Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

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Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

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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. Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

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. Is it necessary to hold that Anaximander was an atheist or naturalist and that Anaximander’s break through in scientific inquiry and analysis wholly discredits a metaphysical or religious world view?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. For instance, the sun is and will be the center of the solar system because all known planetary bodies revolve around it.

In my experience, working scientists often get history of science wrong - in this case, as it's arguably more history of philosophy, I can't say whether or not Carlo Rovelli is straying far from what's known to make his point, but what he has to say about the Greek philosopher Anaximander from the 6th century BC is fascinating.

This is the way forward, and everyone who cares about science should support their national organisation. Maybe Carlo Rovelli need not answer these questions or maybe he thinks these are questions not worth asking. 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. In this book Rovelli presents his view of science and why he believes Anaximander deserves the credit for starting the enterprise.

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. At first this seemed like hyperbole from someone championing a particular favourite, but by the end of the book I was convinced. It was implicit in Miletus’s geography as a trading city in which Greek and Egyptian and Babylonian cultures met.

I know it would not discredit his scientific inquiry or process and I trust Carlo Rovelli would agree. By contrast, what Rovelli proposes is that Anaximander came up with a number of steps forward that were effectively foundational for the scientific method. Carlo Rovelli’s writings are fascinating and the translation by Marion Rosenberg is faultless (I’m guessing because I don’t have Italian and I haven’t read the original). 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 .

Rovelli has improved hugely since his early super-waffly titles - if you have an interest in where science came from, this is arguably his best so far. Carlo Rovelli implies that Anaximander was atheist, and precisely as such Anaximander altered the course of scientific inquiry by explaining physical phenomena in terms of physical phenomena.Over two millennia ago, a Greek philosopher had a number of wondrous insights that paved the way to cosmology, physics, geography, meteorology and biology, setting in motion a new way of seeing the world. He explains some of the most conceptually difficult and densest areas of physics lightly and breezily. He attributes Anaximander’s analysis of the physical world as wholly devoid of a metaphysical or religious system as though Anaximander did not or could not attribute some aspect of his existence or existence in general to factors not fully attainable through observation of physical phenomena.

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