Continuous Re-Creation: From Kalam Atomism to Contemporary Cosmology

Garden-variety (or ordinary) objects or bodies are seemingly the most concrete physical entities around us. However, throughout history people have attempted to uncover the reality which lies behind these appearances. In this context the atomistic view, which claims that bodies are composed of discrete units that cannot be divided into smaller parts, was one of the main solutions developed in ancient times regarding this phenomenon.1 Pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Leucippus (480–420 Bc) and Democritus (460–370 Bc), propounded this idea in order to reconcile the principle of the unity and immutability of being with the multiplicity and the mutability of the visible world.2 Aristotle (384–322 Bc) rejected this view, claiming that accepting objects as discontinuous and discrete requires that the notions of space and time associated with objects should also be discrete in nature, which makes motion and extension or magnitude impossible.3 In the Hellenistic period philosophers such as Epicurus (342–270 Bc) and Lucretius (95–51 Bc) attempted to defend atomism again.4 However, the dominant view in the West, especially during the Middle Ages, was the Aristotelian theory of bodies as continuous and potentially divisible ad infinitum.5

After the Ancient Greeks Islamic theologians (mutakallimun) became the champions of atomism.6 The mutakallimun, on the basis of the principle of the finitude of events (itself based on the impossibility of an actual infinite), defended the view that not only matter but also the entire universe, including space, time, and motion, consists of finite units.7 Such an atomistic model of the universe had, in turn, important implications for Islamic theological concepts. At first, during the absorption of atomism from ancient cultures, the mutakallimun gave it a shape according to their theological considerations but, thereafter, it gradually affected their theological views. In this context, the continuous re-creation and the rejection of natural causality were both theological theories that were developed as a consequence of the atomistic worldview.8 So, unlike the Christian West, which declared this theory heretical due to its materialist basis9,  the Islamic theologians made this theory the basis of the occasionalist relationship between God and the universe, in which God is the only efficient cause, and constantly re-creates the universe at every moment.10

In Islamic thought, the theory of atomism was not a marginal view held by only a few individuals and groups; rather, it was adopted as official doctrine by the majority of Muslim theologians and became a pre- dominant model for explaining reality from the ninth to the twelfth century.11 As it was widely discussed and accepted, it gained a coherent structure and became a comprehensive model of the universe. However, in the period after al-Ghazali (1058–1111), it began to decline due to Aristotelian and Neo-Platonist theses defended by Peripatetics (Mashsha’un), and the rise of mysticism that challenged rationalist and materialist views of the world. In fact, while not abandoned completely, it would not hold a central position in Islamic theology after the twelfth century.12 However, the Islamic theologians who inherited this tradition from the ancient world not only protected this theory, but also promoted its revival in the West.13

The cosmological paradigm shift, which began with the scientific revolution in seventeenth-century Europe, led Western thinkers to search for alternative natural philosophies to that of Aristotle. In this context, philosophers such as Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), and Daniel Sennert (1572–1637) showed a renewed interest in old atomistic views.14 The French priest and astronomer Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) attempted a reconciliation of Epicurean atomism with Christianity.15 Also, leading influential natural philosophers at the time, such as Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Isaac Newton (1642–1727), Robert Boyle (1629–98), John Locke (1632–1704), and W. Charleton (1620–1707) championed philosophical and theological atomism in various domains.16

In the eighteenth century, scientists such as Joseph Black (1728–99), C.W Scheele (1742–86), John Priestly (1733-1804), and Henry Cavendish (1731–1810) proved through their experimental research that air, which was accepted as an element by Aristotle, is actually a compound consisting of oxygen and nitrogen. Later on, the French scientist Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94) demonstrated that water is not an element but consists of two separate components, hydrogen and oxygen.17 Soon the combustion theory (phlogiston), based on the doctrine of the four elements, was also shown to be false; it was further proven that it was a form of energy and soil was composed of many different elements. So the doctrine of the four elements, which had prevailed in the West for more than two thousand years, was invalidated18.

In 1808, the British chemist and physicist John Dalton (1766–1844) took the  first steps on the road towards scientific atomism by assuming that all elements consist of indivisible atoms identical in weight and characteristics.19 Then came the Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro’s (1776–1856) studies on the molecular structure of gases which states that under the same pressure and warmness gases consist of the same amount of molecules; this was in turn followed by the Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev’s (1834–1907) arrangement of the periodic table in 1868. Eventually, the opinion that atoms bear all the chemical characteristics of a given element, and are not further chemically reducible to another element, became fixed and common.20



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