I sometimes wonder why the Fundamentalists don’t hate Thales in the same way they hate Charles Darwin. Fundamentalists often complain that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution undermines their most sacred beliefs — including their belief in original sin, mankind’s fallen state, the necessity for Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, and even the existence of their god. But Thales is the guy who, it seems, made Darwin possible.
Thales lived about 2,500 years ago in a Greek city on the Aegean coast of Anatolia. Which has nothing to do with why he’s important. He’s important because he established the Western tradition of explaining nature in terms of natural causes discernible to reason. That laid a vital cornerstone of science, and — along with many other stones laid by many other people — made it possible for scientists like Darwin to come along and explain the diversity of life in terms of natural processes.
Before Thales, even well-informed, reasoning people typically explained everything by saying, “The gods did it. The gods made it happen.” After Thales, it became increasingly uncommon for well-informed, reasoning people to settle for “The gods did it.” Instead, they demanded more and more often rational explanations of how natural processes made things happen. As they discovered those processes, “god did it” increasingly became an unnecessary explanation.
Thales is sometimes considered the father of formal philosophy. But what exactly is formal philosophy? Some time ago, I partly addressed that question in a blog post intoxicatingly titled, “Formal Philosophy vs. Street Philosophy“:
Formal philosophy is a bit like chess: It’s been around a long time, it has a set of established rules by which you play (e.g. with few exceptions, “moves” are to be firmly grounded in logic and reason), it takes a long time and a lot of practice to master, there are standard “openings” (e.g. The Ontological Argument for the Existence of Deity), and a minor change in reasoning can have logical implications that create a “whole new game”. But, by far, the most important of these characteristics is that each premise (or conclusion) must be firmly established in logic and reason.
That’s the case with formal philosophy, but it’s not the case with street philosophy. In street philosophy, it’s perfectly OK to base your conclusions on how you feel about something, on guesses, on hunches, on evidence available only to you, on faith, and so forth.
The key is to understand that, “each premise (or conclusion) must be firmly established in logic and reason.” If you are not playing by that rule, you are playing some other game. Over it’s 2500 year history, formal philosophy has largely — but by no means entirely — been an exploration of the uses and limits of reason.
It is commonplace to point out that “philosophy never solves anything”, and in a way, there’s some truth to that. Philosophy has a traditional set of problems or issues, such as “Does god exist?”, “What do we know and how do we know it?”, “On what ethical principles, if any, can we base our morals?”, and so forth. And it is true those problems have been discussed by philosophers for hundreds or thousands of years without the philosophers coming to any ultimate agreements.
Yet, it would be wrong to say nothing has been solved. If the questions are like standard openings in chess, then it is true that — just as in chess — few openings have been conclusively rejected or conclusively accepted. But what has been “solved” are hundreds of questions along the lines of, “If I move my pawn here, what might be the consequences?” And by “solved”, I simply mean that most or even almost all philosophers will agree to the likely consequences of making that particular “move”. They won’t agree on the final answers to philosophical questions, but over time they have usually agreed on the implications of various methods or approaches to the questions.
The classic example of that, of course, is Thales’ attempt to explain nature in terms of natural causes discernible to reason. Even today, not all philosophers agree that nature might be entirely explained in terms of natural causes. A few still think you need to posit a supernatural prime mover or first cause. But the principle that positing a prime mover or first cause must be reasonable — or it is not credible — is settled.
I get the impression that many of the same people who wish Darwin had never lived might wish Thales had never lived if only they knew who Thales was. It’s probably a good thing most of them don’t. Otherwise they might launch a public relations campaign to “teach the controversy” that nature can be explained in terms of natural causes discernible to reason.