Sunday, October 19, 2014

When Aristotle Invented Science

Upon decamping from The New York Times, wunderkind Nate Silver, a man more noted for his electoral prognostications than his philosophical acumen made a telling point. Some op-ed columns, he said, are fact-driven; others are idea-driven.

In recognizing this division, Silver identified the two major philosophical traditions in Western civilization. For the sake of argument, we can call them empirical and idealistic.

In the one you begin with facts and data. Then you develop a hypothesis and test it (experimentally or observationally) against facts and data.

In the other you begin with ideas. They might be embodied in axioms; they may involve fictions. Then you go out and select those facts that affirm your belief, ignoring those that would contradict it. Your goal is not to learn how things work but to affirm the truth of your beliefs.

Idealists and ideologues choose their facts selectively. This is why Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman insisted that a true scientist must always report results that disprove a hypothesis.  Scientists do not cherry-pick facts.

Of course, the founding fathers of these two intellectual currents were Aristotle and Plato. While many of Aristotle’s analyses of natural phenomena are false, he was clearly interested in observing reality and trying to draw conclusions. He might not have invented the experimental method, but he did lay the groundwork for the development of science.

Writing in the Daily Beast, Nick Romeo summarizes a new book by Armand Marie Leroi. The book’s title: In The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science.

He offers this analysis:

Today, collecting data is taken for granted as a necessary part of scientific inquiry. But Aristotle’s empirical emphasis was revolutionary for the fourth century BCE. He was a student of Plato, a thinker more interested in the abstractions of mathematics and metaphysics than the myriad details of the perceptible world. The cause of flatulence in elephants, for instance, was just not the type of question Plato pursued.

Aristotle, however, had an insatiable appetite for data on the vast variety of features, behaviors, and structures of biological life. He learned that near the Black Sea rams don’t have horns, while in Libya there’s a sheep with long horns. He notes that on Naxos sheep have very large gallbladders, but on Euboea they do not.

While other authors in antiquity would simply repeat the myths and legends travelers brought back from distant regions (Herodotus on flying serpents comes to mind), Aristotle sought to verify reports whenever possible by observing phenomena for himself, dissecting animals, and interviewing people whose daily work brought them into close contact with the creatures he was studying. He even examined an aborted human fetus. Not only did he recognize the importance of gathering large sets of data, he also tried to monitor its quality.

But he was more than an encyclopedist. He collected such comprehensive data in order to analyze and interpret it. His theories and interpretations are often astonishingly insightful. One 20th-century Nobel laureate suggested that Aristotle deserved to receive the prize posthumously for his realization that the information that dictates and replicates an organism’s structure is stored in its semen. In some sense he was anticipating the discovery of DNA. His theory of inheritance can also account for recessive traits that skip generations, the contributions of both parents to the features of a child, and unexpected variations in traits that do not derive from either parent.


Ares Olympus said...

A good summary, although it seems like Silver's "empirical and idealistic" traditions are not quite as clear as that, assuming he is showing the triumph of empiricalism.

I might as well say "empirical and categorical" traditions, with empirical data about things that can be measured, and categorical data about things that can be grouped together as similar.

One of the perhaps FAILURES of modern science is to FLATTEN reality as a Materialistic construct, and anything you can't quantify isn't worth studying.

Aristotle also explored an idea we now call "chain of being" that recognized the qualitive hierarchical of existence between dead matter, plants, animals and mind, and reaching God on the top.

So that's all imaginative and easy to fall off reality, yet also an attempt to express profound observeable truths of reality, including the observable fact there are subtle or invisible agents to reality, which we experience in ourselves, as soul, and all of life, and we can imagine higher agents of angels and God above.

So if Aristotle invented empirical science, he also never dropped the widest idealistic view of a living universe. Instead it was Descartes' Cogito ergo sum that created our dualistic world of idealistic observer mind and empirical observed materialism, our modern split reality.

I can ask how we support an empirical science that doesn't reduce people to naked apes, animals to food or machines, and food to chemical nutrients? That downward push in the chain of being is a question materialistic science doesn't care to look at, because there's no objective facts to answer.

Like you could say "interchangable parts" is the highest ideal of a machine, and the lowest ideal of a human being. Without holding the "chain of being" in your mind, we're all just chemicals and energy, no greater value than our usefulness to someone else who has what we want.

I'm a computer programmer, as mentally abstract, as logically closed as you can get, but I hold appreciation for what we don't know, and what empirical deductions can't see. E. F. Schumacher is my modern bridge for this "great idealism" in the chain of being.

Anonymous said...

The problem of today's ideologues is that they claim to be rational empiricists when they certainly are not.

Anonymous said...

Karl Marx attacked utopian socialists and contrasted their highfalutin idealism with his own brand of 'scientific' socialism grounded in material facts.
Alas, he turned out to be no less idealistic.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good points, Anon and Anon... many of today's ideologues do pretend to be rational empiricists... of course, they only select out the empirical data that supports their ideology

n.n said...

Perhaps we should add a third category: objective or scientific. This category contains empirical observations and idealistic concepts that are contained within a limited frame of reference in time and space. The scientific domain explicitly acknowledges that accuracy is inversely proportional to the product of time and space offsets from an established frame of reference. It implicitly acknowledges what is known, can be known, and is impossible to know (e.g. without extra-universal intervention). The scientific method, which requires observation and reproduction of phenomena, is an imperfect procedure to enforce operation within the scientific domain.

Most of our big "scientific" ideas, including "Big Bang", evolutionary creationism, anthropogenic global warming/climate change, are not in fact scientific but from a universal or even extra-universal philosophical domain.

There irrational fears, including nuclear energy, chemical processes, that have a pseudo-scientific (e.g. circumstantial, extrapolated) origin.

There is scientific rationalization. For example, abortion or premeditated murder of a wholly innocent human life before "viability", where arguments equate evolution from conception with its termination at death. In reality, it was a religious exemption under the First Amendment granted to women so that they may exercise a sincerely held faith (i.e. spontaneous conception) to commit or contract for abortion of a wholly innocent human life in the privacy of a clinic.

The conflation of science and philosophy is motivated by the human ego, which is difficult to constrain to the scientific domain when money, sex, and power are offered as potent incentives.

Ares Olympus said...

I just came upon Carl Sagan's tributary video "A universe not made for us" (9 minutes). I think its from Sagan's "A demon haunted world", his last book, afraid that scientific understandings could again be replace a dark age of superstition.

Its an impressive piece of rhetorical advocacy for objective reason, and his quote is clear:
"Because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not reign freely."

But his world view contains its own subjective sentimentality as well, that knowledge alone will lead to our redemption.

He ends taking a stand: "There is in this Universe much of what seems to be design. But instead, we repeatedly discover that natural processes—collisional selection of worlds, say, or natural selection of gene pools, or even the convection pattern in a pot of boiling water—can extract order out of chaos, and deceive us into deducing purpose where there is none."

So Sagan is not "agnostic" about a designer to the universe. He's not interested in subtle communication of divinity into the world, or that we ourselves might be the language of communication between physical and spiritual.

He just sees a world that can be "explained" as mechanically determined with with enough care and the proper error bars while ignoring the mystery of the higher order aspects of life and being that equations will never predict.

Ares Olympus said...

Oops, The Sagan video transcript was at the link above, but video failed.

Here's a working video: