Here are a couple of quotes from Beyond Good and Evil:

As far as materialistic atomism goes: this is one of the most well-refuted things in existence. In Europe these days, nobody in the scholarly community is likely to be so unscholarly as to attach any real significance to it, except as a handy household tool (that is, as an abbreviated figure of speech). For this, we can thank that Pole, Boscovich, who, together with the Pole, Copernicus, was the greatest, most successful opponent of the visual evidence.

... Boscovich taught us to renounce belief in the last bit of earth that did "stand still," the belief in "matter," in the "material," in the residual piece of earth and clump of an atom...

Wikipedia states that Boscovich "produced a precursor of atomic theory." This seems to contradict the achievements that Nietzsche is attributing to him. I don't understand why Nietzsche would be claiming that atomism is "well-refuted," or why he would claim that one of the forefathers of atomic theory had helped to refute it.

At first, I assumed that Nietzsche must be using the word "atomism" in a way with which I am unfamiliar. Then I read on to this quote:

... we must also put an end to that other and more disastrous atomism, the one Christianity has taught best and longest, the atomism of the soul. Let this expression signify the belief that the soul is something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, that it is a monad, an atomon: this belief must be thrown out of science!

Here, Nietzsche defines what he means by "atomism," and it's exactly what I imagine when I hear the word. It seems as if Nietzsche is asserting that it is obvious that the universe and all matter is continuous (not discrete). Was this really the consensus at the time?

  • One of the best questions i've seen on N; I'd suggest that it's a denial of one or more of the attributes given to atoms: ie indestructibility, indivisibility etc. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 6 '15 at 18:08

Nietzsche was contemporary with Maxwell, Mach and other very successful field-oriented theorists, and by some at the time, field theories were thought to be so incompatible with atomism that no one would ever take atoms seriously again.

Boscovich's 'atoms' are suspended and independent, they never touch and are not truly solid, (like our modern atoms) as opposed to the kinds of atoms folks had thought of since Democritus. They only rotate and indirectly control one another via an intervening field. This is not a way most physicists considered looking at atoms before we broke one open. So from their point of view, this was another field theory.

For them, what was real was the field, a solid was not a collection of atoms, but a continuous field in space. It made sense for that field to have nodal points of some sort (supplied by Boscovich's suspended spinning atoms) to give it something that structured it. But those were not really atoms in the old sense. They did not really fill up the solid, packed together so that they bounce off of, or rub up against one another.

The absolute distaste for atoms reversed with Boltzmann, who needed to appeal to atomism to support thermodynamics. But it was stringently resisted, at least enough that he felt the need to both hedge his bets and address the philosophical weaknesses of atomism to make sure they did not undermine his use of them as a way of looking at entropy.

But that reversed when we developed nuclear physics. Having been wrong once about this reversal, we found the parts of atoms, and then more particles that did not seem entirely particle-like. We figured we would find a retreat into a field theory underlying the nature of particles, and that is the notion behind the Schroedinger equation.

String theory is yet another reversal of sorts. Things are atomized, but the atoms are not interchangeable or irreducible, they exchange energy in a way that is continuous, but must allow for a given pattern of vibrational states.

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    Note also that in the background might be vitalistic biology. Nietzsche endorsed a kind of vitalism which would also be incompatible with atomism. My impression is that vitalism was a position that was taken seriously in the scientific community in the time Nietzsche was writing. – shane Nov 6 '15 at 18:32
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    ??? There was no consensus:"Much of the physics establishment did not share belief in the reality of atoms and molecules — a belief shared, however, by Maxwell in Scotland and Gibbs in the United States; and by most chemists since the discoveries of John Dalton in 1808". Boscovich lived in 18th century and was scientifically irrelevant at the end of 19th, main opponents of atomism were positivists like Mach, and their opposition had nothing to do with field theory. And modern atoms aren't solid at all, the adjective is meaningless there, nor do they fill up solids or rub against each other. – Conifold Nov 7 '15 at 0:20
  • If i am that wrong about the context of early thermodynamics, I will simply delete the answer. But it makes utter nonsense of a lot of Bolzmann's actual work. Why would he carefully rewrite everything not only to allow for Loschmidt's symmetry of conservation laws, but also to evade the issue of the true reality of atoms, if he lived in a period where this was a respectable position? And why would he not have been able to present as a physicist but have to do so as a philosopher? (Alas, I find I cannot.) – jobermark Nov 7 '15 at 2:46
  • @Conifold What were Mach's objections? – CriglCragl Jul 19 '18 at 23:16
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    @CriglCragl Occam's razor, essentially, he was an early positivist and interested in reformulating physics in terms of "sensational elements", "all metaphysical elements are to be eliminated as superfluous and as destructive of the economy of science." So atomism seemed to him as a step in the wrong direction, while "energetics", redescription in terms of energy transformations, as a step in the right direction. – Conifold Jul 20 '18 at 21:58

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