Were the 'Atoms' of Acharya Kanad a Product of Science or Speculative Metaphysics?

Kanad's positing the idea of the atom did not carry an explanatory burden; it was just a speculative thesis. It is outrageous to compare it with modern atomic theories.

Recently, the Maharaja Sayajirao University made some claims in its official diary hailing some ancient Indian sages like Acharya Kanad, Maharshi Bhardwaj and Kapil Muni for their contributions to science by linking them with current science and technology. Somehow, Acharya Kanad’s name became associated with nuclear technology. How was this bizarre connection even made?

It could be because Kanad is the founder of the system of philosophy (Darshan) called Vaisheshik that propounds the doctrine of anu (atoms) as part of its metaphysics. The doctrine of anu is somehow considered equivalent to the modern atomic theory of science. Such an equivalence is outrageously strange and Vaisheshik Darshan does not deserve the merit of science.

It’s useful to understand the doctrine of Vaisheshik in brief in relation to the nature of atom to see if there could be any scientific aspects to it. Vaisheshik Darshan is one of the six schools of orthodox philosophy (the others being nyaya, samkhya, yoga, mimamsa and vedanta). Traditionally, scholars have studied Indian philosophy under these six schools, considered to be six ‘systems’ of philosophy by Max Müller and others.

Such a study in philosophy generally falls under the sub-discipline of metaphysics. In fact, any standard textbook in Indian philosophy would treat these topics of Vaisheshik under the heading of ‘metaphysics’.

The Vaisheshik metaphysics recognises seven categories, and dravya (substance itself) is one of them. Substances further come under two heads, the eternal and the non-eternal. There are nine kinds of eternal substances: prithvi (earth), jala (water), tejas (fire), vayu (air), akasha (ether), kala (time), dik (space), atma (soul) and manas (mind).

These eternal substances are not day to day concrete objects that can be encountered. Earth, water, fire and air can be considered to be principles or essences that can’t be experienced, and it is only these four eternal substances that contain atoms.

The doctrine also makes it very clear that these atoms are not perceivable but are to be inferred, although the principle of inference is not clear. As a result, it would be more appropriate to say that it’s not inference that plays any part here but some kind of speculation. For inference to be involved, there ought to be something that is empirical that it should offer an explanation for.

But if the substances are not objects of experience, then there is nothing empirical at play. The sages simply put forth the idea that the atoms of these substances are the smallest elements which are without parts (i.e. indivisible) and that are, in themselves, motionless. The movement of atoms, according to them, is caused by the unseen agency residing in individual souls. Can such a doctrine that is not connected to anything empirical be called scientific? For science (as we conduct it today) is essentially empirical.

The atomic theory in science is considered to have originated with John Dalton (1766-1844), the English physicist and chemist. Though the early Greek philosophers, like Leucippus of Miletus and Democritus of Abdera, did posit atoms in their philosophies, one never considers them to be scientific.

The starting point of Dalton’s atomic hypothesis was also substance – but the substances of Dalton are chemical kinds that are objects of experience in contrast to that of the Vaisheshik. The aim of the chemist was to discover the processes through which different kinds of substances reacted and produced other substances. Empirically, he found that they reacted in certain proportions by volume or by weight – whether as solids, liquids or gases.

The ratios of these reacting substances were always in whole numbers. A law of constant proportion was subsequently formulated. In all, this was an experimental discovery and, in this sense, an empirical discovery. Dalton’s explanation for this was that substances or matter was composed of atoms, and that during a reaction, the atoms of these substances combined to form clusters of molecules.

Of course, the atomic theory of today is substantially different from that of Dalton’s but the point is that Dalton’s was considered to be the first scientific theory of atoms. Why? Because it was attempting to rationally explain an empirical law.

The Vaisheshik doctrine has none of these features. What was Kanad’s atom, or anu, trying to explain? Which empirical finding was it trying to account for? The positing of the idea of the atom by Kanad did not carry an explanatory burden; it was just a speculative thesis. It is outrageous to compare it with modern scientific atomic theories.

One of the arguments that could be given by the advocates of the so-called ‘Kanad’s atomic theory’ is that Dalton’s theory was rejected by the evolving standards of scientific investigation. Indeed, the nature of science is to remain open to corrections, but the progress of scientific theories lies in more empirical findings made possible by advances in technology and theoretical knowledge. In its essence, science has to be empirical. Kanad’s atomic doctrine is not.

S.K. Arun Murthi teaches philosophy of science. His areas of research include epistemology and metaphysics of science, Indian philosophy and political philosophy.