Prometheus or Prodigal? Aristotle on Einstein

By Brianna Kelly, Guest Author

What has changed in natural science from the time of the ancient Greeks? The popular caricature sketches ancient science as a primitive, feeble natural fiction with little relevance to today’s students and scientists. In this narrative, Aristotle and the ancients groped stupidly in the cold dark until modern demigods such as Einstein delivered the hidden fire of truth to mortals. On the contrary, these two intellectual giants and their projects are more closely linked than typically shown.

At the most general level, both Aristotle and Einstein sought knowledge. This seemingly inane observation suggests a fruitful question: “What kind of knowledge and by what means?”[1] In Aristotle’s Physics, which examines the natural, physical world, “scientific knowledge” is the goal.[2] This knowledge consists of right opinions about the world grounded in “primary conditions or first principles.”[3] These first principles are the causes of natural change, not immediately obvious to the human observer, but capable of being discovered through inquiry.[4]

Although the term “first principles” seems obscure, its modern analogy is the search for laws and properties. Certainly, the mathematical descriptions of matter through time and space could be described as “principles” defining natural change. Like Aristotle’s “principles,” Einstein’s special theory describes a pattern, relation, or structure in the “stuff” of the world, uncovered through examination and reflection. Although cloaked in different terminology, both thinkers worked to reveal the principles of nature which were intelligible through observation.

Some may object to this characterization, declaring that modern science is legitimized by the scientific method, while Aristotle was an “armchair scientist,” happily lost in thought as he created theories with no relation to the workings of the real world. On the contrary, Aristotle is a prototype of the careful researcher: beginning with what is most clear to humankind (that is, sense perception), he reasons to what is more obscure (that is, the causes or principles).[5] As he proceeds, observations of objects’ behavior continue to ground and support his conclusions. Certainly, his only instruments for data-collection were his five senses, but within this limitation, he incorporates both inductive and deductive logic to disconfirm others’ theories and confirm his own.[6] Speaking of the former, at every major shift in thought to a new topic, Aristotle always evaluates other philosophers’ answers to the questions before presenting his solution.[7] Finally, like modern science, he used mathematics as a way to deduce properties and relations, such as his geometrical proof against the existence of the void.[8] To paint Aristotle as intellectually sloppy mischaracterizes the evidence.

Parallel in purpose and process, the works of these two scientists again harmonize in questions and content. Both study Nature, specifically its manifestations in matter, the shape it takes, the motions it experiences through time and place and whether infinity has a material meaning.[9] Reading Aristotle alongside Einstein suggests that scientific progress is nonlinear, as some have already theorized.[10] For as Democritus postulated that matter was discontinuous and Heraclitus that it was continuous, so John Dalton in the nineteenth century postulated that matter consisted of discrete atoms and Einstein in the twentieth that space-time acts like a continuous fabric. This is striking. After twenty-two thousand years, the last three hundred in which the continuous-matter hypothesis has been dismissed as primitive in most physics teaching, evidence of the atomic theory’s inadequacy mounts.[11] Modern science has certainly advanced: it possesses better instruments for measuring the very large and very small, as well as additional centuries of increasingly precise data (not to mention significant technologies based on these cumulative developments). Even so, it remains that there is nothing new under the sun: the central questions and essential alternatives of science remain, revolving yet unchanging.[12]

Was ancient science childish or profoundly wise? Young people often reject parents’ advice as outdated, until they learn through experience that their own “enlightened” ideas fail against the conditions of the real world. Similarly, it seems that science, a modern prodigal, is now returning to ideas that have existed for centuries (although refining them to incorporate additional data). Of course, this return to an old paradigm may be the heavenly light of truth—or it may merely provide us with a means of preparing food for thought for the next two centuries before we revert once again to the “correct” model. Regardless, it is undeniable that the question, “What has Aristotle to do with Einstein?” reveals a miscommunication of our scientific heritage that ought to be remedied.


Brianna’s curiosity about the workings of the world first manifested itself when as a child she wearied her patient parents with the incessant question, “But why?” She now launches the same query toward mathematics pedagogy in her Classical education studies at the University of Dallas. As a grateful recipient of Classical, Christian education from 3rd grade to graduate school, she loves how it points to patterns across academic disciplines and opens eyes to the beauty and goodness of a world composed and cared for by a Creator. She received her B.A. in Classical Liberal Arts from Patrick Henry College in 2020, and has entered her third year of teaching at Loudoun Classical School in Northern Virginia, where she enjoys watching her own students wonder.


Bibliography

Adler, Mortimer. “The Questions Science Cannot Answer.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 13, no. 4 (April 1957): 120–125. Accessed July 6, 2022.
http://www .tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.1957.11457528.

Aristotle. “Physica.” In The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon, translated by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye. New York, NY: Modern Library Paperback. 1941. Reprint, Random House, Inc., 2001.

DeWitt, Richard. Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science. 3rd ed. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

Einstein, Albert. Relativity: The Special and General Theory. Edited by Brian Basgen, Jeroen Hellingman, and Richard Tonsing. Translated by Robert W. Lawson. Jan 2022. 1916. Reprint, The Project Gutenberg, 2004. Accessed July 5, 2022. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5001/5001-h/5001-h.htm.

Euclid. The Elements. Edited by Dana Densmore. Translated by T. L. Heath. Santa Fe, NM: Green Lion Press, 2002.

Laughlin, Robert B. A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2006.


[1]For one way to understand the difference between the questions of science (Einstein’s discipline) and philosophy (where Aristotle is usually categorized), see Mortimer Adler, “The Questions Science Cannot Answer,” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 13, no. 4; April 1957), 120–125, (Accessed July 6, 2022. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/ 00963402.1957.11457528). My argument is that in the Physics, Aristotle deals with scientific questions.

[2]Significantly, Aristotle dealt with many types of questions throughout his works, including moral, metaphysical and material questions. His Physics compares directly modern science because the object of inquiry – the natural world – is the same. See “Physica,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. by Richard McKeon, tr. by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye (New York, NY: Modern Library Paperback. 1941. Reprint, Random House, Inc., 2001) 184a 14-15.

[3]Aristotle, 184a 11, 13.

[4]“Now to us what is plain and obvious at first is rather confused masses, the elements and principles of which become known to us later by analysis. Thus we must advance from generalities to particulars; for it is a whole that is best known to sense-perception, and a generality is a kind of whole, comprehending many things within it, like parts.” Aristotle, Physics, 184a 22-26.

[5]He describes this part of his method at the beginning of the Physics and it is evident throughout. 184a 19-21.

[6]Richard Dewitt describes confirmation and disconfirmation reasoning as the feature of scientific inquiry. Richard DeWitt, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, 3rd ed. (Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018) 36-37.

[7]This discursive tone is set as early as chapters 2-4 of Book I, in which Aristotle presents different opinions on the number and nature of the first principles, refuting each.

[8]Aristotle, 215b 1ff. Recall that at the time, mathematics was primarily geometrical.

[9]Intended as an introduction to the entire science of physics, these topics summarize the outline for Aristotle’s entire work. Likewise, early in his popular treatise on relativity, Einstein touches on all of these topics, likewise showing that they are fundamental to the science. See Relativity: The Special and General Theory, ed. Brian Basgen, Jeroen Hellingman, and Richard Tonsing, tr. Robert W. Lawson (Online: Jan 2022. 1916. Reprint, The Project Gutenberg, 2004; accessed July 5, 2022. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5001/5001-h/5001-h.htm) Part I, Chapters 1-6.

[10]Most notably, Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific progress occurs through paradigm shifts rather than the mere objective accumulation of facts. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[11]Both Einstein’s own theories and the phenomenon of quantum mechanics, discussed by both Richard DeWitt and Robert Laughlin, are examples of this inadequacy. See Dewitt, as well as Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2006).

[12]See Ecclesiastes 1.

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