The concept of the atom is an old one. The idea of little building blocks of matter was current among a number of philosophical schools in ancient Greece as well as in ancient India. In the East, the importance of 'minute particles' for scholarship and research has been in proportion to their size - there was no way to observe such particles directly, and while they figured in many schools' paradigms of physical existence they were generally relegated to the baggage compartment while other topics were more hotly debated. In the West, speculation on the nature of 'atoms' eventually led to the rise of the mechanical worldview and a technology-based investigation into the realms of natural philosophy.
In the 17th century, Rene Descartes created a model of the universe that was, physically, nothing more than collisions of particles playing out their endless chain of cause and effect. Although Descartes spoke of both mind and matter in his system, the followers of the mechanical worldview that he helped to create left the mind behind in pursuit of what we call the laws of physics.
The unique combination of thought and technology through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries has led western science down a long trail of discovery in areas which the philosophers of Indian traditions could only try to investigate with their minds. Physicists focused on the nuts and bolts of matter, looking at ever smaller pieces and trying to fit them into the broader scheme of the mechanical tradition's insistence on an absolute ontology, that is, the axiomatic belief that things have an objective existence which scientific method can uncover. It was this relentless poking around the insides of atoms which inadvertently led to discoveries that challenged the idea that phenomena exist wholly independent from our methods of investigation. One of these discoveries is known as wave-particle duality.
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Copyright © 2005 Dan Haig