The Basic Substances – Thales of Miletus

What are you made out of? Can you break your composition down to the essential components of what makes you, you? Can you understand the basic core concepts of any substance? If you could, what would you find?

Now, I understand that scientific breakthroughs in the last few hundred years have dramatically limited the scope of the above questions, but they are still interesting to ponder. I want you to do a little imagining. After all, you are probably at home and no one can see you close your eyes and concentrating on a dream that I dictate. I want you to imagine you are in a world where Gods and Monsters are the reasonable explanations for thunder, lightning, floods, and the changes of the seasons. You and no one around you has any clue why these things happen. It would never occur to you or anyone else that positively and negatively charged ions interacting, or massive tectonic plates larger than our imagination can visualize actively shifting causes some of what they were terrified of. You are standing in a field thinking. Around you are small trees and bushes, butterflies and birds zoom in and out of your vision. No one else is near you because you are in the wilderness i.e. anywhere there is no city or road. You look down at the ground at the dirt and wonder what it is made from, what colors it brown if the grass and the rocks sprinkled in the dirt are made from the same substance if the water in the stream nearby is also made of the same thing. If you looked at the world in that view, it would be very hard to see anything physical as a different substance. We know that granite and basalt are different and so is silica based soil vs. limestone soil. To you living thousands of years ago, it is just soil. How would you classify things in that world where you don’t know what you know now? Could everything share something that makes it alive and connected?

First, as you come out of that little daydream I have to congratulate you as you probably just had your first thought experiment that you were aware of. A thought experiment is a made up scenario that philosophers and scientists use to help model a thought or test a theory. If something could be modeled in your brain, being tested in reality can sometimes be possible.

As you imagined yourself in that field, you could have been just like Thales of Miletus as he began to ponder the questions you just did. Thales was born in Miletus in Greek Ionia (the western coast of present-day Turkey) and became known as one of the “Seven Sages of Greece” and was one of the first recognized philosophers in the western tradition. This last part is interesting because we are so used to thinking of philosophy as the norm, but in 640 BC, a professional philosopher was incredibly novel (unique). In fact, even up until Newton and further, the scientists were “Natural Philosophers” rather than scientists.

Thales was concerned with not ethics or society, but what was called “Natural Philosophy”, which is why I asked you if you could name a substance in the natural world, or matter that everything is made of. Thales spent much of his time trying to solve the problem of the day concerning matter. After much thinking and observing, Thales decided that water was the substance that all things were made of. He saw how plants used water, rain made all things more alive, humans needed water to survive, and snow became water as well as many other observations. He observed the forms of water as Ice, liquid, and, gas constructs his view of the world. He reasoned, falsely, we know now, that because of the almost omnipresence of water, all substances must be made from it. To his inquiring mind, it only made sense that water was the primary substance of all things. To us, that sounds like a silly idea. We know that all things come from protons, neutrons, electrons, atoms, quarks, and other pieces of mystery (to me) that science has told us to combine to create all things.

If we were isolated technologically, it seems like it would be actually easy to agree with Thales. Water is essential to every living thing on earth. What was neat about this approach rather than what came next in philosophy concerning the core substances is that Thales observed that life was the core substance. Instead of thinking of things like an engineer and looking at the organization of the world through what is dead and gone, Miletus’ approach to looking at what was living and changing as a core substance is a surprisingly optimistic and humanistic look at the living world.

What are the consequences of this approach to natural philosophy? What is the point of studying someone who has a patently false understanding of the world from our privileged viewpoint? Fair question. What is really important about this search, and natural philosophy, in general, is that, like my thoughts about language, this was one of the first times we see people sitting down and attempting to make sense of the core components of the world. This means two related things. 1) Humans had been settled and comfortable enough to create not only civilization, but they were so comfortable that they didn’t have to search for food, and spend their whole lives moving from place to place as resources were depleted. They could send others to conquer for them so philosophers could sit and think. This is a big step forward that allowed us directly to create schools and universities and people could live in their heads rather than worry so much. Certainly this created worries of their own relating to city life, but for the time being, comfort and stability created the atmosphere for new thought. 2) Natural philosophy and a view of the world in a mythological viewpoint, as talked about before, led to a break in that down the road that was a more reason-based philosophy. We can think of this, therefore, as an early mover in the philosophical sense. Thales of Miletus can be traced to the advancements of other natural philosophers as well as the cause of disagreements of the reason based thinkers that will be the subject of future conversations.

To sum up: Thales was a Natural Philosopher and in his time thought that water was the core substance that all was made of. Is there anything in life we still look at in such a simplistic way?

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