Anonymous asks:

I’ve been reading about monism and ancient monistic philosophers (particularly Thales), and I find it absolutely fascinating! Could you please explain the topic a little more in-depth, in your usual easy-to-read style? 🙂 I’m also wondering if our current scientific knowledge points to a neo-monistic view of the universe (in that everything is made up of atoms)? (although I understand that atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons) (matter and energy are the same thing, aren’t they?)

Well, pre-Socratic philosophy is not exactly my “thing” but here goes

So Thales was a Greek philosopher who lived in Miletus (modern Milet, western Turkey), probably around the early 6th century BC, who was famous for predicting eclipses, and discovering that any angle in a semicircle is always a right angle, good stuff like that.  We don’t have anything written by Thales himself, but we know a fair bit about his thinking and his achievements in engineering and mathematics because he gets quoted a lot by later Greek philosophers.  Apparently, one of the things that Thales believed was that everything is water.  This is before chemistry was a thing, of course; heck, this is even before Empedocles came up with the idea of everything being earth, fire, air and water.  People didn’t know what stuff was made of except it was stuff, and there are about a zillion different kinds of stuff in the universe, so there’s not much you can do with that.  But Thales was a mathematician, and mathematicians like things to be simple and elegant, not messy and complicated; they don’t deal with lots of different kinds of “stuff,” they just deal with numbers.  And Thales also lived in Asia Minor, which meant he would have encountered a lot of the old Middle Eastern creation myths that start with “in the beginning there was water.”  So he gets to thinking “wouldn’t it make more sense if everything in the world was made of the same stuff, just behaving in lots of different ways, and wouldn’t it make sense if that stuff was water?”  And if chemistry isn’t a thing, then there are excellent reasons you might think that.  Water is the only substance that exists naturally on Earth as a solid, a liquid, and a gas.  When water is cooled and condensed, it becomes ice; maybe if that process continues, it can become earth and then stone.  When it’s heated and rarefied, it becomes steam; maybe continuing in that direction will produce air, fire and light.  Living things require all different kinds of food to survive, but the one thing that seems to be constant, even between plants and animals, is that they all need water.  Whole civilisations grow up around rivers and oceans.  Water can fall from the sky or well up from the ground.  When you know everything about the world that we know today, it’s ludicrous, of course, but from an ancient perspective, there’s a lot to recommend the idea.  And the idea that there is a basic fundamental substance that can be rearranged into all the other kinds of “stuff” is really important!  That’s the idea that leads you to discover that atoms are the building blocks of all “stuff,” and that they all follow the same rules.  Then you realise that atoms aren’t fundamentally different either, that different kinds of atoms don’t have unique characteristics, they’re just made of different arrangements of protons, neutrons and electrons.  And those all follow the same rules too, they’re just made of different arrangements of, like… quarks and gluons and $#!t.  Maybe if you keep going down far enough, you find that it really is all just different arrangements of one basic thing that we call “matter.”  That’s getting into physics that is way over my head, though…

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