European Humanities
Fall 2015

Sophie's World, pp. 28-55

The Natural Philosophers (28-40)

Sophie's Questions:

1. Who am I? 
2. Where does the world come from? 
3. Is there a basic substance that everything else is made of? 
4. Can water turn into wine? 
5. How can earth and water produce a live frog?

The Mythological Response (Fate):

After the agricultural revolution, seed cultures created the myth of the Great Mother Goddess to explain the mysterious connection between life and death. Observing the life cycle of plants and all living creatures, primitive people had made a connection a between the burial of a seed and the re-birth of a plant, between sowing and reaping, between fertility and decomposition. The rituals they performed to enact this mystery grew into religious practices which originally involved human sacrifice. In Greece the myth of Demeter and Persephone retells the stories which inspored the ancient fertility rites. Eventually, these barbaric rituals evolved into the holiest rite in Greek culture: the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Fate: the belief that the shape, even the events of our lives are fixed and inalterable. (fatalism, predestination)

Do you believe in fate? 
Is sickness the punishment of the gods? 
What forces govern the course of history? 



Pluto and Proserpine: Bernini, 1621-1622Athens, NM 126: Great Eleusinian Relief

The Philosophical Response:

During the 6th c. BC a brand new way of thinking about Sophie's questions emerges. Rather than relying on mythology to understand the world imaginatively, the lover of wisdom (philo + sophia) constructs a theory with rigid logic: philosophy.

The natural philosophers all had a similar project. They wanted to explain rationally the natural world and its processes. They invented metaphysics: the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of reality, including questions about being, substance, time and space, causation, change, and identity.(OED) Instead of thinking about how the world was created, the natural philosophers began to really look at the world around them. They were fascinated with the problem of transformation: how could plants come out of the dead earth? How could a substance become a living thing? How does a living thing grow from a tiny seedling or an infant animal grow into an adult capable of sustaining itself and reproducing?

To answer these questions using reason, the natural philosphers sought the most basic substance in the universe, the unchanging substance from which everything comes and to which everything returns. They reasoned that identifying that substance would help them explain the laws which govern change in the natural world.

Sophie’s Questions: The Problem of Change:

Is there a basic substance that everything else is made of?
Can water turn into wine?
How can earth and water produce a live frog?

Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?

The Milesian Philosophers  (aka Ionian)

The notion gradually evolved that there must be a basic substance that was the hidden cause of all changes in nature. There had to be "something" that all things came from and returned to. The first philosopher we know of is Thales, who came from Miletus, a Greek colony in Asia Minor…. Thales thought that the source of all things was water. We do not know exactly what he meant by that, he may have believed that all life originated from water--and that all life returns to water again when it dissolves. (Thales)

The next philosopher we hear of is Anaximander, who also lived in Miletus at about the same time as Thales. He thought that our world was only one of a myriad of worlds that evolve and dissolve in something he called the boundless.

A third philosopher from Miletus was Anaximenes (c. 570--526 B.C.). He thought that the source of all things must be "air" or "vapor."

The Eleatic Philosophers

The three Milesian philosophers all believed in the existence of a single basic substance as the source of all things. But how could one substance suddenly change into something else? We can call this the problem of change.

From about 500 B.C., there was a group of philosophers in the Greek colony of Elea in Southern Italy. These "Eleatics" were interested in this question. (Eleatic)

The most important of these philosophers was Parmenides (c. 540-480 B.C.). Parmenides thought that everything that exists had always existed… Nothing can come out of nothing, And nothing that exists can become nothing.  But Parmenides took the idea further. He thought that there was no such thing as actual change. He perceived with his senses that things changed. But he could not equate this with what his reason told him. When forced to choose between relying either on his senses or his reason, he chose reason.

This unshakable faith in human reason is called rationalism. A rationalist is someone who believes that human reason is the primary source of our knowledge of the world.

A contemporary of Parmenides was Heraclitus (c. 540-480 B.C.), who was from Ephesus in Asia Minor. He thought that constant change, or flow, was in fact the most basic characteristic of nature.  "Everything flows," said Heraclitus. Everything is in constant flux and movement, nothing is abiding. Therefore we "cannot step twice into the same river." When I step into the river for the second time, neither I nor the river are the same. We could perhaps say that Heraclitus had more faith in what he could perceive than Parmenides did. That would make him an empiricist who believes that our observations of the world are our primary source of knowledge.

Empedocles (c. 490-430 B.C.) from Sicily thought they were both right in one of their assertions but wrong in the other. Both philosophers had assumed the presence of only one element. If this were true, the gap between what reason dictates and what "we can see with our own eyes" would be unbridgeable. Empedocles concluded that it was the idea of a single basic substance that had to be rejected. Neither water nor air alone can change into a rosebush or a butterfly. The source of nature cannot possibly be one single "element."

Empedocles believed that all in all, nature consisted of four elements or "roots" as he termed them. These four roots were earth, air, fire, and water. He believed that there were two different forces at work in nature. He called them love and strife. Love binds things together, and strife separates them.  He distinguishes between "substance" and "force." Even today, scientists distinguish between elements and natural forces.

Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.)  was a philosopher from Athens who also could not agree that one particular basic substance--water, for instance--might be transformed into everything we see in the natural world. He held that nature is built up of an infinite number of minute particles invisible to the eye. Moreover, everything can be divided into even smaller parts, but even in the minutest parts there are fragments of all other things. As strange as this idea may seem, it really is true: every cell of the human body carries a blueprint of the way all the other cells are constructed. So there is "something of everything" in every single cell. The whole exists in each tiny part.

Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.) was from the little town of Abdera on the northern Aegean coast. He agreed with his predecessors that transformations in nature could not be due to the fact that anything actually "changed." He therefore assumed that everything was built up of tiny invisible blocks, each of which was eternal and immutable. Democritus called these smallest units atoms. He believed that nature consisted of an unlimited number and variety of atoms. Some were round and smooth, others were irregular and jagged. And precisely because they were so different, they could join together into all kinds of different bodies. But however infinite they might be in number and shape, they were all eternal, immutable, and indivisible.  When a body--a tree or an animal, for instance--died and disintegrated, the atoms dispersed and could be used again in new bodies.

Today we can establish that Democritus' atom theory was more or less correct. Nature really is built up of different "atoms" that join and separate again. A hydrogen atom in a cell at the end of my nose was once part of an elephant's trunk. A carbon atom in my cardiac muscle was once in the tail of a dinosaur.

Democritus did not believe in any "force" or "soul" that could intervene in natural processes. The only things that existed, he believed, were atoms and the void. Since he believed in nothing but material things, we call him a materialist. Democritus believed that the soul was made up of special round, smooth "soul atoms." When a human being died, the soul atoms flew in all directions, and could then become part of a new soul formation.

According to Democritus, there is no conscious "design" in the movement of atoms. In nature, everything happens quite mechanically. This does not mean that everything happens randomly, for everything obeys the inevitable laws of necessity. Everything that happens has a natural cause, a cause that is inherent in the thing itself.

Metaphysics Quiz: (Sophie 28-55): The Problem of Change

metaphysics: the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of reality, including questions about being, substance, time and space, causation, change, and identity. (OED)

1. What did the following philosophers theorize to be the basic substance of the universe?

a. Thales:

b. Anaximander:

c. Anaximenes:

2. How did Parmenides (540-480 BC) explain the problem of how things change? (deductive reasoning; rationalism, pure logic)

3. How did Heraclitus (540-480 BC) solve this problem? (inductive reasoning; empiricism, sense perceptions)

4. What was Heraclitus' conception of God?

5.. How did Empedocles (490-430 BC) resolve the conflict between Parmenides and Heraclitus over transformations in nature?

6. What forces exist, according to Empedocles, which enable these transformations to take place?

7. What was Anaxagoras' (500-428 BC) extremely cool idea about seeds? (Hint: He predicted both genetics and fractals.)

8. How was Anaxagoras also way ahead of his time in his understanding of astronomy?

9. How did Democritus (460-370 BC) resolve the dispute between Parmenides and Heraclitus over transformations in nature in a new way? (Hint: Lego blocks) (atomist, materialist)

10. How did Democritus, a strict materialist, conceive of the soul?

E.C. What do scientists today believe is the most basic substance of the universe?

E.E.C. Who is Hilde?!