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History of Science Ancient Egypt

History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 3: Ancient Egyptian and Aegean science

Significance of the Presocratics

| Presocratics Index | Intro | Thales | Anaximandros | Anaximenes | Herakleitos | Parmenides | Zenon | Melissos |
| Atomists: Leukippos and Demokritos | Anaxagoras | Empedokles | Significance of the Presocratics |

The presocratic philosophers are central to a discussion of the nature of knowledge and the relations between science and religion. (You may wish to re-read the introductory paragraphs on Xenophanes and ancient Greek religion and the definition of the divine.) Remember our heuristic definition of the "divine" as that part of reality which is the ultimate cause of all other aspects of reality? The divine does not depend on anything else for its existence. Everything that is not divine depends upon the divine. With this rough definition we may understand the presocratics as extending a contemporaneous religious reform movement which advocated monistic instead of polytheistic perspectives, that is, which upheld a single divinity or first principle upon which all else would depend. The presocratics rejected the polytheistic beliefs of their society which anthropomorphized divinity by attributing human foibles and follies to the gods, as reflected in Homeric literature and mythology. So, in place of the Olympian gods and goddesses, they sought a single divine first principle that could explain all of reality, particularly the nature of matter and of changes in matter, without having recourse to arbitrary and capricious acts of the Olympian divinities.

The presocratic philosophers are also central to a discussion of scientific method. One of the pleasures of studying the history of science is the light it throws on the unexpected variety of scientific methods. Science has been practiced in many different ways (see my Welcome message). Yet to begin thinking about scientific methods, we might hypothesize that understanding of the natural world always involves the interaction between three realms:

That is, science always expresses what we might conceptualize as a natural and a mental component, shaped by the surrounding culture. These three components are intimately related, and never present in isolation from one another. Social context, external nature and internal thought are brought together. Natural phenomena, rational thought, and cultural context, or experience and reason and common sense, aesthetics and values, in some way are present, although each of these may be understood in varying ways.

We may draw an interesting contrast between the presocratics and the Babylonians we studied last week. With the practice of astronomy in ancient Mesopotamia, Babylonian astronomers combined careful observation of the motions of the planets with mathematical descriptions and even predictions of those motions. For the Babylonians, the experience component of natural knowledge included a massively organized program of sustained observation of the heavens, and the mental component emphasized mathematics. The social component included a state-organized religious milieux. The presocratics, on the other hand, relied very little upon either a sustained observational research program or upon mathematics. Instead of organized, systematic observation, they relied upon analogies they might draw to ordinary individual experience. Instead of mathematics, the presocratics emphasized the role of logic in the rational component of scientific knowledge. Their social milieux was that of the early Greek city states.

What is nature? How is nature known? These questions are central to our understanding of how science was practiced in any culture.

What is nature? For the Babylonians, natural phenomena such as the motions of the heavens were signs of the will of the gods, to be interpreted for the benefit of the king and empire. For the presocratics, natural phenomena were the result of some abstract first principle, a divine principle on which everything else depended but which itself did not depend upon anything else. We have noted their divine first principles:

Physicist (Physiologoi)
First principle
Thales of Miletos
Water
Anaximandros of Miletos
Apeiron
Anaximenes of Miletos
Air
Herakleitos of Ephesos
Fire

Parmenides of Elea,
Zenon of Elea,
Melissos of Samos

It, The One
Leukippos of Miletos and Demokritos of Abdera
Atoms + Void
(an infinity of indivisible components)
Anaxagoras of Klazomenai
All in All
(an infinity of infinitely-divisible components)
Empedokles of Akragos
Roots (earth, air, fire water)

How is nature known? In their search for ultimate first princples of nature, the presocratic philosophers established a tradition of critical theoretical debate that became enormously successful in the development of natural philosophy. They emphasized the rational component more than the observational component, and for them the rational component meant particularly the role of logic in scientific knowledge. They conducted debates on a high intellectual plane about the first principles as causes of natural phenomena. Their tradition emphasized critical theoretical debate over causes more than observation of natural phenomena, empirical know-how, technical trial-and-error methods, or mathematical description. We have described the character of their theoretical causes as monistic or pluralistic, tychist or teleological or necessitarian, etc.:

Physicist (Physiologoi)
First principle
Character
Thales of Miletos
Water
Monism (related to the mythological Okeanos?)
Anaximandros of Miletos
Apeiron
Monism
Anaximenes of Miletos
Air
Monism
Herakleitos of Ephesos
Fire
Monism (Logos)

Parmenides of Elea,
Zenon of Elea,
Melissos of Samos

It, The One

Monism, Plenism, Rationalism, Necessitarianism, Sufficient Reason, Akinesis, Eternity of the World

Leukippos of Miletos and Demokritos of Abdera
Atoms + Void
Pluralism, Void, Tychism
Anaxagoras of Klazomenai
All in All
Radical Pluralism, Teleology (Nous)
Empedokles of Akragos
Roots (earth, air, fire, water)
Moderate Pluralism, Tychism (Love and Strife)

What is nature? How is nature known?

In grappling with these two questions, the presocratics established a tradition of logical debate as a search for theoretical causes. That tradition, which became known as "physics," remains as important and influential today as the tradition of mathematical science and the tradition of medical practice that was the legacy of the presocratics' eastern and southern neighbors. The answers of these different traditions to our two fundamental questions are summarized in the table below:

  What is Nature? How is Nature known?
Tradition Desired type of explanation Experience component Mental component
Mesopotamian astronomy Interpretation of natural phenomena as signs of the will of the gods; practical know-how Long-term, organized, systematic observation Mathematical description and prediction
Egyptian medicine Interpretation of natural phenomena as signs of the will of the gods; practical know-how Empirical results of medical regimens,
surgical techniques
Evaluation of case studies
Presocratic natural philosophy (physics) Search for divine first principles understood as theoretical causes Limited appeals to ordinary, individual experience Logic

This table represents an interesting variety of answers to the two questions and suggests an interesting variety of scientific methodologies. Historically, it is difficult to put science into a single mold.

 

Lev Shestov wrote: "It is another matter with a child of our society: his mind is unencumbered by fairy tales; he knows that demons and sorcerers do not exist, and he trains his mind not to believe such lies, even if his heart is inclined toward the miraculous. But, on the other hand, from a very early age, he is given reliable information, the implausibility of which surpasses absolutely every fib ever told by the most imaginative writers of fairy tales. For example, he is told -- and in an authoritative tone before which all doubt subsides and must subside -- that the Earth is not motionless, as the evidence indicates, that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, that the sky is not a solid, that the horizon is only an optical illusion and so on." (Reported by Nobel Prize winner for Literature Czeslaw Milosz, "The Lesson of Biology," p. 42. In The Witness of Poetry, 1983.)

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
-14
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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