torstai 21. toukokuuta 2009

Ionian naturalists

If you have read the first blog text, then you should know by now that I am beginning from a guy called Thales. Who is this person, anyway? Well, he lived around year 600 BC in an area called Ionia, which was a place full of Greek colonies in Western coast of modern Turkey. He was a man interested of geometry and astronomy, but also, it seems, a shrewd businessman: when he had determined from the weather conditions that a good olive year was coming, he bought all the olive presses in the area and made a fortune. Thales was also involved in local politics, and it was probably for this reason that Greeks named him one of the seven Wises.

The reason why Thales is so important for the history of philosophy is that he was the first person to propose explanations for natural phenomena that were not based on religion. Thus, Thales suggested that the Earth was like a disc floating in the ocean and that all the earthquakes were actually mere tumult of the ocean underneath the crust. This view of the world was not too original, because even Homer had hinted that Earth was surrounded by Ocean. But Homeric Ocean was also a god who supposedly had certain ancestry according to the poems of Hesiod: such details of religious tradition are left out of Thales’ description.

Although the start of a non-religious speculation about the shape of the world was an important contribution, what makes Thales especially important is that he had successors. If Thales had died without leaving any heirs, his strange theory of Earth floating in water would have vanished from history. But it happened so that Thales apparently had a pupil, Anaximander. Anaximander was a pupil of Thales in the good sense that he instantly went on to modify his master’s theory of world. While Thales had described only the Earth, Anaximander added the stars and other heavenly objects to his theory. For Anaximander, Earth was no disc floating in water, but a cylinder surrounded by water. This cylinder was then surrounded, according to Anaximander, by wheels containing fire, which could be seen through small holes: these sparks of light were then obviously Sun, Moon and the rest of the heavenly gang.

The true novelty of Anaximander’s rather original theory was that he felt the need to explain also where the world and its occupants had come from. There was of course the religious answer that gods were somehow involved: for instance, Earth was actually a goddess who had been born from another God and so on. Anaximander was the first to give an alternative answer. He suggested that world had began from a chaotic jumble of everything mixed together – here he agreed with religious authorities of Greek – but he didn’t need any gods to sort this chaos, but supposed that this mishmash of elements began naturally to separate into organised things. Even human beings had not been designed by Zeus, but had developed from creatures of ocean after the water and the earth had separated. Anaximander was also the first to predict a natural ending for the world. If the world had somehow come out of chaos, it was probable that it was one day going to destroy and return to the original chaos.

Thales and Anaximander suggested hypothetical explanations for natural phenomena, and furthermore, explanations one might be able to test – if nor in Ancient Greece, at least in our time. Thus, we could burrow deep enough and see whether any huge amount of water trickles to the surface, or just fly high and see what the Earth looks like. Even Anaximander’s explanation of the birth of cosmos can be nowadays experienced by testing whether it works with the currently known laws of nature. Thales’ and Anaximander’s theories are thus something that a scientist could test and therefore not so interesting for a modern philosopher: if the guy in the physics lab can do it, why should we be needed?

Now, apparently Anaximander had a pupil of his own, Anaximenes (wonder if they ever got confused who was the master and who was the pupil). Anaximenes had also his own hypothesis of the shape of the world, but in addition he had more philosophically interesting ideas: all things are made of air, he said. Although this statement seems rather strange, Anaximenes probably had some good reasons for suggesting it. We see how heated water turns into vapour and gradually disperses into thin air: and we see how air condenses into clouds which produce water and even snow. We see how snow then melts back into water, which nourishes trees, and we see how wood burned become smoke and ashes. All of these familiar phenomena and others suggest naturally that air, water, snow, wood, smoke and rest are all mere modifications or states of one material substance. Anaximenes called it air, perhaps because he believed air to be the first shape in which matter was found, but we might as well call it water, wood or something else: if they are all just same stuff in different packages, it hardly makes any difference how we choose to name this underlying stuff.

Anaximenes’ theory contains elements that can be tested: we might experiment with all sorts of substances and see whether we can truly change everything into everything. Furthermore, Anaximenes suggested that water was born out of air through condensation: we might thus test whether water truly appeared when air was condensed. Yet, the basic thesis of Anaximenes is not testable. Say that all the substances could be turned into all the other substances. We couldn’t still be sure that all these substances would then be mere modifications of one stuff: we might think that e.g. water just vanishes, when snow appears, but that water and snow still wouldn’t have anything in common. Whatever experiments we made, we could never ascertain through them alone that water and snow have something in common. In some cases the assumption of an underlying substance seems rather natural: when I paint white wall with red colour, it is natural to assume that the old wall did not just vanished and that it was not just replaced by a red wall. Despite the naturalness of such a manner of thinking, it is not based on any empirical evidence – how would it look different if the old wall were always to vanish and be immediately replaced by a new wall when it was painted? Thus, Anaximenes’ assumption is more of a philosophical proposition: we might still argue for it, although not use tests and observations to validate its truth.

Anaximenes’ idea was so innovative in comparison to his predecessors that later philosophers thought that it should deserve the status of the beginning of the philosophy: Aristotle was the first to say this and others followed him. Although it would have been natural to declare Anaximenes then to be the first philosopher, they instead thought that it was Thales who invented the theory. Indeed, Thales had said something like “water is basis of everything”, which could be understood as a statement that water is the one stuff of which all other things are mere modifications. Anaximander would then have suggested that it wasn’t water, but some chaotic jumble of everything that was the primary stuff and Anaximenes would merely have added the air as another candidate. This reinterpretation was not just unfair to Anaximenes, but it also makes little sense: after all, if there is only one stuff, it seems a moot question if we should call it water, air or something else.

The three philosophers introduced here took the first steps towards true scientific and philosophical discussion, because they all avoided the traditional religious explanations. Yet, they were still on a border zone between religious and scientific thinking. They were not atheists and did not even avoid mentioning gods or spirits in their theories. True, they based the explanations mostly on matter, but they most likely thought that matter itself has some spirituality or liveliness within itself.

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