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Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

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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. By contrast, what Rovelli proposes is that Anaximander came up with a number of steps forward that were effectively foundational for the scientific method. In this, Rovelli suggests, he sends perhaps his most potent message through the ages, “one that can serve as a warning to us today”. 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.

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. The rest of the book (about half of it) concentrates on what science is, the dangers of cultural relativism and understanding the world without gods. 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. What Rovelli attributes to Anaximander are the idea of a non-flat Earth floating in space - surrounded by the heavens, rather than a flat Earth with the heavens above; building on Thales' example as the first known explanation for physical processes without divine intervention; introducing the concept of natural law; and challenging his master's ideas rather than simply building on them. Essentially he claims that Anaximander was the first person who looked for explanations of natural events, rather than crediting spirits of one sort or another with such effects .

He then goes on to discuss how, over the ages, society started to base knowledge on empirical evidence, rather than on the sayings of devine kings or ancient books. 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?

Alongside the desacralisation and secularisation of public life,” Rovelli argues, “which passed from the hands of divine kings to those of citizens, came the desacralisation and secularisation of knowledge… law was not handed down once and for all but was instead questioned again and again. Currently head of the quantum gravity group at the Centre de Physique Théorique at Aix-Marseille University, Rovelli became a household name after publishing his first books, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Reality Is Not What It Seems, which became international bestsellers. 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. A reasonable person can deduce that proper analysis of physical phenomena utilizing physical phenomena arrives at truth.Carlo Rovelli's first book, now widely available in English, tells the origin story of scientific thinking: our rebellious ability to reimagine the world, again and again. He describes how the Greeks established that the Earth was not flat using a nearly identical scientific inquiry used by the Chinese to establish that the Earth was flat. The beginnings of scientific thought in the centuries before Christ and its subsequent repression by the Holy Roman Empire is interesting, but the book does not address the vital question of how organised religions can co-exist with freedom of expression and good science education. 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. He emphasises, for instance, that despite their impressive mathematics, astronomical observation and technological developments, Chinese philosophers and scientists never came up with the insight of a non-flat Earth floating in space, only switching to this viewpoint when they received information from missionaries in the seventeenth century.

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