Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Rescuing Aristotle and the Church

Last night, we started watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on DVD. Still waiting to finish Episode 1, the narrative has problems. The error in beatifying Giordano Bruno as a martyr to science was quickly pointed out by others. (See “Did Cosmos Pick the Wrong Hero?” by Corey S. Powell, Discover magazine online here and “Why Did Cosmos Focus on Giordano Bruno?” by Josh Rosenau at the National Center for Science Education here.) Part of that false narrative included a swipe at Aristotle which no one else caught. Aristotle always takes a lot of criticism, mostly by misunderstanding and misattribution. 

Reviewing Episode 6: Deeper and Deeper Still, (which is still in my future), Jennifer Ouellette of the LA Times wrote:
“Anyway, the notion of atoms dates back to an ancient Greek philosopher named Democritus, who first proposed that it just wasn’t possible to keep dividing matter into smaller and smaller bits; at some point, you would reach the smallest possible piece, which he dubbed “atomos” (“not to be cut”). His contemporaries, including Aristotle, didn’t take Democritus seriously, and why should they? They didn’t have the tools to probe such a small scale. But eventually modern physics proved him right.” ("Cosmos’ recap: Deeper and deeper still" April 14, 2014 5:20 AM here.)
First, the physical reality of atoms was doubted by serious scientists such as Ernst Mach as late as 1900. The concept was considered a convenient construct. The reality of very small particles was easy to accept because lenses and microscopes revealed them. However, the concept of “atom” raised unsolvable problems. Of course, those metaphysical objections go back to the Greeks. The problem was argued without resolution. 

What is between atoms? Nothing? “Nothing” is not a different kind of “something” but rather “nothing” truly “does not exist.” What then is between atoms? 

If nothing is between atoms, then why does it take any time at all for atoms go from one place to another? How do atoms interact across the void to form molecules? 

Nature abhors a vacuum. Every space must be filled with something.  If the void of nothing does not exist, and if all matter consists of uncuttable objects, how do we move at all?  
The clepsydra
from Cosmos (1980, page 179)
Obviously, we do move. Just as obviously, all matter is made of something, or perhaps four or five different kinds of something. The lack of a solution to such problems did not prevent social and material progress. And the atomic theory was supported by some evidence. Empedocles of Acragas used it to explain how the “clepsydra” worked. Ultimately, in the modern 19th century, John Dalton, Dmitri Mendeleev, and others put the idea of the atom to good use.

That being so, the discovery of the electron and eventually other subatomic existents defeated the idea of an ultimately “uncuttable” object. Now, we have fields and statistical probabilities. 
Detail of Raphael's School at Athens. 
Plato points to the sky, while
Aristotle reaches for the world.
Aristotle placed the Earth at the center of the universe for both logical and empirical reasons. A century later, Aristarchus of Samos put the sun at the center of our system. Archimedes attempted to settle question by measuring the parallax. He could not do it. He concluded that either the Earth is the center of the universe, or else the universe is far larger than anyone could imagine. We know now that the problem was his instrumentation. Fine as it was for the times, it was not up to the task. Friedrich Bessel achieved the first measurement of stellar parallax in 1838 using a spectroscope. Similarly, the rotation of the Earth on its axis was not proved by experiment until 1789 by Giovanni Battista Guglielmini and most dramatically demonstrated in 1851 by Léon Foucault. 

Aristotle’s embryology of the chick is one of the greatest experimental observations. He also knew that dolphins are mammals, breathing air, bearing their young alive and feeding them milk. 

In addition to being a careful observer, Aristotle attacked the philosophical (“scientific”) problems of his time by comparing and contrasting what others wrote before and then analyzing those against reason and fact. Even so, most of what we have from Aristotle was reconstructed. The great corpus of his original work was lost when the Macedonian royal family fought over his library and the scrolls were buried. Worms got to them. The damaged manuscripts were reconstructed with egregious errors. Other works from Aristotle’s students (primarily Theophrastus) were copied as if from Aristotle himself. 

The Catholic Church of the early Middle Ages found Platonism to its liking. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas argued well for Aristotle. By the 16th century—ten generations later—Aristotle was not just the norm, but literal truth. It was the method of men who sought literal truth in one book. We see this today when fundamentalist Christians attack Darwin. Darwin's Origin opens with citations to others before himself who proposed theories of evolution. But fundamentalists take one book as their source and therefore another single book as their target. 

The Catholic church of the Middle Ages was very supportive of astronomy in particular and science in general. Despite our modern focus on Christmas, for Christians the most important day of the calendar is Easter: the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the first day of spring. Calculating Easter required bringing the solar and lunar calendars into agreement. They called the practice computas. It was a mathematical prediction tested by observation—thanks to the astrolabe imported from Islamic Spain in the late 11th century. The churchmen of the Counter-Reformation would have been out of step with Catholic education of the 12th century.

As Dr. Tyson says: “To make this journey, we’ll need imagination. But imagination alone is not enough because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than we can imagine. This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules: Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence where it leads and question everything.”

It is a nice statement of the scientific method that works for television as it streams past you. Myself, to encapsulate the scientific method, I would have bulleted these points:
  • Ask questions.
  • Explain observations with logically consistent theories.
  • Test theories with different observations and new predictions.
  • Publicize your findings and your methods.

The rules can be variously stated. Those four mandates could be expanded to 14 steps. That is how truth works. It is why over 300 proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem have been published. 

As easy as it would be to excoriate Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series was written by Ann Druyan and astrophysicist Steven Soter, both of whom worked on the original CosmosA Personal Journey with Carl Sagan. Druyan was married to Sagan. Sagan was one of Soter’s dissertation advisors. 


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