What questions did Thales ask?

Ayotunde asked:

What are the fundamental questions Thales asked?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Goodness me, this is so long ago that even Aristotle had to rely on second-hand reports. His problem is therefore still ours: namely, how much of this is real; how much merely idle gossip?

Judging by a few accounts which add up to a believable portrait, he seems to have been a man with a scientific bend, e.g mathematics, engineering, astronomy. Just as long as you take care not to confuse it with what we call by those names.

And so to his notorious proposition. But you must try to understand the background, otherwise it makes no sense.

In religious mythology, nature is one and continuous. Which means that one could explain the existence of some natural thing by the transformation of another natural thing, e.g. a human being turned into flowers. The Roman poet Ovid wrote a big book on these things, called appropropriately ‘Metamorphoses’.

In addition the Greeks worshipped innumerable forces of nature as gods.

A skeptical person might be induced to question these beliefs. Thales, who apparently travelled widely and must have heard hundreds of such stories in other cultures, probably grew skeptical about their rational basis. And so it might have occurred to him that water, although it bears dozens of different names of gods in different localities, is actually one and the same everywhere. Moreover, it seems to occur everywhere, even in deserts, and it springs out of cracks in mountains too.

So his fundamental question was: Could water be the substance from which everything else is made?

I don’t believe it was a doctrine. In those days thinkers did not write up doctrines; they discussed ideas over a glass of fine wine. He might have challenged like-minded men with his idea. When we hear what Anaximander retorted, it seems very probable that he put it up for others to think about and debate.

They did; and the most astonishing aspect is, that just three generations down the track, the arguments had become so subtle that Demokritos (or Leukippos) framed his idea that atoms are the final building blocks of the cosmos. It was a ‘mere philosophical idea’ then; but at last in 1810, John Dalton discovered empirically that atoms are real things and, as they say, the rest is history!


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