Sunday, February 3, 2013

Presocratic Philosophy

We can see that nature is in a constant state of transformation.  But what drives this process?  How can something change from one thing into another?

These were the questions the presocratic philosophers sought to answer.  We have only fragments of their thought,  most of it gleamed from later philosophers who referred to their conclusions but sadly not to the reasoning leading to those conclusions.  We know for example that the presocratics philosophers believed in a basic substance that everything came from and returned to.  They sought to explain what this basic substance was and what force drove this transformation.  In the post below I outline some of their answers to this question.

Thales of Miletus
 Thales was a mathematically inclined and a well traveled man from the Greek colony of Miletus who believed water was the source of all things and  "all things are full of Gods".  We don't really know what he meant by this but we can guess he thought the earth solidified from the water on which it floated. We do know Thales traveled to Egypt where he may have witnessed how crops flourished after the flooding of the Nile. The divine mind of God or Gods drove the great transformations from substance to substance. 

Anaximander also from Miletus and a contemporary of Thales, thought water was far to limited to be the basic substance from which all else comes.  Water can only ever be wet and never dry.  Should it become heated, it's form changes into something else.  Water then cannot be the source of all things. Instead Anaximander proposed boundless and endless mass, a sort of formless chaos, from which all things come and return.

He was wrong said Anaximenes, himself a friend or student of Anaximander, because the source of all things is clearly air.  Water returns to air when heated and fire turns to smoke which becomes air and when air is 'pressed' the rains come which form earth and plants.

Parmenides who lived in Elea, a Greek colony in southern Italy, thought the confusion was caused by our senses deceiving us.  We only think nature changes but everything that exists had always existed and nothing can change.  Change was just an illusion and human reason was a more reliable guide that trusting our senses.  Parmenides was a firm rationalist.

Absolute nonsense said Heraclitus.  "We cannot step twice into the same river" because of  constant change in nature. How can we  ignore our own senses?  Everything is clearly in constant flow guided by universal reason and everything is an interplay of opposites.

You are both half right and half wrong declared Empedocles of Sicily. Parmendies was correct that nothing can change but Heraclius is correct that our senses must be trusted.  The answer then is that nature consists of not one element, but of four basic elements from which all things come - earth, air, fire and water; everything is a combination of these four elements.  Love is force which causes these elements to combine to form substances and strife is the force which separates them.

How can air, fire, water or water be transformed into bone and human life? asked Anaxagoras of Athens. Through love?  No, rather nature is made up of tiny invisible seeds that must exist in all things and then grow to become what we see before us. A God like mind or intelligence is the  force uniting these particles into animals.

Anaxagoras was close Democritus thought.  Nothing can come from nothing so reason dedicates there must be a basic substance from which all things come and return.  But this is not a tiny seed, but an atom, that is which  'uncuttable' and is the smallest building block in nature.  An unlimited number and diversity of these atoms must exist in nature with hooks and barbs that then bond together to form the world we see around us.  So our senses are correct when we observe constant change in nature, but our reason  must also be correct when we infer a basic substance which cannot change.  The basic substance is an atom and is the building block of life.  It is the movement of atoms which grant us our sense perceptions. And the force which drives this constant change? Love? The mind of God?  There is not guiding force said Democritus,  just mechanical laws of nature.
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