Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons

In Science by Brian Koberlein7 Comments

I’ve been getting a flurry of emails from revolutionary armchair scientists again, largely due to the recent post I wrote over at Starts With A Bang! Whenever several new theories arrives in my mailbox, they all start sounding the same. A bit of praise for my article/website/etc. and then a long diatribe on the errors of modern science followed by a link or attachment for the new and revolutionary idea. The genius of these new ideas are self declared, much along the lines of Vizzini in The Princess Bride, who declared that compared to him, the great philosophers were morons. Although its easy to see the absurdity in a self-declared scientific genius, it is similar to an attitude taken by some scientists with a dim view of philosophy. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates may have been deep thinkers, but philosophers are idiot scientists.

Except they aren’t.

Of the big three philosophers, Aristotle is most often claimed as a scientist. That’s likely because of the three Aristotle’s philosophy is most similar to that of modern science. He didn’t conduct experiments, but he did take the position that observation of physical phenomena could lead to understanding of the world around us. He talked about cause and effect, and developed a set of rules that he argued governed (or at least described) the behavior of the universe. Aristotle’s cosmology held as the dominant model of the solar system until the 1500s.

Plato’s Timaeus looked at aspects of the physical world, which Plato distinguished from the eternal world of forms. In his physical universe matter consisted of the elements earth, air, fire, water, and ether. The idea that matter could consist of a mixture of different fundamental things helped give rise to the idea of chemical elements centuries later. Plato also explored the way in which the universe could have arisen in the first place. His ideas were deeply influential to medieval philosophers and theologians, and led to concepts such as the ex-nihilo origin of the universe. This later inspired Georges Lemaître’s proposal of the big bang.

Socrates famously never wrote anything down, but his ideas come to us through Plato’s writings. Socrates is most famous for his method of getting to the truth of things by asking questions rather than assuming knowledge. It’s an approach that inspires much of modern science. Socrates also explored aspects of metaphysics. In Plato’s dialogues, for example, Socrates is seen to emphasize mathematics as a description of the world, which is a foundational aspect of modern science.

Of course the works of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates inspired later philosophers to explore other aspects of the cosmos, from Descartes’ exploration of the nature of space and time, to Karl Popper’s ideas of falsifiability, all of which has heavily framed modern science. Although we praise Newton’s work as a scientist, one of his largest influences was his philosophical position on what constitutes a scientific model.

Despite this, philosophy and philosophers are still viewed as rather useless to scientists. Part of this is due to the fact that modern science relies on observational and experimental evidence as the final arbiter of truth. In a contest between experiment and theory, experiment always wins. Philosophy is often seen as arguing over things that are either unanswerable or answerable by experiment. Why spend days arguing over the number of teeth in a horses mouth when all you need to do is find a horse and start counting?

Our modern world is so deeply rooted in scientific thinking that it can be difficult to recognize the philosophical roots of our modern worldview. It’s easier to think of past generations as wrongheaded and ignorant rather than adherents to a different metaphysics. And this is one of the reasons science needs philosophers. It’s always good to have a bit of pushback against your assumptions. Philosophers aren’t scientists, so they are free to explore ideas that (at least for now) are scientifically unproductive.

And that’s part of the reason I don’t really mind the Vizzini’s of the world. Most of their ideas are easy to disprove, and it’s always good to see things from another perspective. If all else fails, I could always challenge them to a battle of wits.


  1. One of the basic strengths of philosophy is to be able to think about thinking and to talk about language explicitly and coherently, with understanding and appreciation of the history of human thought and the strengths and weaknesses of the different ways that we humans understand and relate to the world, one another, and our own consciousness.

    These days, every philosopher understands the scientific method and its underlying epistemology of logical positivism. Philosophers whose work overlaps with a scientific field of inquiry generally have a deep and up to date knowledge of relevant scientific theory — e.g., somebody who is working on a philosophy of the mind will follow cognitive science and neuroscience closely.

    Many scientists, however, have never studied philosophy and are unable to discuss their own metaphysical and epistemological assumptions and methods coherently. We all make assumptions about how the world works and what constitutes valid knowledge, but if you’re not able to articulate and question your assumptions, they are likely to be weak and internally self-contradictory. The number of Doctors of Philosophy who have never studied philosophy is shameful and absurd.

    1. Perhaps this is because many metaphysical concepts are in conflict with science? Faith, hope, and love, etcetera, do not lend themselves to accepted scientific methods yet they are hallmark conceptual foundations of inquiry for much of philosophy.

      1. I think you’re confusing philosophy and religion. Metaphysics is simply the investigation of the basic nature of reality. A religious metaphysics may be based on such virtues as faith, hope, and love, but in the philosophy of the past few hundred years various rationalist, empiricist, naturalist, materialist and/or analytic metaphysics have become mainstream.

        You might want to read some philosophy before you decide it conflicts with science. Start with David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke. Bertrand Russell, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead will give you a solid foundation for diving into the logical positivists, e.g. Karl Popper (whom I suspect you will enjoy!). Among more recent and contemporary metaphysicians of science, I would suggest Alexandre Koyre, Imre Lakatos, David Hull, Jonas Arenhart, and Katherine Hawley.

  2. I just listened to a lecture about plato describing socrate’s death. It was fucking cold hearted beyond belief. He was about to die and he told them to take his wife home, described his children and his wife, and various other people and things as things that annoy him and take him away from the “search for the truth”. What a load of bs, he had the truth all along and never knew it, what an idiot.

  3. Perhaps this is because many abstract concepts are in conflict with science? Faith, hope, and love, etcetera, do not lend themselves to approved scientific methods yet they are hallmark conceptual authority of inquiry for much of philosophy.

  4. There are some parts of Plato when he just mixes different meanings of good/bad and similar concepts from different contexts and uses those different contexts in the same dialog to make his point (word plays). Then there are some examples of him creating the conclusion first and draws “logical” (and then unproven but today often disproven by science) premises from that conclusion to make his point. Some of his opinions were only emotional: “a just man is rewarded” (how? always? sometimes? in what context?). Sometimes he sounds like a 10-year old child, i.e. his thinking is not “branching” enough to my tastes and useless to science.

  5. You say of Aristotle “he did take the position that observation of physical phenomena could lead to understanding of the world around us”. Pity he did not take his own advice and actually look at the animals he describes or, for that matter, counting the teeth inside the mouths of a few women. Then we might have been spared several centuries of dogmatic nonsense when his statements were adopted as official doctrine and truth by the Catholic church.

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