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Aristotle and the science

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Have you ever heard this common idea that Aristotle was the enemy of science? That all his conclusions were scientifically erroneous; that his method was not scientific at all; that it was only when, in the Renaissance, we got rid of the thought of Aristotle (with the aristotelician Scholastics) that modern science was finally established?

When you hear that, how do you react?

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2 hours ago, gio said:

That all his conclusions were scientifically erroneous; ...

"All" ... haven't heard that; but, I have heard about the conclusions he based on very flimsy premises (what an Objectivist might call "rationalism"). On the other hand, he's known to have collected specimens, and attempted classification: which shows a respect for the study of reality. 

Along with the Renaissance, came a real thrust to the "scientific method" and for experimentation (a move attributed to Francis Bacon in the Anglophone world). Before Galileo became controversial about astronomy, he was doing experiments in physics that were upending long-held beliefs in Physics. Yet, these were beliefs one could upend by an experiment that did not take that long. It indicates that people had not thought of actually experimenting about many things they took for granted.

Consider a farmer in the 1500's who always used a particular amount of fertilizer for his vegetables. It is unlikely that he would say to himself: "let me vary this in a small experimental plot and learn from those experiments". (We see "gentlemen farmers" doing this post-Enlightnment). Of course human beings have been "experimenting" even before they were human, as animals do; but that changed to be way more purposeful.

Reading about Galileo's controversy with the Church, I got the impression that the fear was not that he was overturning the Bible, as such; but, Aristotle: who had reached his conclusions nationalistically. So, from a certain perspective, one might say that Aristotle was partly responsible for Galileo being rejected and prosecuted. But, I don't buy that argument: it comes from treating Aristotle as scripture. Blame the faith-based epistemology of the church, rather than Aristotle.

Imagine that the Wright Brothers had made some conclusions that would be proven true through the propeller age, but were actually false and would be proven false by the jet age. Imagine that this held back the jet age by a decade. Would we blame the Wright brothers for holding back the jet age? We (being ingrates) can criticize them for being wrong, but everyone else who agreed with them is primarily to blame. We should not follow and agree with all a person's ideas just because they have a lot of great ones: be they the Wright brothers, Aristotle, or Ayn Rand.

Edited by softwareNerd
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I understand your point, but my topic is: the relationship between Aristotle and science. The point of the controversy being: Has Aristotle essentially favored or retarded science?

26 minutes ago, softwareNerd said:

"All" ... haven't heard that;

Or at least many. Common examples given are:

  • The world divided into five elements (fire, water, air, earth, ether)
  • The rejection of the atomistic vision of the world.
  • The division of the world between the terrestrial world and the sublunary world (eternal and undergoing no change)
  • The Earth being motionless.
  • His description of the movement of an object is false (as against Galileo and Newton who get out of his vision).
  • The idea that there is no evolution of the living being.
Edited by gio
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I'm reading Francis Bacon's Novum Organum at the moment, which is very relevant to this. According to Bacon, all of the fundamental concepts of Aristotle's philosophy (like "substance," "quality," and "essence") are unclear, and all of his scientific claims are invalid.

The reason for this lack of clarity and invalidity is allegedly that Aristotle did not build his philosophy up from the ground, based on experiments. Instead, Bacon claims that he jumped from a few observations to the widest generalizations, then deduced intermediate conclusions from those widest generalizations. The correct way is to start with very concrete generalizations based on plenty of experiments, then slowly build up from there, until finally you arrive at the widest generalizations.

There is a lot of truth in what Bacon says in the book, but as you can see, there's also some anti-philosophy scientism in his reasoning. I don't think Rand built up Objectivism using experiments, so it's not clear how Bacon would view her work.

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Giovanni,

Of the friction points you list, I think the worst is under your fifth. The Aristotelian ideas that heavier things fall faster than lighter things and that it is fundamental to bodies of the sublunary region that they come to rest required seriously new thinking caps to overcome. Another barrier to overcome was the overextended role of final (and formal) causality Aristotle had conceived. Another was Aristotle’s (inconstant) nay-saying on the role of mathematics in natural science. Another was his method of science, although in that there was some continuity with early moderns, at least in the organization of disciplines deserving the name science, at least in the more snobbish restrictions of that term.

On that last, there is a nice paper available here: The Classical Model of Science: A Millennia-Old Model of Scientific Rationality --De Jong and Betti 2010

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2 hours ago, gio said:

The essential question remains unanswered:

Has Aristotle essentially favored or retarded science?

I'd suggest that we should blame Plato, not Aristotle. 

Consider this: Aristotle was forgotten for ages, and the middle-ages were their slow-moving self not because of him but in spite of him. On could argue that the discover of Aristotle was a catalysts to bring the middle ages into the Renaissance. In which case, science was retarded by his absence and helped by the rediscovery of Aristotle.

Meanwhile, Plato's influence on Christianity was strong, and his rationalism jived well with spiritualism. There's a good case to make for Plato being a foundational influence on epistemology of the the middle-ages. So, with the discovery of Aristotle, but by people mired in Platonic epistemology, it is no wonder they treated Aristotle as if his text were scripture.

Even if Aristotle was wrong, and even if he had not yet made the leap to the ideas made explicit by Bacon, we still see nuggets of the scientific method within his approach. IF people who re-discovered Aristotle had not approached him with their rationalist/spiritualist epistemology, they would have questioned his approach. Indeed, this is what Galileo did.

If the church was not so mired in Platonism, perhaps a Galileo like figure would have arisen earlier, without needing to be scared of recriminations: someone far earlier, who did not need the protection of the Medici that helped Galileo be brave. 

So, no: Aristotle did not retard science. That was the doing of Plato and Aristotle. Blame St. Paul.

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50 minutes ago, softwareNerd said:

I'd suggest that we should blame Plato, not Aristotle. 

Consider this: Aristotle was forgotten for ages, and the middle-ages were their slow-moving self not because of him but in spite of him. On could argue that the discover of Aristotle was a catalysts to bring the middle ages into the Renaissance. In which case, science was retarded by his absence and helped by the rediscovery of Aristotle.

Meanwhile, Plato's influence on Christianity was strong, and his rationalism jived well with spiritualism. There's a good case to make for Plato being a foundational influence on epistemology of the the middle-ages. So, with the discovery of Aristotle, but by people mired in Platonic epistemology, it is no wonder they treated Aristotle as if his text were scripture.

Even if Aristotle was wrong, and even if he had not yet made the leap to the ideas made explicit by Bacon, we still see nuggets of the scientific method within his approach. IF people who re-discovered Aristotle had not approached him with their rationalist/spiritualist epistemology, they would have questioned his approach. Indeed, this is what Galileo did.

If the church was not so mired in Platonism, perhaps a Galileo like figure would have arisen earlier, without needing to be scared of recriminations: someone far earlier, who did not need the protection of the Medici that helped Galileo be brave. 

So, no: Aristotle did not retard science. That was the doing of Plato and Aristotle. Blame St. Paul.

I don't see either Plato or Aristotle as particularly dogmatic. All of Plato's works were in dialogue form, which seems intended to get people to think for themselves.

It's also worth noting that although Bacon did a great job of advocating experimental research, his view of the scientific method was a complete dead end.

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8 minutes ago, William O said:

I don't see either Plato or Aristotle as particularly dogmatic. All of Plato's works were in dialogue form, which seems intended to get people to think for themselves.

Not dogmatic. I was really implying "rationalism". Dogmatism is a secondary consequence of subjectivism.

9 minutes ago, William O said:

It's also worth noting that although Bacon did a great job of advocating experimental research, his view of the scientific method was a complete dead end.

Even that (in a "meta" way) is how science happens: get some things right, and some things wrong...but move forward.

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6 hours ago, gio said:

The essential question remains unanswered:

Has Aristotle essentially favored or retarded science?

Favored. Theodoric's advance in theory of the rainbow was accomplished within an Aristotelian outlook on science and metaphysics: thusthus. Also, prior to the Darwinian revolution, great advances were made in biology in the eighteenth and nineteenth century under the Aristotelian (even if with Kantian color) imputation of final causes to all biological nature.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

PS

From the seven minutes of ground view of launch of Apollo 11:

“That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt—this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned, numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being—an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.” –AR

Aristotle contributed a tremendous boost on that logic part and this-world focus part. Another big boost from the ancients was the boost we received from Euclid in geometry. Both were tools of Newton and tools for our own scientific advances today.

Edited by Boydstun
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21 hours ago, Boydstun said:

Giovanni,

Of the friction points you list, I think the worst is under your fifth. The Aristotelian ideas that heavier things fall faster than lighter things and that it is fundamental to bodies of the sublunary region that they come to rest required seriously new thinking caps to overcome. Another barrier to overcome was the overextended role of final (and formal) causality Aristotle had conceived. Another was Aristotle’s (inconstant) nay-saying on the role of mathematics in natural science. Another was his method of science, although in that there was some continuity with early moderns, at least in the organization of disciplines deserving the name science, at least in the more snobbish restrictions of that term.

On that last, there is a nice paper available here: The Classical Model of Science: A Millennia-Old Model of Scientific Rationality --De Jong and Betti 2010

It has seemed to me that the sort of satisfaction in understanding that Aristotle found by casting natural phenomena and their causes in the form of a certain sort of syllogism is a faint relative of what now comes to us in some of our uses of mathematics in science today. We’ve satisfaction in deep understanding through mathematical structure instanced in physical phenomena. On thought about this modern satisfaction, I link to Michael Strevens’ paper The Mathematical Route to Causal Understanding. It will be a chapter in a book to appear summer of 2018 – Explanation beyond Causation (Oxford, Reutlinger and Saatsi, editors).

I’ve a difference with Streven’s picture here in that I’d emphasize that the physically realized mathematics coincides with synthetic mathematical structure which always underlies analytic mathematical representation (as Euclid’s geometry underlies Descartes’ analytic geometry). Rand did not have this vocabulary for it, but she had this my idea in her conception of mathematical structure in our concepts and in the world which they represent. The issue of the nature of mathematical structure in modern scientific explanation has its related counterpart in (work yet to be accomplished on) mathematical structure in essential characteristics in concepts framed in Rand’s measurement-omission way.

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8 hours ago, gio said:

The essential question remains unanswered:

Has Aristotle essentially favored or retarded science?

Science depends upon a particular philosophical orientation toward perception rather than conception. One approach leads more and more to facts of reality, the other leads to fantasy. Aristotle firmly oriented man toward objective facts by creating a philosophy of perception, logic, and science. Many of his mistakes were due to remnants of the wrong orientation he inherited from Plato, and some were due to ignorance of physical and biological laws discovered later. Those later discoveries, however, would not have been possible without a perception-based orientation for knowledge-seekers. It's not Aristotle's fault that later thinkers couldn't figure out his errors. It's their fault for not following his philosophy and adopting a fantasy-based orientation in taking his word as dogma.

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  • 2 years later...

Gio, thanks for sharing this.

I think Rovelli’s exercise of accounting for qualitative characterizations of some terrestrial dynamics by Aristotle through a perspective of Newtonian physics is cute (eq. 4). However, it goes too far to say Aristotle’s account is somehow an approximation to a Newtonian account in the appropriately limited domain.

It is not only that Aristotle posed no substantially mathematical description in the realm of dynamics. He inveighed against the use of mathematics therein. Although he did himself go against that grain somewhat in bringing in a bit of geometry in his account of the rainbow, the point he makes there and the mathematics he employs is minuscule in comparison to the use of mathematics (and the integration with elementary optics unavailable to Aristotle) by Theodoric or, independently, by Descartes in their solving the riddle of the rainbow.

Not only is lack of mathematical description a fundamental blank that should wither any talk of Aristotle as somehow approximating, let alone tending towards, the Newtonian account of the dynamics pertinent to the appropriate realm. Aristotle lacks a basic physical idea which is another withering blank. Aristotle has no notion that here on the surface of the earth, there is a fundamental character of the dynamics of inanimate bodies as they are in an environment with the fluids (air or water) as they are absent that very environment. That facet is essential to getting anywhere in understanding the dynamics of moving inanimate bodies as we find them in everyday experience. Galileo and Descartes got that revolutionary way of looking at things—both the fluid-absent base and the mathematical description—for Newton to continue and for our Newtonian treatments today.

I note also, concerning the Greek ascription of circular motion as fundamental natural state and explanatory base for celestial bodies that the Greeks did not have the elementary equation for circular motion, which was not derived until Huygens and Newton found it. 

I’ve gathered the helpfulness of Aristotle to the formation of modern physics such as in the mind of Newton was in Aristotle’s general empiricism and logic. Aristotle was right to object to the platonic ways that mathematics was being brought into thought about why’s of the world. (Greek use of mathematics in harmonics, however, had better sense, by our lights.) That way, of course, was not the way of, say, Galileo, Descartes, Huygens, and Newton. Greek theory of definition, too, may have been salutary in the struggles in those modern founders for the right conception of force. Newton made mathematical his definition of force, a contra-Aristotle revolution. On that, Rovelli would concur, excepting my invocation "revolution." I stand by it.

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On 11/9/2020 at 7:39 AM, Boydstun said:

. . .

I note also, concerning the Greek ascription of circular motion as fundamental natural state and explanatory base for celestial bodies that the Greeks did not have the elementary equation for circular motion, which was not derived until Huygens and Newton found it. 

. . .

Here is that discovery, as I conveyed in a work from 1995:

V2N2 pp. 27-28  “Space, Rotation, Relativity”

It was Huygens who named the tendency of a body in circular motion to recede from the center the centrifugal (“flees from center”) tendency. He succeeded in quantifying the strength of this tendency; he gave us the formula of what we, after Newton, take to be centrifugal force. Imagine sitting on the edge of a merry-go-round holding a plumb bob. The bob hangs vertically initially while the merry is still, but moves outward from the hand as the speed of the merry increases. Let the speed of the merry be made constant. Huygens computed from pure kinematics that were the bob released, rather than held by a wire, it would travel outward a distance proportional to the rotation speed squared divided by the merry’s diameter and directly proportional to the time interval since release squared. This is so provided that time interval is small, and small is all we require for a formula of the instantaneous parameters of circular motion.

Huygens knew that distance in one of Galileo’s expressions for free fall is also proportional to the square of the time interval. Huygens still thought of the tendency of bodies to fall and their centrifugal tendencies as an inherent force, or power, they exhibit in those situations. He did not yet have clearly our Newtonian concept of force as external cause acting on the body. A whirling body has a centrifugal tendency, and like the falling tendency of bodies, it yields not a uniform motion but one proportional to the duration squared, at least for short durations. So for Huygens, as for everyone after him, a body rotating at uniform speed is [classified as] undergoing an acceleration. Huygens initiated what we should now call the dynamics of circular motion, as he quantified the centrifugal tendency, by determining what rotational speed the merry would need to for the bob to have a centrifugal tendency equal to its gravity.

V2N3 p.53  “Space, Rotation, Relativity”

Newton imagined a square inside of which is circumscribed a circle. Let the sides of the square be banks of a square billiards table (without pockets). Launch a ball so as to strike and rebound at a point, on each of the four banks in consecution, midway between corners; the very point at which the imaginary circle touches the square. The angles of incidence and reflection will be 45°. In making one complete circuit, Newton figured, the force that the ball exerts on the banks in reflections is to the force of the ball’s linear motion (the ball’s linear momentum) as the path length of the ball’s circuit is to the length of the circle’s radius. Newton then showed that whatever regular polygon is fitted about the circle (replacing the square about the circle), the ratio of the ball’s reflecting forces exerted in a complete circuit to the force of the ball’s linear motion is always as the circuit’s length to the circle’s radius. Then if we allow the sides of the polygon to become infinitely short and numerous, the polygon becomes the circle, and we have that the ball’s force exerted on its circular container in one revolution about that circle is 2πr/v, where r is the circle’s radius. Then the instantaneous force the ball exerts outward when in circular motion, the endeavor of the ball to flee the center, is m(v·v)/r, as Huygens had earlier found, unbeknownst to Newton at the time of his own discovery.

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