In book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle comments on earlier opinions about the first causes:
Evidently we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes (for we say we know each thing only when we think we recognize its first cause), and causes are spoken of in four senses. In one of these we mean the substance, i.e. the essence (for the ‘why’ is reducible finally to the definition, and the ultimate ‘why’ is a cause and principle); in another the matter or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the cause opposed to this, the purpose and the good (for this is the end of all generation and change). We have studied these causes sufficiently in our work on nature, but yet let us call to our aid those who have attacked the investigation of being and philosophized about reality before us. For obviously they too speak of certain principles and causes; to go over their views, then, will be of profit to the present inquiry, for we shall either find another kind of cause, or be more convinced of the correctness of those which we now maintain.
Of the first philosophers, then, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things. That of which all things that are consist, the first from which they come to be, the last into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing in its modifications), this they say is the element and this the principle of things, and therefore they think nothing is either generated or destroyed, since this sort of entity is always conserved, as we say Socrates neither comes to be absolutely when he comes to be beautiful or musical, nor ceases to be when loses these characteristics, because the substratum, Socrates himself remains. just so they say nothing else comes to be or ceases to be; for there must be some entity-either one or more than one-from which all other things come to be, it being conserved.
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.
Some think that even the ancients who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, had a similar view of nature; for they made Ocean and Tethys the parents of creation, and described the oath of the gods as being by water, to which they give the name of Styx; for what is oldest is most honourable, and the most honourable thing is that by which one swears. It may perhaps be uncertain whether this opinion about nature is primitive and ancient, but Thales at any rate is said to have declared himself thus about the first cause.
It is possibly for polemical motives that Aristotle portrays Thales as asserting that water alone is the principle of all things, to the exclusion of other kinds of cause besides the material cause. That is, most materialists, ancient and modern, do not believe that matter is the sole principle of reality. They may think it is the most important principle, but they recognize that other principles are involved, much as Lucretius recognizes that his atoms alone are insufficient to explain the world, but he must add something:
We wish thee also well aware of this:
The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little- call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne’er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus
Nature would never have created aught.
We can understand however that even if Aristotle’s account may not be a completely accurate account of Thales’s opinions, Aristotle likely has a charitable motive for his presentation, namely the education of the reader, as by beginning by discussing the position that matter alone is the first cause, it becomes easier to see the necessity of other principles. And it is also possible that Thales did not mention any other principles simply because his interest was in the material principle, rather than from the wish to deny other principles.
There is some probability to the opinion, mentioned by Aristotle, that Thales’s idea about water had ancient predecessors. For example, there may be something like this in Genesis 1:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
The text speaks of a number of principles, including God, and formless matter. But the formless matter is virtually identified with water; even when the earth is a “formless void,” there is still a “deep”, and there is still a “face of the waters.” And God makes the world by divisions in the waters, creating first sky and world, and then creating dry land by limiting the lower waters.
We can ask whether Thales was right in several different ways:
First, was he right if he is understood as Aristotle understands him? In this way, his position would involve denying all principles other than material principles. And in this way Thales was wrong, since there are other principles.
Second, was he right if he is understood in contrast with other materialist philosophers such as Anaximenes, who said that all things are made of air? We can see that there is a certain difficulty in such a supposition from the beginning. For if there is only one material principle of all things, why call it “water” or “air” in particular? If water contains nothing but the first material principle, and air contains nothing but the first material principle, why is one of them identified with the principle rather than the other?
Nonetheless, we can understand the claim to be something like, “Water is the most basic and natural form of the first material principle.” In this case, what it means to be the most basic and natural would be a matter of investigation, but there is nothing impossible about it in principle. But if we understand it in this way, Thales’s position (along with that of Anaximenes and others) is refuted by modern science, since water is known to be made of other more basic things, namely oxygen and hydrogen.
But we can ask whether Thales and Anaximenes were both right in a third way, a more generic way. If we break composite material things down into their parts, and their parts into their parts, and so on, will we always arrive at one basic material “stuff” which all other things are made out of?
This would necessarily be different from the prime matter of Aristotle, because this matter is understood to be completely formless. So while it may be part of a substance along with substantial form, it is not a part in the way that an arm is a part of a human being, or in the way that oxygen is part of water. A part in the latter sense already has some actuality; an arm has a certain shape even apart from being a part of a human being, and oxygen has qualities that it has even apart from water, while prime matter has no actuality whatsoever.
Since every order of causes comes to a first cause, the same will be true if we follow the order of material causality found by asking, “What parts is this made out of?” This cannot be refuted even if it turns out that material things are infinitely divisible, because it will not actually be true that anything is made out of an infinite number of parts. If we say, “this is made out of two halves, and the halves out of more halves, and so on,” this is not an explanation at all, as was pointed out in the post linked above, and so it cannot be a true account of why the thing is as it is. It may be that the thing is potentially divisible in those ways; but it is not actually made out of those parts. Instead, we are asking what we will arrive at if we look at the material composition of things, looking only for things with some actuality, and stopping when we find something which is not made up of other things in this way.
We made a strong argument that there only one first efficient cause. But we cannot duplicate that argument to show that there must be only one first material part of things, since the first efficient cause could be an adequate explanation of two or more first material causes. The theory of the four (or five) elements is an explanation like this. The first material parts are thought be four or five, according to this account, and in this way Thales would have been mistaken.
We can see some motivation for holding such a position. If there is fundamentally only one kind of “stuff,” why do we see various things in the world, such as plants and animals, rocks, chairs, and people? An account with a number elements can say that they form various things by being combined in various proportions and ways, while it is not evident how this question can be answered, if there is only one element.
Nonetheless, this does not really refute the position that there is fundamentally a single material element. If that element can exist in various ways, then it would be possible to explain how it could be used to form more complex substances. It is true that this would still leave something to be explained, namely the nature of those various ways that the element can exist, and how and why they come to be.
The position is neither refuted nor established by modern science. The Standard Model of particle physics contains many elementary particles, but in any case it is not thought to be a complete theory of physics.
Considerations of simplicity would favor the position of Thales. Other things being equal, it should be thought that a theory with a single element is more likely than one with ten elements; one with ten more likely than one with a hundred, and so on. Nonetheless, there does not seem to be any proof of Thales’s general position, nor any refutation of it. But one way or another, there will be one or more simplest material parts that everything else is made out of.