Friday, November 9, 2012

Proto-scientific thought in ancient Miletus

To: Sean K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Proto-scientific thought in ancient Miletus
Date: 7th November 2008 13:52

Dear Sean,

Thank you for your email of 29 October, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, entitled, 'Proto-Scientific Thought in Ancient Miletus'.

This is an ambitious essay which attempts to account for the way that both science and philosophy arose in opposition to mythos. Although your title refers specifically to thought, there is a deep philosophical issue here about just what counts as 'science' or 'philosophy', or indeed how these two branches of human knowledge are related to one another.

I think you needed a more focused title: my advice is generally to choose questions from past UoL examination papers. The essay reads very well, but despite your evident grasp of the material the result is informative, interesting -- but less philosophically challenging than it might have been. With a focused title, you would have been forced to marshall your arguments for or against a view. You haven't 'veered off course', rather, it is difficult to discern just what the course is.

Here and there, there are glimpses that you are aware of the crucial question of what makes a theory 'scientific'. Speaking of Anaximander's cosmogony, you say, 'These accounts are exposed to refutation', but then almost immediately after describe Anaximander as 'perhaps the first true rationalist, who in rejecting contradictions is forced to come to very counterintuitive conclusions purely by ratiocinating how they might be made better.'

Reference to 'refutation' brings to mind Karl Popper's 'falsifiability' criterion intended to demarcate science from non-science Popper himself wrote a very lively essay, 'Back to the Presocratics' which is included in his collection, 'Conjectures and Refutations'. However, the view amongst scholars is that Popper is somewhat biased in his view of the Presocratics.

Although Aristotle describes the Milesians as 'physikoi', there is comparatively little that you can point to in the way of experimental testing that one finds in physics. (You describe Anaximenes' 'experiment' with air blown through a wide open mouth or through pursed lips -- which is remarkable as one of the few examples of an attempt to test a theory against observation.) There was indeed much debate over the relative merits of different theories, but this debate centered on questions of coherence and consistency. Popper uses the term, 'critical rationalism' in a wider sense to describe debate which is not necessarily scientific conducted in a spirit where claims are contested and required to defend themselves against criticism. Arguably, the Presocratics were 'critical rationalists' rather than 'scientists'.

Do we learn what science *is* by looking at the Presocratics? Evidently, they had grasped one of the defining aspects of science: the idea of 'theory' or inference to the best explanation. But that idea, arguably, covers both scientific and philosophical thinking, both empirical research and conceptual analysis (I am not claiming that there is a rigid line between these, but there is a distinction.)

Then again, as I claim in the Pathways 'First Philosophers' program, the discovery of science 'was a philosophical discovery'. The Presocratics paved the way. With a little push they could have become scientists. And yet, if you look at Aristotle you find an eminently capable researcher who somehow hasn't fully grasped (from the modern perspective) what science is all about.

One issue which you pass over concerns the status of mind. Right up until the atomists, mind was considered an essential ingredient in the universe. 'All things are full of Gods' says Thales; Anaximander's apeiron and Anaximenes' air both embody a teleological aspect which is inconsistent with explanation in terms of efficient causality. It could be argued that science is not fully science until it discards teleology. The current debate between creationists and evolutionists is a debate over the legitimacy of science as an activity of putting forward falsifiable theories -- on the 'deductive-nomological' model -- in order to explain our experience.

We could also ask, to what extent the Presocratics show us the nature of philosophy. Here, I think, once again they have grasped one aspect of philosophy -- the rationalistic, critical part -- but it was left to Socrates and Plato to put forward what, today, is regarded as the central aim of philosophy: conceptual clarification and analysis.

One thing I haven't touched on is the 'logos over mythos' debate. It could be argued that the idea of the history of Western science and philosophy as a 'triumph of logos over mythos' involves a strong ideological bias in favour of science and technology, and that there are alternative versions of the story which emphasize the positive aspects of mythos. How fully did the first philosophers emancipate themselves from mythos? Is that really how they saw themselves? What's the evidence for that view?

All the best,

Geoffrey