Aristotle’s Answer to the Science/Philosophy Debate

“Philosophy is dead,” says renowned physicist Stephen Hawking [1]. According to him, “Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” [2].  This view encapsulates what has become somewhat of an embedded modern assumption: science is equivalent to knowledge and truth; philosophy is just a bunch of mad, unanswerable questions designed to make your head hurt, or else make you doubt your very existence, but with no actual truth or life value. A post in the New York Times sums up the attitude succinctly:

“Science education, however, has persistently relied more on empirical fit as its trump card, perhaps partly to separate science from those dangerous seat-of-the-pants theorizings (including philosophy) that pretend to find their way apart from such evidence” [3].

So what can one of the greatest thinkers in all of human history add to this discussion?

As most of my readers are aware, I write mainly from what is known as the “Aristotelian-Thomistic” philosophical tradition, a system of thought which originates in the metaphysics of Aristotle, and was revived and expanded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers. Most of my knowledge of this system comes from contemporary, secondary writers; but it has been suggested to me that the best, and really only way, to truly dive into the system, is to read the originals themselves. With that goal in mind, I’ve decided to start a series doing exactly that: I’ll be reading passages from Aristotle, Aquinas, and other great thinkers and offering some of my thoughts/interpretations. Please note, I am about as far from an “expert” in this as one could possibly be, so if I ever read/interpret something incorrectly (which is bound to happen, probably often), please have patience and leniency with me. I welcome and encourage engaging comments and questions!

I’ll be starting in my next post with Aristotle’s famous work Physica, or Physics. It is divided into eight books, each of which have several sections. For that first post I will just be writing on the first section of the first book.

But before that, we must first define what “physics” even is. Today, physics is understood in a technical sense as a field of the physical sciences dealing with the “structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe” [4]. It is often considered the most foundational science or even the most foundational form of knowledge, period; and those who take a reductionistic approach even suggest that “biology reduces to chemistry which reduces to physics.” In short, “physics,” or “the laws of physics,” understood in the specified, technical sense, is thought to govern absolutely everything that happens in our universe. Physicists today are on the search for the grand “theory of everything,” a single principle, equation, or set of equations which can act as an ultimate explanation for all of physical existence/events. As one encyclopedia writes:

“In the broadest sense, physics . . . is concerned with all aspects of nature on both the macroscopic and submicroscopic levels. Its scope of study encompasses not only the behaviour of objects under the action of given forces but also the nature and origin of gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear forcefields. Its ultimate objective is the formulation of a few comprehensive principles that bring together and explain all such disparate phenomena” [5].

So what is physics to Aristotle? On one hand, people sometimes speak of “Aristotelian physics” in reference to Aristotle’s theories that are specifically what we would consider “scientific” in nature, such as his astronomical models. This is most often done in a critical, even derogatorily, scoffing manner, in ways which are really entirely unfair to Aristotle. One physicist admits that “Aristotle’s physics does not enjoy good press . . . [in the eyes of most contemporary scientists], Aristotle’s science is either not science at all, or, to the extent it is science, is a failure” [6]. Likewise, Aristotle’s “physics” is often differentiated from his “metaphysics,” where physics is still used as in the previous definition. Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher Ed Feser, writing specifically about Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle, says:

“It is sometimes suggested, for instance, that Aquinas is beholden to an outdated Aristotelian physics and astronomy; and it is true that examples he gives to illustrate his points are sometimes made in terms of scientific claims we now know to be false. But there is nothing in the argument itself that requires the truth of Aristotle’s scientific theories, only of his metaphysical ones . . . In particular, the analysis of motion or change as a transition from potentiality to actuality is a metaphysical analysis that is deeper than any empirical theory. Theories of the latter sort merely give us different accounts of the specific physical mechanisms by which the transition from potentiality to actuality occurs in the material world, and can never call into question the distinction itself, which can only be evaluated by philosophical means” [7].

In this quote Feser clearly takes pains to separate Aristotle’s “physics” from his “metaphysics,” but what is interesting is that many of the very ideas which he places under the category of metaphysics are themselves found in the actual book titled Physics. So while many people today refer to Aristotelian physics as specifically Aristotle’s empirical, “scientific” claims, as distinct from his metaphysical ones, this should not be confused with the actual books themselves.

Today, there is a  divide between the academic fields of science and philosophy, as the Stephen Hawking quote at the beginning of this article illustrates. Sometimes this divide can seem quite wide and heated. But has this always been the case? Is the divide even real, or is it just a modern construction?

In order to answer this, it’ll be helpful to understand what science actually is, and a little bit of its history. “Science,” as understood in its technical sense today, is almost inseparable from the concepts of the “scientific method” and complicated experimentation documented in peer reviewed journals. Says one encyclopedia, science is

“any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation” [8].

In a much more general sense, “science” is usually understood as knowledge relating to the physical world. But Aristotle did exactly that, and, in fact, was one of the earliest people to do that in any systematic way. One writer states:

“What [Aristotle] . . . was to begin a school of organized scientific inquiry on a scale far exceeding anything that had gone before. He first clearly defined what was scientific knowledge, and why it should be sought. In other words, he single-handedly invented science as the collective, organized enterprise it is today . . . After Aristotle, there was no comparable professional science enterprise for over 2,000 years, and his work was of such quality that it was accepted by all” (emphasis mine) [9].

Furthermore, in addition,

“Aristotle believed detailed empirical investigations of nature were essential if progress was to be made in understanding the natural world” [10].

Here Aristotle is actually attributed as the inventor of the process we now think of as science. In fact, our technical field of physics even derives its title from the book of the same name by Aristotle [11]. Aristotle, and Aquinas after him, as opposed to many other ancient philosophers, thought that our knowledge is based on empirical observation with the senses, not just pure rationalization.

But what is the relationship between this “science” and philosophy? After all, Aristotle is known as “the Philosopher”, not as “the Scientist” (Dante, in his Inferno, actually just refers to Aristotle as “the master of those who know” [12]). This is because science, in its general and truest sense, is actually just a type of philosophy, in its general and truest sense. In fact,

“Until rather recent times physicsand natural philosophy were used interchangeably for the science whose aim is the discovery and formulation of the fundamental laws of nature” [13].

But in actuality, Aristotle did offer a distinction between what we might think as “science” and what is traditionally thought of as more philosophical. For Aristotle there is first philosophy and second philosophy. Second philosophy has to do with natural phenomenon; first philosophy with more abstract, but more fundamental principles. But notice that they are both considered “philosophy,” just different types. Consider this quote his book Metaphysics:

“if there is no substance other than those which are formed by nature, natural science will be the first science; but if there is an immovable substance, the science of this must be prior and must be first philosophy, and universal in this way, because it is first. And it will belong to this to consider being qua being — both what it is and the attributes which belong to it qua being” (Metaphysics 6.1, 1026a28–33) [14] [15].

In other words, if the physical, natural universe is all that exists, then yes, science, understood as empirical observation and experimentation, will be the most fundamental form of knowledge. But Aristotle does not believe this to be the case. If there is an “immovable substance” (e.g., the Prime Mover who is God), then there is something more fundamental than the natural world, and, as such, there is a realm of knowledge which is more than just empirical observation, and more fundamental (all of this will make more sense as we actually go through the book Physics starting in the next post).

And elsewhere he states:

“For it is for the sake of this that we are trying to determine the nature of perceptible substances as well, since in a sense the inquiry about perceptible substances is the work of physics, i. e. of second philosophy; for the physicist must come to know not only about the matter, but also about the substance expressed in the formula, and even more than about the other” (Metaphysics 7.11, 1037a13-18) [16].

Physics is second philosophy, because it is less fundamental than first philosophy, which is the study not of natural, empirical phenomena, but being itself, which underlies all natural phenomena.

But, even though the two are distinct, they are not so completely separated as they are in modern thought. Consider this definition of the technical sense of physics:

“As the modern sciences developed and became increasingly specialized, physics came to denote that part of physical science not included in astronomy, chemistry, geology, and engineering. Physics plays an important role in all the natural sciences, however, and all such fields have branches in which physical laws and measurements receive special emphasis, bearing such names as astrophysics, geophysics, biophysics, and even psychophysics. Physics can, at base, be defined as the science of matter, motion, and energy. Its laws are typically expressed with economy and precision in the language of mathematics” [17].

Whereas Aristotle thought of physics, or second philosophy, as a study of the substance or essence/nature of natural objects, modern physics deals almost entirely with merely the mathematical structure of such objects (Feser writes about this in Scholastic Metaphysics, I may go more into it in the future) [18].

Now contrast that with this:

“Nevertheless, the interaction between these two “philosophies” is not completely exhausted by the causal influence exerted on the world by the supra-physical entities—the prime movers as it turns out. Aristotle’s metaphysics and physics use a common conceptual framework, and they often address similar issues. The prime and distinctive task of first philosophy is an inquiry into first entities; these, however, are not perceptible entities, and as a result they have to be investigated through a metaphysical investigation of physical entities. Hence the overlap between the two disciplines, which often verges on inseparability” [19].

So what would Aristotle think about Hawking’s claim that “philosophy is dead” because philosophers aren’t keeping up with scientists? Well, for Aristotle, scientists are philosophers; but modern science has so divorced itself from philosophy that it is literally a “second without a first,” an edifice with no foundation. That foundation can only be found in what is now known as metaphysics: the study of being itself as being, which, being immaterial, cannot be done via pure empirical observation alone.

In short, science is like the prodigal son of philosophy. Once it has bankrupted itself and discovered that it cannot survive without its philosophical roots, then, hopefully, it will return, at long last, to its true home.

 

 

Notes

[1]. Warman, Matt. “Stephen Hawking tells Google ‘philosophy is dead.'” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 17 May 2011. Web. 2 Sep. 2016. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/8520033/Stephen-Hawking-tells-Google-philosophy-is-dead.html>.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Blachowicz, James. “There Is No Scientific Method.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 4 Jul. 2016. Web. 2 Sep. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/04/opinion/there-is-no-scientific-method.html?_r=0>.

[4]. “physics”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 01 Sep. 2016
<https://www.britannica.com/science/physics-science>.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Rovelli, Carlo. “Aristotle’s Physics: a Physicist’s Look.” Cornell University Library: eprint arXiv:1312.4057, Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Sep. 2016. <http://arxiv.org/abs/1312.4057v2>.

[7]. Feser, Ed. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008. ebook.

[8]. “science”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 02 Sep. 2016
<https://www.britannica.com/topic/science>.

[9]. Fowler, Michael. “Aristotle.” Galileo and Einstein. U. Va. Physics, 3 Sep. 2008. Web. 2 Sep. 2016. <http://galileoandeinstein.physics.virginia.edu/lectures/aristot2.html>.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Rovelli, Carlo. “Aristotle’s Physics: a Physicist’s Look.” Cornell University Library: eprint arXiv:1312.4057, Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Sep. 2016. <http://arxiv.org/abs/1312.4057v2>.

[12]. Dante, The Inferno, Canto 4 Line 131. See: http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/circle1.html#aristotle

[13]. “physics”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 01 Sep. 2016
<https://www.britannica.com/science/physics-science>.

[14]. See Bodnar, Istvan, “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/aristotle-natphil/>.

[15]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. “physics”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 01 Sep. 2016
<https://www.britannica.com/science/physics-science>.

[18]. See the first chapter of Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Piscataway: Editiones Scholasticae/Transaction Books, 2014. Print.

[19]. Bodnar, Istvan, “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/aristotle-natphil/>.

Image credits: FreeImages.com/Max Mitenkov (http://www.freeimages.com/photo/greek-ruin-19-1214584).

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