Pre-Socratic Philosophers: Are Microwaves Made From Water or Pigs?

(3.4 minute read)

The pre-Socratic philosophers had wild theories about where things came from and what they were made out of. During this past year of liberal arts higher education, I had the opportunity to study the pre-Socratic philosophers and was thoroughly intrigued. The crazy thing is that although it’s easy to scoff at their insights, and puzzle over how some of the most intelligent men in the history of the world could believe such silly things… they were surprisingly close to the truth.

Here is a very, very brief summary of the progression of pre-Socratic thought:

  1. Thales, Xenophanes, and Heraclitus: Things come from an element, but none of us can agree on which one(s) (water, fire, air, earth?)!
  2. Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Melissus: Things don’t come from other singular things because… infinity, and change, and all that jazz; everything is made up of everything else (pigs, water, and microwaves are all composed of the same thing and also compose each other).
  3. Democritus: I think things existing has something to do with atoms.

Thales thought that everything came from water, probably because it seemed to be the most changeable; water can take any shape, be any temperature, and have many textures (frozen, boiling, liquid, condensation). This logic is fairly sound, but the knowledge he could apply it to was very limited, thus resulting in a flawed belief. Xenophanes and Heraclitus had similar problems with their arguments.

The second group got a little bit closer. Their train of thought looked something like this: let’s say that there is a rather humble-looking moose. This moose eats food. Why? Because it’s good for him, and it makes him grow. This food, grass, is the reason the moose is able to develop teeth, and more bones and skin and fur as it grows, and blood that keeps it alive. Therefore, there must be teeth, bones, skin, fur, and blood in the grass that it eats… because how can you get out of something what isn’t there to begin with? If this concept is applied to other scenarios, the ultimate conclusion is that everything is made of everything else. It does sound silly to think that grass is made up of those things, but it’s almost exactly the same as saying that the grass contains the vitamins and minerals that are found in the moose (which we know to be true); the only difference is that the pre-Socratics hadn’t broken things down that far yet. They didn’t have fancy chemistry sets and microscopes to show them that there were far smaller building blocks than the various bodily components of the moose.

Finally Democritus introduced the mind-blowing concept of atoms, which evolved even further into what we know in modern day science.


Inspired by the daily prompt: Water

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