How scientific were the theories of the Presocratics?
Indeed his theory can be seen as counter observational as he arrived at it by criticising Thales. His idea that the earth is a body, suspended in mid air, is not only contrary to all experience but purely speculative. However, his critical speculations served him better than his observations since, as Popper states; “‘”what stopped Anaximander concluding the world was a globe instead of a cylinder was his observational experience. Observation led him astray””‘ (Popper, 1960. p135). Popper wishes to draw the conclusion from this that how a theory is arrived has little to do with its scientific status.
What makes something scientific, he states; “Is its explanatory power” (Popper, 1960. p136). To make this claim, however, is problematic. This is because we normally regard the process by which scientific conclusions are reached as a fundamental aspect of science. This idea can be illustrated with an example. A child in a science lesson would not be seen as engaging in science if all she was to do was to sit and criticise the theories of her fellow classmates, without the intention of then preceding to check her ideas.
Neither would her theories be made any more scientific if they happened to be correct. This is because it is the process that is used to reach a conclusion that decides whether it is scientific or not, not whether the ideas are right or wrong. Deductive reasoning on its own is not science, since science must involve some sort of verification or falsification of the theories it expounds. Popper’s example of Anaximander, therefore, could be interpreted as the very evidence that shows Anaximander’s theories are philosophical not scientific.
This is because, since his theories have little to do with empirical observation, it is more plausible to see them as speculative philosophy. Even if it must be conceded that science intrinsically needs to involve experimentation, it would be wrong to discount the Presocratics as scientific upon these grounds alone. This is because such a view judges their theories according to what is known today and does not account for the period of history that the Presocratics lived in. There was no developed system of experimentation in the ancient world.
One can therefore imagine that it would have been very difficult to conceive of the tests they could have used to check their theories. As evidence of this claim we can cite a previous example. The idea that Anaximenes should have been aware of a scientific method of experimentation to test his results is misleading. An experiment, even as simple as freezing water in a jar to see if it expands or contracts, would have been difficult to conceive of in the absence of the any theory which would give direction to ones observations.
The idea then, that tests naturally should have suggested themselves, forgets that in the twentieth century we have a vastly more developed system of science and the theory of testing than the Presocratics had. Therefore when judging how scientific the theories of these ancient philosophers are it is perhaps fairer to assess them within their own society and not in comparison to the developed systems of today. The Presocratics’ natural philosophy was scientific in contrast with the religious philosophy that had preceded it.
Before the Presocratics formulated their theories about the world and the nature of matter, natural phenomena was explained through myth. In contrast to this view of the world the Presocratics’ theories did not require god’s interference to act as explanations for the events that occurred in the world. This is not to say that their theories did not have any spiritual aspect, but for the first time the universe was seen as something potentially within the reach of our human knowledge, not as something that was extraordinary and irrational.
Their attempt to supply a purely naturalistic interpretation of the universe as a whole gave momentum to the scientific study of the future. Furthermore, the Presocratics empiricism revealed to them the independence of the material world from the self. Their theories did not only not require gods influence, but also did not depend on man. They spoke of the world in a way detached from themselves it is to this extent that they may be regarded as the creators of the scientific world view. The Presocratics took this new idea of empiricist study one stage further.
Fundamentally they went on to couple their observations about the world with logic and managed to establish the fact that nature works by unseen forces. This is what is important about Empedocles’ research into the clepsydra. It is not of any great importance whether it was an experiment or not, as discussed earlier. What is significant is the crucial discovery Empedocles made as it had far reaching connotations for the future of science. Empedocles experimentally showed that; “‘”Matter could exist in a form too fine to be apprehended by sight, and yet, in a form that could exert power””‘
(Farrington, 1944.p59). The conclusion he managed to draw from the clepsydra was perhaps the first example of how we can overcome limitations of sense perception by a process of inference based on observation. The Atomists built upon this vital discovery. Cornford wishes to criticise the Atomists as they took their ideas about the world’s materialism too far. (Cornford, 1932. p25). However, again this misses the point. Whether the Atomists were developing a whole philosophical system not just a scientific one is not what is of importance.
The Atomists are scientific in the way that they formed principles and established that their was such a thing as the reign of universal laws, such as “‘”nothing is created out of nothing””‘. Their views, crucially, also took one stage further the detachment of the self from the object. As this essay has attempted to show the theories of the Presocratics are, to a certain extent, scientific. Although they fail to meet the strict criterion of science as we see it today, the type of investigation that they started supplied modern science with its very roots.
Therefore, although an allowance must be made to the unscientific form of many of their theories, they should be given full credit for laying down the foundations for scientific concepts, upon which natural science was built.
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FURLEY. D.J. “Empedocles and the Clepsydra” 1957, in FURLEY and ALLEN “Studies in Presocratic Philosophy Vol 2” (1975, London Routledge and Kegan Paul). KIRK. G. S. “Popper on Science and the Presocratics” 1963, in FURLEY and ALLEN “Studies in Presocratic Philosophy Vol 1” (1975, London Routledge and Kegan Paul). POPPER. K. “Back to the Presocratics” 1960, in FURLEY and ALLEN “Studies in Presocratic Philosophy Vol 1” (1975, London Routledge and Kegan Paul). VLASTOS. G. “Cornford’s Principium Sapientiae” 1955, in FURLEY and ALLEN “Studies in Presocratic Philosophy Vol 1” (1975, London Routledge and Kegan Paul). “