Preface: Inverse Atomism

When people think of the word “simple,” they often mean it as in “keep it simple.” Then “simple” means “not complicated,” or “straightforward.” Other senses include “unembellished” or “easy,” or “pure.” More formally, “simple” can suggest Ockham’s razor, a philosophical principle which holds that the best explanation is the one which is the least convoluted or which has the least components. In Ockham’s words, “What can be explained on fewer principles is explained needlessly by more.” So keep it simple. If presented with several competing explanations, choose the one which is simple. And here “simple” means the one with the least components, principles, or ideas.

And that is the sense of “simple” in atomism. Atomism is the philosophical doctrine which holds that the world is made of fundamental units, the atoms (not necessarily just the atoms described by science), which are basic, indivisible, ultimately real, and which combine to make everything else. In atomism, nothing outside of the atom contributes to making it be what it is, since it is the ultimate stuff, in and of itself. It is not a composite, being, instead, what composites are made of. The atoms are the “simple” indivisible building blocks out of which complex things are made.

Although in the popular mind the atoms are physical objects, the philosopher Bertrand Russell has described “logical atomism” where the atoms are not the physical objects described in science but rather are the most fundamental logical propositions. They are the “uneliminable” basic premises out of which complex ideas are constructed. Such logical atomic particulars, just as with physical atoms, are completely self-subsistent, being logically independent of every other particular premise. But they can combine, being the “simple” ideas out of which complex logical constructions are made.

So in speaking of atomism in all its forms, an atom can be either physical or logical or both (since even a physical atom must obey the laws of logic). But the point is that an atom is “the ultimate constituent element of reality” (Russell’s words), and being ultimate, it does not depend on anything else to be what it is. And by being so, the atoms are the “simple” stuff out of which complex objects, ideas, and explanations are assembled.

Then to finish describing the doctrine of atomism (as per how Russell, for instance, would describe it), the atoms are then seen as following the laws of science. So according to atomism, all we need to know to understand the world is to describe the atoms and the rules that they are obeying, and everything else follows from that. Everything else is a composite; everything else is not ultimately real in and of itself, since only the atoms and the laws are ultimate.

And I want to emphasize: In atomism, nothing else contributes to making an atom be what it is, since the atom is the “simple” thing that is self-subsistent and out of which complex things are made. The atom, by being the ultimate stuff of the world, is not dependent on anything else to be what it is (or to have the traits that it has).

However, I want to suggest that the atoms themselves are not that simple. Inverse atomism is when outside factors do contribute to what an object ultimately is, even atoms. More specifically, it is to recognize that an aspect of what a thing is—even an atom—includes how it has logical relationships with others to make additional qualities which do not even exist in the thing all by itself. For instance, a molecule in solution, when viewed simply as about one event “leading to” another, acts only randomly. There is no predicting what it will do next. In terms of qualities which the molecule has on its own, that is all that we can say about it; it is acting randomly. But science is not stopped by that. Instead of just describing the random movements and being done with it, science might describe how many molecules altogether (but not just one by itself) can be in equilibrium. And from that science can make predictions about what products will likely occur in a chemical reaction.

But in doing that, science describes the molecule, not as a simple object obeying rules, regardless of anything else, but as having additional nonphysical qualities in how it works with others. And the individual is described “in terms of” how it has these additional qualities.

The molecule has a trait (being in equilibrium) which does not exist inherently on its own, regardless of anything else, but rather it exists in how it works with others. So the molecule is not self-subsistent. It is not a set of traits all of which exist independently of any outside contribution.

Rather, in science the simple is described in terms of the complex. (The molecule is seen as being in equilibrium).

In science, there are a lot of other ways in which we can likewise solve problems by seeing complex relationships (such as being in equilibrium) incorporated into what the simple thing even “is” in the first place. In that way, we are not stopped by encountering obstacles such as a lot of random behavior. And then a scientific explanation amounts to describing these complex qualities and telling about the simple individual event in terms of a larger story. Seeing this larger story is what keeps science from being “stopped” as it would be if it actually followed the atomistic method of describing “ultimate constituent elements of reality” following laws.

So the point of the first part of this book will be to show how extensively science operates in this fashion. Indeed, I hope to show that science usually (or at least routinely) operates in this manner of describing the simple in terms of the complex. That will become evident in example after example.

Then we can begin to look more closely at what that entails. We might call features such as equilibrium “expansive” features because they “expand” how we see a scene, to make it be about more than is literally physically present. (In an immediate sense, all that is present in the scene are the random actions, but in terms of how events are fitting together, we can expand that to see how there is this additional feature of their being in equilibrium).

Indeed, my claim is that science proceeds by routinely expanding how we see a scene, to describe it in terms of more than meets the eye. Instead of just describing what is physically present, science expands how we see a scene to describe additional qualities in it that exist by virtue of how things fit together and have relationships. The simple is described in terms of the complex. And it is by seeing a scene in terms of expansive traits—seeing the molecules in terms of equilibrium—that we are thereby enabled to solve complex problems.

Then inverse atomism can be understood as the philosophical premise that things have expansive as well as physical features and that the expansive features (created from how things fit together, albeit not existing physically the way that matter does) are incorporated into what a thing even “is.” Accordingly, inverse atomism is also the premise that science proceeds by giving definition to such expansive features as equilibrium and then by describing an individual event in terms of those expansive features.

And there are other ways of saying the same thing (what inverse atomism is).
One other way of putting it is that, instead of science describing an event as being just about the immediately prior event giving rise to the next one, as in causality, science describes an event as per how that event fits with many others to have additional qualities, and then it describes that event “in terms of” those expansive qualities. (It describes the molecule in terms of it being in equilibrium, not as per how the molecule bumps around randomly from moment to moment, as per a causal explanation).

And in another way of putting it, that lets us see how we are using the word “complex” in two different ways. In atomism, as it is elaborated by Russell, the complex is just the composite; it is what we get when we combine the basic units or atoms. But in inverse atomism, the complex is the expansive; it is what exists, not physically, but in how physical objects fit together. And it is in this latter sense that the simple is described in terms of the complex. The simple molecule is complex, for example, by being in equilibrium. (In this book, I will use the word “expansive” when I want to connote “complex” in this latter manner).

So in a final way of putting it, once we have introduced the word “expansive,” then we can say that the additional qualities we have been discussing exist in an “expansive picture” beyond what is physically present. Just by looking at the molecules themselves, we are unable to tell that they are in equilibrium. But by looking at a bigger more complex picture—by looking at an expansive picture—by seeing how events are fitting together, especially over time, we can see that they are in equilibrium. We can see that the random actions are making new combinations of the molecules at the same rate as they are breaking them apart (which is what an equilibrium is). But to see that, we have to look at the expansive picture because in a close-up causal view, all we see are random actions after random actions.

Science, by describing equilibria, seems to be telling us that the world is not like billiard balls bumping successively into one another but is, instead, about the “picture” being traced out by the actions of the billiard balls (if we could somehow manage to see that). It is as if science is describing the billiard balls in terms of where they are on their paths being traced out—it is telling where they are now in terms of a larger story—as opposed to describing their movement from one instant to the next. And we can “picture” that in our minds, as well as describe it mathematically, so what we do is describe the single instance “in terms of” the expansive picture. We can imagine how events are fitting together. And then we can describe individual events using the terminology that we have discovered by looking at the expansive picture. (We can say, “Oh, that molecule is in equilibrium”).

So then what other qualities does science see in expansive pictures, besides equilibria? What else does it describe as existing because of how things fit together?

I will here in this preface mention just a few. They are potential, patterns, probabilities, the logic of what can happen given a setup, as well as other specific expansive features such as an equilibrium.

Starting with potential: It is well-recognized in physics that potential, as measured by potential energy, is created by how situations are arranged (how they fit together). We will see that there are schools of mechanics, such as Lagrangian mechanics, that work by first describing the potential in a situation and then by detailing the individual action “in terms of” that potential. In other words, a single event is described in accordance with the bigger picture of what is fitting together. (And that is as opposed to Newtonian mechanics, where one event is seen as pushing along another, in instantaneous succession).

An example of a pattern in science is a hereditary pattern, such as recessiveness. But a pattern exists over several successive events—it is not about the immediately prior event alone giving rise to the next one, as in causality—so, when science is describing a pattern, what happens next depends on how the pattern is fitting together. What traits can occur in the offspring will happen “in terms of” the logic of how multiple events are organized to make the recessive pattern.

Even probabilities can be seen as about many events, not just the immediately prior one as in causality. To give the odds of an event occurring is to describe an individual outcome in terms of what percentage it is of a greater number. It is to see the individual event “in terms of” the greater number.

And the arrangement of things can also create a logic of what can happen because of the way that a setup is organized. For instance, the way that a stepladder is constructed, with an inverted V shape and successively rising steps, creates the logic of reaching high places (and of falling off). The individual action (a person climbing the ladder) occurs “in terms of” the logic residing in the greater picture of how the situation is fitting together. An example in science is camouflage. Biologists can describe individual events “in terms of” the logic of having the same coloring as one’s surroundings (in terms of how one is fitting in with that).

Finally, there are many specific expansive features, such as equilibrium, which are described by science as occurring in a particular context and which exist because of how events are fitting together. In thermodynamics, for instance, scientists can predict whether molecules will react by describing them in terms of such expansive features as internal energy, enthalpy, and entropy, all of which only exist in the way that molecules fit together.

In all of these ways, the individual event is described in terms of the expansive qualities which exist because of how many things fit together, not about one thing, the prior event, pushing it along, causally.

In science, we do not just see the literal physical scene. We see more to the scene—we see it expansively—by describing how it fits with others. We see the potential in the scene, and how it makes patterns in how it fits with other scenes, and how the scene contains probabilities and the logic of what can happen next, as well as having specific expansive features such as equilibria.

It might be argued that these expansive qualities are just concepts of the mind and not really in nature. And we can answer that in two ways. First of all, we might concede the point but still realize that we are talking about the methods of science, and of course science is performed by the minds of scientists. So it is beside the point, whether expansive qualities are concepts or really in nature, the point being that science works by seeing scenes expansively, not atomistically.

But there is also much reason to believe that the expansive qualities really do exist on their own in nature; they are not just concepts. That is because (as we will see in specific examples), they 1) can be measured in nature; they 2) can be related in equations to physical features; they 3) are made from what is fitting together, and things really do fit together in nature; and they 4) are described by science, and what science describes is usually taken as real.

In any case, their ontological status is that they are naturalistic (not supernaturalistic), if by “naturalistic” we mean consistent with the practices of science.

To see a scene expansively just means to see how it is “fitting” with others, to make expansive qualities in how they go together, and then to see the action as occurring “in terms of” those expansive qualities. That is as opposed to just seeing things being “pushed along” by the immediately prior event, causally. It is to see the equilibrium in the “expansive picture,” not just the random actions in the “immediate picture.” And that lets us solve many more problems which we otherwise could not solve.

Even the atoms of physics and chemistry have expansive aspects to them; we know them in terms of how they fit together. We know them by studying the features of the molecules created by how the atoms combine. And we know them in terms of what we see existing outside of the atoms themselves, such as witnessing macro-scale magnetism and electrical charge.

Then the book will look at some of the philosophical implications of the way that science describes the world in this fashion.

We have seen, for instance, how in inverse atomism events happen “in terms of” others, rather than with one event “leading to” the next one. That has implications for how we see causality.
And with the example of a molecular equilibrium, we have seen how the particulars (the individual molecules) are not “obeying” the laws of science because the individual molecules are still acting randomly, even as we can say more about them “in terms of” expansive qualities. That has implications for the view that “everything is following laws.”

It also has implications for the view that the laws of science are generalizations, since, again, the particulars are still acting randomly rather than fitting some generalization.
And what about truth? What is truth when we view an event expansively?

These are the types of questions addressed in the second portion of the book.

Then in the third portion we will look at some applications for science, but we will limit ourselves here to just five.

The first application will be to the study of cognitive science, and we will explore an answer to the question, “Does consciousness somehow entail the ability to see a scene expansively? Is that what consciousness even ‘is’?” Instead of just seeing a big stick in our path, consciousness might entail the power to see it in terms of other things—many other things simultaneously—so that now, yes, we see a physical object, but also expansively it is a thing usable as a weapon, and it is made of organic matter, and underneath it there might be insects. Would we profit by looking at consciousness in this manner rather than trying to understand it strictly with immediate causal change?

The second application will be to ethics. Can moral decision-making be understood in terms of expansive qualities that exist in how situations fit together? How would that work compared with following a moral law (or by saying that it depends on the situation)?

And the third application will be to complexity studies. Here the issue is how “complexity” is formed by the physical Universe. In other words, how do things get complicated when they start out as just energy and matter? And of course a good answer is that they get complicated via inverse atomism (via the incorporation of the expansive into the physical).

The fourth application will be to bioevolution. How do expansive traits evolve? For that matter, how do dynamic traits evolve? (Dynamic traits are those which are switched on or off, like the acid in a stomach). But how do they evolve since they are not continuously exposed to natural selection, to either live or die according to Darwinism?

Finally, the last application will be to the study of energy. In the traditional view, what is called “work” is the amount of energy it takes to displace an object in time and space. But can we understand work to be about changes that occur in other terms besides just time and space? And how would that look?

Then in the last section of the book we will apply inverse atomism to the routine problems of daily life. We will discover how we can be “oriented” in terms of how we fit with other things, not unlike seeing ourselves on a “map” of the other things. And from that we can know where we are and where we want to go. We can make decisions in terms of that, rather than deciding issues by following rules or seeing ourselves passively pushed along by causality.

Also, we will look at various ways of being organized in terms of those other things (not just organized as per proximity as in a map). The standard way of being organized in philosophy is to classify things into categories and/or rules that are then further organized into hierarchies. But I will discuss how things can be organized “in terms of” others, and I will introduce a word “ekpoietic” (ek-poy-ETT-ik) as an adjectival form of “in terms of,” so as to compare ekpoietic organization with hierarchical organization. For instance, we can understand commensalism in biology as a way of being organized such that one thing enables another thing to be what it is in terms of the presence of the other one. An animal is prey or predator in terms of how it fits with other animals (rather than being so in an abstract absolute sense because of belonging to a category). As per inverse atomism, how a thing fits with others is an aspect of what it even “is.”

And regarding ways of being organized, I will draw some further distinctions. Expansivism is not holism; it is not to see the part as per how it belongs to a whole. Holism is usually about “everything.” But an expansive feature—think of an equilibrium—is not about “everything” but about “just some” very particular things fitting together to make the very specific qualities of the expansive feature (which are then described by science in explicit detail). Scientists tend to be very suspicious of holistic claims, envisioning holism as exemplified by psychic surgery where the practitioners pretend to stick their hands into the afflicted organs to massage away the ails, thereby treating the “whole person.” Science frowns on finessing the detailed particulars in the name of the whole.

Nor is inverse atomism the same as globalism, and for much the same reasons. Expansive features (seeing more to a scene by expanding it to be about potential, logics, and expansive features) is not the same as simply seeing a larger portion of that scene by viewing it materially on a larger scale.

And by inverse atomism, I do not mean reverse atomism. The idea is not to start with the complex and to work backwards to find the nature of the ultimate simple atoms; rather, it is to see the simple as not so simple, after all, but as having complex components incorporated into what they even “are.” It is to see things as having expansive traits as well as material ones.

And finally, in discussing organization, I address teleology. Some of the early advocates of Lagrangian mechanics saw it as teleological. That is because it starts by describing the potential in a situation, and in Mediaeval philosophy the presence of potential in the physical Universe was taken as a sign of God’s will waiting to happen; potential was a sign of things working towards a predestined goal. But I will try to offer a different interpretation of Lagrangian mechanics where it is expansive rather than teleological. The potential exists because of how situations fit together, not because of fate or other forms of the future influencing the present. Inverse atomism explains the success of Lagrangian mechanics as a naturalistic science.

In inverse atomism, complicated events can be described in complicated ways because they can be described in terms of expansive phenomena (potentials, logics, complex features). That allows us to make decisions, including in our daily lives (not just in science) in terms of how things fit together, not just as per how they impact one another, as in causality.
Science shows us that even seemingly simple things are made of built-up complex relationships, and science proceeds by describing the simple in terms of the complex. And that is what we can do in our daily lives, as well.

And the importance of having this discussion can be illustrated by looking at a controversy in biology. The eye and the brain are connected by the optic nerve, and biologists like to say that “information” travels along the nerve from the eye to the brain. But the philosopher Colin McGinn has criticized them for that, arguing that only minds, not nature, are capable of dealing with information. It is more accurate, says McGinn, to say that the eyes, nerves, and brain are just molecules and electrons following the laws of chemistry and electricity, and it is only our minds that impart to that activity our notions of information.

And my point is that that is an atomistic argument, to claim that what is real is just the atoms as they are following the laws of science.

But if we understand science to proceed as described in inverse atomism, then we know that science tells about individual physical events in terms of expansive phenomena. And then we can recognize that describing nerve impulses in terms of the information they carry is just one more example of science behaving in this fashion. Information is a complex phenomenon, existing in how things fit together. So the biologists are justified in talking about information because, when they do so, that is just another example of science acting as science does: describing the simple in terms of the complex. It is no less scientific than for chemists to describe the random actions of molecules in terms of their being in equilibrium.

Yet that illustrates a major divide in how different people see the world.

We can begin to understand that better by looking more closely at how science describes the simple in terms of the complex, as we will now see in example after example.