The Labor of Philosophy and the Birth of Science

Delivered at the August 2nd 1998 service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

Philosophy and science in their primordial condition were never recorded. We can only infer them. Or we can speculate, which is to say, we can think about how it might have been, consistent with our present-day understanding of what it may have been like. That is, we want to forge a link between human beings in a near state of nature and the earliest writings, or aspects of those writings, which correspond to what we now consider philosophy and science.

If we were superstitious, perhaps we would claim that some supernatural being created human brains pre-loaded with knowledge and understanding of the rudiments of these things. But the basis of the most popular superstitious religions in our nation, the Bible, never makes such a claim. It doesn't even address the question, except in terms that make it clear that the effort to acquire a moral sense is "sinful" and, therefore, worthy of the most extreme and frightful punishment. You have to go to Greek mythology to find a good mythical treatment of how human beings first caught on to the essentials rational understanding. There, the god Prometheus deliberately takes it upon himself to lift up humanity from both literal darkness and the darkness of ignorance. And the other gods punish him for it.

So, then let us speculate ...

Think for a moment about sitting on the edge of a large grasslands with a forested area behind you. You're listening to the cicadas buzz as the gnats undulate crazily in the still air. You can feel the sun's heat baking you and the dry earth beneath your feet as you shift slightly in your squatting position. Above you, there are big, white billowy clouds scudding across a bleached blue sky. And you can smell and taste the pungent odor of the shrubs and bracken that you've just pushed through to get to where you are. Some of their leaves and burrs still cling to your rude animal skin clothing.

Imagine your entire experience, everything that you are, reduced to such sense impressions like these in a wild world of long ago when very little of what there was had been created, shaped, altered, or arranged by human beings. Facts? Yes, these were you only facts. Those, and the memories of ones like them. Reason? Only the reason you've come to where you are, the early, but still gnawing and familiar sense of hunger. That, and your past experience that coming here often gets you some leftovers from the work of a large predator or, if you're lucky, some seed pods, berries, or other sustenance.

This is what life was before our species devised ways to represent the world outside of immediate experience and the nameless memories of prior experience. Probably the first innovation was such representation in the spoken word. Or perhaps it was of the graphic sort to be found in cave drawings and rock pictograms found all over the world where ancient peoples lived. History began when these representations found expression in the written word.

Should it be surprising that the earliest written records known are thought to be accounts of taxes due and/or collected? It should not be surprising that the earliest sort of science was contrived on the basis of the very simple philosophy of practical needs. "Necessity is the mother of invention," after all.

The ancient Egyptians, whose culture stretches back for thousands of years before the current era, for example, needed to know when the Nile was due to overflow its banks each year so that they could plant their crops. They needed to be able to figure out who's plot was whose after the waters had receded. They needed to be able to judge the area of land under cultivation. And, eventually, they needed to solve the engineering problems connected with building the elaborate tombs known as pyramids. This is what the earliest science and mathematics reflects, both in Egypt and Mesopotamia: a philosophy of concern with carrying out the demands of a mostly traditional way of life. We call this sort of philosophical approach to science applied science. Today, of course, applied science includes the idea of innovation and discovery. But, in those days, the only scientific progress was a kind of refinement.

These earliest representations of the world in the form of the written word, and especially in the forms of astronomy and mathematics were clearly considered awesome, if not otherworldly. They were the exclusive province of the political and religious authorities of the time. Is it any wonder that one of the vaunted commandments of the Decalogue — "The Ten Commandments," alleged by some to be the foundation of our nation and civilization — is not to make any images? There are no qualifications on that, by the way. You're just not supposed to make any images. To the barbarous peoples of the ancient Middle East, this was because the making of images — physical representations of the world — was allied with sorcery and magic. So was the science of astronomy, which in those days was inditinguishable from astrology and the practitioners of which were considered wizards or magicians. Thousands of years later, we have still with us not only the idea that some artistic representations are intrinsically evil, as well as astrology in commercialized form, but it is even today considered very deep theological wisdom by intelligent people to be able to recite the mystic significance of the Christian "Logos" as in "The Word Made Flesh."

But the dawn of the modern philosophy of science, and of Freethought, was born in the turmoil of events in the Greek city-states of about the 6th Century BCE. At that time and for about a century afterwards, a small town on the coast of what is now modern-day Turkey produced not only the first philosopher, Thales, but three others as well. And all the other famous names of Greek philosophy also lived in the same times and in that same general region where the land was divided either by the sea or by mountainous terrain and yet there was a common language and culture. It was the human intellectual equivalent of the paleontologists' Cambrian Explosion of life.

Thales is remembered for his saying that everything that exists is made of water. And why not? There is a lot of it, and fully 2/3 of water is hydrogen, as we now know, the most common element in the universe from which all the others are forged in the cores of stars. Thales is also credited with being the first to recognize the generality of the geometric rules which had, up until that time, existed only as practical rules of thumbfor estimating the height of pyramids, ships at sea, and other objects not immediately accessible. If there is anyone who we can point to as having originated the idea that the world is governed by discoverable principles that apply generally, it is Thales.

Thales and about a dozen other ancient Greek philosophers who lived at or about the same time are often called "the presocratics." This is not so much because they all lived before the time of Socrates, though most did. But several were contemporaries of Socrates and are mentioned in Plato's Dialogues. What was presocratic about the presocratics was primarily their ideas, each of which they developed and defended, often by borrowing from and in reaction to each other. These were people like Anaximander (c. 550 BCE), who agreed with Thales that all the variety in the world was on the surface only, and that a single principle lay beneath appearances although, instead of water, he referred to is as "the boundless." Anaximander also deduced that human beings must have once been very different than they are today. He did this by employing what we call today a reductio ad absurdum in which the opposite is shown to be impossible. That is, Anaximander called attention to the fact that human beings needed a long time to mature, and realized that, if this had always been so, there would not have been any adults around to care for the young. He suggested that the earliest ancestors of humans were fish! Almost a hundred years before Socrates, Anaximander was imprisoned in Athens for "impiety." But he was rescued and fled.

Anaximenes (c.550 BCE) was also a monist — holding the position that everything is of a single substance — but he preferred air. While Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE) argued that there is a portion of everything in everything else. Heraclitus' (c.500 BCE) monism was based on fire. But he said further that everything was in ceaseless motion, changing from what it is into something else, and that opposition — strife — was the engine of reality. His was the famous observation that "you cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you." But his principle of flux was really a way of explaining why things appear to be stable: because there is a tension between them. Later, Empedocles (495-435 BCE) combined the elements of water, air, and fire, added earth, and established the classical 4 "roots" as he called them, later taken up as the four basic elements of material things by Aristotle.

Parmenides (c. 480 BCE) is usually cited as beingin opposition to Heraclitus. For Parmenides argued that there is no empty space and that change, not stability, is what is fundamentally illusory. Zeno (b. 490 BCE) is typically cited as harboring similar ideas, usually on the basis of one of his famous paradoxes such as Achilles and the tortoise.

According to Zeno, Achilles could never overtake an ordinary tortoise if the reptile were given a head start. This was because every time Achilles caught up to the tortoise's previous position ahead of him, the tortoise will have moved on ahead, even if only a tiny bit. But Zeno didn't actually believe such nonsense. Rather, his thought experiment was an attempt to confound others, chiefly the Pythagoreans. And this is how the ideas of the presocratics, and, indeed, of all true philsophers and scientists, need to be evaluated: in light of the roles they chose to play in a social activity that involves many other players. Thales and his successors, right down to modern times, created a new philosophy of science, that of science as an ongoing, cooperative task that is pursued primarily as a search for truth about the way things really are. They might well be considered the first Freethinkers.

But to return to Zeno as an introduction to the Pythagoreans: Pythagoras (c.550-c.500 BCE) was one of the most remarkable philosophers of all time. Originally from the island of Samos just off the coast of Asia Minor, he fled to Southern Italy when the Persians came.

Pythagoras, of course, is credited with discovering the mathematical theorem named for him, although it is unknown how he proved it. We all learned as schoolchildren that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. But few people appreciate how this "simple" fact and others which receive even less notice sustained what amounted to a mystical religious community at the time. For Pythagoras and his followers were persuaded that neither earth, air, fire, or water or any other ordinary materiality was the basis of all reality. Rather, they taught that numbers were the essence of existence, and that, indeed, nothing could exist but by virtue of its ability to be quantified by what we now call the integers and ratios of them.

Pythagoras discovered the numerical basis of musical intervals. He developed ways of representing numbers by arrangements of pebbles. (by virtue of which we have the word "calculate," which shares the same root as "calcium," a common constituent of stones) And he and his disciples worked out many other curious numerical relations. It must have seemed to them that they were engaged in a personal encounter with the very essence of reality. Nor were they very far off — when science was reborn after the Dark Ages, mathematics was quickly recognize as the language of the universe.

But the Pythagoreans had a weakness, and this was the fact that they were unable deal with certain kinds of problems with only integers and ratios of integers. As we now know, this is because of irrational numbers. The Pythagoreans tried to get around their difficulties by constructing series of rational numbers which approached closer and closer to the correct solution. And this is why Zeno's Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise was so powerful: because it had not yet been grasped how to determine the finite limit of an infinite series.

Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Pythagoreans, though, is not in mathematics but in their mysticism. For it was from them that Socrates and Plato borrowed their theory of ideas. Even then, it was understood that no geometric figure constructed out of material substance, for example, would exactly conform to the theoretical properties it was supposed to have. From this it was concluded that the world of sense impressions, that which is ordinarily considered to be the real world, bears only a murky and distorted resemblance to an absolute, perfect, changeless reality that transcends the material world of particular. The underlying true reality of things, taught the Platonists, is the world of Forms, or ideas. Hence, the philosophy of Plato is commonly known as philosophical idealism.

But then, as now, the notion that ideas reign supreme over what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched, contributed to a certain confusion and, ultimately cynicism about philosophy and the knowledge and truth it claimed to search out. By the time Socrates was made to drink the hemlock, there were professional "philosophers" now referred to as "sophists" who taught young men the art of arguing or rhetoric. But they did so, not with the aim of enabling them to discover or explain any truths, but to gain the upper hand in legal contests. That is, philosophy, or, rather, a corruption of it, gave rise to the first shyster-lawyers. In fact, it is probably the case that Socrates' alleged "corruption of youth" was the teaching of sophistry and not of anything else.

Plato (428-348 BCE) was Socrates' most famous student. It was Plato who actually wrote the Socratic Dialogues and established the Academy at Athens in 387 BCE. The most famous of its students was Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who was later, for three years, the tutor of the future Alexander the Great.

Aristotle was a remarkable individual who is often considered the first professional philosopher-scientist. His curiosity led him into investigations of nearly every discipline of the sciences and there are virtually no philosophical questions now pondered that he did not also consider. It was he who established the foundations of logic and who we remember for his syllogisms. Some of Aristotle's work, notably in marine biology, was not improved upon until the 19thCentury. In other areas, his authority went unchallenged until the close of the Dark Ages. This was fine concerning where he was correct, but disastrous where he was wrong, especially in physics and astronomy. But it is not in dispute that, with Aristotle, all that had previously been proposed, considered, and argued over concerning philosophy and science by his predecessors was cast in a new and systematic framework.

The distinguishing character of Aristotelianism is its depreciation of the theory of ideas from the mystical heights which it occupies in Platonism. Aristotle, in fact, pioneered the use of observation and experiment as a means of reaching valid conclusions about the world.

But by the time of Aristotle, Greek culture and influence was already well along in its decline. The dominant philosophical ideas became even more mystical and are now referred to as Neoplatonism, which is traced to the career of Plotinus (204-270 CE).

The Academy of Plato actually endured until 529 CE when it was shut down by the Emperor Justinian, because it offended Christian sensibilities. But, by that time, the enormous philosophical, scientific, and literary resources of Alexandria representing nearly all the writings of the ancient thinkers had already been destroyed. Instead of thought, for nearly a thousand years, belief ruled. This was abetted by the Christianization of the ideas of Plato and the Neoplatonists by Saint Augustine, the revered Christian Father who abandoned his wife and children and prayed to his God "for chastity, but not yet!"

What can this be compared to? It would be as if all the recordings of the greatest works of the greatest musicians — Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Webber, and others were utterly destroyed and the only songs that anybody had to sing were tunes like This Old Man and Farmer-in-the Dell.

And this was how things stood during The Dark Ages, generally regarded as the years from 600-1000 CE. It was almost exactly during this time — Mohammed flight from Mecca to Medina, which is the start of the Islamic era, took place in 622 — that Arab civilization took root and grew. It was they who salvaged the works of Aristotle and translated them into Arabic. Avicenna (980-1037) attempted to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, in fact, with the result being more Aristotelian. The result was that the Renaissance really began, in a sense, in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arabs, for example, invented the science of chemistry. The Spanish philosopher Averoës (1126-1198 CE) subsequently undertook to restore Aristotelianisn to something like its original form, writing in Hebrew and Latin.

Aristotle's thought finally made its way back into Europe after having made this curious geographic and linguistic circuit. This would ultimately work a profound change on the course of Western civilization. For it is no accident that the philosopher who Christianized Aristotelianism is considered the foremost theologian since Saint Paul, and perhaps of all of Christian history. His name was Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). And he was arguably the first Christian thinker who actually did try to rationally come to grips with the tenets of the Christian religion. He has accordingly enjoyed an highly celebrated reputation within the Catholic Church, if not Christendom generally.

I will not — and cannot — briefly summarize the story of the philosophical forces that have driven scientific inquiry and discovery since the beginnings of the Renaissance in Italy in the 14th and 15th Centuries. But listen to these dates:

There is an impression on the part of many that human progress to our present point in time has been one of slow and steady progress. But this is not so. Well over two thousand years ago a new way of thinking about the world was invented. Indeed, it is entirely fair to say that THINKING itself was invented. We are here today not simply because of this innovation, but because it didn't quite entirely die out after a promising beginning. Rather, it languished before it was infused with new energy.

Is there any chance of our species once again losing the philosophical underpinnings that sustain our priceless scientific understanding and the technology we have constructed from it? Well, think about how Aristotle might have answered a similar question when he could look back through history as it stood in his time, to Thales of Miletus 200 years before and all of the remarkable progress that those early scientist-mathematician-philosophers had achieved..

We're going to hear next from Lee Simmons, who will tell us about the philosophical quest for scientific truth as it unfolded from about the 17th Century on, and from Drew Kalas who will consider the philosophical outlook of modern day scientists. But please remember that the end of the tale has yet to be written. We ought to hope that it is never written.

Modern science and technology today stand on the threshold of another era of explosive growth in our understanding about the world and our ability to manipulate it to improve the human condition. But, as you might now appreciate, further progress in scientific inquiry and discovery cannot proceed until and unless there is a philosophical underpinning for it. Moreover, in an age when political power is in the hands of popular governments and is determined, to a large extent, by elections and opinion polls, the philosophical underpinnings for scientific progress will have to take the form of a social consensus.

The greatest benefits of recombinant DNA technology and genetic engineering, of gene therapy, of cloning, and of the manipulation of matter on the molecular level will never be realized so long as the promise of the future is demonized as a "brave new world" of unthinkable horrors. Nor will there be much of an opportunity to arrive at a reasonable philosophical consensus so long as the popular impression of innovation in the biological sciences is that of FrankensteinJurassic Park, and GATTACA.

What is worse, if the philosophical foundations for science in the coming millenium are not established soon, and if they are not secure, and if they are not reliable, then the rapid pace of globalization may thwart further progress with an unprecedented finality.

For at least Pythagoras was able to flee Samos and take refuge in Croton. Anaximander escaped from Athens. And entire generations of religious, philosophical, and scientific innovators and Freethinkers fled other parts of the world to come to the Americas. Indeed, countless others who, through history, dared to think for themselves and were in peril of their lives as a result, were able to evade their enemies and find safety elsewhere. Had it been otherwise, the world would likely now be a much poorer place.

But what will happen should there ever be no place left to run to? What then?

Thank you very much. And Good Morning.

© 1998 by Tim Gorski