Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Science And Philosophy

(Please bear with me. All this is relevant.)

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.

12 comments:

  1. Hi, Paul!

    Very interesting, despite me being a mere amateur when it comes to philosophy. I've read a little Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius' MEDITATIONS, Boethius' CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY, and some of St. Thomas Aquinas' works. In my superficial and shallow way, I lean most to Aristotelian/Scholastic philosophy. Any thoughts or views about Aristotle and St. Thomas?

    Sean

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sean,
    I will reply but busy right now!
    Paul.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Aristotle was more prosaic and scientific than Plato and formulated logic so he contributed more to Western thought. Aquinas, although Aristotelian, was a conservative theologian, not an intellectual enquirer. Roger Bacon in James Blish's DOCTOR MIRABILIS comments that Aquinas conformed to the dominant ideas rather then discovering anything new. I agree.

    I was indoctrinated to think that Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God were valid and I tried to fine tune them but I now regard them as invalid and as mere rationalizations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Paul!

      Thanks for your comments. I still lean more to Aristotle and his successors precisely because of that prosaic and scientific leaning turn of mind. I do think you were too harsh on St. Thomas, however. I don't know what you meant by "dominant ideas," unless you had his faith as a Christian in mind. As for Aquinas' arguments for the existence of God based on reason or logic alone, I fully concede it is possible to disagree with them while affirming that others will find them convincing.

      I suggest looking up some of the works of modern day Aristotelians and Scholastics, such as Jacques Maritain and Mortimer Adler, to see the vigor that school of philosophy still has. I've read works by both of these writers and find their arguments cogent and compelling.

      Sean

      Delete
  4. I think it is fair to say that Christian ideas dominated to the extent that (i) they were generally accepted, including by the powerful, and (ii) it was dangerous to disagree with them. Bacon was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 13 (?) years as a heretic. An individual in such a society might have a personal commitment to the Christian faith or may be just going along with social observance by attending church.

    Economic nationalism has replaced religion as a ruling idea. We think of the Japanese not as heathens to be converted or as infidels to be fought but as economic competitors.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi, Paul!

    And I too am a Christian, even if not a very good one. I don't think it would be bad for a society to be permeated or, if you like, "dominated" by Christian beliefs. And every thing I read about Thomas Aquinas tells me he was, in his quiet, gentlemanly way, a passionatly convinced Christian.

    I agree that economic nationalism, or autarky, has become one of the plagues of our times. And there are Catholics, btw, in Japan. The Church still believes in Christ's command to preach to all nations.

    Sean

    ReplyDelete
  6. The Church preaches but British or French society as a whole no longer supports foreign missions (or Crusades!). I accept that Thomas was a convinced Christian. I would not like to live in a country where a majority in the legislature voted to enforce Catholic morality on monogamy, contraception etc.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi, Paul!

    But would you accept at least strong social DISAPPROVAL of sexual promiscuity or the use of contraceptives? And I would ban the horror of abortion because it is nothing but plain murder.

    Sean

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sean,
    No, I think that sexual activity, including the use of contraceptives, is a matter of private morality. I do not like abortion but I think it has to be a woman's right to choose. And, if all other conditions are right, then abortions either won't be needed or will happen very early when, I think, there is even less of a case to classify them as murder.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Paul!

      I'm sorry, but we ae going to have to disagree, alas. I can never accept that an INTRINSICALLY evil act, like the unjust killing of a human being, can ever be morally licit. Either an unborn child is a human being, with all the rights and protections that should give him, or he is not. And that includes all stages of pregnancy.

      Sean

      Delete
  9. Sean,
    I know that this is a very grave issue. For what it is worth, English Law has always defined murder as "the unlawful killing of a reasonable creature in being and under the King's peace with malice aforethought expressed or implied, death following within a year and a day." "...in being..." means born and physically independent of the mother. Thus, termination of a pregnancy was another offense, not murder.
    This is one of those deeply controversial issues but I hope that it will be resolved in future when there are no longer any unwanted pregnancies so that the issue will not arise.
    Paul.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi, Paul!

    Very interesting. Yes, I knew British law used to classify deliberate abortion as manslaughter, not murder. This is what I read in the article about abortion in the 1913 CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, discussing how various nations penalized abortion: "For England, Blackstone stated the law as follows: "Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual; and it begins, in contemplation of law, as soon as an infant is able to stir in its mother's womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb, or if anyone beat her, whereby the child dieth, and she is delivered of a dead chid; this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter. But the modern law [as of roughly 1780] does not look upon this offence in so atrocious a light, but merely as a heinous msdemeanour." "

    What I concluded from both your quote of the law and from Blackstone's COMMENTARIES is that Catholic Enland regarded abortion with the same horror and disgust as I do but that post "Reformation" Protestant England gradually came to have an unfortunately less severe view of that crime. But even Blackstone considered abortion a grave wrong, a violation of another's right to his life, a "heinous misdemeanour," as he called it.

    Sean

    ReplyDelete