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.”

Variations and trends in cultural values across 105 countries, 1980 to 2020

I’ve long been interested in the relationship between the stages of development of the individual (whether stages of moral development, psychological development, or consciousness) and the stages of development of human societies and civilizations. With the increasing prominence of fundamentalist religion in some regions of the world, the rise of science denialism and “post-truth” popularist politics, differences in human values are of huge importance and can literally become life and death matters for people. More generally, it seems fairly clear that people’s beliefs play a key role in economic development, the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions, the rise of gender equality, and the extent to which societies have effective governments.

So I have taken an interest in results from the World Values Survey over the last two decades, and last month learnt that data from its most recent wave was being released in late July. There have now been seven waves of the World Values Survey (WVS), the first in 1980-1982 and the seventh underway since 2017. There have also been five waves of the European Values Study (EVS), which includes many of the same items as the WVS, and whose most recent wave covers the period 2017-2020. With the release of the WVS 7th wave data for 48 countries in July 2020, the WVS plus the EVS now include data for 117 countries or territories and over 638,000 respondents, covering the period 1981-2020.

Data from previous waves of the World Values Survey were used by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel to identify two major dimensions of cross cultural variation across the world. They refer to these as Traditional values versus Secular-rational values and Survival values versus Emancipative values. Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values in contrast to secular-rational values. Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance. Emancipative values are associated with gender equality, relative acceptance of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life. Inglehart and Welzel used factor analysis to estimate where each country lies on these two dimensions are constructed what they called a “culture map”.

I set out to replicate this analysis with the full WVS+EVS dataset including the latest wave [1-4]. I decided to use a different statistical approach (item response theory) to estimate the two dimensions. I have posted a more technical summary on my professional website to give details of this analysis. In brief, I used structural equation modelling to estimate two latent variables. The survival-emancipative variable was derived from data for three questions of gender equality (jobs, politics, education) and three questions on acceptance of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. The traditional-secular values variable was derived from data for three questions on sources of authority (nation pride, government, parents) and three questions on religion (importance, belief, practice. The values for countries with data for years 2005 or later were used to extrapolate values for year 2019. The following “culture map” shows the location of 105 countries based in these two variables.

New West and West —  Western Europe and overseas offshoots of Western Europe
Returned West —  Catholic and Protestant parts of post-communist Europe  returning to the EU
Orthodox —  Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the post-communist world, mostly parts of former USSR
South Asia —  Parts of South Asia under the historic influence of Indian culture
South East Asia —  Parts of South East Asia excluding those under historic influence of Chinese culture
Sinic East —  Parts of East Asia under the historic influence of Chinese culture
Latin America —  Central and South America and the Caribbean
African-Islamic —  African countries south of the Sahara, together with regions of the Islamic world that have been parts of the Arab/Caliphate, Persian and Ottoman empires.

The general topology of this map is similar to the Inglehart-Welzel map, with Scandinavian countries to the top right, Sinic countries to the top left, and African-Islamic countries to the bottom left. However, there are some considerable differences in the locations of countries relative to each other, and the positions of some individual countries – no doubt reflecting the difference between the method I have used and the factor analysis used by Inglehart and Welzel.

I have also extrapolated time series for these two culture variables across the period 1980-2020 and calculated population-weighted averages for 10 culture zones (as used by Welzel in his recent book Freedom Rising  [5].

The following graph summarizes the net trend in culture values from 1980 to 2020 as straight lines joining these two points. For more details, and full trajectories, see trends-in-cultural-values-1980-to-2020.

Net trends for 10 culture zones from 1980 to 2020.

The 10 culture zones are defined as follows:

Reformed West — Western European societies strongly affected by the Reformation;
New West — English-speaking countries (UK, Ireland and former overseas colonies);
Old West — Mostly Catholic parts of Western Europe being core parts of the
Roman Empire;
Returned West — Catholic and Protestant parts of post-communist Europe returning to the EU;
Orthodox East — Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the post-communist world,
mostly parts of former USSR;
Indic East — Parts of South and South East Asia under the historic influence
of Indian culture;
Islamic East — Regions of the Islamic world that have been parts of the Arab/Caliphate, Persian and Ottoman empires;
Sinic East — Parts of East Asia under the historic influence of Chinese culture;
Latin America — Central and South America and the Caribbean;
Sub-Saharan Africa — African countries south of the Sahara.

This graphs shows a very clear contrast between the evolution of cultural values for the West plus Latin America and the other culture zones. The West regions and Latin America have all moved quite strongly towards more emancipative values and also away from traditional values to more secular-rational values. In contrast, while the other regions have also moved somewhat rightward in emancipative values, they have moved downwards away from secular-rational values towards to more traditional values. The Islamic East is the major exception with very little change in either dimension.

In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Samuel Huntington described a global revival of religion in the second half of the twentieth century, claiming that the trend towards secularization went into reverse in the 1970s in every region of the world [6]. At least to the extent the second latent dimension (or indeed Inglehart and Welzel’s traditional-secular factor) measure the degree of secularization, the trends from 1980 to the present do not fit with his conclusion. He was correct in identifying a return to religion in the former Soviet countries with predominantly Orthodox Christian or Islamic religious tradition. He also pointed to an increasingly Hindu orientation of India, whereas the story from the WVS-EVS data is somewhat more complex with a fairly stable level of religiosity from 1990 to 2000 associated with an increasing level of emancipative values, but from 2000 to 2020 an increasing degree of religiosity associated with a declining level of emancipative values. This correlates broadly with the rise of Hindu extremism and the election of the BJP Party with its Hindu nationalist orientation in 2014.

I am currently looking more closely at questions in the WVS/EVS relating to religious belief and exploring ways to develop a better measure of religiosity, if possible to take into account degree of “fundamentalism” and rejection of science. There are also questions that allow investigating how broadly the respondent identifies with others (tribal/neighbourhood, ethno-religious group, nation, world) and whether they see religion as a way of making sense of life in this world versus making sense of life after death. These latter questions are available in fewer waves of the survey but may enable a more nuanced latent variable to be constructed that identifies stages of religious understanding.


  1. Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: All Rounds – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: Madrid: JD Systems Institute.¨
  2. Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno,A., Welzel,C., Kizilova,K., Diez-MedranoJ., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2020. World Values Survey: Round Seven–Country-Pooled Datafile. Madrid, Spain & Vienna, Austria: JD Systems Institute& WVSA Secretariat[Version:].
  3. Gedeshi, Ilir, Zulehner, Paul M., Rotman, David, Titarenko, Larissa, Billiet, Jaak, Dobbelaere, Karel, Kerkhofs, Jan. (2020). European Values Study Longitudinal Data File 1981-2008 (EVS 1981-2008). GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA4804 Datenfile Version 3.1.0,
  4. EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 3.0.0,doi:10.4232/1.13511
  5. Welzel C. Freedom Rising. Human Empowerment and the. Quest for Emancipation. 2013. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Samuel Huntington. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. London: Simon and Schuster 1996.