Cambrian Explosion in Abstraction (part i)

The Cambrian Explosion as you’ll remember refers to an epoch recorded in the fossil record which is known as, in the words of noted archaeologist Bill Bryson, “[…] the moment when complex life burst forth in dazzling profusion — the famous Cambrian explosion”. We’re talking 500-million-plus years ago.

I want to suggest that something similar happened in the Axial Age roughly 2,500 ago, but with thought. According to Karl Jaspers in his work Origin and Goal of History something profound or pivotal happened between the 8th century BCE and the 3rd century BCE in China, India, and Greece. World-spanning religions were formed. Itinerant scholars† plied their trade. According to Karen Armstrong in The Great Transformation what is now called The Golden Rule was formulated simultaneously and what seems like independently. Axiomatic math was laid out by a dude called Euclid. David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years‡ argues that it is the simultaneous and independent invention of coinage that spurred this social complexity. But to have coinage one must have not just the technology but the idea of coinage. Witness bitcoin where tech capability pre-dated invention by 30 years or so. And for an idea like coinage one needs abstraction. And we know what that age also gave us, the birth of philosophy, and if there is one thing a philosopher gets off on it’s abstraction.

David Foster Wallace argues (convincingly in my opinion) that what set the Ancient Greeks apart from their Babylonian and Egyptian neighbours was abstraction. Everything and More is where that’ll be found.  Abstraction, which metaphorically and etymologically means to draw away [from] is the mental procedure of hoisting oneself one rung up your mental ladder away from the concrete world of the senses towards the ethereal realm of pure relation and symbol. From seeing a red patch on a wall to the curious notion of redness shorn of substance. From the use of capital to the ideology of capitalism.

To explain why an Aristotle then at that particular time and not before and not elsewhere. That is the challenge.

Rewind to a bit to just before the Cambrian explosion in abstraction. All ancient cultures had an origin myth. Not that they thought it was myth, mind you. It was their way of answering the mind-bending and soul-crushing question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And who would blame them? In those times they were  big on the spirit world — you inhabited the spirit world before you were incarnated, post-mortem you returned to the spirit world. All entities be they living or non-living led a “spirited” existence. Reincarnation doesn’t change this story. And because agency and spirit are intertwined concepts people could believe such things like a hammer was to blame if when wielded it accidentally struck another. Try to imagine such a world-view.

All ancient cultures believed that everything is made out of the same basic stuff. The primitive elements. Mostly there were believed to be four elements, you know them: earth, wind, fire, water. Sometimes there was a fifth special one which is where we get that beautiful word quintessence from, which is one of those arresting poetic words that would never actually be used in a poem by an any way decent poet. But I digress. I used to think how ridiculous that anyone could believe that all things were materially reducible to just four paltry elements. But as a first approximation it’s not that bad a conjecture and when you think about it it’s non-obvious that a thing’s stuff and its appearance are at variance. That’s quite a leap to make. And clearly there is solid organic stuff, liquidy* things, airy stuff that fills our lungs, and fire from lightning, volcanoes and sparks from flint. So, like I say, as a first approximation, not bad.

Then look what happens in Ancient Greece. Thinkers begin to try to reason from first principles, they begin to look for natural causes and explanations for natural phenomena, and their thinking becomes much more abstract.

Lore tells us … okay, okay, records inform us that Thales of Miletus was the first philosopher in this tradition,

Yet they do not all agree as to the number and the nature of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.

Aristotle, Metaphysics Alpha, 983b18

This is a highly informative paragraph. First it shows that there was intellectual disagreement and that tradition did not trump enquiry. This means that by the time of a mature Thales (c. 600 BC) the intellectual support structures were in place to allow his type of enquiry. Second we see a thinker trying to reason from first principles, trying to look for natural explanations, attempting to use abstract reasoning. Third it shows that Thales gave reasons for his beliefs and these reasons are important to Aristotle.

It should be noted that others (Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, …) conjectured that the first principle was one of the other elements: be it air, or fire, or earth. Empedocles thought the elements to be irreducible. So we have an inching forward of thought while still clinging to mythos. But it is with Anaximander that we get a leap in abstraction, he claimed that apeiron (that which is without limit) was the first principle. This can be thought of as formlessness or chaos. Anaximander is interesting also because he posited that the Earth is a free-floating body in space, which was a revolutionary idea, seemingly self-evidently false†† being completely at odds with the information we receive from our senses. With Anaximander we seem to get abstraction working on itself recursively, this is the difference.

 


 

† Made you look; footnotes are fun, aren’t they?

‡ A book I’ve been meaning to read since it came out.

* Firefox’s spell-checker is underlining liquidy with a red squiggly line.

†† Logicians

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