Friday, 22 August 2014

The Origins of Science I: Thales of Miletus

“The following inscription was placed on his tomb: You see this tomb is small—but recollect, The fame of Thales reached to the skies.” – Diogenes Laertius, 3rd Century CE

The story of Science begins in the 6th century BCE in an Ancient Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia (in modern day Turkey) called Miletus. At this time (the Archaic period in Greece), Greek city-states (polis) and their colonies could be found throughout the Mediterranean world, from the east coast of modern day Spain to the Russian coast on the Black Sea. In the 6th century BCE, Miletus was the greatest and wealthiest of these Greek city-states. It possessed a harbour at the entry of a great bay, and it traded widely and built up a large maritime empire.

It was in this city that the philosopher Thales (c.624-546 BCE), the first of the Seven Sages or wise men of Ancient Greece, was born – probably to a wealthy, established family. Thales was the first to postulate non-supernatural (non-mythical) explanations for natural phenomena. For instance, before Thales, earthquakes were assumed to be the supernatural whim of the gods (e.g., of an angry Poseidon). But Thales proposed that land floats on water and that the earth quakes whenever the ocean beneath it is particularly rough.

For his rational thinking, Thales has been dubbed the “father of science” (as well as the “father of mathematics”, for his innovative use of geometry). But Thales was more than just a navel-gazing philosopher. It is said that after predicting a good harvest for a particular year, he reserved—at a discount—all the olive presses in Miletus only to rent them out at a high price when demand peaked. According to Aristotle (384-322 BCE), he did this to prove to his fellow Milesians that philosophical thinking could be useful, contrary to what was believed at the time.

Unfortunately, none of Thales’ writings have survived, so all the information we have about him comes from his Greek compatriots. Thus, it is difficult to assess which Greek stories about Thales are true and which are embellishments or exaggerations (myths). Nevertheless, it is clear that the ancient world was a very different place by the time Thales had passed away. Before Thales, people relied on received wisdom (e.g., tradition) for answers. After Thales, people stepped back from tradition and took up rational inquiry in an attempt to discover and understand universal truths. Mathematics, astronomy, and medicine were already in existence, but the rise of theoretical inquiry (rational thought vs. mythological belief) may have started with Thales; it leapt across cultural and national boundaries and gradually transformed the norms of society throughout the Mediterranean world.

In sum, Thales is the first person whom we know to propose materialistic—rather than mythological or theological—explanations of natural phenomena. Unlike Heraclitus, he did not speak in riddles. Unlike Anaximander, he did not need to invent an undefined non-substance. Like modern science, his theories were not sacred (i.e., beyond argument), but could be challenged or refuted with empirical evidence. Thus, although Thales of Miletus wasn’t really a “scientist” (because though he was a rational thinker, he didn’t use the “scientific method” – more on this later), he was responsible for the blossoming of theoretical inquiry – an important root of Science.

But who was the first “scientist”? Some people consider Plato’s student, Aristotle, to be the first. Aristotle introduced the idea that universal truths can be arrived at via observation and induction, thereby laying the foundations of the scientific method…

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