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.”

Breathwork and sensed energy

In an earlier post, I described my experience with transformational breathwork and the Wim Hof method. I’ve continued to practice these, and to do some online sessions with the breathwork instructor from the retreat I attended late last year. In looking around for more information on breathwork, I came across a book by David Lee called “Life force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic” (Norwich: The Universe Machine, 2018).

Lee gives an overview of and simple instructions for ten types of breathwork, as well as discussing their various purposes and effects, and the relationships between them. This is interesting enough, but his approach to understanding breathwork completely changed my experience of it. He describes the book as an exploration of “sensed energy” and schemes of belief that work best for experiencing, cultivating and manipulating these subtle sensations. In particular, he frames breathwork in terms of the arousal and relaxation of sensed energy.

Transformational breathing produces within minutes a tingling within the hands and feet and a sense of energy surging around the body. Lee advises to simply witness this energy as it circulates and coalesces into definite sensations and emotions. Layers of unresolved emotion may surface and the high level of sensed energy helps them to resolve. So breathwork may untangle pain and discomfort from the past. Lee describes how to modulate the intensity of the breathwork to hover in the space between suppression of this unresolved material and its too intense activation, allowing a process of resolution to occur, rather than repression or re-traumatizing. I certainly experience intense emotions at times during breathwork, and the periods of “tantrum” and application of pressure to particular points on the body enable you to intensify and experience or release these intense emotions.

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Buddhism without beliefs

My son has been reading the existentialists, starting with Camus (of course, The Plague is quite relevant for more than one reason now). He recently moved on to Kierkegaard, who took a form of Christianity as a solution to existential angst. I was reminded of a book I read probably 15 years ago, by Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism Without Beliefs (London: Bloomsbury 1997) which argued that the Buddha was concerned with addressing the existential issue of suffering not with metaphysics and beliefs.  I couldn’t find my copy of this, and bought another, which I enjoyed reading even more than the first time.

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Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.

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The Manson murders and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After watching Tarantino’s latest film, which I reviewed in my last post (once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood), I got out Helter-Skelter to read again. This is the absolutely riveting story of the Manson murders in Hollywood in 1969, the police investigation that followed, the trial and outcomes, written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who meticulously investigated and prosecuted Manson and three female followers.

Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”.Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to.

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Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

I wanted to see Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which takes place in a loving recreation of late-’60s Los Angeles. I knew that it starred one of my favorite actors, Brad Pitt, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie and was set in 1969 at the time of the Manson murders. But that was all. I asked my older son if he was interested to see it and he came along. I was a teenager in last years of high school in 1969 and very clearly remember the Manson murders, as well as later reading a book by the prosecutor who got Manson and his followers convicted and sentenced to death. So I was quite interested to see what Tarantino would make of this material and era.  We both thoroughly enjoyed the film, of which more below, but in our discussion after the movie ended, I discovered that we had had two extremely different experiences, as if we were watching two different movies.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Cast

Warning: this post will contain major spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”. I strongly recommend that you don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to. It really will be a much more satisfying movie if you don’t already know the plot.

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Stand on Zanzibar

My older son has been voraciously reading science fiction novels from the golden age of SF, namely the 1960s and 1970s. I say the golden age, because I was his age in the 1960s and at university in the 1970s, and read all the same novels.  I have more than once told him that I read almost all of the “good” or “important” SF and authors of that period.  My interests veered into fantasy of the Tolkien type, but at the same time the immense proliferation of second rate Tolkien copiers in the 1970s (think Terry Brooks: Shannara etc) led to me ceasing to try to read all the important authors as they were published.

I also got rid of much of my extensive SF library with time, keeping only a few authors that I particularly enjoyed (think Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Roger Zelazny….) and now I am buying my son SF novels from Amazon that I once used to own.

My son recently read “Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner and raved about it, said I had to read it. It has a huge reputation, made a big impact, and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention in 1969, as well as the 1969 BSFA Award and the 1973 Prix Tour-Apollo Award. Fifty years after its first publication in 1968, it is considered one of the greatest SF novels of the period, and is still regularly reviewed and discussed.

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Ulysses and book burning in Australia

Today the 16th June is Bloomsday, a celebration of the life and work of the Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is set on that day in 1904, the day of his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle.

This lengthy novel has been highly controversial, and has been banned in various countries. It is written using a stream-of-consciousness technique, with careful structuring based on Homer’s Odyssey. Its revolutionary technique and experimental prose as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history.

I read Ulysses as an undergraduate during my daily commutes by train to and from Sydney University. I was particularly taken with the final chapter of Ulysses in which Molly Bloom is lying in bed next to Leopold and her thoughts are reported as a stream-of-consciousness 42 pages in length. I think I read a paperback edition that belonged to my father. I remember him during that period quoting to me the following passage highlighting Leopold Bloom’s adoration for his wife Molly, because he loved the sound of the words:

“He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmelonous osculation.”
                James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 17 “Ithaca”.

My father and before him my great-Uncle John (1895-1975) were book collectors and I have kept some of their books, including a copy of the first edition of Ulysses published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. After the initial printing of 1000 numbered copies in 1922, my great-uncle acquired a copy in 1927 from the 8th print run of May 1926.

Title page

A publishing history of Ulysses can be found at

I knew that Ulysses had been banned in Australia for some time and looked up the dates. it was not banned until 1929, then released in 1937, only to be restricted again in 1941 after pressure from Catholic organizations. This ban was lifted in 1953 after it was considered ineffectual considering how many copies were already in circulation.

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