Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

Thales (ca 640-546 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher who is considered the “father” of empirical science. He lived in Miletus, Asia Minor, in a highly commercial and business-oriented society that focused on the immediate realities and demands of business, with little tolerance for philosophical abstraction or speculation. 

Thales, who was a merchant himself, thrived on the businessman’s hard empiricism. He combined this empiricism with philosophical inferences about the nature of the universe. He was not the first person to speculate on the nature and origins of the universe, but he appears to have been the first to discuss these in logical, rather than mythological and religious, terms. He did so at a time when the general understanding of the universe and accepted belief systems were predominantly mystical.

In Thales, we find possibly the first philosophy that is devoid of mysticism. Instead, reason and observation are the critical elements of knowledge. Using careful observation of natural events, Thales made predictions (deductive inferences) about nature. 

The story was reportedly told by Aristotle that Thales grew weary of the taunts and laughter of his “hard-headed” business acquaintances, who chided him for wandering aimlessly, looking at flowers and clouds, and wasting his time “just thinking,” whereas everyone else was industriously making money. So Thales decided to show how knowledge could be the basis for making money. Knowing that olives and olive oil were major commodities of the area, Thales carefully observed the weather, sunshine, rainfall, the growth of crops, and so on. Based on his observations, he predicted a superior olive crop for that year and, without telling anyone, he quietly bought up all the options on the olive presses. 

When the huge harvest came in just as he had predicted, the farmers, olive oil producers, and merchants, as they did every year at harvest time, tried to contract for use of the olive presses before their crops spoiled. To their surprise and chagrin, they found that Thales had already purchased the options, and they had to pay him high fees or lose their crops. As Kitto (1952) noted, Thales “demonstrated that a philosopher can make money enough, if he thinks it worth doing.” (1952, pg. 178). 

Thales had great knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. He developed his interest in these fields during commercial trips to Egypt. He is credited with founding the study of abstract geometry, and he predicted the solar eclipse that occurred on May 28, 585 B.C. Thales also speculated about the universe, suggesting that water was the “original principle” from which everything had developed and back into which everything will be resolved. 

This speculation was an important point, although clearly wrong in this specific instance. It is an early statement of a basic feature of subsequent Greek philosophy--that nature is reducible to one or only a few basic elements. The apparent variety of things in nature is more appearance than reality, as all things are really combinations of a few basic elements. The importance of this philosophical idea is that nature is not only systematic, and therefore can be understood, but is also simple. A dictum of modern science is the concept of parsimony, which holds that in science, when two explanations for a phenomenon are available, the simplest of the two--the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions--is the preferred explanation.

Thales’ philosophy evolved into the Ionian School, the earliest of the Greek philosophical centers (6th and 5th Centuries B.C.). Although Thales apparently left no written work, his influence on later science was enormous, particularly in establishing empirical observation and deductive inference as methods in science. 

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