by Paul J. Dejillas, Ph.D.
Let us now endeavor to conceive what matter must be, when, or if, in its absolute extreme simplicity. Here the reason flies at once to imparticularity—to a particle—to one particle—a particle of one kind—of one character—of one nature—of one size—of one form—a particle, therefore, “without form and void”—a particle positively a particle at all points—a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided, and not indivisible only because he who created it, by dint of his will, can by an infinitely less energetic exercise of the same will, as a matter of course, divide it.
-Edgar Allan Poe
While there are many questions about the universe that cosmologists would like to answer, probably the most fascinating is the most fundamental question of all: Where did all this come from? Almost every human civilization in history has offered an answer to this question in the context of mythology or religion, but until recently the question had been thought to be outside the scope of science.
- Alan Guth
Before thou comprehendest: since for thee; I prove the supreme law of Gods and sky,
And the primordial germs of things unfold, Whence Nature all creates, and multiplies
And fosters all, and whither she resolves Each in the end when each is overthrown.
This ultimate stock we have devised to name; Procreant atoms, matter, seeds of things,
Or primal bodies, as primal to the world.
-Lucretius, “On the Nature of Things”
NOW THAT IT IS generally accepted in the physical sciences that the initial singularity was probably in the form of a primeval atom and that, contrary to the view of the Greeks, it can now be divided, the race to discover the ultimate reality begins. The search for the primal reality, however, started more that 2,500 years ago. The giants of "science," then, advanced several theories about what this “ultimate building block” of nature, the “beginning of all things,” and the “begetter of them all” really is. The proponents of many of these ideas are traceable to the early Greek philosophers, who are acknowledged today to be also the first crop of scientists that emerged. Their exploration into the ultimate beginning of things lead them uncover not only the nature of this primeval element, but also the structure as well as the inherent forces, laws, or principles which govern its operations that ultimately led to the birth of our entire Cosmos.
The early Greek philosophers are concerned of studying the primitive element of all things. Thales ((ca. 640-546 B.C.) maintains that the primary stuff of all things is water. He alludes to the fact that the seeds of all things, the principles of life, contain some moisture and wetness that originates only from water. It is this moist that unites all diverse things and keeps all things alive. Anaximander, much younger than Thales, has a different view, asserting that the primary element or material cause of all things indeterminate is “neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but a nature different from them and infinite, from which arise all the heavens and worlds within them” (quoted in Copleston 1960:41). He speaks of the plurality of co-existent worlds coming into being through eternal motion, continually sifting and sorting the heavier and the lighter elements of Nature that eventually led to the formation and separation of earth, water, atmosphere or air, and fire. Yet, there is unity in diversity.
Anaximenes (570-500 B.C.), younger than Anaximander, considers air as the principle of life from which things come from. As with Thales, he conceives the Earth as flat disc, this time floating on the air. Anaximenes maintains that “just as our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world.” Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 B.C.) is famous for his sayings: “All things are in motion, nothing steadfastly is;” “All things are in a state of flux;” “You cannot step twice into the same river, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” Yet, all things that come and go are, according to him, a manifestation of “the unity of the One.” For Heraclitus, who flourished around 504-501, the ultimate reality that explains all the things we see around us is fire. According to him, fire is kept alive by feeding, by consuming, and transforming into itself heterogeneous matter. “’Fire … is want and surfeit’—it is, in other words, all things that are, but it is these things in a constant state of tension, of strike, of consuming, of kindling and of going out… [the world] is an ever-living Fire, with measures of it kindling and measures going out” (in Copleston 1960:57-58).
A century, or so, later, Empedocles (495-435 B.C.), apparently in an attempt to join together the speculative thoughts of his predecessors, advances the idea that there are four fundamental roots of matter or elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and it is from all this that all the other matters we see around us proceed. Objects appear through the combination and mingling of these four elements. Empedocles believes in a force that brings all the four basic elements—earth, water, air, and fire—together in a cyclical process of attraction (love, harmony, unity) and repulsion (hate, discord, separation). Anaxagoras (b. 500 B.C.), on the other hand, argues that in the beginning “All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small too was infinite. And, when all things were together, none of them could be distinguished for their smallness. . . . All things are in the whole” (in Copleston 1960:85). Objects come to appear when one or some kinds of the ultimate particle predominate more than the other. Anaxagoras believes that the principle or force that is responsible for the formation of things is the Mind or Nous. He considers the Nous as the creator of all things and “the thinnest of all things.” Being the primary and fundamental reality, it is present in all living things. Here, I quote Anaxagoras at length because of its relevance to today’s scientific discoveries (as quoted in Copleston 1960:86-87):
“Nous has the power over all things that have life, both greater and smaller. And Nous had power over the whole revolution, so that it began to revolve at the start. . . . And Nous set in order all things that were to be, and all things that were and are now and that will be, and this revolution in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon and the air and the aether which are separated off. And the revolution itself caused the separating off, and the dense is separated off from the rare, the warm from the cold, the bright from the dark, and the dry from the moist. And there are many portions in many things. But no thing is altogether separated off from anything else except Nous. And all Nous is alike, both the greater and the smaller; but nothing else is like anything else, but each single thing is and was most manifestly those things of which there are most in it.”
Meanwhile, to the Pythagoreans, the principle of number or mathematics is the principle of all living things. The Pythagorean society is a religious community founded by Pythagoras in the second half of the 6th century B.C. But as a school, it also devotes itself to the study of mathematics, which led to their recognition of the importance of numbers in the Cosmos. All things can be expressed or converted into numbers and, in fact, to them things are numbers. Applying this to the Cosmos, the Pythagoreans believe that the harmony of the universe depends on number. They are convinced that the Earth is spherical and among the first ones to declare that the Earth is not the center of the Cosmos. To the Pythagoreans, the Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun, or the “hearth of the Universe,” which is identified to be Number One.
But for Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) aether (from a Greek word for “blazing”), a special substance out of which the luminous heavenly bodies were composed, is considered as the ultimate building block of reality. As he puts it (Plato. 1957b:83):
In the first place, take the thing we now call water. This, when it is compacted, we see (as we imagine) becoming earth and stones, and this same thing, when it is dissolved and dispersed, becoming wind and air; air becoming fire by being inflamed; and, by a reverse process, fire, when condensed and extinguished, returning once more to the form of air, and air coming together again and condensing as mist and cloud; and from these, as they are yet more closely compacted, flowing water; and from water once more earth and stones: and thus, as it appears, they transmit in a cycle the process of passing into one another.
Aether was a divine and indestructible substance; its place was in the heavens, where it made up the stars and the other heavenly bodies.
These early Greek philosophers explain the ultimate origin of all things in terms of material element. But they did not arrive at their conclusions through a scientific, experimental approach, but simply by means of speculative reasons and metaphysical intuition. Nonetheless, unlike the more ancient accounts, they were not driven by myths legends, or fables. Today, of course, we know that all their conjectures about the ultimate nature of reality are wrong. More importantly, they fail to satisfactorily explain how the objects we see above us—planets, sun, moons, stars, galaxies—and around us—microorganisms, plants, insects, and animals—come into being. They fail to explain such natural phenomena as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, the cyclical season of our weather, and the like. But the early Greek philosophers, other than exploring into the ultimate beginning of things, make another contribution by teaching us that within this ultimate material element are forces, laws, or principles that govern the operations and behavior of the Cosmos and all living things, including Man. The resulting knowledge that the fundamental reality consists of both physical or visible and non-physical, in the sense of being invisible (also, forces, principles, or laws) that are not only responsible for the appearance of things, but, more importantly, guide the relationships and behavior of the appearing objects, continue to dominate during the time of the Greek philosophers.
Their most important contribution, of course, is that they introduce to modern science the idea of the atom (literally “not able to be cut”) as the primeval stuff from which all things proceed. This idea was advanced by Leucippus of Miletus and his disciple Democritus of Abdera, who argued that atom is the smallest indivisible unit from which all things originate. According to Leucippus (490 B.C.) and Democritus (460-362 B.C.), there is an infinite number of atoms; atoms differ in size and shape and move in the void. In the beginning, they say, there are only atoms and the void. In the void, collisions between atoms are inevitable; atoms of irregular shapes get entangled with one another, eventually forming groups of atoms. In this way, the world is in the process of formation. It is in this manner also that the four elements—fire, air, earth, and water—are formed. In fact, according to Leucippus and Democritus, these continuing chance collisions among infinite number of atoms moving in the void give rise to planets, stars, moons, suns, galaxies, the entire Cosmos, including all living things from the smallest one-celled organism to multi-cellular, highly complex organisms like plants, insects, animals, and plants. There is no external cause of the atoms’ eternal motion; it seems that Leucippus and Democritus do not require an explanation for the atoms’ source of motion. Like their predecessors, Leucippus and Democritus confined their exploration into the ultimate reality in a purely physical and mechanistic way. Primarily using the method of logical reasoning, Democritus expressed the dominant view of the Greeks during that time that in the beginning there was only atom and the void interacting with each other.
The concept of ultimate building block of nature pervades through the times of the Medieval philosophers. Francis Mercury van Helmont (1618-99) developed the theory of the monads as the primary imperishable unit of reality. He subscribed to the conception that the continuing attraction and union between monads is responsible for the creation of complex structures. In turn, each of the newly-formed complex structure is governed by a central monad, the soul or spirit, which directs the whole complex organism, including Man. All monads are imperishable; they continually join other sets of monads in order to attain perfection, until they enter into union with God, the Creator and End of all the monads. Van Helmont shares common interest with his predecessors in magic, occultism, and alchemy. But it was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) who develops a relatively extensive theory of monads. Leibniz maintained that objects are composed of simple substances that contain no parts; these simple substances, he called ‘monads,’ which, according to him, are “the true atoms of nature and, in a word, the elements of things” (Copleston 1963b:301-305).
According to Leibniz, the ultimate reality is the monad, which can come into being only by creation. Being without parts, the monad is indivisible and possesses no shape. In addition, there is in every monad its inner constitution and law, also attributed as the inherent principle, force, energy, or virtue. Each monad, therefore, is the source of its activities; each possesses the inert tendency to act and self-develop. To Leibniz, therefore, each monad is both prime matter or object and active force or principle. This primitive force manifests itself in the form of activity or action, by combining with other monads to form their simple substances into complex ones. In this manner, the Cosmos comes to existence. The Cosmos is composed of a multitude of monads joined together in what Leibniz calls “substantial bond.” In the perspective of the entire Cosmos, each monad exercises its specific roles and functions, but each is inextricably linked and related to the other in a unity, order, and harmony pre-established by God. According to Leibniz, it is God who pre-established this order and harmony of the Cosmos in the beginning of time.
But while monads possess no shape and form, each monad is, nonetheless, distinguishable from the other, because, to Leibniz, each monad differs in the degree of, what he calls, “perception” and “appetition,” which each possesses. Each monad has its own way and degree of perceiving the external environment. Some monads have confused and indistinct perceptions and without memory and consciousness, example of which, according to Leibniz, are the monads of plants. But some monads possess a higher degree of perception, especially when it is accompanied by memory and feeling, as are the monads of animals. Still, a much higher degree of monads are those whose perception is accompanied by consciousness, wherein perception becomes distinct, clear, and the perceiver is aware of such a perception. “The action of the internal principle which causes the change or the passage from one perception to another may be called appetition” (in Copleston 1963b:314).
Both Democritus’ conception of atom and Leibniz’s monads differ with that of the modern physicists’ view, in the sense that the former views believe in the indivisibility of atoms and monads, while that of the latter is just the opposite, contending that atoms (or monads) are made of still smaller particles. But just like the earlier Greek and Medieval philosophers’ views, modern physicists also believe that the ultimate building block possesses inherent principles or “cohesive forces” that govern its operation. It was during the time of Van Helmuth and Leibniz that the turning point in the search for knowledge started to develop. The year 1600s was known as the age of exploration and discovery initiated in Europe by people like Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Johannes Kepler (1531-1630), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Thomas Harriot (1560-1621), René Descartes (1596-1650), chemist and physicist Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). It marks the beginning of the age of experimentation and quantitative measurement, which forms the foundation of modern science. According to modern science, atoms are invisible to the naked eye, but with the aid of sophisticated magnifying lenses, they can be dissected and this is exactly what the famous British physicist Sir Joseph John Thomson did. So, what did the find to be the ultimate reality? We shall deal on this issue in our subsequent feature.#