Neil deGrasse Tyson in “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still” (Cosmos) says something to the following effect.

The ancient Greek philosopher Thales argued that natural events such as weather patterns weren't the result of capricious gods intending to reward or punish; rather, they were the result of natural processes that we could understand and thereby predict.

Is this actually accurate?

  • 5
    Well, none of us were there...
    – Daniel
    Jun 1, 2014 at 12:50
  • Well, I predict the sun will rise tomorrow; and the tides will go in; that when I let go of a stone in my hand it will drop to the ground... Jun 1, 2014 at 13:30

2 Answers 2


Assuming that there are no extant works of Thales or Thales of Miletus (c. 620 BCE – c. 546 BCE), numerous sources, starting from his contemporaries accredited him with sicentific discoveries (geometry) and a "naturalistic" approach, based on rejection of godly intervention in the explanation of natural phenomena.

  • In what sense is geometry "scientific"? Jun 1, 2014 at 12:06
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    @user18921 - in wht sense geometry and mathematics is not scientific ? But if you are asking about Thales's contribution, see Wiki : "In mathematics, Thales used geometry to solve problems such as calculating the height of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore. He is credited with the first use of deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving four corollaries to Thales' Theorem. As a result, he has been hailed as the first true mathematician and is the first known individual to whom a mathematical discovery has been attributed." Jun 1, 2014 at 12:53
  • @user18921 Physical geometry can be thought of as the science of spatial relationships. Most of the basic formulas for the areas plane figures were discovered empirically by the Babylonians and Egyptians, and their estimates of ratios like pi and root-2 were arrived through experimentation with real, concrete circles and squares. And in modern times we've discovered that the local geometry of space is dynamically determined by the gravity of nearby objects
    – David H
    Jun 1, 2014 at 14:50
  • The water analogy is still in use. It is use by Bernardo Kastrup, for instance, for whom individuated consciousnesses would be whirlpools in the stream. The point about water is its liquidity and ability to adopt all forms. This makes it a useful physical analogy for those who see the physical universe as a sort of condensation of consciousness or of some other all-pervasive 'substance'. . . .
    – user20253
    Nov 2, 2018 at 13:02

Nothing directly attributed to Thales that has come down to us, but Aristotle does mention four views in his books:

The earth rests on water. (De Caelo)

Water is the archê of all things. (Metaphysics)

The magnet has a soul. (De Anima)

All things are full of gods. (De Anima)

Aristotle inteprets this in several ways:

Archê is Aristotle’s word: it means beginning or source or principle (cf. “archaic,” “archaeology,” “architect”). Aristotle is here talking about what he called the material archê, which can be either the stuff from which something originated or the stuff of which it is composed. Thus, Thales thought (Aristotle tells us) that everything either originated in water (cosmogony) or is actually (now!) made of water (constituent analysis).

The origination in water, seems to be a middle-eastern trope, for example in Genesis, one see that:

And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And the flood narrative in the Bible, as well as Gilgamesh, can be interpreted as the world being born anew from the waters.

One might also remark that water takes the shape of the container that it is poured in, so perhaps it might take the shape of a 'man' or a 'stone'. Its also easy to see that water becomes airy (steam) or solid (ice), which again emphasises its metamorphic possibilities; one should think this aligned with the idea in antiquity of the classical elements, which in the minds of some writers represent for the mind of antiquity, what one would now call the four phases of matter.

Magnets, in modern terms do not have 'souls'; but they do act by there own nature. One could say the 'soul' of a stone makes it fall to the ground; that the 'soul' of the sun makes it rise in the east and so on. In modern idiom one might say that all things are full of 'forces'.

Thales, is the philosopher one conventionally points to when one marks the point of separation of logos & mythos in Greek Philosophy. He would not have been the only one, and probably not even the earliest one; but he is the earliest one for which we have testimony of.

As a corroboration of this line of thought is this extract from the (Australian Philosopher) Freya Mathews Paper on Cosmological Panpsychism:

I shall start with cosmological panpsychism under its physical aspect. From this point of view, physical reality as a whole, including both its material and its non-material aspects, such as space and electromagnetic or gravitational energy, forms an unbounded, indivisible, substantival (though not in the first instance material) plenum. This plenum is construed geometrodynamically, as a dynamic extended substance – space – in a continuous process of expansion and internal self-differentiation. The model is the age old one of water (shades of Thales here)(how nice it would be if the very first philosopher got it basically right): the universe may be compared with a vast ocean coursed continually by currents and waves, some of which interfere to become vortices which hold their structure for long enough to give the appearance of independent or enduring existents.

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