Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

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Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

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And it was no coincidence that Anaximander’s revolutionary thinking also coincided with the birth of the polis – the nascent democratic structures built on debate as to how best to govern society. He examines Anaximander as a scientist interested in shedding light on the deep nature of scientific thinking, which Rovelli locates in his rebellious ability to reimagine the world again and again. Would Carlo Rovelli’s faith in Anaximander hold up if archeological evidence established that Anaximander was not an atheist, or at least not a naturalist?

In this book Rovelli presents his view of science and why he believes Anaximander deserves the credit for starting the enterprise.

In this formative book, published in English for the first time, he clearly senses Anaximander as a kindred spirit, though his claims for the Greek are based on scattered traces of evidence. Published in English for the first time, Rovelli's fascinating debut work pays much needed tribute to the pioneering Ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander and the game-changing theories that wrestled science away from crude superstition. Now widely available in English for the first time, this is Carlo Rovelli's first book: the thrilling story of a little-known man who created one of the greatest intellectual revolutions. He introduced a new mode of rational thinking with an openness to uncertainty and to the progress of knowledge. He suggests that it was the combination of having the first fully phonetic simple alphabet, the lack of dominant royalty and the independence of the city states that enabled this revolution in thinking in Miletus where Anaximander was based.

Anaximander celebrates the radical lack of certainty that defines the scientific quest for knowledge.This new freedom to doubt received wisdom was crucial in Anaximander revealing what it took Chinese stargazers – advanced in many other respects – another 2,000 years to acknowledge: that the Earth was suspended in space.

As a stand-alone proposition, it is the least bit enlightening, but after reading this book I can appreciate that Anaximander’s contribution to scientific inquiry and analysis was monumental, as Carlo Rovelli teaches. Anaximander's legacy includes the revolutionary idea that the earth floats in a void, that the world can be understood in natural rather than supernatural terms, that animals evolved, and that universal laws govern all phenomena. Anaximander assimilated Thales’s ideas, treated them with due respect, but then rejected and improved on them and came up with more exact theories of his own. This is the way forward, and everyone who cares about science should support their national organisation.

He attributes Anaximander’s analysis of the physical world as wholly devoid of a metaphysical or religious system as though Anaximander did not or could not attribute some aspect of his existence or existence in general to factors not fully attainable through observation of physical phenomena. I found this a lot less interesting, partly because I'd seen most of it before, and partly because it is more a matter of paddling in the murky waters of philosophy of science rather than the more interesting (to me) origins of the history of science.

That message, as relevant in Rovelli’s native Italy as in contemporary Britain, is this: “Each time that we – as a nation, a group, a continent or a religion – look inward in celebration of our specific identity we do nothing but lionise our own limits and sing of our stupidity. In evolving the thinking of Thales, we’re told, Anaximander was not only the first human to argue that rain was caused by the observable movements of air and the heat of the sun rather than the intervention of gods – the kind of “natural wisdom” that was heretical enough to lead to the trial and death of Socrates 200 years later – he was, crucially, also the first thinker to make the case that the Earth was a body suspended in a void of space, within which the sun and stars did not form a canopy or ceiling but revolved. I know it would not discredit his scientific inquiry or process and I trust Carlo Rovelli would agree. To calculate the overall star rating and percentage breakdown by star, we don’t use a simple average. Do recent observations of near death experiences offer valid answers to whether human beings have a soul?Continued scientific inquiry will reveal those aspects of the theories provided by Einstein and Heisenberg that are absolute truth. Something very startling happened in Miletus, the ancient Greek city on the modern Turkish coast, in about 600BC. He exercises that faith in an understanding that Anaximander was a naturalist; a man that expressed his knowledge of this world wholly independent, if not in contrast to, a metaphysical or religious understanding of the world. If Newton characterised himself as “standing on the shoulders of giants”, then the two men near the very base of that human pyramid were Anaximander and Thales of Miletus.

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