Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons

3 October 2014

I’ve been getting a flurry of emails from revolutionary armchair scientists again, largely due to the recent post I wrote over at Starts With A Bang! Whenever several new theories arrives in my mailbox, they all start sounding the same. A bit of praise for my article/website/etc. and then a long diatribe on the errors of modern science followed by a link or attachment for the new and revolutionary idea. The genius of these new ideas are self declared, much along the lines of Vizzini in The Princess Bride, who declared that compared to him, the great philosophers were morons. Although its easy to see the absurdity in a self-declared scientific genius, it is similar to an attitude taken by some scientists with a dim view of philosophy. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates may have been deep thinkers, but philosophers are idiot scientists.

Except they aren’t.

A battle of wits? To the death? I accept. 20th Century Fox
A battle of wits? To the death? I accept.

Of the big three philosophers, Aristotle is most often claimed as a scientist. That’s likely because of the three Aristotle’s philosophy is most similar to that of modern science. He didn’t conduct experiments, but he did take the position that observation of physical phenomena could lead to understanding of the world around us. He talked about cause and effect, and developed a set of rules that he argued governed (or at least described) the behavior of the universe. Aristotle’s cosmology held as the dominant model of the solar system until the 1500s.

Plato’s Timaeus looked at aspects of the physical world, which Plato distinguished from the eternal world of forms. In his physical universe matter consisted of the elements earth, air, fire, water, and ether. The idea that matter could consist of a mixture of different fundamental things helped give rise to the idea of chemical elements centuries later. Plato also explored the way in which the universe could have arisen in the first place. His ideas were deeply influential to medieval philosophers and theologians, and led to concepts such as the ex-nihilo origin of the universe. This later inspired Georges Lemaître’s proposal of the big bang.

Socrates famously never wrote anything down, but his ideas come to us through Plato’s writings. Socrates is most famous for his method of getting to the truth of things by asking questions rather than assuming knowledge. It’s an approach that inspires much of modern science. Socrates also explored aspects of metaphysics. In Plato’s dialogues, for example, Socrates is seen to emphasize mathematics as a description of the world, which is a foundational aspect of modern science.

Of course the works of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates inspired later philosophers to explore other aspects of the cosmos, from Descartes’ exploration of the nature of space and time, to Karl Popper’s ideas of falsifiability, all of which has heavily framed modern science. Although we praise Newton’s work as a scientist, one of his largest influences was his philosophical position on what constitutes a scientific model.

Despite this, philosophy and philosophers are still viewed as rather useless to scientists. Part of this is due to the fact that modern science relies on observational and experimental evidence as the final arbiter of truth. In a contest between experiment and theory, experiment always wins. Philosophy is often seen as arguing over things that are either unanswerable or answerable by experiment. Why spend days arguing over the number of teeth in a horses mouth when all you need to do is find a horse and start counting?

Our modern world is so deeply rooted in scientific thinking that it can be difficult to recognize the philosophical roots of our modern worldview. It’s easier to think of past generations as wrongheaded and ignorant rather than adherents to a different metaphysics. And this is one of the reasons science needs philosophers. It’s always good to have a bit of pushback against your assumptions. Philosophers aren’t scientists, so they are free to explore ideas that (at least for now) are scientifically unproductive.

And that’s part of the reason I don’t really mind the Vizzini’s of the world. Most of their ideas are easy to disprove, and it’s always good to see things from another perspective. If all else fails, I could always challenge them to a battle of wits.