Searching for the underbelly of existence

Posted on: 8th September, 2014

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

Anne Crossey is a painter living in West Cork. She has a primary Degree in Philosophy, a Masters in Western Esotericism, and a Masters in Philosophy, specialising in Psychoanalytic Theory (T.C.D.). Anne is the co-organizer of TEDxWestCork, She runs the West Cork Philosophical Society which meets fortnightly at Baby Hannah’s, Skibbereen. 7.30pm. For more info. Email:

“Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”

Stephen Hawking,

A Brief History of Time

These recent weeks have been the era of the Ice Bucket Challenge so it seems a fitting idea to start with a quote from Stephen Hawking. As a graduate student, Hawking started showing symptoms of general clumsiness, tripping, sometimes falling over. His family became concerned when he was home during his Christmas holidays and insisted he see a doctor. Aged 21, he entered the hospital for two weeks of tests to discover what was wrong with him. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurological disease that causes patients to lose control of their voluntary muscles. For most of his time in the public eye, he has been confined to a wheelchair and since 1985 has had to speak through his trademark computer system, which he operates with his cheek. Nevertheless, Stephen Hawking brought quantum physics into almost every household with his bestselling book, ‘A Brief History of Time.’ Discussions about black holes and speculation about quantum gravity became ‘de rigueur’ for philosophy students in smoky pubs all over the world.

Hawking himself, I like, because he has the attitude of an ancient philosopher. “My goal” he says, “is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” This is where philosophy began — why is the world, the universe, as it is, what is it, and what does it mean?

The pioneers of philosophy as we know it, stemmed from the land of Homer, within an area known in the present day as Turkey, formerly known as Smyrna: ancient Ionia formed the cradle of Greek philosophy. Stretching from Phocaea in the north to Miletus in the south, it included the islands of Samos and Chios.

Though the ancient Greeks basked in art and beauty and sunshine and the heroism of their athletes, it would be a mistake to assume that they ignored the dark underbelly of existence. They were profoundly aware of the cycles of change, ‘of birth and growth, decay and death’. Thales of Miletus, considered the forefather of all western thought, was said to have predicted the eclipse of the sun mentioned by Herodotus, since been dated to May 28, 585 BCE. He died shortly before the fall of Sardis in 546 BCE. There are many anecdotes about his life: one that he fell backwards into a well while stargazing, another that foreseeing a coming shortage in olives, he cornered the market for oil and became a very wealthy man. He constructed an almanac and introduced the Phoenician practice of steering a ship by the Little Bear. All of this can be read in Diogenes Laertius’ ‘Life of Thales’.

According to Aristotle in the Metaphysics, ‘the most important point is that Thales declared the primary stuff of all things to be water…indeed, that he raised the question of the One at all.’ Thales would not have considered himself a philosopher — he was an astronomer, a man of knowledge, a thinker. Science and philosophy were not segregated in the ancient world — indeed neither yet recognised in itself a distinct existence. Philosophical and scientific curiosity was only gently awakening in the West and wasn’t yet limited by categorisations and the academic rationalism that was to so disenchant the modern world. Thales was driven by an earnest desire to understand the world he lived in.

For him, water was the substance that underlies everything — for without water land remains completely sterile — it is essential for existence. Within a seed Thales saw moistness, he saw water evaporate to become air, he found you could dig deep enough and the earth becomes sodden, turns to water itself. In the hot climate, when something died or ceased to be, it dried out. Water — if you stop to think about it, it isn’t so silly that he might have seen water as underlying all material being.

In fact it doesn’t matter. The important thing about Thales of Miletus was that he conceived ‘things’ as varying forms of one primary and ultimate element. He first conceived the notion of Unity in Difference and this theme became absolutely central to Greek philosophy. It is central to monotheism. Even today, with our Hadron Collider, we are still searching for the ultimate material that underlies everything that we experience as the diverse manifestations of life and matter in the Universe. From Thales to Stephen Hawking, from water as the unified theory of everything to ice buckets unifying a cause online. Nothing changes.

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