The last of the three famous Milesian philosophers was a student of Anaximander known as Anaximenes (circa 586-526 B.C.E.). He incorporates the oneness and infinity of his predecessors with a definite material principle, air, the elusive and the invisible. The constituents of the world differ in their nature by rarity and density; the finest is fire, the most dense is stone. He is the first thinker to recognize that qualitative differences reduce to differences in quantity; i.e. there is no separation. Change is due to eternal motion. Thus infinite air is God and the principle form which all things are becoming. Aetius summarizes his philosophy elegantly, “…air is the principle of existing things; for from it all things come-to-be and into it they are again dissolved. As our soul, he says, being air holds us together and controls us, so does the wind and air enclose the whole world.”2

What I find most fascinating about the Milesians is their attempt to define a fundamental explanation of reality based on only inchoate or primitive science. They astutely reflect on their experience of the world to extract and propose limited, but scientific explanations. They also are the first to Western thinkers to acknowledge the real world as the only world, while positing a primeval ‘substance’ or ‘principle’ as its origin. Their theory of God is a more sophisticated concept than we expect of their epoch – no longer taking human form, but a more abstract and expansive configuration. Thales appears to be the first recorded pantheist, and his thinking anticipates the idea of the universe as organism as developed by Alfred North Whitehead. Anaximander’s ‘indefinite’ seems remarkably similar to the modern concept of the quantum flux of modern physics. Anaximenes air seems to me to be the quantum void or perhaps space which sets up the intriguing possibility that his infinity might be time creating the earliest notion of Einstein’s space-time.

Next we will see how the later Greek atomists built on the thoughts of the Milesians to arrive at a prophetically modern view of ultimate reality. Join me then.


“Everything is full of gods.” – Attributed to Thales.

In our examination of the views of ultimate reality of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, we have seen that Pythagoras settled on numbers and mathematics while Heraclitus invoked, fire, flux, logos, strife, and the unity of opposites. Next we look at three of their near contemporaries, the Milesian philosophers of sequential generations – Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes- who took a more physicalist or naturalist approach to the question. These proto-scientists attempted to discover the fundamental nature of matter and the origin of the cosmos and its unfolding by a process of induction, that is, by positing universal laws based on generalizations and abstractions from the particulars of the world. They are often seen as the originators of the great Western philosophical dialectic because they rejected existing Greek mythology and religious beliefs especially the anthropomorphic gods. Experts speculate that Miletus became the site of origin of traditional philosophy by virtue of its location at the mixing of Greek and oriental cultures.

Thales (circa 624-545 B.C.E.), one of the seven Sages of ancient Greece and a gifted astronomer who reportedly predicted the eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C.E., asserts the cosmos arose from a unity of substance which he postulates is water. For Thales, water is the most fundamental element and the material principle of the physical world. Water instantiates the three phases of matter – solid, liquid, and gas – as ice, liquid water, and steam or vapor. Aristotle tells us that Thales probably drew on water as primary because he recognized its key connection to life. Metaphysically then, the universe is a growing, organic, structure penetrated by a divine will that moves all and all things contain a ‘soul’ which is the source of kinesis.

Thales’ student, Anaximander (circa 610-540 B.C.E.), accepts that the cosmos developed from a unity, but rejects as primary any of the material constituents of reality. Instead he proposes a primeval ‘principle’ which he calls the “Indefinite’ (or indefinite nature).1 Prior to the perceptible bodies, according to this view, there must have been an ‘indefinite something’ with no incompatible qualities (noting for example that water quenches fire). Everything which exist in nature is perceptible, but ultimate reality must be imperceptible. His preferred term for this imperceptible principle is apeiron, which has no limits, is everlasting, infinite, and imperishable – his very definition of the divine. From it all things have separated out and the opposites have appeared.

(continued next post)


1Alternate translations include the ‘Boundless’ or the ‘Unlimited.’


“Heraclitus somewhere says that all things are in process and nothing stays still, and likening existing things to the stream of a river he says that you would not step twice into the same river. – Plato, Cratylus (402a)1

Last time we began our examination of early Greek descriptions of ultimate reality with the thoughts of Pythagoras and his followers, who propose numerical harmony and mathematics as fundamental. Today we move on to the fragmentary materials available by one of history’s most fascinating and obscure philosophers, Heraclitus (circa 500 BCE). His metaphysics comes down to the following ideas: fire, flux, logos, strife, and the unity of opposites. At the most basic level, “all things are constituted from fire and resolve into fire.”2 By this he means that “Fire is an element, and all things are in exchange for fire coming about by rarefaction and condensation.”3

Fire also reflects the second idea, flux, or the continual, if gradually, changing nature of everything in the universe. However this change is not random, but measured and guided by logos, an ill-defined term meaning “both discourse and contents, both the truth about things and the principle on which they function.” Perhaps the closest English modern word is formula, though it is important to recognize its physicality in the word fire.4 This flux and logos is embodied in strife among opposites that ultimately form a unity. These opposites fall into four overlapping categories: (1) logical – for example the same road leads up and down or the place of a point at the beginning and end of a circle, (2) fundamental – sea water is sustaining to fish, but poisonous to humans, (3) perceptual – for example; health and disease or hunger and satiety, and (4) connective – as in a harmony of notes. A balance of the constituent opposites provides for the continuation of strife that underlies the flux and generates the world.

One consequence of Heraclitus’ metaphysics is his belief that there are souls, possibly in everything, and that they are guided by the logos. In place of immortality, an afterlife, or metempsychosis he notes life and death as opposites are, in fact, alternate states of the same phenomena and somehow continuous5 much like night and day. Another consequence is a kind of divinity arising from the uniting of the opposites, although on God he is obscure: “referring to ‘the one wise thing’ which ‘is willing and unwilling to be called Zeus,’ he doubtlessly means that Fire or Logos is supreme but lacks the personal attributes attached to Zeus in cult and myth.”6 Last for Heraclitus, like Pythagoras, the universe is limited in extent, but cycles indefinitely.

As in the case of Pythagoras, much of Heraclitus is mirrored in modern interpretations of ultimate reality. His fire may be Einstein’s energy interchangeable with matter or even the folded strings of energy postulated in superstring theory. His flux becomes our entropy, his strife of opposites our positive and negative matter, and his logos our physical laws. His view of life and death equates to our recycling of matter and energy and his idea of soul is not unlike recent theories of panpsychism. The philosophy of Heraclitus is also quite similar to that of Laozi where logos becomes Tao and the identity of opposites is also highlighted. All in all, we cannot help but be amazed by the sophistication and mystic truth reflected in his thinking.


1Allen, Reginald E., Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle. The Free Press, New York, NY, 1966. Page 42.

2Barnes, Jonathan, Early Greek Philosophy. Penguin Books, London, England, 2001. Page 54.


4Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 3, page 477.

5Ibid., page 479.

6Ibid., page 480.


“Nay, by him that gave to our generation the tetractys, which contains the fount and root of eternal nature.” – Aetius, I, 3, 8 (Pythagorean oath)1

We return now to the three approaches to ultimate reality – scientific, philosophical, and theological. We have already examined in detail the scientific perspective which we found distilled down to an intersection of the very small – that is what makes up the substances of the universe – and the incomprehensibly large – that is the entirety of the cosmos including its structural, dynamic, and transcendental features. I ended on the following comment:

If we assemble all of the pieces into a single understanding of ultimate reality we are left with not only awe of the physical, but a near mystical understanding of existence that has been “sensed” by the great thinkers and the great spiritualists in human history. Perhaps they were never far off the mark, only limited by vocabulary and knowledge needed to fully express it.”

Today we pick up that thread with the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers starting with Pythagoras. Of course we have no record written by the great Master himself, rather the extracts by later philosophers of the texts of his followers. Diogenes Laertius credits him as the originator of both the word philosophia and kosmos, but his concept of ultimate reality appears to be numbers and mathematics. Numbers are in fact things to Pythagoras endowed with mystical significance; for example, justice is identified with the number 4. Proclus tells us Pythagoras sought his “first principles in a higher realm of reality” when creating his geometrical philosophy.2

The Pythagoreans “saw simply the ultimate, single, nature (physis) of things in their mathematical structure.”3 One number of particular importance is 10, the very essence of number as it represents the sum of the tetrad – 1+2+3+4. In physical space 1 represents a point, 2 a line, 3 a triangle, and 4 a pyramid; thus encompassing the dimensions of space and the principles of all things.4

In the view of Pythagoras, the universe is endless (a-teles) in time providing for a Nietzsche-like ‘eternal recurrence’5 but limited (peras) in space while ordered by a mathematically-derived harmonia. As such there is a kinship and unity of life culminating in transmigration of eternal souls. Beauty is also inherent in mathematical order as seen in the numerical harmony of musical notes. As eternal, the universe is divine, and likewise, man is a fragment of the divine.6

Modern science confirms some of the teachings of Pythagoras. Mathematics is vital to physics, particularly for its more speculative assertions which often can be explained only in mathematical terms. While modern science states the universe had a beginning in the Big Bang, a multiverse might not, and in any case it remains unclear that the universe has an end. Pythagoras appears to have been correct that the universe is limited in size (even if we cannot be sure in the case of a multiverse). However, scientists would surely balk at the idea that numbers have a reality outside human construction, although there is room for debate here. In a sense Pythagoras remains the most modern of all the ancient philosophers, and no scholarship to date entirely confutes his beliefs.


1Allen, Reginald E., Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle. The Free Press, New York, NY, 1966. Page 38.

2Ibid., page 37.

3Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 7, page 38.

4Allen, Reginald E., Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle. The Free Press, New York, NY, 1966. Page 39.

5Barnes, Jonathan, Early Greek Philosophy. Penguin Books, London, England, 2001. Page 35.

6Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 7, page 37-39.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (final continuation)

In the last ten posts I have diverted from the ongoing manuscript presented on this site in order to read and précis Sean Carroll’s luminous book, The Big Picture, where he recasts the physicalist perspective of reality in his expression, poetic naturalism. Today I wish to offer some comments which must be sparse given my heretofore wordiness.

I should start by admitting, as most people who follow the site surely have noticed, that I come closer to the physicalist view than virtually any other perspective, and certainly closer than most forms of theism or religion. Still I think Carroll and I disagree on our key approach to philosophy. I see reality phenomenologically as layered into internal, proximate, social, scientific, and ultimate where he promotes a single physical reality with different ways of talking about it relative to the perspective adopted. While I am no solipsist, it seems to me that the most undeniable reality is the self, followed by the proximate. Scientific descriptions of matter and the universe are far less tangible, certain, or germane than my own existence and the nature of the immediate world around me. Science offers valuable insights into the working of the world and opportunities for its manipulation, but little of use in the conduct of life and its meaning. For example, proving (or granting) human finitude by itself is neither profound nor serviceable.

At times Carroll seems to get caught in classic physicalist traps. On the one hand he argues logic does not permit us to impose a reason for the universe to be the way it is, while on the other, he thinks the universe is amazingly intelligible. He asserts determinism – all states of the universe are entirely explainable based on prior states (an assertion that can never be proven since no one can know any state in its entirety) – but then concedes quantum uncertainty and the unpredictability of emergent features. He admits it is not clear that if we mapped all the neurons of the brain we would have a ‘mind,’ but then works with that assumption as given. He denies we have free will based on flimsy science, but struggles to explain how we make decisions and have responsibility while totally avoiding the fact that free will is readily apparent to everyone, likely even himself. He never takes on whether the construction of an entity with all of the same atoms or elementary particles in the same configuration as a person would create a living duplicate.

There’s more…no explanation of human creativity, no discussion on whether the number 2 is instantiated in reality or is a pure human construct, whether justice is a part of reality or whether there is an absolute meaning of the words good and evil. Like most physicalists, he believes we should not harm innocent animals or torture babies, but can’t accept ethics of this kind as fundamental principles of reality since he cannot explain them scientifically. He never discusses spirituality or mystical experiences. Over the course of the book, the term poetic naturalism begins to feel more and more like a wastebasket response to everything physics and science cannot process.

Carroll’s later chapters deal with philosophical issues, but his points are mostly repetitions of common ethical principles or speculations entirely removed from his ultimate reality, Core Theory. Most if not all of his views require no knowledge of modern physics at all. Like most physicalists, he is an atheist (without ever defining God) and a humanist (without fully considering the negatives of humanism for other living creatures, the Earth, or the cosmos). Nonetheless, I appreciate his clarifications on physics and admire his contribution to the philosophical dialectic. His reformulation of the physicalist perspective is fresh and innovative. The Big Picture is an excellent text for people new to the discussion or who are perplexed by the dichotomy between modern science and philosophy, and offers great reading for all of us.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE (ninth continuation)

The last two chapters of Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture are almost wistful summaries of his personal philosophy and philosophical experience based on a physicalist perspective of the universe. The penultimate chapter, Listening to the World, lists his ‘Ten Considerations’ as alternatives to the Ten Commandments; 23

  1. Life Isn’t Forever.
  2. Desire Is Built into Life. (“Life is characterized by motion and change…”)
  3. What Matters Is What Matters to People.
  4. We Can Always Do Better.
  5. It Pays to Listen. (He includes ancient thinkers in this).
  6. There Is No Natural Way to Be.
  7. It Takes All Kinds. (There is no single way to live).
  8. The Universe Is in Our Hands. (We can choose what to do with our special abilities as a species).
  9. We Can Do Better Than Happiness. (“Wouldn’t you rather have a good story to tell?”)
  10. Reality Guides Us. (Meaning not Nature, but the truths of science, and not the illusions of opinion or dogma).

Carroll’s final chapter, Existential Therapy, rehearses his life first as a Christian believer and later as a scientist/atheist. On his journey he was, unlike Camus (but like Einstein), impressed by the intelligibility of the universe and in time came to a ‘cheerful’ naturalism once he recognized that the remaining mysteries of the cosmos are not unsolvable. In his opinion, “The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity… We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle, a miracle in that it is wondrous and amazing how such a complex, aware, creative caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws.”24

Carroll closes by noting that poetic naturalism is “a rich and rewarding way to apprehend the world, but it’s a philosophy that calls for a bit of fortitude.”25 However we can choose to not to drift in a ‘purposeless’ cosmos aware of our finitude. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, we can find meaning in the tasks we choose and ultimately find ways of “mattering for ourselves and those around us in the brief amount of time we have in the world.”26

(final continuation next post)


23Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, pages 419-427.

24 Ibid., page 431. Carroll’s quote is nearly the opposite of the one by Professor Daniel Robinson in Synopsis on the Question of God (Cont’d), dated 3/27/2019 on this site.


26Ibid., page 433.

CURRENT READING – THE BIG PICTURE – (eighth continuation)

Carroll gets to the subject of free will by noting the poetic naturalist views “wants” or “beliefs” as fitting the human level of talking about the world, but not that of elementary particles. To the physicist, if one is given a precise quantum state, the next state is entirely predictable; i.e. determinism is instantiated in physical reality. The error of the free will proponent, he argues, is mixing the human level concept of “choice” or ‘volition” with the subatomic level idea of a change in quantum states. The word “choice” (like the word “cause”) makes sense at the human level because of the arrow of time; that is, our lack of knowledge of the future. However, the concept of human agency (free agency?) introduces an element of indeterminacy into the universe which is not compatible with the Core Theory, hence is invalid. He follows this up with several of the classic neuroscientific studies that discourage the credibility that we make decisions before the brain acts. Perhaps inconsistently but understandably, Carroll still feels “blame” and “responsibility” are reasonable at the human level since they fit that level of understanding even if they are incompatible with the quantum or the cellular level of understanding.

The final section called Caring begins with a chapter titled Three Billion Heartbeats (an average human lifespan) where he reiterates our mortality and the limits of the purpose of our existence. The quest for the good life, for meaning, and for a framework of morality are not found in the realm of science, but in ourselves. Poetic naturalism rejects a teleological inclination built into the universe and views “meaning in the same way we view other concepts that human beings invent to talk about the universe.”21 While there is no standard by which we are guided; what can be said is that we evolved to care about the world, that consciousness emerged allowing learning and self-reflection, and that meaning comes from real life.

Carroll then spends three chapters on ethics reminding us science can tells us what is, we can never determine what ought to be from what is. Most of his discussion is a painfully brief summary of the field of ethics. His particular points include:

(1) Ethical arguments invariably use unsound logic to attempt to convert what is to what ought to be.

(2) Nature and the universe do not pass moral judgments: morality is a human construct.

(3) Our system of ethics should be based on improving the well-being of conscious creatures.

(4) Utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics each involve unsolvable problems.

He concludes with the following: “Poetic naturalism doesn’t tell us how to behave, but it warns us away from the false complacency associated with the conviction that our morals are objectively the best. Our lives are changing in unpredictable ways; we need to be able to make judgements with clear eyes and an accurate picture of how the world operates. We don’t need an immovable place to stand; we need to make our peace with a universe that doesn’t care what we do and take pride in the fact that we care anyway.”22

(ninth continuation next post)


21Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 390.

22Ibid., page 418.