Birth, Death, Atoms

The old atomists - Democritus for example, shown above - get bad press in education. I still remember them being wheeled out as a silly or basic pre-history of science, in science lessons, with their supposedly simple concepts now left far behind by modern cleverness.

It's easy to read archaic mysteries into the ancient world, in a Da Vinci Code sort of way. Not least because lots of what they left us was lost, and any time you're left with fragments you can join the dots in so many different ways that some of them will always be loopy. But the atomists left us enough, we're just generally hopeless at understanding it.

The atomists, and the genius above all of Archimedes, didn't make a distinction between the social and natural worlds. That distinction would have seemed a complete nonsense to them. Equally ridiculous to them would have been the idea of a knowing subject. But above all else the message the ancient atomists left us, which we turned into a caricatured fairy tale to make ourselves look superior, was about the nature of birth and death.

A common view of death and more generally of decay is that something, a person for example, or some object, progresses from some initial pristine state to a gradual deterioration. So for example we tend to assume that getting old is a process of breaking down, of running out of puff, of the decay of the vigour of youth. The unspoken but completely necessary adjunct to this view is that birth or creation is something that is made, to resist decay - decay and disorder are the default state, which order fights against.

The atomists didn't think like this. For them birth and death, order and disorder, were like two sides of the same coin. In fact they're indistinguishable, and the difference between them is only relative. The growth of an order always creates apparent disorder from another viewpoint, and vice versa. So if I go out in the backyard and lay a concrete path over the top of an ant nest, then the order of the path trashes the previous order of the ant nest - ant order has been replaced with ant disorder, whereas my disordered yard has now become a little bit more ordered, for me. But it's all woven together even more intricately, because depsite the appearance of smooth order of my concrete path, in itself it's already changing, reacting with the atmosphere and the ground. Over time it will change, it will crack, oxidise etc.

The essential point isn't so much the viewpoint though, it's that order spontaneously arises. In things and in us. It is part of the nature of things to give birth to new things. In the process of this constant change or flux, what previously looks like an order will break down and be replaced with different combinations. The process we usually call decay is the process of the birth of a new order. Everything is always changing, but this is constructive and destructive at the same time. We don't have to build a fort against disorder, order will appear itself - it's this same change built right into the nature of things. Birth and death are the same process.

An old person is not a decayed young person. It's a person who has been thrown longer into this flux we call life for longer, and whose very being has therefore taken on more of the differences it has encountered in its life journey. It's precisely like the delta of a river, which at first glance looks like the decay of a river, but in reality is the river carrying more and more of its encounters (with sediment, gravity) along with it. It's not a deterioration, it's an accretion, the addition of characteristics it has acquired in its encounters. Everything 'material' is mortal, but mortality is not a falling apart, it's taking on so many changes that what you end up with isn't what you started with. Material isn't material! Matter, substance - 0r whatever you want to call it - is not a static lump of stuff, it's a writhing mass of ever-changing forms.

Everything is a flux, and fluxes build as well as destroy. At the same time.


  1. Hey Nick, are you a William Blake man?

    To see a world in a grain of sand,
    And a heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
    And eternity in an hour.

  2. Yep, the madman! Got a book of his paintings here somewhere.


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