On all things being “really just atoms”

Materialism in its most common present form is the belief that only atoms are real. The irony of this position is that we understand atoms only to the extent that we understand that it not real, or at least less real. This is to say that the advances in understanding atoms are proportionate to our understanding it as less and less like the things in the real world. We first deny from atoms all of the usual and familiar characteristics of bodies: color, scent, roughness, smoothness, solid or liquid, etc. Over time, we gradually deny the reality of shape- the Bohr model and the quantum model and the stick-and-ball model of the atom are completely different shapes, and in chemistry one simply learns to accept that the atom doesn’t “really” have one shape as opposed to another. As this process advances, the atom reveals itself as less and less “real” to the physical sciences, and more and more only intelligible through mathematical symbols. This is why one of the the greatest impediments to understanding quantum theory is imagining atoms as “just as real” or even “more real” than cats and bricks and chickens- in other words, one of the greatest impediments to understanding matter is materialism.

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