The First Error: “Everything is Composed of Little Particles”

From the Bring Back Reason series.

No wonder at the waterfall

A child looks out at the world around him with wonder. He sees nature literally crawling with life. He sees majestic mountains, sublime waterfalls, amazing creatures of varied types, and awe-inspiring night skies. His intellect is naturally led to ponder the harmony, beauty, and order in the world around him.

And then he learns a great deal about the composition of things in science class. He learns about atoms. These so-called fundamental particles are presented as the building blocks of the stuff around us. They interact in various ways, forming molecules and other structures through such means as bonding (typically described as either ionic or covalent) and intermolecular forces, such as the strong “hydrogen bonding” present between water molecules. It is unlikely that anyone is going to tell him directly that a waterfall is boring because it is just little particles. But the door toward a toxic reductionism has been opened. The question – perhaps only half-formed – has been raised: is the natural world really beautiful and meaningful for us in any real sense if it is just little particles?

There is no necessary contradiction between the perspectives of empirical science and what is known by common human experience and reason, knowledge that is the basis of another science, the science of metaphysics. There is no necessary conflict between empirical science and metaphysics, especially when each operates within its own sphere. Empirical science employs the scientific method to understand the way things function, especially as function relates to arrangement of component parts. The science of metaphysics pertains to knowledge of reality on a more fundamental level, examining the ultimate causes of what exists as well as the fundamental nature of a thing as composed by esse (the “act of being”) received by its essence. Metaphysics is less concerned with the structure of a thing as functionally related to its component physical parts.

And so knowledge of modern atomic theory is not necessarily opposed to the natural wonder with which a child ponders nature. There is no reason why knowing about atoms necessarily will interfere with one’s appreciation of the sublime beauty of a waterfall, for example. But, given today’s educational system, it does tend to do so. The initial way a child views nature is open to the fullness of the being that is present throughout the natural world. This holistic perspective is difficult to maintain when one’s focus is strongly drawn to the component parts of what one sees, particularly parts that are not seen or experienced but only posited as an abstract theory.

We do not see atoms. We see a rich natural world. It is accurate to a certain extent to describe natural things as composed of atoms. But to focus on understanding what is objectively there through only or primarily understanding the component particles is to miss much that is actually there. It is to reduce a rich reality to only one aspect, an aspect that is abstract and removed from our experience. To the extent that atomic theory is presented as the objective way to know about what is actually there the student ends up undergoing a subtle indoctrination into a reductive outlook. It would be much better to continue to focus on understanding the reality that is before our senses while one employs modern atomic theory as a way to seek answers to certain limited questions.

So the main problem with atomic theory is not that it is presenting wrong information. A typical grade school, high school or college chemistry textbook is presenting accurate information for the most part. The main problem is that the chemistry textbook presents atomic theory as if it is the key to understanding the objective world. Anyone who is willing to employ his reason at least broadly enough to consider that there is more to an oak tree, for example, than simply a conglomeration of atoms, knows chemistry alone is not sufficient. As a living thing, an oak tree has an organic unity, an interior principle of self-perfective action. And this unity, though objectively real, is not knowable by the methods of chemistry, or any other empirical science. As we have seen above, the science that deals with questions relating to what it means for a thing to be alive is metaphysics. Specifically, considering a living organism as alive requires some treatment of what is known in metaphysics as “formal causality.” The simplest definition of a living thing is a “naturally organized body.” This definition makes no sense outside the context of a rationality that includes an appreciation of formal causality.

There are other aspects of reality that are beyond the scope of the methods of the empirical sciences, things like the sublime beauty of a waterfall. Indeed, any treatment of the true, the good or the beautiful is related to metaphysics, in which these are considered as the transcendental aspects of being. But if we attempt to deal with reality as a whole using only the methods of the empirical sciences we either will have to face the reality that there is a great deal about the world that we do not know, or we will attempt to seek answers to the questions that naturally arise using insufficient tools. And our track record in admitting that something is beyond the scope of what empirical science can know is not good. As human beings we naturally want to know many things about the world. We want to be able to say something about what it means for a thing to be alive. We want to be able to coherently talk about beauty and goodness. We believe that ethical concerns are important and need to govern human behavior.

What’s the matter, Democritus?

Without the assistance of metaphysics, it is perhaps not possible for chemistry, or any other empirical science, to avoid reductionism. For example, consider how a typical chemistry textbook deals with the word “matter,” a word that has been used since ancient times. In some chemistry textbooks there is even an attempt to historically ground modern atomic theory by making reference to beliefs of ancient Greek thinkers. The maverick thinker Democritus, scorned by mainstream philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, is presented as a hero of sorts. By positing that all matter is composed of small particles – atoms – he was centuries ahead of his time, anticipating in some way the work of John Dalton (1766 – 1844), who is credited with first presenting modern atomic theory, or so the common textbook narrative goes.

In contrast, to Aristotle the word “matter” refers primarily to the potential that a thing has to change, to become something else. If you asked how it was possible, for example, for a carrot to be partly transformed into a rabbit, Aristotle would note that the carrot has the potential to cease being what it is and instead become part of a rabbit precisely because of its matter, a matter that is open to being informed with the new form of a rabbit. Matter answers the question how it is possible for something to change into something else. In a similar way “form” accounts for something being a particular type of thing. Neither matter nor form is the thing itself. Neither has independent existence. Each is rather a principle of the thing itself.

Note that this use of the word matter is different than the use of the word matter from the perspective of modern atomic theory. Atomic theory sees matter as composed of small particles that are primarily passive and yield more complex structures through how they are arranged in combinations. It is the mechanical arrangement of these atomic building blocks that is fundamental. And these small particles exist in certain set forms, as particles of particular elements. To use Aristotle’s terminology, the modern atomic theory views matter as having form already.

So the Aristotelian realist tradition uses the word “matter” in a way that is different from the use of the word by a modern empirical scientist. The modern empirical scientist uses the word “matter” to basically mean the stuff out of which things are made, especially stuff considered as small discrete particles of particular types. Matter is what you get when you dissect something down to its most fundamental component parts. For the realist the word “matter” refers not so much to “stuff” out of which things are made as to the principle of material things that accounts for their ability to change. When a realist defines “matter” as “that out of which a thing comes to exist,” the sense is more to highlight the real potential in something to change into something else, as a potency that is ordered toward being actualized in a particular way and only secondarily as the “stuff” out of which something is made. This use of matter only makes sense in the context of “form,” the other intrinsic principle of things that accounts for them being a particular type of thing. The defining characteristic of matter is that it lacks form but is oriented toward receiving a form. Form accounts for the thing being what type of thing it is and matter accounts for its ability to become something else.

What is going on here is not so much contradictory meanings of the word “matter” as simply different meanings of the same word, meanings that are oriented toward answering different questions. The realist is interested in knowing what a physical thing is in so much as we can account for the ability of the thing to both be what it is and also change into something else. The empirical scientist is interested in knowing about the parts of the thing in question, how these parts fit together in various levels of organization, and ultimately how these parts can be broken down all the way to the atomic level and even beyond.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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