By Carlo Rovelli, Westholme Publishing, August 10, 2011, 978-1-59416-535-1

Carlo Rovelli is a story teller. We love explanations for how things are or were. Anaximander lived 2,600 years ago. One piece of his writing survives. (We assume, of course, because we can’t really know who wrote it.) The rest of his legacy is reported by others. Rovelli creates a great story about how Anaximander shifted scientific thought.

He claims that Anaximander is the first scientist, because Anaximander questions his master, Thales, in a form of continuous learning. As if nobody before him did this. Anybody with teenagers, will know that we are questioned constantly. Socrates wrote that “[Children] contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” That was a century after Anaximander, but I don’t think Anaximander started the trend.

The end of the book is pure preaching and speculation. I got really bored and blasted through it. Why did I keep reading, because Rovelli researched this book well. I have to hand him that. He’s a physicist, but it’s clear he learned a lot about history and philosophy and ancient texts. I learned quite a bit about history and philosophy from this book. I don’t read much ancient history so it was nice to have his take on it.

[k96] Science, I believe, is a passionate search for always newer ways to conceive the world. Its strength lies not in the certainties it reaches but in a radical awareness of the vastness of our ignorance. This awareness allows us to keep questioning our own knowledge, and, thus, to continue learning. Therefore the scientific quest for knowledge is not nourished by certainty, it is nourished by a radical lack of certainty.

[k103] The aspect of science that I seek to illuminate in these pages is its critical and rebellious ability to reimagine the world again and again.

[k189] A thick fog veils the sixth century before the Common Era, and we know too little of the man Anaximander to be able to attribute this immense revolution to him with certainty. Still, this revolution, the birth of a thinking based on curiosity and change, took place.

[k254] Calculation techniques were known for dividing numbers by two, three, four, and five, but not by seven. A problem that involved division by seven had to be reformulated in other terms.

[k655] We know, for example, from Hippolytus that, “[Anaximander holds that] rain derives from the vapor that, under the effect of the Sun, rises from the Earth.”

[k674] They disregard the fact that in all texts earlier than Anaximander that have come down to us, Greek and otherwise, natural phenomena like rain, thunder, earthquakes, and wind are always explained solely in mythical and religious terms: as manifestations of incomprehensible forces attributed to divine beings.

[k677] Before the sixth century BCE, there was no sign of any attempt to think of these phenomena as tied to natural causes, independent of the will and decisions of gods.

[k754] Even if the actual explanations proposed by Anaximander were mistaken, the very fact of his proposing research into natural causes and explanations for atmospheric phenomena marks the birth of scientific inquiry in the world. But Anaximander’s explanations are not all mistaken. On the contrary, most are surprisingly accurate.

[k778] At the very beginning of the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas refers clearly to the Earth’s spherical form. There are almost no medieval texts that refer to a flat earth.

[k802] The Phaedo is one of the most read, taught, and discussed texts in philosophy. But almost anyone who comments on it focuses solely on the soul’s immortality and fails to notice that it contains this jewel of the history of science: the first written evidence we have of the new worldview, with a spherical Earth. This is glaring evidence of the abyss between the sciences and humanities in our time, each stupidly blind to the other.

[k875] The genius of Anaximander is that he takes on the question, Why, then, does the Earth not fall? Aristotle relays his answer in De Caelo (On the Heavens). In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful moments in the history of scientific thinking: the Earth does not fall because there is no particular reason for it to fall. In the words of Aristotle:

There are some, Anaximander, for instance, among the ancients, who say that the earth keeps its place because of its indifference. Motion upward and downward and side-ways were all, they thought, equally inappropriate to that which is set at the centre and indifferently related to every extreme point; and to move in contrary directions at the same time was impossible: so it must needs remain still. This view is ingenious.

[k885] The genius of Anaximander, in modern words, is to question the extrapolation from the objects of our experience to the Earth itself, of the observed universality of falling. More precisely, to take the observational evidence from the motion of the Heavens as an argument against the legitimacy of this extrapolation. This is science at its best.

[k914] The difficulty in understanding the complexity of the notion of simultaneity in Einstein’s theory is very much analogous to the difficulty in understanding the notions of “up” and “down” in Anaximander’s new cosmological theory.

[k918] The difference is that Einstein based his work on observations already fully codified in Maxwell’s theories and the mechanics of Galileo and Newton, while Anaximander based his only on the observation of the rising and setting of the stars.

Anaximander’s greatness lies in the fact that on the basis of so little, in order to better account for his observations, he redesigns the universe. He changes the very grammar of our understanding of the universe. He modifies the very structure of our conception of space.

[k929] The focal point of Anaximander’s argument, conveyed by the texts that have come down to us, is that the expectation that the Earth must fall is based on an unjustified extrapolation.

Intelligence, used well and in conjunction with observation, frees us from an illusion, from a limited and partial view of the world.

[k1065] As always, the challenge lies not in finding answers, but in asking the right questions.

NOTE: This is true for most discussions. We should ask more questions, and listen better (see Difficult Conversations).

[k1096] On the one side, then, Milesian speculation as practiced by Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes liberates nature from being identified as a manifestation of a divine, supernatural reality. We can say that the very notion of “nature” as a field of inquiry is the fundamental contribution of the Milesian school.

[k1099] On the other side, the very idea of studying nature is based on the recognition that nature does not reveal itself in its entirety to direct experience. FIXME

[k1103] In positing the existence of the apeiron, Anaximander paves the way for something that science will do again and again with immense success: imagine the existence of entities that are not directly visible or perceptible but that allow us to account for natural phenomena.

[k1242] But between criticism and adherence to a master’s teaching there was no middle ground. Even in the generations following Anaximander, the great Pythagorean school–decidedly more archaic than Anaximander in this regard–flourished in reverence to Pythagoras’s ideas, which could not be questioned. Ipse dixit (“He himself said”) is an expression that referred originally to Pythagoras, meaning that if Pythagoras had made an assertion, it must be true.

NOTE: Rovelli holds forth the same way. Many passages in this book are written as if the scientists he quotes speak the ultimate truth.

[k1251] In my view, modern science in its entirety is the result of the discovery of this third way. The very possibility of conceiving it can come only from a sophisticated theory of knowledge, according to which truth is accessible, but only gradually, by means of successive refinements.

NOTE: He should refer to Popper here. It’s exactly what he promoted. He does talk about Popper later.

[k1277] In fact, as I have observed, it is unknown in all of the human speculation that has come down to us from the first millennia of recorded history. This delicate process–following and developing the master’s path by criticizing the master–has a precise beginning in the history of human thought: the position that Anaximander assumed vis-a-vis his master Thales.

NOTE: This is a very strong statement. The Jews questioned. They questioned the idea of multiple gods, and turned into into one true god. Perhaps the questioning culture of modern Jews doesn’t date back to early history, but I’m sure others questioned.

[k1386] Why did this relatively simple reform in writing need to wait for the Greeks?

NOTE: Another strong statement. I don’t think the writing waited for the Greeks. It came along as a part of continuous evolution.

[k1392] Rigidity prevails over reasonableness in human cultures.

[k1394] Or perhaps it took precisely a people who had known writing five centuries earlier and lost the ability to write but kept the memory of it.

NOTE: I think that there are many other explanations for the “lost ability”. During violent centuries preceding what we have uncovered today much might have been destroyed.

[k1468] There is, therefore, a clear relation between the new social and political structure and the birth of scientific thought. Common elements abound: secularization; the notion that the laws of the ancients, like their ideas, are not necessarily the best; the conviction that the soundest decisions can emerge from a discussion among many and not from sovereign authority or reverence for tradition; the idea that public criticism of ideas is useful for determining the best one; the idea that it is possible to debate and come to conclusions together.

NOTE: Big conclusion based on speculation. He says he is taking the perspective of the scientist in writing this book but this is philosophy.

[k1474] This is, in some sense, the “discovery” of the scientific method. Someone proposes an idea, an explanation. The process doesn’t end there. The idea is seriously considered and criticized. Someone proposes a different idea, and comparisons are made.

NOTE: Flint knapping is science. Agriculture is sciece. All important knowledge was created via refinement.

[k1576] Emphasizing one particular starting point, as I have done with Anaximander, means focusing on a specific aspect of the way we acquire knowledge. It means highlighting specific characteristics of science and thus, implicitly, reflecting on what science is, what the search for knowledge is, and how it works.

[k1612] Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s led to computers, information technology, atomic energy, and countless other technological advances that have changed our lives.

NOTE: I don’t think relativity helped computers other than in creating the A-bomb, the development of computers was accelerated. The concepts in the early computers were from Babbage, not Einstein.

[k1734] Others have underscored the great methodological variety of the scientific process and emphasized that any attempt to capture its complex evolution within a single logic, as in Kuhn or Popper, hinders understanding more than it helps.

NOTE: Bold statement which are central to his thesis without a footnote. Why are these others right? Who are they? He references Feyerabend’s Against Method in a footnote in a few paragraphs from there.

[k1751] Kuhn and, to a greater degree, Feyerabend and Lakatos emphasize the elements of discontinuity in the evolution of science, the conceptual gulf between different theories. Without wishing to diminish the importance of what they have been able to see, I think that they underestimate the cumulative nature of science, which is equally undeniable and plays a critical role, especially in the moments of greatest change.

NOTE: Another Popper argument without a footnote.

[k1792] The reality of scientific revolutions is thus more complex than a reorganization of observational data on a new conceptual basis. It is a continuous change at the margins and/or the foundations of our global thinking about the world.

NOTE: Who would disagree with this?

[k1817] In fact, Copernicus’s theoretical discovery survives not only as a true fact about nature (the Earth revolves around the Sun) but even as a key conceptual ingredient of the new conceptual systems (there is a “Copernican principle” in Einstein’s cosmology).

[k1830] If there exist two people who truly understand each other, they are Ptolemy and Copernicus. They could almost be lovers.

NOTE: Very much story telling.

[k1837] But the space of thinkable thoughts is infinite, and we have explored only an infinitesimal fraction so far.

NOTE: This is just weird to write.

[k1845] In fact, the evolutionary nature of science, far from being a source of unreliability, is the very reason for its trustworthiness. Scientific answers are not definitive: they are, almost by definition, the best ones that we have at any given time.

NOTE: More Popper.

[k1932] But if we manage to contradict Anaximander on so deep a level, we render him the highest possible honor– the honor of having fully absorbed his greatest lesson: the lesson he gave us in following Thales while at the same time indicating Thales’s mistakes.

NOTE: Way overblown.

[k1942] It seems to me that humanity’s common error is to fear this fluidity and seek absolute certainty–the foundation, the fixed point that would soothe our unease. I think that this attitude is naive and counterproductive to the quest for knowledge.

NOTE: Another story he tells as if it were absolute truth.

[k1951] (In curved space, the sum of the angles of a triangle is not 2 x pi as in flat space).

NOTE: Mistake: The sum of the angles is just pi, not 2pi.

[k2109] This point of view fails to see that between the certainty of the One Truth and the equal validity of all points of view lies a third way: dialogue and questioning.

[k2111] But a certainty that cannot be called into question is not a certainty.

[k2111] In order to accept questioning as the foundation for our voyage toward knowledge, we must be humble enough to accept that today’s truth may become tomorrow’s falsehood.

NOTE: Binary thinking. Popper’s verisimilitude is not truth, but approaching truth. Even Rovelli says that some “falsehoods” are true in some contexts, e.g. Newton’s laws are still very much useful.

[k2207] The library had collected texts from all over the world. Every ship that dropped anchor in the port of Alexandria was obliged to deposit in the library all the books it had onboard; death was the penalty for a captain not complying. The books were copied, and the copies were returned to the ship.

[k2228] But until Copernicus, no one would be able to make his own Anaximander’s fundamental lesson: if you want to truly advance the path of knowledge, you must not just revere your master, study, and build on his teachings. You must seek out his mistakes.

[k2327] The question is too vast to be exhausted within this little book, and a full answer is beyond my competence and, I think, beyond what we currently know.

NOTE: Really odd phrasing, as if he is the only one who could possibly answer, and if not, nobody could answer.