Carlo Rovelli 2017. Anaximander. Translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg. Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, 209 pp.

Ostensibly about the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander and his place in the history of science, this wonderful book is more about science itself and about how human culture and thinking has changed from a world view which relied on a god or gods to explain natural forces to a more ‘naturalist’ account where events can be explained by a rational investigation of the properties of the things which make up our world. Clearly this transition is far from complete and is hotly resisted by a variety of conservative forces around the world (each relying for validation on belief in their own religion, incompatible with the other religions).

A sampling of the chapter titles gives raises expectations (which are not disappointed): Invisible entities and natural laws, Rebellion becomes virtue, What is science? Can we understand the world without gods?

Anaximander was born in Miletus in the eastern Mediterranean (modern day Turkey), in 610 BC. Thales was in the previous generation, Pythagoras the following; Anaximander likely knew both. Anaximander himself, as brought to life here, was evidently a remarkable and original thinker. His original writings are lost and he is only known from secondary sources, yet these show that as well as leading a change from a theistic world view and towards natural law, he was also the first person to suggest that the Earth was an object suspended in space and it doesn’t fall because “there is nowhere for it to fall to”; that rain was water evaporated from Earth; that the sun, moon and stars rotate around the Earth; that all animals originated in the sea. Most important of all, he established a culture of questioning the views of those who preceded him. It is this constant questioning which leads to continual improvement in our ability to explain reality according to natural laws. This is science, and it has no endpoint and thus never has a “certain” answer. Almost as an aside on this journey Rovelli makes a compelling case (contra Feyerarbend and Lakatos) that this process is an evolutionary improvement building on previous theories, not a revolutionary process where previous theories are discarded and replaced in entirety.

Among many other thoughtful and interesting discussions, I was most pleased to find Rovelli agreeing that perhaps the most important unanswered question in human history is why theistic world views, even though unhelpful and unnecessary to a rational view of much greater practical value, are nevertheless of such pervasive power even now in human thinking (and almost universaly so in the earliest societies):

The reasons behind such omnipresence of “another world”, “gods” and the other variants of the divine in the ancient world is, in my view, one of the most important open questions about the nature and history of thought. (p. 159)

The bibliography is much more extensive than the bibliographies of Carlo Rovelli’s other two current popular science books. It contains many books that are relevant to this and related questions and which I didn’t know about and will seek out, for example Joseph Campbell Renewal myths and rites of the primitive hunters and planters and Roy Rappaport Ritual and religion in the making of humanity.