Home > Uncategorized > The Saints of Atheism part I: Thales of Miletus

The Saints of Atheism part I: Thales of Miletus

“All is water.”—Thales

Beginning our series we start with a person whom Aristotle claimed was the beginning of Philosophy. Thales of Miletus doesn’t come up frequently, in almost any context. If a person knows who Thales is, it means they have taken more than a couple of Philosophy classes. Since the point of this series is to focus on the contribution of a person to the argument against theism, it unfortunately means that we are going to have to skip a portion of their lives. This is because I’m not writing biographies and the point is to focus on their reasons, not their persons. I bring it up now because with Thales it doesn’t really matter, we don’t know that much about him. We have a couple of anecdotes, including one in which he fell into a well because he was so focused on the stars. While interesting, and often told to belittle those of intellectual dispositions who should just get a real job, with Thales it’s interesting.

Anyone can call themselves a philosopher, just look at half of the people contributing to “The Secret.” Anyone call themselves a historian when all they are merely conspiracy theorists. It takes discipline and focus to rise above giving pithy horoscope advice. Being wrong isn’t as important as the method, and Thales would display that method applying it to derive conclusions from reasoned patterns in the real world. He also began to believe that there was an underlying substance to all things, a substrate or in the Greek: an arke. Thales studied the stars and the moon to make observations that there was a pattern to their movements—a predictable pattern. Nature, itself seemed to have a pattern to it. Now, accounts very on some of the stories attached to Thales (for instance, the well story) but two things are generally agreed upon; the first is that in studying the movements in the heavens he was able to predict the eclipse of May 25th 585 bce. The second story that is widely accepted is that in a period of drought he bought (or rented) every olive press that he could at a price predicting that the next season would not be a drought. He was right and made a considerable profit, which Aristotle commented was a monopoly and applicable to a wide variety of situations.

It was in the latter story that Thales answered the claim that philosophy is worthless. Now, these stories are fine, but what is important about them is not the specifics. It is rather that in each case the natural world is explained by the patterns of the natural world. The Greek religion, like all religions, believed that the world was governed by the divine. In their case, a polytheistic world in which one god has jurisdiction over some aspect of nature. An eclipse is under the control of, say, Apollo the sun god. If he was unhappy, he blocked out the sun (for a couple minutes). There was not, however a way to predict this, unless one was really good at measuring the worthiness of sacrifices. The growth of the world’s crops, or purely just the olives, was governed by another god and the success of the crop was based on prayers. If the prayers were not worthy, or good enough, or the sacrifices not sufficient; no crop that year, etc. It may seem silly to our post enlightenment world, the idea still persists. People are asked to give prayers for the sick, it’s the same mechanism at work, if the divine feels that it’s worth it or whatever, then the person gets better. Thales demonstrated that the world was not subject to the whims of the gods.

Thales is the first to seriously break the stranglehold of religion on the explanations of the workings of the world. The tides came in and then they went out. There was a pattern to it, and the mysteries of nature were solvable by seeking answers to the right questions, not by the number of visits to the temple or the number of goats one sacrificed. He didn’t create the scientific method, but he did apply it in defiance of his religion, the world was knowable, and this is why he is the first of our saints.

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