Lucretius_Rome[Atoms] are being carried downwards by their own weight in a straight line through the void, at times quite uncertain and uncertain places, they swerve a little from their course, just so much as you might call a change of motion. . . . Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this free will in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us?[1] (emphasis mine).

Materialism hotly contends for our hearts and minds, seeing all of reality as the interplay of matter, energy, and the void. This stealthy vision sweeps up and away many, engulfing most of education, teaching our children that to be real is to be physical. You may be astounded to learn that some of our basic beliefs of the atomic world emerged over 2,400 years ago from the ancient school of thought called atomism. Read its most accessible ancient source, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. Like most ancient wisdom, we have learned a lot since Lucretius, but we probably would not be here without his work.

Atomism began with Democritus, continued through Epicurus, but survives in Lucretius. His stunning work explains atoms and the void. Atoms, literally “no-split,” are infinitesimal spheres composing all reality; outside of them nothing exists. Atoms of various sizes, shapes, and surface qualities give things properties such as color, adhesion, texture, and behavior. Their mixture with void gives density. Advanced beyond the old earth, wind, water, and fire view, now every material complexity could be explained. The quandary of “what is stuff?” found a plausible answer.

Some philosophers think the ancient atomists just got lucky with a good guess. However, Lucretius’s coherent explanation does not speculate in passing. No, this sustained rational discourse aims to be a theory of everything. Lucretius shocked me for a week upon my first reading. He holds views most people would reckon as modern science. I loved chemistry and grasped its power. Learning the deep roots of chemistry and particle physics left me wondering why nobody explained this. Truth is, few scientists today know or care much about the history of science.

Atomism’s explanatory capacity captured the attention of modern scientists such as Lavoisier and other chemists trying to understand basic matter and its properties. These scientists resurrected atomic theory upon the ancient views. Of course, contemporary science far exceeds the ancients by quantum leaps . . . or does it?

Particle physicists still seek final answers to the question of “what is stuff?” We still search for the true atom, that final building block of matter. We have split atoms to find protons and protons to find quarks. We split quarks and find . . . “strings” of vibrating energy?? We now reach the limit, that veil which we can’t lift. Perhaps matter is but frozen energy. E=MC2. Are we at the end of a 2,400 year quest?

A last mind-blowing insight bursts from the quote above. Lucretius says freewill arises from swerves in the falling atoms in our minds. Swerving atoms enable us to “break the decrees of fate” and necessity. To this moment, no better answer has emerged from materialists to explain freewill. Science claims to advance. Has it? Materialists now just abandon freewill because nothing exists to enable freedom. I contend that freewill must lie beyond physics, in metaphysics. However, materialists roundly reject anything outside of matter. In the contemporary materialism of our culture that clips us round on every side, the deepest of part the human heart and mind lies trapped in a prison of matter, void of freedom. No different than a wave washing the sands of time, we ebb and flow in tides of matter. Thus echoes materialism through the ages from Lucretius to today.

[1] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, ed. Jeffrey Henderson and Martin Ferguson Smith, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, vol. 181, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 113, 115.