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Anaximander and The Nature of Science – Carlo Rovelli

by Venky

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The only text by Anaximander (c. 610 – c. 546 BCE) that has been privy to us reads:

“All things originate from one another and vanish into one another/According to necessity/They give each other justice and recompense for injustice/In conformity with the order of time.”

Even though constrained by an absolute dearth of the original works attributable to the sixth century Greek Philosopher, there is enough evidence to suggest that Anaximander may well be the unsung hero in terms of originality in scientific and critical thinking. Italian theoretical physicist, writer and currently a Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute, Carlo Rovelli, certainly feels so. Anaximander and The Nature of Science is a studied and wholesome tribute to a man who seemed to have been much ahead of his time.

Born in the ancient Greek city of Miletus, at the peak of its halcyon days, Anaximander was influenced by the writings and deductions of Thales, one of the seven venerated sages of Greece. At a time when conventional thinking about earth was at its most reductionist, Anaximander sowed the seeds for a revolutionary stream of thought by hewing towards theories that divorced the supernatural/divinity from naturalism.

For example, the most simplistic notion of ‘heavens above and the earth below’ was completely turned upside down by Anaximander. He postulated that earth represented a body suspended in a void of space. And within such a void the sun and stars revolved. Karl Popper, the formidable philosopher was so impressed with Anaximander’s exposition that he termed it “one of the boldest, most revolutionary and most portentous ideas in the whole history of human thinking.”

In a feat of astounding clarity, Anaximander asserted that the earth was neither held up by columns nor firmly perched on the back of a gargantuan turtle, which in turn found itself perched atop an elephant. On the contrary, earth was not balanced on any tangible object because it lay suspended in firmament. His rationale for such an assertion: if the sun sets in the West and rises in the East, it must be travelling underneath the earth. If something was to be holding up the earth, then this traversing would not be possible. What a simple yet magnificent piece of analysis!

Anaximander was also the first human being to hazard the theory that the phenomenon of rain was the outcome of observable movements of air and the heat of the sun, rather than the benevolence of Zeus or Aeolus. A singularly extraordinary deviation from an otherwise conventional stream of thinking that attributed every natural phenomenon to a causal relationship with the whim and conjecture of a particular divine being.

But the greatest contribution of Anaximander, according to Rovelli is the trait of a munificent rebellion. Even though gaining his entire repository of knowledge from Thales, Anaximander evaluated, examined, and pored over his master’s theories and modified them wherever he felt they were suffering from a paucity of logic and relevance. Reverence for Anaximander was never an automatic acceptance of received wisdom.

Anaximander thus conceptualised the process of critical thinking, a concept that continues to animate the field of science ever since. Newton’s initial embrace of and subsequent divergence from the theories of Kepler and Copernicus, Einstein, and Heisenberg’s study of Newton’s theories and the substitution of the inadequacies contained therein with their own advanced conclusions, all represent journeys down the path carved out by Anaximander.

This facet of critical thinking resonated with the scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn. According to Kuhn, the progress of scientific thought is a perpetual revolution, a revolt even, driven by the unrelenting force of paradigms. Science initially progresses on entrenched assumptions that are the prerogative of a particular scientific community. A slight shift takes place when one/few intrepid mind/s detect an ‘anomaly’ in the rooted assumptions. This anomaly then assumes momentum and soon becomes a dogmatic assumption itself till such time it is in turn uprooted by a courageous anomaly. This process continues in perpetuity.

In the words of Rovelli, Anaximander, constantly engaged in “a search for knowledge based on the rejection of any obvious-seeming ‘certainty.” Anaximander is Rovelli’ s idol and there is every possibility that he would be the reader’s too once the covers have come down on this slim, but utterly compelling book!

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