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The natural world had thoughts, desires, and emotions, just like humans. Thus, the realms of man and nature were indistinguishable and did not have to be understood in cognitively different ways. Natural phenomena were imagined in the same terms as human experience. These ancients of the Near East did recognize the relation of cause and effect, but when speculating about it they came from a “who” rather than a “what” perspective. When the Nile rose, it was because the river wanted to, not because it had rained.

What does they refer to here? If it refers to ancients, what 's the meaning of came from, the verb of they?

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You are correct, the word 'they' in the sentence refers to the ancients.

The verb 'to come from' is idiomatic. The key to understanding the verb is in the rest of the sentence. It says they come from a 'who' rather than a 'what' perspective. If you say someone is coming from a particular perspective' it means that they are looking at the situation from that perspective.

I don't understand where you're coming from.

This means, 'I don't understand what you're thinking.' or 'I don't understand your approach.'

We're coming from two different places on this.

This means, we have different approaches, or different perspectives with regard to the topic under discussion.

In the example sentence it means that the ancients were thinking about cause and effect from the perspective of 'who' is the cause, rather than 'what' is the cause of an effect. The cause of the flood was not the rain, but rather the river. They thought about the river like they thought about a person, so they thought the river rose because it wanted to.

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