I’m hesitant to comment on terms/concepts from a conversation I did not follow, but for me it’s an issue of relating concepts of ‘knowing/knowledge’ and ‘certainty/belief’.

    Scientism, by definition, holds that science is the only tool of knowing, and thus in order to believe or be certain about anything it must be scientifically ‘verified’.

    I think a more realistic/honest view is that all of our knowledge (of which scientific knowledge is just one kind) is partial. And I think we can reasonably belief things that we don’t fully ‘know’ – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that ALL of our beliefs (for/against god) are based on things that we parially know (or who here wants to say they know any topic fully!!??).


  16. Oh boy, oh boy! Do we get to do epistemology now? It’s my favorite subject!


  17. Scientism is a funny word. It’s used as a label (usually in a derogatory way). As far as I know, there are no people who will use it to apply to themselves. There are no self-declared “scientismists”.

    Certainly, I never come across scientists who declare that “science is the only way of knowing.” Then again, evidence does have a special relationship with knowledge (even though the subject may not be in a test tube) so I am always suspicious of people who try to deny the role of evidence. (This is effectively what Plantinga does when you look at his “warrant” in depth. And Matt advance Plantinga’s arguments against evidence in your recent meeting, didn’t he?).

    Frankly – whenever I hear someone use the word “scientism” (it’s not even in this spell-check) I am warned that their argument is going to be weak. If they have a good argument they would present it – not cover up with labels and accusations. It’s a sign of weakness.


  18. Ken,
    Dawkins is familiar (and apparently amiable) with the term:

    It may be that humanity will never reach the quietus of complete understanding, but if we do, I venture the confident prediction that it will be science, not religion, that brings us there. And if that sounds like scientism, so much the better for scientism.

    I only say that to demonstrate his apparent non-hostility to the term.


  19. Our knowledge of something (and evidence for/against) should be ‘kata physic’ – according to the nature of the thing being known about.

    knowledge and evidence (for/against) god should be theological

    knowledge and evidence about the cosmos should be cosmological

    knowledge and evidence about the biosphere should be biological

    knowledge and evidence about the economy should be economic



  20. Dale – you have to have an agenda not to understand Dawkins there. And it’s clear he is confronting the anti-science people who regularly use that term head on.

    I am surprised at you – because this is such a shameful example of quote mining to “prove” a theological point.

    Looked at properly his point is so obvious. Religion has been a complete failure at understanding reality. But science has been so successful – we can expect that success to continue.

    Now, if you are requiring us to “know” right and wrong, what is the subjective feeling of colour, etc., Dawkins makes clear that these are outside the province of science (He has stressed that many times – but obviously your quote-mining source doesn’t include nay references). But he also makes clear these are outside the province of religion.

    This is just the tired old attempt of using the argument by default to give religion a free ride. If religion has any claims to make about knowledge – it should make them. And it doesn’t do that by talking about real or imagined limitations of science.

    It’s a smokescreen to cover up an inadequacy.


  21. I suppose it depends on what he meant by “complete understanding” (which sounds rather far-reaching).


  22. Nah – you are quote mining to “prove” a preconceived belief. Commonly done with Dawkins, of course.

    I have no trouble understanding Dawkins position. And, if you are trying to “label” science you should know not to rely on individuals.

    However, it still doesn’t change the fact that religion/theology has no abilities that science doesn’t have in these “default position” arguments.

    They are red herrings.


  23. Ken,
    When it comes to ethics/values, Religion and Theology AT LEAST have human traditions, value-sets and ideas to map against, relate to, develop, refine, shape, remember, argue against, respect, etc.

    Science can certainly inform our ethics/values, but can do nothing but shrug its shoulders when it comes to forming them.

    And it is not the least bit ‘anti-science’ to say this.


  24. to say that right/wrong are ‘outside the province of religion’ is anti-religion.


  25. When it comes to “ethics/values,” science doesn’t claim any special role (except to investigate how we develop and derive these). So science doesn’t choose to compete in this area – leave it out of the equation.

    However, other philosophies, ideologies, ethical thinking does compete with religion/theology. There is (in my view) no reason to think that religion/theology has any special role, ability in these areas compared with other philosophies/ideologies/ethical systems.

    If anything there is a level playing field and each trend has to be judged on their performance.

    Let that be done.

    I personally don’t think religion performs very well. I think there is a big problem of moral relativism with religion. (I am quite happy to admit I am “anti-religious” in that sense). I think one can develop a far more humane ethical system based on “secular humanism.” I certainly have never felt the need of religion to inform me in this area (let alone in the area of scientific knowledge).

    Personally, I have the feeling that many people are coming to the same conclusion about the inadequacy of religion and that may explain why such beliefs are declining in modern societies.

    However, every time I hear religionists fall back on the above “default argument”, dragging in science where it has no role or concern, I see it as a dishonest way of covering up for inadequacies. A way of avoiding honest comparison with other real contenders for the role that religion claims for itself.


  26. Any religion that posits an afterlife changes the utilitarian calculus to such a degree that it MUST have an impact on ethics, and that impact tends to be for the “good” as it is generally understood.

    You can say, “Honesty is the best policy all you want,” but it doesn’t hold a candle to “You’ll burn in hell forever if you steal that candy bar.” Any afterlife provides the ultimate incentive to sacrifice short-term benefits for long-term goals.

    Of course, there are religions which provide perverse incentives. A religion that promises eternal bliss if I drink Grape Kool-Aid or hijack an airplane is an exception to the otherwise obvious connection I’m suggesting between common-sense utilitarian calculus and ethical behavior.

    If we leave out the special cases of human sacrifice and crusades, don’t all belief systems that promise an afterlife “tilt” the utilitarian calculus against short-term, self-serving acts? Don’t they all posit some sort of objective judge or judgment (i.e., karma) who (or which) makes the moral actor reconsider his/her own biased and egocentric acts?

    That seems like a pretty significant connection between religion and ethics to me.


  27. Well, Scott. We have a few religions promising an “afterlife” and the world would be a better place without them

    This is what I mean by moral relativism. With those sort of stories anything can be justified, stoning, flying passenger planes into buildings, mass suicides, etc.

    I can derive my own morality without such mythology. And I believe my morality can stand proud against anything the religionists can throw at me.

    And “afterlife” fairy stories are really pathetic ammunition, aren’t they?


  28. Ken,
    You say “each trend has to be judged on their performance.” But how do we know what standards of judgment to use?

    I’ve yet to see you articulate your basis for ‘value’/’worth’/’good’ (upon which all ethics are built).


  29. Dale,

    knowledge and evidence (for/against) god should be theological

    knowledge and evidence about the cosmos should be cosmological

    knowledge and evidence about the biosphere should be biological

    knowledge and evidence about the economy should be economic

    Frankly, this is silly. Disciplines contribute across discipline lines all the time. Although “conveniently” I could use it to argue that “philosophers” should stop trying to deal with biology! 🙂

    e.g. physics, chemistry, geology, mathematics, etc. have all contributed to biology.

    More practically, it’s trying to play the “theological evidence” game again; one I pointed out before should simply be reduced to “evidence” that stands or falls.


  30. Nor I, you. But we seem to get by, don’t we?

    I think most people can, and do, make judgements. Even though they may not understand how.

    One could get into a debate on “how”, or the “basis”, but I suspect it would just be a diversion. It’s probably more sensible to consider, or debate, real cases.


  31. Ken,
    The ‘how’ and ‘basis’ discussion would not be a diversion – it would be interesting. And also, there’s no need to choose between discussing ‘how’/’basis’ OR discussing ‘real cases’.

    Would not the abortion issue provide a wonderfully ‘real case’ to discuss both the theory and the practice of?


  32. @Scott. You commented:

    Any religion that posits an afterlife changes the utilitarian calculus to such a degree that it MUST have an impact on ethics, and that impact tends to be for the “good” as it is generally understood.

    I would argue that any “tendency to the good” here reflects the human tendency rather than any effect of the afterlife concept. From where I am sitting, these concepts open up a huge vector for manipulation and/or self deception. I have always thought that these concepts were used from a political point of view as a form of pacification. You could argue that one of the pillars of early industrialisation was the church. Convincing people to defer their wants and needs to an afterlife was very convenient.

    @Dale. I suspect that what the abortion “debate” doesn’t need is another group of men sitting around talking about what is best for pregnant women. I think this is one area that religion, specifically christianity and islam, does not have a good track record.


  33. Nick, thanks for the response. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the promise of an afterlife MOTIVATES behavior that might otherwise not occur. And since that includes raising religiously motivated armies to take Jerusalem from the infidels, the “ethics” you get from an afterlife is a mixed bag.

    Having said that, however, the garden-variety ethics you get from any system with an afterlife is pretty ethical. “Tell the truth. Treat others fairly. Be kind to animals. Don’t oppress the poor.” It’s very RATIONAL to behave well if you think there’s something in it for you.


  34. Nick,
    Sorry, but a) the need for men to realise they are men whilst talking about abortion (and let us not fail to recognise that the men doing half of the impregnating are often left completely out of view and left off the hook with little/no responsibility!), and b) whatever track record you or I might think that some religion has in discussing abortion do not at all mean that abortion could not be a fruitful topic by which to explore theory/practise as I’ve suggested.


  35. Nick–just to clarify, I’m arguing that the promise of an afterlife is RELEVANT to ethics, not that it is true or (necessarily) beneficial.

    It seems to me that people who accept one non-rational premise (I will be judged in an afterlife for what I do in this one) are then perfectly rational in behaving ethical behavior thereafter. It seems to me that people who adopt the more rational premise (when I die I’m dead and that’s all there is to it) then face a continual conflict between their own self-interest and what everybody around them calls “ethical” behavior.

    That seems to make


  36. ::I hate it when that happens::

    That seems to make every system of practical ethics less than fully rational.

    I don’t think atheists/agnostics/skeptics/freethinkers/etc. should be judged “irrational” or “unethical” for this. I do think the theist has to make a pretty major adjustment to understand how ethics could operate in the absence of self-interest.

    Fortunately, this is pretty standard stuff in moral philosophy, so nobody here needs to break any new ground. To quote Heraclides, go read the textbook.


  37. Pingback: What is matter? What is materialism? | Open Parachute

  38. Pingback: Philosophy of science books « Emergent Hive

  39. excellent post!
    Thank you very much for the work on the topic… in the blogroll it is!!!!


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