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Friday, January 15, 2010

How the Greeks Lost Their Groove

On the Origins of Science

An alert reader wrote privately with the following question:

My understanding of Greek thought was that it made real science impossible by attributing "essences" and "natures" to things which acted according to their own powers, rather than according to physical "laws." Hence, ...attempting to experiment on such an object under artificial conditions is useless, because the object will have its nature "disrupted," .... Also, since things (chairs, plants, planets, etc) moved according to their own inner principle, rather than due to some external physical law, there is no need to attempt to "reduce" objects to component parts (atoms, cells, molecules, etc) and therefore no need for subjects like chemistry.

My understanding of the Christian contribution to science was in mechanizing the universe, so that objects behave according to external laws and can be reduced down to its components.

However, ... Edward Feser's The Last Superstition ... argues that the mechanistic worldview of the Enlightenment eliminated formal and final causes ... on philosophical rather than scientific grounds, and that classical theism ... requires a belief in formal and final causes.

...what about Greek thought prevented it from developing science, if there is nothing anti-scientific about viewing the world in terms of essences, powers, final causes, etc.

I can only give my own amateur take on this. 

Many folks, like the estimable Mr. Carrier or the less estimable Mr. Walker, would claim that the Greeks did develop science.  But this is based on equivocation on the term science.  It has multiple meanings.  Depending on which meaning you use, you could make Otto Benz or Thomas Edison into scientists.  But in numerous discussions with creationists, partisans of science have time and again emphasized that science is not merely an accumulation of factoids.  A pile of bricks is not a house.  Nor is it a bunch of lucky guesses or rules of thumb worked out by tinkering and by trial-and-error.  Nor is it technology, a point obscured in our day by the fact that science and engineering really are now conflated in many ways.  Whereas previously the ur-scientist sought to explain why what an engineer had done worked, nowadays the engineer often realizes that something might work because the science predicts it. 

One of the genuine contributions of the positivists, although one now strongly objected to by such luminaries as P.Z.Meyers, is what is sometimes called the Layer Cake, but which I will render as a triangle. 

Start from the bottom, at which we find Empirical Experiences.  Things that we see, hear, feel, etc.  Both science and philosophy start here. 
1. Facts.  When these experiences can be operationally measured, they become facts.  In fact, factum est being the participle of "to make," a fact is something made, a "feat."  Measurement creates facts because the same thing measured in two different ways will often produce two different results.  But the experiment is the premier fact-producing machine.  Fact is also used as a courtesy for meticulously described qualitative observations, such as those Darwin made. 
2. Laws.  Regularities or patterns in the facts are called laws, especially when they can be expressed in mathematical terms.  But they can also be expressed verbally.  Newton did so.  The equations associated with his three laws came later - and don't quite correspond to the three laws.  There is no math at all in Darwin. 
3. Physical Theories.  These are stories or narratives in the context of which a specified body of facts "makes sense."  Newton's theory of gravitation "made sense" of all those astronomical observations and, more importantly, made sense of Copernicanism, which until then had been merely ad hoc.  (Ironically, the empirical evidence for Copernicanism was not found until around 1800.)  Given a physical theory, the natural laws may be deduced and the facts predicted.  When facts are predicted beyond those originally used to develop the theory and then are subsequently found, the theory is supported.  The Third Wave positivists regarded theories as neither true nor false, but only useful. 

Now, if we regard the laws as simply the interface between Fact and Theory, we are ready to commence. 

1. How the Muslims Lost Their Groove
 Islam began with a region that had a layer of Hellenism a thousand years thick, so it is no surprise that the grandchildren of those Byzantine Greeks and Syriacs kept up their study of Aristotle.  They ran into a wall, though with the Qur'anic scholars.  Not having the concept of synderesis [conscience] from Plato's Timeaus and/or Pauls Epistle to the Romans, chap 2., the dominant school of ijtahid, the Ash'ari, did not acknowledge that human reason was capable of reaching correct conclusions in morality.  If you wanted to know right from wrong, you looked in the book, not in your heart.  This was extended to reaching correct conclusions about nature.  (And it is interesting to note that except for al Kindi, all the great faylasuf were non-Arabs: ibn Sina was Persian, ibn Rushd was Spanish, and so on.)  The final pillow on the face was Al-Ghazali, who wrote in The Incoherence of Philosophy that fire did not burn cloth.  All we can really see is that the one event is followed by the other.  God causes the fire and God causes the cloth to blacken and distintegrate, and it was only the "habit of God" that one followed the other.  The Spanish Jew Maimonides and the Spanish muslim ibn Rushd ridiculed and tried to rebut him, but both had to "leave town in a hurry."  The rival mu'tazilite school did take a rationalist approach, and it is an interesting counterfactual speculation how things might have turned out had they come out on top.  
In terms of our pyramid, the muslims had many brilliant minds - we can almost lay them out in parallel columns with the Latins -- but simply not enough of them and they always had an uphill fight.  (Even kalam - theology - was viewed with suspicion by the traditional scholars.  Apply logic and reason to sharia?  Oy!)  They did, however, find appreciative audiences - and full credit - in Latin Europe.   
At the root of it: The muslims never had an Aquinas to reconcile their belief in God's infinite power and freedom of will with the basics of Aristotelian metaphysics and physics.  
2. How the Chinese Lost Their Groove.  
In terms of our pyramid, the Chinese remained content on the bottom layer.  Regarding heliocentrism, Juan Yuan wrote, “Our ancients sought phenomena and ignored theoretical explanation...  It does not seem to me the least inconvenient to ignore Western theoretical explanations and simply to consider facts.”  You can make a case for this approach, but if you do you never have explanations that can serve to predict potential new facts.  You simply have a cabinet full of facts.  Every house has a drawer called "the junk drawer."  That was where the Chinese kept science.  Toby Huff writes in The Rise of Early Modern Science that Shen Kua was perhaps the greatest of early Chinese scientists, but his writings have none of the conceptual integration of Aristotle or his Muslim and Christian successors: “Notices of the highest originality stand cheek-by-jowl with trivial didacticism, court anecdotes, and ephemeral curiosities.” 
If the muslims never had an Aquinas, the Chinese never had an Aristotle.  That is, no one ever defined a philosophy of nature, a body of subjects, a set of rules for investigating them, a metaphysic under which they made sense.  It doesn't matter if Aristotle did not get everything right; it mattered that he got that there was a thing to be right about.      
Like the ashari aqida in Islam, Confucianism downplayed human reason and conscience.  The key to moral behavior was to do as you were told, and this could be found in the Confucian Books, and if you didn't you were spanked.  Literally.  With bamboo canes.  As with the mu'tazilites, it is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Moism come out on top of Confucianism.          
3. How the Ancient Greeks Lost Their Groove            
Which brings us to our correspondent's question.  (Finally!!)  
If the Chinese were content to be on the bottom layer of the pyramid, the ancient Greeks were content to be on the top.  They were great for spinning grand theories, but not so great for empirical facts.  Aristotle, and those who followed in his school, were exceptional in ancient Greece.  They loom in importance because they are the ones we think were important.  They were not necessarily the ones the ancient Greeks thought were important. 
Being theory spinners par excellance, it is no surprise that they got a theory sort of right now and then.  We often hear of Democritus and his "atoms" or of Aristarchus and his heliocentrism.  (BTW, we only know of Aristarchus from a passing mention in Archimedes' The Sand Reckoner, and we don't know from it whether Aristarchus thought the other planets went around the sun.  But neither based their theories on empirical facts, nor so far as we can tell did they seek to back them up with facts.  They had no impact on mainstream Greek thinking, so it is unfair to wag the bony finger at the muslims or the Latins because they did not consider these speculations as proven fact.  The closest they came was Jean Buridan and Nicole d'Oresme - although note that they did consider it.  As for the atomoi of Democritus, they were "unbreakable" and simple, consisting of no smaller parts (each was one of the five regular solids because..., Well, because.  Fire was hot because its atom was the tetrahedron, which has sharp corners.)  They combined and split by means of love and strife.  Whatever this was. it was not science.  Those things we have called "atoms" are simply not the things that Democritus theorized.  They are splittable and they are made up of parts.
So basically:
Ancient Greeks with factless theories,
Chinese with facts lacking the context of theory.
Muslims lacking a legitimizing social context.
Latins putting it all together at last.
(And no, they couldn't have done it without the prior contributions of the ancient Greeks or the muslim faylasuf.  They didn't know much about the Chinese, but the Chinese were more technology than science.  At its height, Chinese arithmetical astronomy, to take an example, was not as accurate as Ptolemy's geometric astronomy a thousand years earlier; and by Ming times, the calendar was failing on a regular basis.)   
Now, a couple more points.  Peter Dear once listed the six essentials of the 17th century scientific revolution.  These were: 
1.    The view of the world as a kind of machine.
2.    The distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities.
3.    The use of deliberate and recordable experimentation.
4.    The use of mathematics as a privileged tool for disclosing nature.
5.    The pursuit of natural philosophy as a research enterprise.
6.    The reconstruction of the social basis of knowledge around a positive evaluation of cooperative research.                                      

I won't go into all of them, although the lack of 5 and 6 in Islam should be obvious by now.  The candles in the darkness never became a conflagration.  For that matter, the Black Death so depleted Europe that she did not achieve 14th century population levels (and hence, have as many "scientists" as the 14th century) until... the 17th century.
Our correspondent draws attention to #1 and #3 in particular.  The ancient Greeks saw the world as alive, divine, and influential in human affairs.  Trees weren't just trees.  They were dryads, with wills of their own.  There was intention in nature.  Poseidon was not an old man living under the sea, Poseidon was the sea, and the sea was Poseidon.  This is the problem with equating nature with divinity.  You can't really understand nature.  The muslims almost managed to shuck this.  Like the Jews and Christians, they believed nature to be a created thing.  But they couldn't get past the Allah thing.  He was the cause of everything, so...  You just had to trust that Allah would maintain his habits.
The Christians on the other hand had a doctrine of secondary causation.  Augustine, back in late Roman times, had noted that
"It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth.  In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come."  -- On the literal meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11        
The root meaning of "nature" from natus or birth helps.  A thing has a nature, that is, powers it has "from birth."  Collectively, we can talk of Nature, although oddly there are those who speak of "Nature" while denying "natures," as if there could be a collective without the members.  But they have forgotten the meaning of the term and do not think to much about it.  It is merely a sound they make with their mouths.  The Christians believed that God had created these natures with the ability to act directly upon one another, and so they sought explanations of natural phenomena in the workings out of these natures.  William of Conches wrote, “[God] is the author of all things, evil excepted.  But the natures with which He endowed His creatures accomplish a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created these very natures.”  Later, Albertus Magnus [De vegetabilibus et plantis] wrote, “In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.”  And later still, Nicole d'Oresme wrote in On the causes of miracles,  "I propose here… to show the causes of some effects which seem to be miraculous and to show that the effects occur naturally…  There is no reason to take recourse to the heavens [astrology], the last refuge of the weak, or demons, or to our glorious God, as if he would produce these effects directly…"  Ol' Nick was a bishop, too. 
This notion of secondary causation led to the concept of the world as a sort of machine.  The term machina mundi, the machine of the world, was a commonplace in medieval Europe.
"The visible world is this machine, this universe, that we see with our bodily eyes."  -- Abbot Hugh of St. Victor, d.1141
"The world would seem to have causes for its existence, and also to have come into existence in a predictable sequence of time.  This existence and this order can be shown to be rational.  -- Abbot Thierry of Chartres, d.1156
“the machine of the world" -- John of Sacrobosco, 1174-1256, On the sphere    
(BTW, John of Sacrobosco translates as Johnny Hollywood.  LOL)
The Greeks never made this conceptual breakthrough from a nature immanent with divinity to a mechanical nature.
And like the English Long Parliament, I have sat her too long.  So I will skip a discussion of experiments, natures, and atoms.  But here is a useful comment on Aristotle's atoms, which are actually much more like what modern science has discovered.   


  1. I was brought to your site by a Google alert on Archimedes palimpsest!

    I was taken aback by the pile of crap you publish!
    If you yourself admit that you are an amateur why don't you take the time to read some books of the great scholars before you make so many outrageous statements!
    You do not only lack the knowledge but even
    resort to outright lies!!

    You have not read the Archimedes Arenarius (Sand Reckoner) otherwise you woundn't wonder whether Aristarchus knew about the other planets going around the Sun!

    What stands explicitly in Sand Reckoner is that the Stars and the Sun are immovable and the planets revolve around the Sun.

    Moreover the Greeks before Aristarchus knew that Mercury and Venus revolve around the Sun by the simple fact that they stay in their orbits close to the Sun and maximum east and west elongations are about equal!

    So except for a few names you have not read any serious History of Astronomy and yet you have the audacity to present thoughts about the origin and nature of Science.

    If you want to understand a few things about the Nature of Science, please read a little book by Lewis Wolpert "The Unnatural Nature of Science".
    For a History that will shake your believes about the "insights" in the History of Science read Lucio Russo's "The Forgotten Revolution".

  2. A google alert! Oh, my.

    In the Sand Reckoner, 1:4-6, Archimedes wrote:

    But Aristarchus of Samos produced writings of certain hypotheses in which it follows from the suppositions that the world [kosmos] is many times what is now claimed. For he supposes that the fixed stars and the sun remain motionless, while the earth revolves about the sun on the circumference of a circle which is placed on the middle road, but that the sphere of the fixed stars, which is placed about the same center as the sun, is so large in magnitude that the circle on which he supposes the earth to revolve has the sort of proportion to the distance of the fixed stars that the center of the sphere has to the surface. This is trivially impossible, since the center of the sphere has no magnitude.

    And that is all we know about Aristarchus' model: that the earth revolves about a stationary sun. Archimedes is silent on whether Aristarchus believed the other planets did. Maybe he did, but we have no empirical evidence of that. There was at the time no rationale [like Universal Gravitation] for supposing that if the earth went round the sun, the other planets must also.

    (We also know from a reference in Plutarch that Cleanthes the Stoic proposed that Aristarchus be indicted for impiety for claiming that the earth possesses a dual motion. The only work we have ascribed to Aristarchus himself is one estimating the sizes and distances of the moon and sun, where the math is inherently geocentric. And that is it. For those of us who favor empirical evidence, it is slim pickings, Aristarchus-wise.)

    The Pythagoreans believed in a central fire around which everything else revolved (including the sun). The fire was in the center because fire was nobler than earth and the center nobler than the borders. Ergo. Whatever else this might be, it was not "science." However, while Aristarchus's teacher was supposed to be a Pythagorean, he seems to have modified the theology to eliminate the central fire.

    the Greeks before Aristarchus knew that Mercury and Venus revolve around the Sun by the simple fact that they stay in their orbits close to the Sun and maximum east and west elongations are about equal!

    Which means they had evidence that Mercury and Venus tracked the Sun very closely. To us, this implies that they circle the sun; but we are looking at things with a very different world-picture. Aristotle and Ptolemy also knew about Venus and Mercury, Ptolemy's calculations handled it nicely enough. (Keep in mind that, except for Pythagorean number-mystics, no one prior to Copernicus supposed that a mathematical calculation required the physical universe to conform. Astronomy was a branch of mathematics, not a branch of physics.) If you have evidence to the contrary, cite the primary source, not a modern reading modern assumptions into things.

    I was taken aback by the pile of crap you publish!

    Though not enough to point any of it out, save the Sand Reckoner bit, which see above.

    If you yourself admit that you are an amateur why don't you take the time to read some books of the great scholars before you make so many outrageous statements!

    But I did. I've read Huff, Grant, Lindberg, White, Gies, Gimpel, Sivan, etc. I've also read bits ftom Aristotle, ibn Rushd, Buridan, Oresme, et al. (Those are tougher going due to the different categories of thought they employed vis a vis the moderns and post-moderns.)

    You do not only lack the knowledge but even
    resort to outright lies!!

    This is where we Empiricists part company from you True Believers. Evidence, and the Ladder of Inference! There is no way you can infer from the empirical text that I am "resorting to outright lies." At most, you can say I am mistaken -- although the only mistake you essay -- the Sand Reckoner, backs me up.


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