Thursday, June 22, 2017

Aristotle, the greatest scientist of the Greco-Roman civilization

In my biographical dictionary, 1000 great scientists (1996) I proposed an objective quantification of the importance of different scientists, using measures such as the number of lines assigned to each in encyclopedias in different languages, to avoid bias in favor of the fellow citizens. Subsequently, in an unpublished work (The Quantification of History and the Future of the West), I applied the same procedure to various branches of human creativity: science, philosophy, literature, fine arts, and music. In that study, six scientists were tied with the highest score: one Greek (Aristotle) ​​and five from the West (Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein). We can therefore say that Aristotle was the greatest scientist of the Greco-Roman civilization.

What scientific achievements have made it possible for Aristotle to attain this privileged situation?
  • He was the creator of physical science. Until then there had been three fundamental sciences, practiced by all ancient civilizations: astrology (what we now call astronomy), medicine and mathematics. Before Aristotle, some Greek philosophers (Anaxagoras, Anaximander, Empedocles, Plato...) had attempted to build a theory of the world based on the existence of a few fundamental elements, whose interactions would explain the behavior of all bodies. Aristotle systematized it into a coherent theory, according to which there would be five elements (earth, water, air, fire and ether), four of which coexist on Earth and the fifth (quintessence) would form the celestial bodies. Applied to the elements, the principle that the similar seeks its similar would explain why stones and water thrown into the air fall again, vapors and fire ascend, while the proper movement of bodies composed of ether would be rotating around the Earth.
  • He was the creator of biology, having invented a well organized classification system and perfected the theory of the three souls (where soul means the principle of life): vegetative soul (owned by all living beings and the only one possessed by plants), the sensitive soul (proper to animals and man) and the rational soul (possessed just by man).
  • He was the creator of logic, an essential tool for the development of science, which remained virtually unchanged, such as Aristotle had developed it, well into the nineteenth century.
It may seem surprising that I am doing now, in the twenty-first century, a panegyric of Aristotle, whose teachings dominated world philosophy and science until the sixteenth century. Since then, much more emphasis has been placed on his mistakes (he had many) than on his successes (which were also many). But every scientist has made mistakes. That is precisely what how science advances: by gradually correcting the errors of previous scientists. Copernicus made a mistake when he put the sun in the center of the universe. Newton, because his equations do not explain the precession of the perihelion of Mercury. And Einstein, who insisted on describing a static universe. Besides which, Aristotle may have an important role to play in modern science. To give just an example, the doctoral thesis in philosophy of physics by Francisco José Soler Gil, written in the 21st century, is titled Aristotle in the quantum world.
Apart from his scientific and philosophical theories, which may be more or less debatable today, Aristotle has bequeathed us a nomenclature, without which there are things in our daily life that would be unintelligible. I will take as an example what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about transubstantiation of the Eucharist:
1376 The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: "Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation." (DS 1642).
To understand this one has to resort to the nomenclature invented by Aristotle, according to which substance is what something is, while accident is the set of properties of that something. In the consecration of the Eucharist the substance changes, but not the accidents. In other words, the physical-chemical properties of bread and wine remain unchanged after consecration, so that a physical-chemical analysis of the consecrated host would discover no difference with bread. It is not, therefore, a scientific statement, but an act of faith. Many atheists, and even Protestant Christians, stumble on this point, because they do not know Aristotle’s nomenclature, which is what the Church applies. This definition was adopted centuries before the existence of chemistry, so that it cannot be considered a trick to escape the advances of science.
Niccolò Machiavelli
Finally, I want to point out that Aristotle’s Politics by can be applied in our days almost unchanged. In that book, for instance, Aristotle said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried, two millennia before Winston Churchill. He did not say it in those words, in the same way that the famous phrase attributed to Machiavelli (the end justifies the means) does not appear literally in The Prince. What Aristotle did in that book was to classify political systems into three types, each of which has a good and a bad version:
  1. The government of the best person (monarchy), whose bad version is tyranny.
  2. The government of the best group (aristocracy), whose bad version is oligocracy.
  3. The government of everybody (democracy), whose bad version is demagogy.
Add to this two observations:
  • Among the good political systems, the best is monarchy, followed by aristocracy, and the least good is democracy. Among the bad, the worst is tyranny, followed by oligocracy, and finally by demagogy.
  • A general rule: any political system, even if it is initially good, tends spontaneously to become corrupt and transform into its bad counterpart.
It follows that it is better to start from the least good political system (democracy), because when it is corrupted (which is inevitable) it will lead to the least bad political system (demagogy).
Let someone dare to deny that all this can be seen in our time. Everyone should read Aristotle!

The same post in Spanish
Manuel Alfonseca

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