The fundamental questions persist today: What is everything made up of, or what is matter? Why does matter move or appear to move in the way it does? What causes it to move? Does matter really move or is this merely a trick of the mind or senses? These are the fundamental questions the presocratics sought to answer. They created many of the philosophical arguments which continue to this day: Monism vs. Pluralism, Materialism vs. Idealism, Plenism vs. Atomism, Chance vs. Necessity, and Finite vs. Infinite. (Magruder). The presocratics are important because they laid the foundations of modern scientific thinking. They had grown tired of the application of divinity to the functioning of the world and as such decided to begin thinking not so much in a religion as applied to science context but science as a fundamentally necessary being all in itself.
What set the presocratics apart from previous voyagers of science was their new way of thinking. The practice of natural philosophy was a field of philosophy which focused itself more in theory than in practical application. The explanations which had been sufficient for hundreds of years before were no longer good enough for the reasoning, rationalizing Greeks. Attributing the wonderment of the universe to the gods or merely proposing that “it is because that is how it has always been” did not satiate the appetite of the Greek philosophers. The why and the how had become requisite to the study of nature. They sought a meaning which could be seen; reasons which could have a concrete basis in every day life.
Some believed that everything on the earth could be explained from one or more of four core elements: fire, wind, water, and earth. Others seemed to believe that perhaps there was nothing there at all: it was merely ones mind or senses playing tricks. Aristotle believed that Thales was the first to think in the way of the physicist when he said “All things are full of gods.” In response to this Aristotle said, "And Thales, according to what is related of him, seems to have regarded the soul as something endowed with the power of motion, if indeed he said that the loadstone has a soul because it moves iron.... Some say that soul is diffused throughout the whole universe; and it may have been this which led Thales to think that all things are full of gods." Thales then went on to mention that it was his belief that all things were made up of water. Though he offered no reasoning for his beliefs Aristotle did make note of a possibility. Because all things are moist, because moisture is the source of heat, because the earth sits on the water, and because water is life and without it living things could not survive; therefore water, according to Thales, and Aristotle, is the base of all life. (Magruder) "That from which is everything that exists and from which it first becomes and into which it is rendered at last, its substance remaining under it, but transforming in qualities, that they say is the element and principle of things that are." (Aristotle).
What is important is not that these men were correct in their assumptions and beliefs. What is important is that they were beginning to question all which had previously been assumed. Without these natural philosophers questioning life and nature today we may have been without genetics or chemistry. We may not have the knowledge to cure disease or combine atoms. We owe a great deal to the presocratic philosophers.
I responded to this issue because I find Greek philosophy to be most enjoyable.
I chose an analytical style because I find that to be the most beneficial to my argument.
Aristotle's Metaphysics. Trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle. Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1966.
Kerry Magruder, "Introduction of the Presocratics & Significance of the Presocratics", History of Science Online. http://homepage.mac.com/kvmagruder/hsci/03-Egypt-Aegean/presocratics/index.html Accessed on September 12, 2008.
This article originally written September 13th, 2008 for OU HSCI 3013 - History of Science to Newton.