Why Don’t Fundamentalists Hate Thales?

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.

14 thoughts on “Why Don’t Fundamentalists Hate Thales?

  1. “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.”

    Shhhhhhh! They’ll hear you!

  2. Whether or not they know about Thales, they almost certainly think that formal logic and cause-and-effect are evidence for the existence of a monotheist creator god who orders the universe and makes the universe operate according to those rules.

    • I think the fact they acknowledge a need to at least appear reasonable is a testament to the influence of Thales and others on Western discourse.

      By the way, I’m finding your blog very interesting.

  3. Interesting post that I must ponder for a while. I have never really understood how fundamentalists explain away all the time and civilization that occurred before the decision that God was singular instead of plural.

    Your blog is very challenging, and I’m enjoying reading your posts.

    • Interesting point about god(s)! Are you referring to the way the Bible begins with multiple gods and ends with one god? I was kind of blown away years ago when a scholar pointed out to me that, “In the beginning, God created…”, was perhaps more properly translated as, “In the beginning the gods created…”.

      Thank you so much for your kind words about the blog! I’m finding yours both delightful and helpful.

      • Sorry to disappoint you Paul, but the Hebrew word for God happens to be almost always used in the plural when it usually indicates a singular. Same with Gen 1:1; the word for God is a plural all right, but the verb ‘to create’ is a singular. That’s how we know only one is meant.

      • I was more referring to the fact that, before the Bible was written down, in any time line, civilizations existed and thrived that believed in multiple gods. How do those get explained away?

      • They got explained away at several moments long before the bible was written down. Echnaton is one name that springs to mind. Zoroaster another…

  4. We are traveling a similar path this week as I have dived into belief and logic as the underlying “theme of the week” (Yeah, I never keept to a theme for a whole week but it sounds good, doesn’t it?).

    • Cool! Thanks for reminding me to stop by. I’ve been short on sleep and forgetful of things, but I usually enjoy reading your wickedly funny and often thought-provoking posts.

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