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The many & devious sins of Atomism

December 3, 2012

Having sounded off yesterday about relativism I thought I would pick another bete noir today, namely atomism. Democrates (pictured) has a lot to answer for.  The idea appears to be a good one if you look at it from a 17th Century perspective on science.  Atoms become the fundamental particles and from that we start to get an aggregative approach.  Discover the fundamental particle and thereafter life is easy.  Its one of those simple ideas that had utility in context but has now been extended to the point where it damages both science and the humanities.

Probably the best writer on this is Mary Midgely in her seminal book Science and Poetry.  I wish I could write (and think for that matter) with her clarity and the book is easily understood by the non-philosopher but is profound.   As I side issue here, I fell in love with Philosophy because as a 14 year old I could read and understand (to a degree) Plato.  Too much modern philosophy is obscurantist at best, Mary avoids that trap and I wish I had discovered her work earlier.  Either way read the book, it will be the underpinning of a lot of future development of ideas and methods here at Cognitive Edge.

The basic point is that atomism encourages a mind-body dualism in which the role of consciousness is reduced to that of an epiphenomenon.  We then get the fatalism of Dawkins in The Selfish Gene which leads to a denial of free will and a philosophy by which you could not lead your life (always a test of validity to my mind).  The physical world that we occupy as humans is influenced by our reflection, our poetry, our literature and above all our social interactions.  The idea of memes (not the more popular idea of a social virus for which the term is sometimes used) borrowing from genes is an example of this attempt to reduce the complex to small components.   We get the same in politics with social atomism giving rise to a philosophy that legitimises selfishness and denies altruism.

The great irony is that physics, the main beneficiary of atomistic ideas has moved on, we need biology and the humanities to do the same.   We are not isolated individuals, we co-evolve with the world around and our fellow creatures.  Poetry did not emerge as entertainment, but as a means for understanding and insight into the world as a whole.

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