Anaximander’s enigmatic Apeiron

Twaha asks:

Explain why Anaximander thought that the basic stuff of the earth is APEIRON.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Anaximander (born 610 BCE) was one of the Presocratics. They are sometimes called protoscientists because they looked for explanation of the world in terms of natural, not supernatural, causes (mechanism not animism), a conceptual revolution.

They sought a ‘first principle’ as the basis of all things: Thales suggested water, Anaximenes, air and Anaximander, apeiron. Thales’ suggestion was pretty implausible, and may have been prompted by the prominence of water in many ancient mythical world origin views. Anaximenes’ suggestion was an improvement because it included a mechanism, compression and rarefaction, by which air might produce the other elements.

As for Anaximander’s apeiron, the word means ‘infinite’ or ‘indefinite’. It is unclear exactly what he had in mind, but the key point is that, unlike water or air, it was not one of the substances of everyday experience. He thus postulated that all things physical were ultimately explained by a single substratum that escapes our perception. Thus began a viewpoint that characterizes science to this day. Descendants of apeiron include atoms, then electromagnetic fields, then quantum fields and wave functions, and today’s favourites, strings, loops, and information. They are imperceptibles, postulated to account coherently for the complexity of the world, the very role and function Anaximander assigned to the apeiron.

In addition, he held that the Earth isnt resting on something (a giant turtle for instance) to stop it falling, but is a giant stone floating in space and doesnt ‘fall’ because there is no reason for it to prefer one rather than another direction to move — an early example of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He also held that change through time is due to universal necessary laws. He can fairly be viewed as the greatest of the protoscientists.

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