Here, in front of me, behind me, Everywhere, there are atoms. They are unendingly Whirling around me, Because the blade of grass, Invisible atoms, invisible bodies Created by the atom, are An indestructible forest.
from :Atom" by Czesław Miłosz, Polish poet and Nobel laureate in Literature
So writes Czesław Miłosz, Polish poet and Nobel laureate in Literature, in his poem "Atoms."
Atoms are our neighbors, kin, elders, building blocks, architects, and spiritual guides. They know the arts of balance, adjustment, conflict, transformation, stability, and creative instability. They came into existence long before we did, and most will survive long after we perish. They are infinitely more populous, too. If the meek will inherit the earth, the atoms will inherit the universe, at least in this cosmic epoch. I offer, on this page, a process theology of atoms.
The Atom as a Society
The atom is only explicable as a society with activities involving rhythms with their definite periods...The mysterious quanta of energy have made their appearance, derived, as it would seem, from the recesses of protons, or of electrons...These quanta seem to dissolve into the vibrations of light.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
Atoms as Fellow Creatures Toward a Process Theology of the Very Small
I sometimes wonder if God loves atoms more than people or the other way around. What I know is that the universe operates at multiple levels: very small, very large, and much in between. It seems to me that the cosmic Life in whose consciousness the universe unfolds, God, must be richly connected to each creature on its own terms. This includes atoms. I want to lay out the beginning of a process theology of atoms.
I ask physicists, biochemists, cosmologists, and other scholars to forgive my generalizations and what may seem to them a vivid instance of the pathetic fallacy: assigning human-like properties to non-human realities. However, my aim is to avoid another kind of fallacy, which the process philosopher Charles Hartshorne called the prosaic fallacy. This fallacy lies in underestimating the richness and creativity of the more-than-human world, overly influenced by the idea that human beings are unique.
Today, many people reduce the inorganic world to the status of a mere "it" in order to avoid the pathetic fallacy, and this reduction of the material world to the status of a mere object wreaks havoc on much of the world. "Nature" becomes an It not a Thou, a disenchanted collection of objects rather than an enchanted community of subjects.
There is a need today to reconceive our world in living terms, to allow the world to be and feel enchanted. A reenchantment of the world not be anti-scientific; it can instead be pro-scientific. I offer a taste of a pro-scientific theology of atoms, understood as fellow creatures in a rather amazing and beautiful universe, which science helps us understand and appreciate, but not science alone. Poetry and art, too, help us discover a reenchanted universe. A process theology of atoms aims to be both scientific and poetic. Here, perhaps, is a start:
The Mindful Atom
Atoms are our neighbors, elders, kin, building blocks, and architects. They are very small compared to us, but we are likewise very small compared to stars and planets. In their small ways they have unique personalities of their own, otherwise known as properties. Their personalities include their melting and boiling points, their density, their reactivity, and their ability to form specific compounds.
The reactivity is especially important in developing a theology of atoms. It is how they feel or, to use Whitehead's language, prehend other submicroscopic realities. An atom's prehending may not be conscious; it may not have the kind of clarity we associate with conscious sense perception. Clear consciousness, after all, is but one form of experience, of which there are many others, as we know from dreaming and dreamless sleep, or from bodily happenings of which we are but dimly aware. An atom's prehending may be more like dreaming than conscious perception, or like sleeping, albeit incredibly intense.
But it is mind-like in that it has subjective aims (Whitehead's phrase) of its own. These aims are to draw near, to pull away, to achieve balance, to bond, and to adjust to what is happening elsewhere. These reactive capacities are a response to received information from the environment, and thus a form of intelligence. In this sense there is mind in nature. Atoms are embodiments of mindfulness.
Mindfulness comes in many forms. As of 2023 scientists have identified one hundred eighteen types of atoms, visualized and classified in the periodic table. Just as human beings have their cultural traditions and habits of feeling, so, in a different way, atoms have traditions and habits of feeling. There are at least one hundred eighteen forms of mindfulness, and no doubt many more to come. Many of the most recent forms have been created by human beings in laboratories, most of them unstable and short-lived. This is a reminder that mindfulness need not last long in order to be mindful. It can last for a fraction of a second; still, there is the response to information in that fraction. Still, there is mind in nature, atoms included.
Atoms as Fellow Creatures
Do we belong to atoms, or do they belong to us? The opening lines of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" go like this:
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
Perhaps he is right in saying this. Maybe, in some sense, atoms belong to us. At least the concept of an "atom" belongs to us and now forms an essential part of our understanding of chemistry, physics, and biology. It is playing a tremendously important role in biochemistry, cosmology, and the production of new materials.
However, we also belong to atoms—literally, physically, psychologically and spiritually. They are at the core of a vast society we call the universe, to which we likewise belong. We are part of the same extended family of existents: creatures among creatures in vast array of light and dark, visible and invisible.
Reflecting on them reminds us that we are not necessarily the center of everything. We may feel larger than them, but we are also reminded that our own concepts of "large" and "small" are relative to arbitrary frames of reference and that by many measures they are more successful than we are. Their population is immense: it is estimated that there are roughly ten quadrillion vigintillion and one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion of them - a number none of us can really fathom. If some creatures are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, they have far surpassed us in following that commandment.
They are survivors, too. Most of them endure for billions of years compared to our shorter lifespans. They are gifted. Atoms achieve levels of balance, intensity, and power that we can barely comprehend. And they are creative. Even long after we are gone, mere blips in the cosmic timeline, they will continue to shape other forms of matter—solid, liquid, and gaseous. (It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that carbon atoms have played a role in the formation of life on other planets.) Furthermore, it is conceivable, as the Swedish artist Hilma af Klift believed, that atoms possess their own spiritualities. See the bottom of this page. She painted a series on atoms in the early twentieth century and is said to have believed, according to one curator, that they undergo "a process of development and movement towards oneness very similar to the spiritual path and goals" that we humans share. On this view it is not simply the case that humans may share spiritual aspirations with other animals on earth; they, we, may share such aspirations with small creatures, too. With atoms.
The latter speculation may seem wild and a little outrageous to those accustomed to thinking of matter in terms of inert stuff. But it makes sense to those of us shaped by Whitehead's idea that all of matter is filled with something like subjectivity or experience. On Whitehead's view atoms, or the quantum events from which they emerge, have subjective aims and purposes of their own. They (the atoms or their constituent quantum events) strive for satisfying intensity, just as we do. Indeed, by many measures, their experiences may even be more intense than our own. They are the wise ones.
Back to the question: What is an atom?
Whitehead on the Atom
From Whitehead's perspective, the atom is not a miniature solar system of solid objects but rather a contingent constellation of energy-events (quantum events) that emerge from subatomic energy events within protons, neutrons, and electrons. Atomic constellations are contingent in that atoms came into existence some time after the birth of the universe. As Alastair Wilson in a conversation on physics offered by the BBC, called What Existed Before the Big Bang, puts it:
If we aim to explain the origins of stable matter made of atoms or molecules, there was certainly none of that around at the Big Bang, nor for hundreds of thousands of years afterward. We do, in fact, have a pretty detailed understanding of how the first atoms formed out of simpler particles once conditions cooled down enough for complex matter to be stable, and how these atoms were later fused into heavier elements inside stars. The first long-lived matter particles of any kind were protons and neutrons, which together make up the atomic nucleus. These came into existence around one ten-thousandth of a second after the Big Bang. Before that point, there was no material in any familiar sense of the word. But physics lets us keep tracing the timeline backward to physical processes that predate any stable matter.
And where did the protons and neutrons come from? More from the BBC:
A plausible hypothesis is that the physical world was made up of a soup of short-lived elementary particles, including quarks, the building blocks of protons and neutrons. There was both matter and "antimatter" in roughly equal quantities. Each type of matter particle, such as the quark, has an antimatter "mirror image" companion, which is nearly identical to itself, differing only in one aspect. However, matter and antimatter annihilate in a flash of energy when they meet, meaning these particles were constantly created and destroyed.
And where did the quarks come from? Again from the BBC:
Quantum field theory tells us that even a vacuum, supposedly corresponding to empty spacetime, is full of physical activity in the form of energy fluctuations. These fluctuations can give rise to particles popping out, only to disappear shortly after. This may sound like a mathematical quirk rather than real physics, but such particles have been spotted in countless experiments.
The spacetime vacuum state is seething with particles constantly being created and destroyed, apparently "out of nothing." But perhaps all this really tells us is that the quantum vacuum is (despite its name) something rather than nothing.
Thus, we have protons, neutrons, and electrons coming from quarks, and quarks coming from energy fluctuations in empty space, popping into and out of existence. Atoms came later but then became foundational for all that came after. The physical objects in our universe are made of molecules, which are themselves made of atoms.
Ordered Forms of Novelty
We shouldn't think of atoms as solid objects like billiard balls or as waves without substance. Following Whitehead's perspective, it is best to conceive of atoms (and molecules) as networks or societies of energy events that influence one another, share common characteristics, and give rise to shared properties. Whitehead refers to these as "enduring objects."
The duration of an enduring object can range from fractions of a second to millions or billions of years. Generally, atoms exist for billions of years. Considering that the age of the universe is estimated to be around 13.8 billion years, elements formed shortly after the Big Bang still exist today and will exist long after we, and much life on earth, perish.
An enduring object is not a singular undifferentiated unity. It is a complex whole that is more than the sum of its parts but partially composed of those parts. As Whitehead puts it, it is a "structured society" made up of "subordinate nexuses." In the case of an atom, the subordinate nexuses would be protons, neutrons, electrons, and quarks. These nexuses may also be enduring objects with varying durations. Thus, an atom is a complex whole composed of complex wholes, which themselves may be made up of complex wholes. It's like a community of communities of communities. Is there an end to this communitarianism? It remains an open question whether physicists will eventually discover a fundamental element that is not itself a society.
Whitehead seemed to believe that there is an end to this discussion; in his philosophy, the "actual entity" or "actual occasion" represents such an element. Molecules, atoms, and subatomic entities are societies of these actual occasions. According to Whitehead, an actual occasion is not a society, but it is a sort of whole. It unifies all the entities in its past actual world and includes them within itself. Thus, it, too, is a whole, albeit with a unique form of unity. This suggests that, even at the foundational level, holism is the norm.
When we talk about atoms as complex wholes, we might be tempted to envision them as bounded by impermeable membranes, similar to how an animal is enclosed by its skin. However, atoms are not like this. They do have boundaries—the electron clouds surrounding them—but these boundaries are permeable, not impermeable. To express it poetically, atoms, as enduring objects, are societies or networks of momentary energy events that emerge from and participate in the larger processes of the universe. Just as John Donne, the poet, said that no man is an island, no atom is an island either. The properties of atoms depend on their environment, and ultimately, their environment encompasses the entirety of the universe. Thus, atoms are, as Whitehead puts it, the concretions of the universe itself. William Blake spoke of finding the universe in a grain of sand. We can further say that the universe exists in each atom. It is not simply a part of larger wholes, such as molecules; rather, the larger wholes are part of it.
This raises an interesting question: Can atoms communicate with other atoms at a distance, sharing information, even without spatial or temporal contiguity? This remains a question that physicists have yet to resolve, although some theories suggest that they might. If this is the case, they would achieve this through what Whitehead refers to as "hybrid physical prehensions" of the mental poles of other atoms. Laypeople might call this inter-atomic communication. In principle, such communication would be relatively instantaneous, faster than the speed of light.
Dancing in the Dark
The first book of Genesis tells us that on the first day of creation, God created light and darkness. It was during this liminal period that atoms were also created. Not solely by God, but also by the universe itself, and according to Whitehead, by the atoms themselves. They emerged as self-organizing wholes from the depths of the physical world, relying on themselves and everything else to progress through time. Throughout this journey, they have been and continue to be like dancers, balancing the forces that hold their nuclei together while simultaneously engaging with their electrons. Do atoms dance as a unified whole, or should we perceive them as a choreography of diverse dancers? The answer may lie somewhere in between, just as it does for us humans. Our bodies, much like atoms, are composed of various types of cells, including not only human cells but also bacteria and viruses. Atoms, too, consist of many components. And just as we negotiate relationships with the world around us, seeking harmony, so do atoms. They seek what we seek: harmony and intensity.
Whiteheadians propose that there is an element of experience and intelligence present throughout the depths of matter. Whitehead describes atoms as composed of quanta of energy that are, in his words, "occasions of experience," each with its own "mental pole" and "subjective aim" towards "satisfaction." Atoms are aggregate expressions of entities that possess intelligence, intentionality, and experience. These entities may not possess what we commonly define as "consciousness," but they are far from inert matter. In Whitehead's philosophy, there is no such thing as inert matter. Wherever there is matter, there exists something akin to experience. In this sense, atoms are alive—they are our living ancestors. The number of atoms in the observable universe alone is almost beyond calculation. Let us simply acknowledge that we have countless ancestors, many of whom are alive today.
The process of atom formation, known as nucleosynthesis, occurred in various stages. Initially, shortly after the Big Bang, the universe consisted primarily of hydrogen and helium atoms. As the universe continued to expand and cool, gravity facilitated the formation of stars and galaxies. Within stars, through the process of nuclear fusion, lighter elements like helium fused to create heavier elements like carbon and oxygen. Subsequent stellar explosions, or supernovae, dispersed these elements into space.
Through these processes, the wide array of elements we observe today, including the atoms that constitute our bodies and the world around us, gradually emerged. How many different types of atoms are there? The periodic table lists 118 ordered forms of novelty, with 92 occurring naturally and the others created in the laboratory. Each element in the periodic table represents a distinct type of atom characterized by its atomic number, corresponding to the number of protons in the nucleus.
Imagining Atomic Personalities
As noted above, all atoms possess unique physical and chemical properties that set them apart from one another, such as melting and boiling points, density, reactivity, and their ability to form specific compounds. Each atom has its own personality, so to speak.
This does not imply that atoms possess consciousness or awareness, but it does imply that we should not consider them inert or lifeless. What we refer to as properties could also be seen as personalities. I asked ChatGPT what their personalities might be like, and here's what I received:
Hydrogen (H): Hydrogen could be portrayed as a cheerful and lively atom, always seeking connections and forming bonds with other atoms. It might be enthusiastic, versatile, and known for bringing energy to any situation.
Oxygen (O): Oxygen could be seen as a responsible and nurturing atom, often taking charge in chemical reactions. It might be caring, dependable, and have a calming presenceas it is essential for supporting life and combustion.
Carbon (C): Carbon might be depicted as a chameleon-like atom, adapting to various situations and environments. It could be versatile, charismatic, and known for its ability to form strong bonds with other atoms, making it the backbone of many organic compounds.
Helium (He): Helium could be described as a lighthearted and playful atom, always bringing joy and laughter. It might be carefree, buoyant, and have a childlike sense of wonder, as it is often associated with balloons and funny squeaky voices.
Sodium (Na): Sodium could be portrayed as an adventurous and daring atom, constantly seeking new experiences. It could be bold, reactive, and known for its tendency to explode when exposed to water or air, adding an element of excitement to any situation.
Gold (Au): Gold could have a regal and extravagant personality, exuding luxury and grandeur. It might be sophisticated, elegant, and highly sought after, as it has been treasured throughout history for its beauty and value.
Fluorine (F): Fluorine could have an intense and feisty personality, always ready to react with a spark. It might be energetic, fiery, and known for its strong electronegativity, making it highly reactive and eager to form bonds.
Silicon (Si): Silicon might be portrayed as a practical and logical atom, always seeking order and structure. It could be methodical, organized, and have a strong affinity for technology, as it is a crucial element in semiconductors and computer chips.
Needless to say, many of these characterizations are projections onto atoms, which probably do not possess consciousness or awareness as we know them. Gold is not regal except for humans who prize it. Silicon is not logical except for logicians, However, imagining them as having personalities has heuristic value, because it encourages us to move past the idea of utterly dead or inert matter. It lends support to the spirit of panexperientialism.
Building Blocks as Energy-Events
We often refer to the elements in the periodic table as the chemical building blocks of the universe because they cannot be broken down into simpler substances through chemical means. However, the metaphor of building blocks can be problematic if we envision buildings made of bricks. Chemical elements can exist in various forms—solids, liquids, or gases—and the specific form or phase depends on factors such as temperature and pressure. Some elements can exist only in specific forms. In their concreteness, they are configurations of energy and events, constantly in flux, shaped and being shaped by the ongoing flow of relationships within the broader web of the universe. Atoms are processive and relational. They are complexes of energy-events.
God and Emptiness
If we are inclined toward religious thinking, we may wonder where God fits into all of this, if at all. Whitehead proposed that God is a lure toward order and novelty within the ongoing history of the universe and within each atom, or within each occasion of experience by which an atom is composed. However, God does not and cannot act alone, unilaterally controlling events in the universe. God exists "within" each entity as a lure toward becoming in relation to other entities. In the case of atoms, this would be a lure to balance the forces afoot and to enjoy whatever richness of experience it possible, relative to the situation at hand.
The effectiveness of this lure depends not only on the cooperation of the entities involved but also on the interconnectedness of the entire universe. God did not create atoms out of nothing. As Whitehead puts it, God is the poet of the world, who works with the actual entities in their relationality and self-creativity.
Where does this self-creativity come from? Here Whitehead offers no "answer" except to say that all self-creativity, in humans as well as quantum events within the depths of atoms, emerges out of what he calls the ultimate reality: Creativity.
Whitehead compares Creativity to Aristotle's prime matter, except devoid of passivity. In this sense all events in the universe emerge from a non-passive matter that is itself matter-less. Recall the language of BBC on the origins of the first quantum events: The spacetime vacuum state is seething with particles constantly being created and destroyed, apparently "out of nothing." Creativity is not unlike the spacetime vacuum state or, to use the language of Mahayana Buddhism, the Emptiness or placeless place from which all things continuously come into existence and go out of existence. In Whitehead's philosophy this Emptiness is not actual apart from its instances nor is it precisely identical with its instances. The self-creativity of an atom, no less than the self-creativity of God, is an expression of Creativity, apart from which it is a nothing filled with potentiality. This nothing is a no-thing. It cannot be grasped but it is everywhere we look. Even God, the lure toward becoming, is an expression of it.
The Emptiness has no preferences. There is as much Emptiness in ordered forms of novelty as in disordered forms of chaos, And yet it seems to contain within itself a primordial instance, a lure, toward order and novelty. This instance is God. Every atom, no less than every person, is lured by God to become itself, to realize its Buddha nature. God cannot control the entities in the world, but God can love them is always affected by them. Without the atoms, there could be no God, and without God, there could be not atoms.
Are the atoms inside God? Do they help create God? For Whitehead, they do indeed. He speaks of God as having a consequent as well as a primordial nature: that is, a side of divine life which receives and is affected by all existents, all creatures. This means that atoms are part of God's life and what happens to them, and in them is, shared by God. We do well to remember that God is bigger than we imagine, not because God is large, but because the heart of God is spacious enough to include the smallest of the small, and the still smaller. In this sense the consciousness of God is as little as the atom, and still littler. This is indeed a God of small things, open and relational.
- Jay McDaniel
God and Novelty
Apart from the intervention of God, there could be nothing new in the world, and no order in the world. The course of creation would be a dead level of ineffectiveness, with all balance and intensity progressively excluded by the cross currents of incompatibility;
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
"Hilma af Klint is working at a time where the most recent scientific discoveries show that there is a world beyond our observable world, and that things like atoms and sound waves and x-rays and particles exist, that we don’t observe with the naked eye. And so, the question of opening up an invisible world from our physical world, being able to make observations of another dimension of reality, becomes an issue of exploration for af Klint and for many of the thinkers of her time.
Not only the scientific community was interested in how one captures and records through instrumentation these scientific realities, but people that were interested in the occult and in spiritualist realms were also interested in how, through mediumistic and clairvoyant interaction and empathy, one could record some of these phenomenon as well.' These works from TheAtom Series are filled with writing and notations. And these notations indicate that the atom that’s being depicted is going through a process of development, and moving towards oneness very similar to the spiritual path and goals that Hilma af Klint believed in as well."
- Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Director of Collections and Senior Curator, Guggenheim