Monday, November 22, 2010

Reply to Freeman

Charles Freeman has commented on my last post in a way that misunderstands my point so fundamentally that it probably needs stating again, more clearly. It was as follows.

1. Many of Aristotle's scientific explanations are obviously wrong.

2. On the assumption that Greek science ended in the 4th century, Greek science had about 700 years to correct these obvious errors. But it didn't (in the sense that it did not arrive at a consensus of where Aristotle was wrong).

The first point is not simply that Aristotle was wrong. It was that he was obviously wrong. For example, he states in De Caelo (tr. Guthrie, Cambridge 1960 pp. 49-51) that if a weight falls a certain distance in a given time, a greater weight will move faster, with a speed proportional to its weight. This is obviously wrong: obvious in a way that his statement about why glass is transparent is not obviously wrong. To refute his theory about glass requires instrumentation and a complex atomic theory, neither of which was available to Aristotle. So while his transparency theory is wrong, it was not obviously wrong. But to refute his theory about falling bodies requires only a few simple experiments. In the 6th century A.D., loannes Philoponus challenged this as follows.

But this [i.e. Aristotle's theory] is completely erroneous, and our view may be
corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal
argument. For if you let fall from the same height two weights of which one is
many times as heavy as the other, you will see that the ratio of the times
required for the motion does not depend on the ratio of the weights, but that
the difference in time is a very small one." [M. R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin, "A
Source Book in Greek Science" (McGraw Hill. N.Y.) 220 (1948) - my emphasis].
So my first point stands: some of Aristotle's scientific observations are obviously wrong, in a way that the technology and understanding of the time could easily have shown. On my second point, that Greek science did not correct these obvious mistakes, the history shows that clearly enough. You may object that Philoponus was Greek, and that he spotted at least one obvious error. I reply: Philoponus' observation does not amount to a scientific consensus. We make progress in science when we arrive at a view that is not necessarily correct, but which is accepted by a majority, or a significant majority, of the scientific community. This was not properly achieved until Galileo. And note also that Philoponus was writing somewhat later than Freeman's 'cutoff point' of 381 AD. Moreover, he was a Christian thinker.


Charles Freeman said...

As I have argued just now, on the blog posting on Closing of the Western Mind, these points do not add up. We know that specific theories of Aristotle were criticised even within his own lifetime or just afterwards. Philoponus just makes the point - he was within the tradition that had been started by Theophrastus many centuries before. He did work in a different context, however, as he was later declared heretical for his views on the Trinity, something the earlier Greek thinkers did not have to worry about.
I can do no more than cite the standard introductions to Greek thought and leave people to get on with them if they seriously want to understand the issues. Of, course, when you have read them, you can always challenge the scholars who wrote them !

Edward Ockham said...

>> these points do not add up. We know that specific theories of Aristotle were criticised even within his own lifetime or just afterwards.

Where have I stated that specific ideas were not criticised? I stated that Greek science did not arrive at a *consensus* of where Aristotle was wrong. I did not say his views were not criticised.

>>I do urge you to read Geoffrey Lloyd on this as one of his main arguments,with much supporting evidence, is that the Greeks felt able to criticise their forebears.

Again, where have I stated that specific ideas were not criticised?

>>You can,of course, cherry -pick instances where something Aristotle said was not challenged,but the general point holds.

I have not given any instances where Aristotle was not challenged.

>> The Hellenistic scientists and mathematicians worked independently of Aristotle and so should be judged on their own merits, not on whether they accepted or did not accept specific ideas of Aristotle. They tended to work from their own axiomatic foundations.

How does this engage with my claim that Greek science did not arrive at a *consensus* of where Aristotle was wrong? It seems entirely irrelevant.

>>I have given you references which, if you read them carefully, will provide you with a wider background to Greek thought and you will see that you have some misconceptions about it.

Which misconception are you referring to? My two points are (1) that Aristotle made statements which were demonstrably wrong. (2) That it seems that Greek science did not arrive at a consensus view of exactly how he was wrong. To show that (1) is false, you would have to show that every single statement made by Aristotle was not *demonstrably* wrong. Regarding (2), you would have to provide evidence of a consensus view that emerged at some point between Aristotle and 381.

Charles Freeman said...

Talking of a consensus view of where Aristotle went wrong is completely misguided, although there is probably more of a consensus among scholars today where he was right (in the sense that he set out ideas about science which still inform the practice today and he was the first known person to set them out. This is why scholars give him the kind of accolades I have quoted.)
1) Are you are aware of just how much Aristotle wrote, over so many different issues? In addition, much of what the Greeks had access to has been lost. Where would you start? There must have been many hundreds of cases in biology and botany alone.As Lloyd notes too, in many cases there would have been no means of finding the truth anyway. Lloyd notes how Theophrastus would often criticise Aristotle's theories (.e.g by bringing up empirical evidence such as the tiny seeds which did not fit) but then admit he did not have the evidence to propose alternative theories.
2) The Greek world, especially when it went into Roman times, had many different centres of learning, so you would never have been able to have a consensus on anything. That is the whole point about Greek thought - it was a highly individualistic intellectual tradition and,if you read my AD 381, I explain how this extended into theology so that there was very sophisticated debate between opposing views until the emperor Theodosius closed down debate in AD 381 and declared all non-Trinitarian views heretical.This was a major turning point in the history of western thought because it brought into Europe the idea that there were privileged truths (here the Trinity) that needed defending by church and state and so the Greek tradition of critical thought died.
3) As the vast majority of Greek texts have been lost, it is impossible to say exactly what or was not challenged about Aristotle in the classical period. The point I would want to make is that among the surviving texts there are examples of where Aristotle was challenged, often by producing empirical evidence that showed where he was wrong, and I suppose that we can assume from that there are other cases lost to us where he was also challenged. Clearly there were no inhibitions about challenging him if even his own students such as Theophrastus could do it. Philoponus is in the same tradition. We have no idea whether he was the first to confront Aristotle on falling bodies , of course, as earlier challenges may have been lost. There is a lot of chance in what has survived.
So all we can say is 1) that Aristotle was often criticised, or in Hellenistic Alexandria often ignored, but there was no mechanism in the Greek world through which a committee could be set up to bring together all the different texts which criticised specific examples from his work,most of which have probably not survived.
2) That there is a reasonable consensus among scholars today over the areas where Aristotle can be seen to have been right in setting out approaches to science that are still used today.This is why he gets such accolades by scholars such as Grant and Lloyd but you must read those for yourself.
3) I would like to reassert the point I made in response to your earlier post, that Aristotle is not Greek thought. You talk as if everything revolved around him and his texts ( or should have).This may have been true in medieval times but not in classical times which is why I referred you to the book on Greek Thought in which Aristotle, although prominent in a number of different disciplines, is only one among many.It is a good book for putting him into the context of a vibrant intellectual tradition that extended over many centuries.

Edward Ockham said...

Charles - thank you for these points. You last comment more relevant to my specific argument. How do we know that no consensus emerged among Greek 'scientists'?

I will post something tomorrow.

On your question about how much Aristotle wrote. I am a student of medieval science and logic and philosophy, and I study Aristotle in the Latin translations from the Greek, in order that I can understand Aristotle as the medievals understood him (very few of them could read Greek). So I am pretty familiar with the core books of the Organon (the Categories, Perihermenias, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics), as well as works like the Metaphysics as well as the Physics.

Of course the Posterior Analytics is Aristotle's key work on scientific method. Have you read this?

Charles Freeman said...

I worked on all this intensively when I was writing on the Greeks some years ago. I am not sure that I would take Posterior Analytics as Aristotle's key work on scientific method- it is usually seen as being more appropriate for mathematical method and, as you will know, there is immense debate over how effective it is for the use of deduction in science. The difficulty with someone as bright and intensely curious as Aristotle is tracing the process of his thought on these matters from the various works that survive and scholars often supplement ideas from the Posterior An. with material from other works that are more directly connected to deduction in science.
Again, as you will know, these are not coherent works so often difficult to evaluate what Aristotle really meant (which is why you have more commentaries on Aristotle than you do on Plato!)
I do find your assertion that Greek science did not progress beyond Aristotle extraordinary- I have only come across that idea once before in Rodney Stark's ill-fated book, Victory of Reason. Are you saying that the Hellenistic scientists and mathematicians did not produce anything that supplants or develops new directions in science independently of, Aristotle? A respectable academic source,please!

Edward Ockham said...

I'll post something tomorrow. Meanwhile, remember that I am a philosopher and philosophers always hedge around any statement with some qualification. In this case, I said that Greek science did not progress *much* beyond Aristotle. How much is 'much'? Well, as Farrington says "The Greeks and Romans stood on the threshold of the modern world. Why did they not push open the door? "

For me 'much' means, getting past the threshold. I'm also looking at Lloyd, who is good value I agree. Lloyd's position is somewhat similar to Hannam: it was the organisational aspect that was lacking. You make the same point in your comment above.

More tomorrow.

Edward Ockham said...

Looking at this, and skimming through Lloyd (Greek Science after Aristotle) I can't see where we disagree. I am clearly not saying that there were *nno* advances after Aristotle (there was all of Stoic logic, for example). And you seem to agree that there was no scientific consensus (and the notion of a scientific establish which this entails) that could have overturned Aristotle.

So where exactly do we disagree?

Charles Freeman said...

I have to be out and about these next few days so here is a final comment.
You took a wholly negative view to Aristotle. I argued that as early as his own students his views were being challenged with empirical evidence that challenged individual instances he had cited. However, looking back over two and a half thousand years, the consensus among scholars today is that he was pretty amazing in setting out ways of doing science that we can see as immensely relevant. As you are now into Lloyd I need to go no further but I wanted to correct the negativity of your approach.
Secondly you did imply that not much went after Aristotle. I have given a reference to the book, Greek Thought, which has all the details, at great length, of what did go on.
It is only in the past 100 to 150 years that we have realised how far an understanding of the natural world can allow us to transform it to our benefit. This is perhaps (very debatable) when modern science begins.The Greeks and Romans used science and technology to serve their immediate needs. So,the citizens of Aspendos in southern Turkey, desperate to have a better water supply, construct two great holding tanks high up on an arched structures at the foot of the hills and the foot of their acropolis and use an inverted siphon system to convey the water the 800 metres between them. (There are many other instances of advanced hydraulic engineering but this was the one I was showing off to a study group a few days ago!) The Romans saw the advantage of a fine road system for imperial admin. and control and when the system collapses everyone goes back to muddy tracks until the 18th century.Again the Romans perfect the art of concrete making so expertly that they are able to construct a vast semi-circular dome for the Pantheon in Rome, and, this is often not appreciated, if you complete the circle of the dome the outer rim meets exactly the centre of the floor below. Pretty competent builders! Meanwhile the boiler system of the Baths of Caracalla a couple of miles away could heat water for 4000 bathers a day.So they used technology very effectively to meet their needs as they defined them. But they were also able to think about problems in an abstract way. It is the combination of the two that is the achievement.
Good reading with Lloyd- there is lots to explore there.

Edward Ockham said...

I'm sorry I gave the impression of being negative about Aristotle. Most of my writing involves Aristotle, particularly his logical works. He was a brilliant philosopher and obviously his work had an enormous impact.

Let's see what you think if my book is published next year.

However, I stick to my view, which is recognised by most authorities, that Aristotle thought of purely theoretical work, i.e. 'first philosophy' to be of higher value than purely experimental work, and this prejudice certainly carried forward into the middle ages, and perhaps held back the experimental approach to science.