2500 years before modern-day particle physicists, the Ionian philosopher Parmenides, and later the Atomists, followed logical reasoning towards discovering what we currently believe to be the fundamental structure of the universe. In this essay I will show how both schools believed in a universal One that is, in effect, all of reality, how this leads towards a scepticism of our own senses, and how these views differed on the key point of change as we perceive it.
The first, and most alien concept for us to intuit is that of the One. Prior to Parmenides, philosophers and the epic poets explained a world governed either by a pantheon of meddlesome gods, a Boundless that brought order through a vortex motion in the universe, as was the case with Anaximander, or through a system of opposition, such as Heraclitus believed. Parmenides’ breakthrough was in realizing there cannot be a nothing. In previous philosophies there always exists some distance between that which governed (god, boundless, etc.,) and that which was being governed (people, the seasons, etc.,); a sort of chasm in which the controlling force had to reach over in order to influence that which existed in a different sphere. Parmenides, using only rational thought, realized there can be no nothing, no part of the universe that does not exist. Everything is, and that is is the One.
An example which can help us to wrap our brains around the idea of there not being nothing is to examine thought itself in this way: “You cannot think “nothing”. Why not? Because nothing is not, and to think is [as Parmenides explains] to think of what is,” (28). In other words nothing is a definable something and therefore it can no longer meet the definition of nothing. There simply is no nothing.
The atomists, too believed in a One, however they refined this One into a fundamental substance (though this word can be misleading). Democritus, a philosopher living a generation after Parmenides called this atoms. Atoms, like the One are, literally, everything and there is no point in the universe which does not contain them. The word atom literally means “uncuttable” because to do so would mean there is a nothing for them to exist, now cut, inside of which, because of Parmenides, we understand to be impossible. Therefore the universe in all directions and at all points connecting must be made entirely of these atoms.
A strange phenomena now arises because of this line of thinking, and one in which both Parmenides and the atomists attempted to explain. The problem is with our own senses. Parmenides understood the One not just as all of everything, but that it also does not change: it is eternal. Yet we can clearly sense change all around us be it the changing of the seasons, our own ageing, or the positions of the stars in the sky.
Parmenides explains this problem of appearance and reality by simply saying we are experiencing reality incorrectly, that our senses are just opinions and our observations of reality are only “the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief,” (30). The Atomists also believed we are incorrectly experiencing reality, however as with their exploration of the One, they too refined Parmenides’ somewhat confounding conclusion.
Though the Atomists were unable to physically examine these atoms, they understood, also solely through logical thought, that these atoms must behave in unique ways. Though the eternal substance of the atom never changes, the way these atoms interact with each other can vary. For example, one atom might be in the shape (again a misleading, but still useful description) of the letter “N”, while another might be in the shape of a “Z”. Many different combinations can arise from differences in these atoms, either through shape, position, or how they are arranged. These differences will then alter our perception of the atoms. In furthering our example, if we were we to try and taste a “N” atom with our tongues which might be made up of countless combinations of “T”, “U”, and “G” atoms, our experience with “N” will vary from tongue to tongue. I might say “N” tastes bitter, while you with your unique combination of tongue atoms might say it tastes sweet.
Because of this unique way in which atoms interact with themselves we are then unable to accurately experience reality – the One – as it is truly is. We sense change when, in fact, there is only the One, or the atom. We experience reality though convention, not how it truly is.
However, a key difference arises between Parmenides and the Atomists when it comes to the “many”. While both schools believe there is only a universal One, Parmenides sees this One as a solid, homogeneous eternity where nothing changes and everything just is. The Atomists, however, attempt to account for what we perceive to be many things. Atoms, these singular bits of eternal “Oneness” are described in the plural, yet how can there be many atoms if there is no nothing to differentiate them? The solution is what Democritus defines as the void.
This void is not nothing, rather the void is a thing itself yet containing no atoms. Though this might seem contradictory it does follow reason since “what-does-not-contain-any-body need not be the same as what-is-not-at-all,” (33). The void is, it just contains no atoms. So while they both still agree there cannot be nothing, what is is refined by the Atomists into things and no-thing.
When the Atomists settled on this refinement of Parmenides’ observations it resolved not only the paradox of the One and the Many, but also the subsequent paradox that if there was only a One there could not even be any movement, as the philosopher Zeno reasoned. When Zeno looked at Parmenides’ arguments he understood via reductio ad absurdum that a man racing after a tortoise cold never catch it since no finite point could be separated from another finite point (a nothing between finite points) for which a runner could pass to eventually overtake the animal. Obviously our own experience shows this is not true since we can clearly outclass even the most spry turtle. Luckily for our runner the Atomists were able to resolve this paradox with the concept of the void.
In conclusion we have seen how Parmenides’ concept of a universal and eternal One was reasoned by understanding that there can be no nothing, and then how this was taken up by the Atomists in the form of atoms existing in a void. We have also seen how through the unique pairings of atoms we are unable to experience reality as it truly is, and that our experience is merely convention and not an accurate observation of reality. We have also seen that, though Parmenides and the Atomists were very similar in their understanding of the universe, the breakthrough for the Atomists was that there could exist a something that contained no-thing: a void. This broke the paradoxes arising from Parmenides and allowed philosophers to reconcile our senses with reality, a reality modern science has shown to closely model the thought experiments of ancient philosophers living roughly 25 centuries ago.