Wednesday, 6 November 2013
Science And Philosophy
In the Greek/European/Western tradition, Thales was the first philosopher and Plato was the first written philosopher but Socrates played a major intermediate role. First, he was Plato's mentor. Secondly, it was he that differentiated what we call "philosophy" from what we call "science."
Science used to be called "natural philosophy." That description exactly fits Thales and the other pre-Socratics. They observed and reasoned but were not able to practice scientific method because that was not due to be invented until a long time later by, according to James Blish, Roger Bacon. The pre-Socratics wanted to know which was the most basic natural element. Thales thought that it was water and he was not far wrong. Water is two thirds hydrogen and:
"The simplest atom is that of hydrogen."
- Poul Anderson, Thermonuclear Warfare (Derby, Connecticut, 1963), p. 12.
(Thales was also an early entrepreneur but that is another story.)
Socrates explicitly stated that he was simply not interested in unimportant details like how many material substances there were. Instead, he wanted to analyze important concepts like Justice and Goodness. Hence, Plato's belief in the primacy and reality of "Ideas." Socratic philosophy has to be called "conceptual" or "analytic" to differentiate it from pre-, and indeed also post-, Socratic natural philosophy.
I am a Socratic philosopher because I prefer conceptual analysis to empirical science and cannot easily follow Poul Anderson's summary of nuclear physics. But events have shown that Socrates was wrong to think that such details were unimportant.