Hey, Alexa, what’s the origin of scientific thinking?
In the 6th century BC, Miletus may have been a small Greek city on the Ionian coast, but some people there were thinking big ideas. Thales has widely been regarded as the father of philosophy, even though most of us today remember him for his theorem. More important than his personal contribution to thinking and the history of philosophy, however, was the establishment of a school of thought indebted to him: the Milesian school, home to the first Presocratic thinkers. The philosopher Anaximander, also from Miletus, was one of Thales’ closest disciples – and a name Alexa should be well-acquainted with.
The history of science in the West starts with the Milesian school and with Anaximander. The latter is said to have produced the first map of the known world, the archetype of all subsequent mappaemundi, Europe at the top, Asia to the right, Africa at the bottom, the Mediterranean Sea linking all three continents. But Anaximander’s greatest contribution is making the indefinite (in Greek apeiron) as the source of all things. A small step for philosophy, a giant leap for science. The appeal to the apeiron paved the way to abstract thinking about all things natural, and created the space in which scientific inquiry could operate.
The developers at Amazon Lab126 who came up with the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa reportedly said the name was inspired by the Library of Alexandria. The long hike from Anaximander’s apeiron to Amazon’s Alexa summs up the history of science: from general principles to specific applications. Alexa can give specific answers to specific questions because 2,500 years ago the Greeks asked themselves important questions. Where do things come from? Are there other worlds out there or is this the only one? What is change?
These are questions Alexa and her progeny are unlikely to have an answer to.