Anaximander – the first scientist

Recently I discovered Carlo Rovelli, an Italian physicist and best-selling popular science writer and noticed he had written a book on Anaximander, an early Greek philosopher who lived around 150 years before Socrates in the sixth century BC. Though I read some of the Greek philosophers when I was younger, I don’t recall coming across Anaximander. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and so here is a review.

Anaximander (c. 610 – c. 546 BC), lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia (in modern-day Turkey) and was a student of Thales. Nothing but a few quotations and descriptions of his work survive in the works of later philosophers, but from this sparse information, Rovelli mounts a persuasive argument that Anaximander was the first true scientist, the first to suggest that order in the world was due to natural forces, not supernatural ones.

Ancient Roman mosaic from Trier, dating to the early third century AD, showing Anaximander holding a sundial.

Prior to Anaximander, Greek thinking, including that of his teacher Thales, ascribed the causes of natural phenomena to the actions of the gods. Anaximander was the first to look for natural rather than supernatural mythical causes and to be willing to reject the views of authority. Among other things, he proposed that:

  • The universe arose from a single point (the apeiron) when hot and cold separated from the apeiron, generating the cosmic order.
  • The Earth is a body of finite dimensions floating in space. It doesn’t fall because there is no particular direction towards which it could fall.
  • Meteorological phenomena have natural causes. Rainwater is water that has evaporated from the oceans and rivers. Thunder and lightning are caused by colliding clouds, not the actions of Zeus.
  • Earthquakes are caused by fissures in the Earth
  • All animals originally came from the sea and the first animals were fishlike creatures.

Rovelli particularly identifies the conceptual leap from a flat Earth to a finite Earth floating in space as an extraordinary achievement. While Anaximander conceived of the Earth as a short stubby cylinder, the next generations of Greek philosophers rapidly realized that the Earth was spherical and even measured its circumference with reasonable accuracy. Despite popular belief, even through the dark ages and Middle Ages, educated Europeans knew that the Earth was round (see for example, Dante’s description in the Divine Comedy). European civilization was the only one to make this conceptual leap, and it did so 26 centuries ago. Despite the fact that the Chinese collected detailed astronomical measurements from Anaximander’s time onwards, they never realized that the Earth was round and floated in space. At least until the 17th century, when contact with Western astronomers led the Chinese to rapidly agree that they had got it wrong.

Rovelli has some fascinating arguments about why Greek civilization of the 6th century BC was such an intellectual ferment, not only in natural philosophy but forms of government. These hinge on the fact that the Greek language has six fewer consonants than the Phoenician language, but I will let you read the book if you want to know why.

Rovelli argues that Anaximander was the first thinker to question and disagree with the views of authorities, including his own teacher Thales, while still holding them in respect and reverence. Between absolute reverence and rejection, he discovered a third way. Rovelli says

“In my view, modern science in its entirety is the result of the discovery of this third way. ….[Anaximander] was the first thinker able to conceive and put into practice what is now the fundamental methodological credo of modern scientists: make a thorough study of the masters, come to understand their intellectual achievements, and make these achievements their own.Then on the basis of the knowledge so acquired, identify the errors in the masters’ thinking, correct them, and in so doing improve our understanding of the world.” –  Carlo Rovelli, Anaximander.

He argues that the reason a scientific revolution comparable to the one in the West did not take place in China was precisely because the master in Chinese culture was never criticized or questioned.

The second half of the book addresses the question of what “science” is, and in what ways it differs from religion. Rovelli’s central argument is that the key difference is that science is always willing to question established authority. It does not suffer a priori conclusions, reverence, or untouchable truths. This is the main reason he proposes that Anaximander should be considered the founder of the scientific tradition, not the actual accuracy of his ideas.

The science denialism of current times often attacks science as arrogant and certain of its truths, and one line of attack is to note that today’s scientific understanding of some issues contradicts previous understanding. This is a strange lack of understanding of the scientific method, and Rovelli notes that “the reliability of science is not based on the fact that its answers are certain. It is based on the fact that its answers are the best ones available. They are the best available because science is a way of thinking in which nothing is considered certain, and therefore remains open to better answers if better ones become available.”

The book finishes with a discussion of science and religion, characterizing religion as asserting certain truths are Absolute and beyond question. Rovelli argues that the conflict between rational/scientific thinking and structured religion is ultimately unsolvable because (most) religions demand the acceptance of some unquestionable truths while scientific thinking is based on the continuous questioning of any truth. This is much too simplistic. To my mind, the domain of science is the “outside” of things, what can be observed and measured in principle by anyone. Those who expand the statements of science to dismiss the reality of the “inside” of things, such as the experience of states of consciousness, qualia, emotions etc, are creating a religion of scientism, not doing science. And religion and spirituality should be mainly concerned with these “insides” and with such non-material things as ethics, morals, how to alleviate suffering, how to live the good life, etc. So there should not be substantial overlap between the domains of science (as traditionally understood) and of religion.

However, most of the “structured religions”, by which I assume he means institutionalized religions, have a body of dogma dating back to pre-scientific times, in many cases to the Bronze Age, and are framed in terms of mythic stories which include pre-scientific explanations of natural phenomena and the aspects of reality addressed by modern science. There are still many in the modern world who cling to these dogmas as Absolute truths, though in much of the Western world the major religions have evolved to understand that these mythic stories address aspects of the human condition but are not to be taken literally. On the other side, science is carried out by fallible humans, and there are of course scientists who hold to the “truth” of their findings dogmatically and can resist new evidence and theories that challenge their worldview or their life’s work. The case of continental drift is a classic example.

I argued in a previous post that I think Buddhism comes closest to eschewing dogma in favour of practice, experiment, seeing what works and what doesn’t. But in countries where Buddhism has taken root in pre-modern times, the religion has taken on many mythic elements with God-like Buddhas who are worshipped, and with unquestioned dogmas such as reincarnation. I agree with Ken Wilber that the universality of religion in human cultures strongly implies that it does capture important and universal truths about humanity and reality, and that mythic elements that are not common across all the religions must be the culture-specific understandings of these that should not be misinterpreted as absolute truths.

This is a book well worth reading, even if you don’t agree with all of Rovelli’s views. He certainly makes a strong case that Anaximander is one of the pivotal figures of the Axial Age, standing at one of the deep roots of modernity. His radical “inquiry into nature” without recourse to mythical-religious explanations put Western civilization on the path to the scientific revolution which has changed and will continue to change our conceptual image of the world.  If only institutional religions could embrace the same dynamic, let go of dogma and coercive control and encourage individual spiritual experience and growth.

I think I will leave the last words on Anaximander to a reviewer on, who said:

“The only flaw is Rovelli’s insistence on a cumulative epistemology which just doesn’t get the kind of dialectic that avoids metaphysical positivism without losing the importance of idealisation as a social product.”

6 thoughts on “Anaximander – the first scientist

  1. I’ve bought his book on Time, and very much looking forward to reading it. As a postgraduate student in physics I spent quite a lot of time reading physicists and philosophers on understanding time. My head hurt a lot, and not sure I gained any clarity. Then I got quite serious about Zen meditation, and felt at times on the verge of a very different set of insights into the nature of time, which never quite came to fruition. So I’m hoping Rovelli will stimulate some insights or perhaps some counter insights.

  2. Pingback: The Order of Time – Carlo Rovelli | Mountains and rivers

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