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.