history> atomism

This is the second of three pages in this history section - Anaximander, Atomism and Newton.

the rise of atomism

A century after Anaximander, Zeno – a poor country-boy from the Ionian colony of Elea in Italy – bamboozled the philosophers of the day with a series of paradoxes that explored what was contradictory about the notion of the continuous and the discrete.

Zeno said motion seems mathematically impossible because imagine Achilles was chasing a tortoise. Achilles must first reach the place where the tortoise was, but by then it has already moved on. By the time he has made up that smaller distance, the tortoise has also gone a little further. So it seems no matter how long Achilles chases, he never actually catches up.

Or consider an arrow fired from a bow. The arrow must be either still or moving. If it can be seen to be moving, then it is taking some discrete fraction of time to shift from one place to another and so that moment can be divided. But if you keep on dividing up instants, then you eventually get to the point where the arrow no longer makes any discernible movement. It becomes still and therefore how can the arrow now ever leave the bow?

For the organicist, Zeno’s paradoxes present no real difficulty because the limits of a dichotomy – in this case the continuous and the discrete – describe a pair of impossibly perfect states. The world can only ever aspire to the contrasting fates of being broken or unbroken.

Furthermore Zeno had smuggled in an observer making measurements on the world. It is our mind’s eye that is being asked to constrain an event like the firing of an arrow to the discreteness of a location or the continuity of a path. We can imagine chopping spacetime ever smaller to approach crisp point-like instants, or stepping back to see the global wholeness of a trajectory in which the arrow is now everywhere and nowhere in particular along its path. But the measurements are self-contradictory – asymmetric – and so just as with the inherent fuzziness of a quantum event, we find we can only constrain the system toward one or other pole of being at a time.

However the Greek view on dichotomies was changing. Dichotomies were becoming dualisms – fixeddualism categorical opposites rather than the emergent limits of a separating process. And in turn it was a matter of either/or. Faced with a pair of choices, only one could be considered the more fundamental – the arche or deepest principle of Reality. From the broken two-ness of a dualism, it was but a short step to the one-ness of monism. Reality had to be either continuous or discrete, driven by chance or necessity, built on constant change or the fixed and unchanging. Logic seemed to say that one must be cause, the other mere effect.

This is the more familiar tale of Greek philosophy, the one told in hindsight by those seeking the origins of the modern scientific view of the world. Metaphysics was the struggle to identify the basis of Reality, the stuff out of which every other kind of stuff could get constructed.

Anaximander becomes one of three Miletian “presocratics” who variously suggested air, water and some mystic substance called the apeiron as the candidate primal stuff. Next came Pythagoras who as a crazy mathematician thought that all was number.

Then there was Heraclitus who argued all was flux. He could see no fixed material only constant change, and so he elevated change to the ruling principle.

His contemporary Parmenides did a good job of arguing the opposite. Parmenides – aided by the clever paradoxes of his student, Zeno – argued that change and motion must be some kind of illusion. Instead of the many, there could only be a fixed, unchanging, eternal oneness. Parmenides likened his frozen block Reality to a giant sphere, perfect in its symmetry being “equally balanced in every direction from its centre".

Finally with Empedocles, a wealthy Sicilian colonist, we begin to see a recognisably scientific story in which the world is constructed from four elements – fire, earth, air and water – and the two complementary forces of love and strife. As fundamental substances, the four elements were infinitely divisible, yet also eternal and immutable. They could only be mixed, never altered by the reactions they took part in. And then Empedocles’s identification of the forces of love and strife seems an acceptable way of talking about the attraction and repulsion we find in the four fundamental forces of physics today.
empedocles' elements Of course, Empedocles’s four elements were just Anaximander's four principle phases of evolving matter – the end results of a separating out of the hot and the cold, the wet and the dry – taken as fixed and uncreated categories of existence. Likewise, the simple symmetry of the rival forces of love and strife were a collapse of the more complex asymmetry to be found in Anaximander’s organic scheme where the initial tendency to move apart was followed by a range of potential interactions between a set of crisply developed stuffs. Empedocles was recasting Anaximander’s metaphysics in strictly mechanical terms.

But derivative or not, it looks a solid theory of the world to modern eyes. The four elements at least matched what we know to be the four basic phases of matter - solids, liquids, gases and radiant energy. And Empedocles had clearly singled out the notion of a force – a crisp push or pull that had an existence as something in its own right and was not merely a description of some holistic, emergent, tendency.

So Empedocles is celebrated as the first pre-scientific thinker. But the true moderns in ancient Greek thought were those arch-reductionists, the atomists. There was Leucippus, about whom almost nothing is known except that he probably lived in Miletus some 150 years after Anaximander and may have been the originator of atomist philosophy. There was Democritus of Thrace who knew Leucippus and was also a prolific writer. And then there was Epicurus of Samos who revived and expanded their approach after a gap of a further 150 years.

No one is sure how atomism arose, but it seems to have been a response to Parmenides and his view that Reality must be a single unbroken whole - a place with no empty space between things, and so no room for things to change or move. Leucippus and Democritus argued that the only way to accommodate both change and stasis, both the one and the many, was to break to break Reality into atoms moving in a void. In a logical move that crisply excluded the middle ground, existence got neatly divided into a single kind of being and a single kind of non-being.

All atoms were made of the same eternal, immutable, uncuttable, substance. What gave atoms their different properties was their shape and speed. They might be small, smooth and quick, making them slippery like water or air. The even zippier atoms would appear like fire. Or they might be large and jagged, with hooks on their surface that caused them to snag into clumps.

Shape would explain their sensory qualities. Democritus speculated that sweet-tasting atoms must be large regular balls while sour-tasting ones would be angular, with sharp points to prick the tongue.

The elementalists like Empedocles had assumed that matter was a variety of continuous stuffs that would thus always be divisible into smaller bits. The atomists said Reality only needed the one stuff and each scrap of stuff had its shape, and thus its properties, fixed for all time. Only an atom’s speed might vary as it bounced about having collisions, or got snared into larger clusters.

Equally revolutionary was the notion of the void – an absolute emptiness. Even the elementalist philosophers felt that something concrete must fill every gap in Reality. They argued that if ever an empty space appeared, some kind of material would immediately flow in to fill it. Nature abhors a vacuum.

The Greeks also thought that every moving body needs a constant pushing by the world about it. Aristotle said that the bow may give an arrow its initial impetus, but it only keeps going because its flight opens up a small vacuum at its tail and the air rushing in behind it gives the arrow a further push. The Greeks could imagine the stuff of Reality to be in some ultimate state of vague potential – like Anaximander’s apeiron – or to grow excessively thin, like the aether, whose swirling motions were said to move the moon and stars in the heavens. But a complete absence of stuff, a naked, featureless void – a place even empty of any divine presence – was a shockingly new idea in Greek cosmology.

Atoms bouncing about empty space has become such an everyday thought to us that it seemsatoms in a void quite obvious and natural. But let’s track where the causality has gone in this very reduced mental picture of Reality. First causality has been cleanly divided. Atoms are the causal parts and the void has become the a-causal whole, the mere backdrop to a play of local events. The void has no properties apart from its existence, its infinite extent, and its eternal unchanging nature. It does not act on the atoms, nor they on the void.

So right away, there is no global-level order, no holistic system in which the parts work together to make the whole while the whole is also exerting a top-down constraining effect to help shape the parts. The atoms, being eternal and immutable, explain everything as a direct consequence of their actions. The void, as a pure nothingness, can do nothing except stand passively – the blank canvas, the continuous field, on which are scrawled the trajectories of discrete particles.

Of course, as we have seen, the nothingness of space is still a definite kind of something. A dimension is a degree of freedom, a seam of potential change. It is an orderly feature that characterises Reality. And an orderly feature is not a genuine nothingness as that would be the absence of everything, even such primal notions as the orderly and the disorderly.

An organicist would go still further and see an unconstrained freedom as a negative sort of causality – a deliberate staying of the hand. In any holistically organised system, the global whole is normally acting to constrain the behaviour of the parts. So if the parts seem to have an actual freedom of some kind at their local level, then this is somehow being permitted by the global context – or else escaping its attention! Crisp degrees of freedom may emerge as sharp foreground features once all the other potential degrees of freedom have been actively suppressed.

To use the useful analogy of a flowing river, the banks can squeeze the jostling water molecules into a flow. All the random private motions become averaged away and only a general impression of a single sweeping direction remains. Yet keep pinching up the current, forcing it ever faster, and a new dimensionality erupts into being. Locally the current breaks into rotating whorls of turbulence where, for a time at least, some molecules find themselves heading back upstream. As we will see, for an organicist constraint also produces freedom. Indeed, they are a dichotomy, and so go hand-in-hand, growing in strength together.
But for the moment we want to talk about the assumptions needed to get a mechanical notion of Reality off the ground. So what was important for the atomists was the assertion that a naked dimensionality could simply exist. This of courses raised the question of how it came to exist as an empty space, just three spatial dimensions, plus a ticking clock of time. But the same question applies to the atoms, the crisply located scraps of substance with their various shapes, sizes and speeds.

The answer of the atomists was simple – and generally acceptable to ancient Greek philosophers. Time was infinite, atoms and the void were eternal and immutable, hence logically there could be no moment when “thingness” began, when a world had to be conjured out of nothing.

This still left the question of how the world developed to its present complex state with stars and planets, fish and weather, people and volcanoes. There was still a historical dimension in which the world evolved from something simpler to something richer. The thinly developed became the thickly developed. Epicurus, the third atomist philosopher, offered an answer that was remarkably like the Big Bang/inflaton field theory of today.

He said in the beginning all the atoms were falling evenly through the void like an exactly spaced collection of raindrops. They had been falling this way for all time, so the world had been a rather dull place in which nothing ever happened. All the potential for interaction represented by the moving atoms remained locked up, a huge latent energy. But then just one atom took a slight deviation – the slightest momentary fluctuation. It hit a neighbouring atom, sending it ricocheting into others in turn. The perfect symmetry of the falling rain of atoms was shattered and a complex world took shape out of the colliding, lumping and splitting of the released matter.

Atomism does offer a remarkably compact model of Reality. It demands only moving particles and an unresisting space. The void, as an empty receptacle, can be ignored so far as the modelling of any causality goes. It may have a few concrete properties such as existence and a crisp dimensionality, but the void is causally inert. Atomism doesn’t even grant it a developmental history.

The same applies to the stuff – the pure being – that makes up atoms. Anaximander saw the materials of the world developing by a process of separating out, thus there was always a complex causal history lurking behind surface appearances.

And even Empedocles’s elements had an internal story to tell. Fire was an intrinsically different kind of material to water or earth and so, in seeking the fundamental, we would want to ask something about what might actually cause such differences.

But atoms were all the same substance – an eternal and immutable substance. With no change or development, there was nothing causal going on inside. So all causality was reduced to just the various ways the impassive being of atoms could occupy the empty dimensionality of space. Location, size, shape, velocity – it was how atoms looked to each other when they met that determined everything. Atoms were discrete substances which interacted at discrete instants of time. And when all was said and done, nothing really got changed in an atomistic Universe, just rearranged.

But what really made atomism notorious was the way it managed to rule out the need for gods, goals, purpose, or anything else that smacked of some higher causal order. Reality got produced in arbitrary fashion by a bunch of indestructible shapes blundering about in space. Whatever orderly world might arise from this activity was an accident, a matter of blind chance. There was no global or system level effect that guided atoms towards their collisions, steering events towards specific ends.

And equally, if global outcomes were completely a matter of chance, all local outcomes were ruled by the atomist principle of ananke – blind mechanical  necessity. The result of any meeting of two atoms was completely determined by their shape, their weight, their direction and speed. There was no room for the unexpected, the vague, the unpredicted. The atoms were passive actors in the drama.

And the interaction itself was isolate. The surrounding void certainly had no way of registering the event and all the other atoms in the Universe could only know of the consequences indirectly if a particle happened to be shot its way at some later date. Truly this was a soulless Universe. Reality was a giant mesh of point-like happenings, a computer in which unchosen inputs were being processed to create unconsidered outputs. Every step was determined yet no one ever paid any attention to the patterns that might result.

plato says it's substance or form

Atomism was a tremendously clever idea. As a model of Reality, it could account for so much. However the philosophers of ancient Greece were intrigued rather than convinced. The one fact of which we can be sure as conscious humans is the existence of our own life and mind. The rest remains pretty much speculation. And many thinkers still preferred to start with some kind of knowing mind as the ultimate basis of Reality.

This could be a particular god or just a very generalised principle of cognition. Others at least wanted a recognisably organic take on causality, rather than the thoroughly inorganic story of atomism. So to complete our jaunt around the foundations of Western metaphysics, let’s briefly mention the golden age of Athens when Plato and Aristotle had their debate over yet another apparently fundamental dichotomy – that of substance~form.
All the gnawing at the bone of various dichotomies such as change and stasis, the many and the one, the continuous and the discrete, had led Greek thought to a highly reduced idea of substance.

Anaximander had seen the materials of the world as various mutable stuffs arising out of the interplay of tendencies towards being hotter and colder, dryer and wetter. The elementalists considered the basic stuffs to come with fixed identity and properties, though still variable in shape and quantity. The atomists said there was only pure space-occupying being at play in the insubstantial space of the void. Substance had become one impervious material, too hard to chip or dent, too solid to ever evolve or decay.

But in the way of philosophy, striking out boldly in one direction must create its asymmetric opposite. As the idea of substance became crisply formed in the minds of scholars, so they were led to discover its other pole, the equally pure notion of timeless, placeless – and so substanceless – form.
It was Plato, a rich nobleman who founded his own philosophical academy in 387 BC some two centuries after Anaximander, who lurched towards this newly revealed extreme.

Plato liked the idea of atoms but he felt their shapes still needed explaining. Something must cause their variety. For the Greeks, the perfect shape of a sphere might be taken to be so harmoniously balanced as to be uncaused. But any deviations like points and hooks were another matter. And if atomistic substance needed a shaping hand somewhere along the line, then it could not be itself as fundamental as it claimed. Atomism also faced the problem that the world did seem to have meaningful pattern, a global cohesion. The way everything fitted together in nature suggested there could be higher principles were at work.
On top of all this, like most Greek philosophers, Plato was gripped by the beauty of mathematics. Mathematical truths seemed to be rules that would have to apply in any world, not just our own world. They appeared to enjoy an existence that went beyond a particular realm spun from a particular variety of substance. So for a number of reasons, Plato was prompted to suggest that it was form rather than substance that was the fundamental shaper of Reality. Certain forms were so perfect, so geometrically correct or otherwise self-complete, that they had no choice but to exist. And substance would arise only as a consequence of the existence of these templates.
platonic solids Plato noted that mathematically there were just five regular solids – three dimensional shapes that could be constructed from a set of identical two dimensional faces. These were a pyramid-like tetrahedron made of four equilateral triangles, a cube made of six perfect squares, an octahedron made of eight equilateral triangles, an icosahedron made of 20 equilateral triangles,  and the soccer ball-like dodecahedron constructed from 12 pentagons. Geometry only allowed these particular shapes and no others. And so it seemed obvious that when substance appeared in the world it must fall into one of these primal forms. Jagged little pyramids could be the sparks of fire. Solid close-packing cubes could be the element of earth. The more slippery shapes of octahedrons and icosahedrons could be air and water respectively. The almost round dodecahedron would be the new fifth element, the ultra-light aether, said to pervade the heavens.
So the laws of geometry existed first and substance emerged as the only ways that regions of the void could become enclosed as “solid” atoms. Plato of course went much further. He argued that what went for geometric truths must also apply to other apparently self-justifying abstractions such as the notion of ultimate goodness. If humans could conceive of the idea so clearly then it must exist in a way that transcends any actual world manufactured from substance.

Likewise the realm of form would have to include many lesser abstractions, such as those that stood for the essence of cat-ness, table-ness, or any other orderly idea. For everything concretely fashioned from substance, there would have to exist a single crisp prototype.
Once we get down to talking about the perfect cat, the perfect table, it is easy to start to chortle at Plato. But he did seem to be on to something in saying that certain shapes, certain orderly structures and processes, simply had to be. The problem was that Plato had a mechanical rather than an organic reading of dichotomies (or at least that is how he is remembered – his apeiron-like idea of chora suggests a different tale perhaps.)

If there were two poles of being, one had to be the more fundamental. One had to be the cause that came before the effect. So first came the existence of his Plenitude, a host of crisp timeless forms – ideas that were distinct, discrete, not vague or in need of separation. And then actual worlds were like flickering shadows cast on a wall by these forms. The inevitability of a form acted to coax the potential in substance into organised being. But of course the resulting structures and processes, these examples of cubeness, catness, goodness or tableness, had to live and develop in space and time. Being moulded of perishable, mutable, substance, they could never be perfect and so what counted as the more real was the realm of form that lay forever beyond the everyday material world.

It is important to get this twist in Plato’s thinking as his philosophy eventually became the keel of the Christian view of cosmology. It was taken as a theological argument proving that a divine realm of pure mind filled with perfect ideas must lie beyond our cheap imitation world in which substances are trying to ape forms. Platonism also lingers in Western mathematics where again the correctness of mathematical truths is taken as a sign that the human mind is tapping into some truer realm – a rational universe which encompasses any particular substantial universe that might get spawned from its crisp possibilities.

This is why even more than two thousand years later it is so hard to not to think about the problem of existence in other than mechanical terms. Whether we turn to science or religion, philosophy or mathematics, we keep bumping up against a mechanical way of thinking. Vague dichotomies get turned into crisp dualisms. And crisp dualisms get reduced to monisms because one must be cause, the other mere effect. We are perpetually hunting for something and it might be entirely the wrong kind of thing.

The fundamental is taken to be located before in terms of time, below in terms of space. But it might be vague and so as much after as before, as much global as local. The arche of Reality might not look anything like we’ve been led to expect. The goggles of mechanicalism may help us break up our confused impressions of the world into more digestible chunks. We might see value in the differing ideas of form and substance. But putting all the parts back together could be another matter. What has been mechanically deconstructed may not be so easily reconstructed if construction was only ever half the story.

aristotle as an organic thinker

After Plato came his pupil, Aristotle, a true commonsense philosopher. Others had raised a mass of conflicting ideas about causality and Reality. Aristotle tried to restore a unity of thought.

Aristotle History remembers Aristotle as both hero and villain. His mistakes are felt to be as great as his various triumphs. But this is history through those mechanicalist goggles. A closer reading of Aristotle reveals that he was struggling to balance two logic systems against each other. Anaximander had had it easy as he came early in the day and could simply describe what he thought he saw. He could be organic without ever making it explicit. But with the countering movement towards a mechanical view of Reality, Aristotle was left to contend with two ways of looking at the world. which were both fairly successful in their own right, and from which he had to extract some common ground.

Aristotle was born in 384 BC in the Greek province of Macedonia where his father was the doctor to the royal court. At 17 he went to Plato’s academy in Athens. In mid-life he travelled, becoming the personal tutor of Alexander the Great, then a 13 year old boy, before eventually returning to Athens to set up his own school, the Lyceum. His books on logic and biology became the mainstay of medieval thought.

Plato did the theology of the Christian world while Aristotle was its scientist. At least that is, until the Renaissance. Then – as the traditional story goes – scholars stumbled on the forgotten doctrine of atomism, rediscovered from old texts brought back by to Europe from the Arab world. Invigorated by this new causal model, it was quickly realised that Aristotle’s thinking harboured a residual organicism and the real scientific revolution could finally get underway.
Over a million words of Aristotle’s survive. But here we only need to touch on the essentials of his metaphysics as in many ways they were little different to Anaximander’s. Like Anaximander, Aristotle did not believe in voids or beginnings. Instead Reality was eternal and uncreated in the sense of that there was always a vague potential from whence more crisply particular must arise. So Reality was dynamic. It had the extra axis of description that allowed for its need to develop.
Aristotle could see that Anaximander’s cosmological story had problems. It was too physical sounding for a start. Or not yet vague enough! The apeiron was spoken of as if it were a material that filled space and time. But Aristotle wanted to get beyond the specificities of time and location and so talked of potential as timeless, dimensionless. It was uncreated in the sense there could be no clear before. Time arose only once there was actual change, once the utter vagueness of raw potential was disturbed by some impulse to develop.

Aristotle could draw on more recent Greek thinking about the organisation of the heavens. He saw that the earth, moon and sun must be all spheres, not a squat cylinder surrounded mist-shrouded wheels of fire. However on the elements, Aristotle followed Anaximander quite closely. The four basic substances of earth, air, fire and water were formed from a division into opposites. So the separating out of the hot and the dry gave fire, the separating out of the cold and moist gave liquids. Colder materials like water and earth would always sink – a tendency known as gravity – while hot materials like fire and air would rise, a dichotomous tendency known as levity.

The fifth element of the aether was a little more mysterious but it was felt needed to explain the circular motions of the heavens. The other elements either fell or rose in a straight line, either heading towards the centre of the earth or straight out into space. So the aether had the special tendency to swirl.

However Aristotle rejected both Plato and the atomists in saying the elements were still one continuous substance rather than a jostle of discrete particles. Different regions of Reality might become differently formed due to cooling, or drying, or whatever, but the elements never actually became separate stuffs. It was this belief in the mutability of all substance that was to inspire the medieval alchemists in their dream of turning base metals into gold. 
So generally speaking, Aristotle took an organic approach to dichotomies. They were the stretched-out limits of how far the Real could become divorced from itself rather than an either/or choice about what was more fundamental. Thus on the problem of substance and form, Aristotle argued that all things were hylomorphic compounds – a term that still does not translate that easily to modern ears but can be understood as making the case that neither atomistic substance nor Platonic form were primary.

Aristotle agreed they certainly appear to be asymmetric extremes of Reality. If you washed away all the form in the world, then you would still seem to be left with some kind of naked clay, a vague substance that once enabled a form like a pot to be. Yet by the same token, wash away all the substance in the world and it would seem that orderly forms, such as the idea of a pot or pot-ness, would still exist. So both poles of the substance~form dichotomy seem equally necessary to existence. But as a distinction, it is really saying something about the way the world develops into crisply separated being.
Aristotle then took this more organic approach to the question of substance and form and spun it into his definitive causal model – a model that has been given the mechanically-minded severe intellectual indigestion ever since.

aristotle's four causes

Aristotle argued that causality is split into four causal elements – material, formal, efficient and final cause. The first two were about the particular stuff involved in the changes, its substances and its forms.  The second two were about the role played by the surrounding world in prompting the changes, both in a specific way and as a more general reason.
aristotle's four causes The common example is the building of a house. The material cause is the substance that allows it to be built – the bricks, tiles, lumber and so forth. The formal cause is the actual shape of the house – the blueprint which organises the bricks. The efficient cause is the reason why a specific house got built in a specific place – there was a gang of builders to do the work. Then the final cause, the telos, is the more general reason of why a house was even required – because someone wanted a place to live.

So the stuff undergoing a change in state could be dichotomised into both substance and form. Atomists had argued there were only bricks, blueprints played no part in their chance world. Plato had argued the opposite, saying blueprints conjured bricks into being. Aristotle said analysis would reveal both to be causal factors in interaction.

And then in talking about why a particular change occurred, Aristotle was saying there were both proximate and distal causes. There were locally specific reasons – a set of pushes and pulls, such as that exerted by a gang of builders, that got the materials moving into a shape. But then just as much a part of the causal equation was the global reason for why such an event was motivated to happen. The building of a house is a meaningful act and Aristotle’s final cause says that it is the meaning of an event to the larger system, the wider context, that is also an actual cause of events.

To modern scientific ears, Aristotle’s final cause is heresy – the sin of teleology. It is the claim that ends justify the means; that future outcomes can guide the unfolding of present events; that the global system can determine local occurrences. Or just about as bad, that the parts have the foresight to anticipate and thus pursue the wholes they will eventually create.

Medieval theologians had embraced final cause because it argued that any act of creation must serve a greater purpose. There must be some kind of mind or intelligence drawing everything through a process of development towards its crisp conclusion. But with a decisive shift towards an atomistic, mechanical, view of Reality during the Renaissance, the fourth cause became condemned as a violation of causality. The future couldn’t know the past. The parts could not know the whole. Causality was a blind succession of isolated events in which complex structure simply accumulated.

It was easy to ridicule final causes. If we ask "why did it rain?", the material cause would be the existence of a cloud of moisture. The formal cause would be the general rule that heavy things must fall. The efficient cause would be that a cooling triggered the condensation of droplets at that moment, in that place. And then Aristotle would have to say the falling of the rain served some greater purpose - such as to water the grass or fill the rivers. But the scientific view was that these were just effects. Stuff happened. And it was only the anthropic principle, the fact we find ourselves at the end of a long tangled chain of chance happenings, that makes it seem that there was some purpose guiding events all along the way.
Well what the mechanical model of causality forbids, the organic model must mandate! To dichotomise our modelling successfully, we must also build a logic in which final causes are always present, always active. This does not mean bringing in gods or minds as such. But it does mean generalising the notion of purpose, meaningfulness, cognition, knowing, anticipation, or whatever else is required so that futures can be seen to constrain the present, global wholes to constrain local patterns of events. And we can see that this is one way of making sense of quantum weirdness. And thus of physical existence itself.
Quantum systems defy mechanical causality because the parts seem to know their place in the whole. Effects appear to flow backwards in time, or instantaneously across infinite space, to determine their own causes. Quantum rules allow the non-local, the uncertain. There is an eventual collapse into the crisp mechanical logic of classical physics, where events are seen to unfold blind step by blind step in the empty void of space and time.

But physics is hung up on the incompatibly between the two causal views. It suffers from a fundamental dualism. So wouldn’t it be nice to find that the quantum and classical realms are instead two poles of a spectrum of causality and that mechanical logic gives us a crisp model of one extreme while an organic logic accounts neatly for the apparently illogical nature of the other? But first we should finish the story of the rise of mechanicalism so we can see exactly what it stands for.


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