On explanations

Do you believe in Atoms, gentle reader? I mean really believe that they exist? I want only candid answers: not whether someone you know, with a degree in physics, believes, but whether you believe in the little things.

I don’t. Not only have I never seen one. My tongue gets in my cheek when I hear the explanations.

To me, the inferred Atoms of contemporary physics are no more real than the inferred Atoms of Leucippus and Democritus, from the fifth century BC. Indeed: according to Diogenes Laertius, who had it from Epicurus, Leucippus himself never existed. He was just another product of Democritus’ rather fevered, hair-splitting imagination.

Atoms (to say nothing of their constituent parts) are much smaller than the wavelengths of visible light. Or so say their scientific votaries. Therefore no one has seen or will ever see one. They are purely theoretical constructs, the existence of which can only be inferred. Mach, Duhem, Poincaré, Boltzmann, and a few others — for different reasons, but to the same end — did not believe they really existed. All were recognized physicists, of high accomplishment.

Pierre Duhem wonderfully demolished the notion that anything can be definitively explained by inference from empirical observation. The mediaeval Scholastics, to whom he pointed, knew better than to fall for anything so glib. Rather, a given observation will always have multiple possible explanations, not one of which can ever be “proved.” He demolished Newton, too, by showing that what he had “refined” from Kepler wasn’t in Kepler; it was an entirely new explanation for essentially the same orbital phenomena. Given geniuses of like stature, we could go on inventing explanations, none of which would get us closer to the truth. They would all be “just so stories.”

Empirical science depends, like so many other things today, on hype — false advertising. We claim to isolate the individual event. We can’t. All observation is by nature incomplete. Everything always depends on everything else. “Everything else being equal” is a crock. If, as some assert, “God cannot be proved,” then nothing else can be proved, either. (In this limited sense, Descartes was on to something.)

Verily, Duhem held, and defended at great length and in considerable detail, the proposition that theoretical physics — his speciality of physical chemistry in particular — must necessarily be a (minor) branch of metaphysics. Detached from this “holistic,” it becomes a parlour game. Moreover, an expensive one, when the politicians agree that we should pay for dangerous toys such as particle accelerators. Billions of dollars, euros, and pounds — and the results they give are also inferential.

Do Atom Bombs prove the existence of Atoms? Frankly, no. A non-atomic theory could “produce” the same effects; one which merely infers the magical qualities of fissile materials, on the analogy of magnetic fields. It would “work” just as well. It could “save the appearances,” as a Thomist might put it.

Let me say that I have nothing but respect for the man (or the woman) who actually believes in Atoms. It is, or could be, a noble act of faith. My paternal grandmother believed in ghosts, and I had plentiful respect for her. Others believe in flying saucers. I myself believe that some birds on or near my balconata take winter vacations in Venezuela and Brazil, though I don’t press the point. I merely assert it in passing, to anyone prepared to listen.

These feathered creatures could be tagged and followed, however. Some have been, I am given to understand. This fills me with a smug self-regard. It makes me believe that my beliefs are plausible. Generally, I feel safer with the facts of geography, or history, for which we have witnesses. It is just one of the reasons I believe in Jesus Christ: that he was a man, who lived at a certain time, and did certain things. We have credible witnesses. And the archaeology backs them up.

But no witnesses for Atoms; not for even one. (There will be no comment from the High Doganate on the artefacts of electron microscopes.) … Next question:

Do Molecules exist? … Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.


To the innumerable correspondents (well okay, I could count them on the fingers of three hands) who have wittily rejoindered that “God is an inference,” allow me to say, No. God is more like a premiss. Now if I say that God is the proximate cause of something that looks like a Miracle, true, I would be inferring. I might or might not be more or less right. (See the divine proofs of the Scholastics. They are far better than Immanuel Kant imagined, or understood.) …

Still, if Atoms actually exist, according to some shifting scientific definition of what an Atom is, it is no skin off my nose. My universe includes Mosquitoes; I’d be happy to accommodate Atoms. But my belief in Mosquitoes is on much firmer ground. …

Of course, nothing exists the way God exists, since He pre-exists, as it were. …

Item, the more complexity is built into advanced, ultra-specialized scientific equipment (from electron microscopes to the Large Hadron Collider and beyond) — the more treatment subject materials require in order to be tested, and the more statistical the interpretation of test data — the less I am inclined to buy into what they “find.” Atoms, maybe. But what you get when you smash anything, I call Smithereens.

As for the more advanced inferences of the String-Theorien, or the existence of the Dunkle Materie — oh, come on, lads.