Monday, August 17, 2009

Cothran on TLS

Here is a substantive (and very kind) review of The Last Superstition from Martin Cothran. As the author of a series of books on traditional logic, Cothran understands the significance of the moderns’ shift away from Aristotelianism better than most.

10 comments:

Jack said...

Loved the review, Kudos to Cothran, btw Ed when do you think the Jig will be up for scientific materialism?

Interstellar Bill said...

I posted the following on Cothran's site:
I agree that abandoning Aristotle's philosophy was a huge intellectual mistake from which we have yet to recover, but let's not forget that much of the motivation for rejecting him lies in his disastrous anti-experimental physics. Why didn't Aristotle simply do some of Galileo's simplest experiments before he propounded silly physics ideas off the top of his head? Where do you think Ptolemey got his disastrous perfection-of-circles ideas?

When brilliant people go wrong, their intellectual train wrecks become very hard to undo - viz. Marx and Freud. As one of the most brilliant minds ever, Aristotle's screw ups were even more damaging than theirs. Although he invented logic wholesale, his physics stank, alas. His unquestioned authority stopped science cold for the good part of two millenia. Only Einstein has done comparable damage, with his relativizing of nowness. Ironically, the arrogant Einstein's convoluted version of relativity predicts GPS would never work, so his camp-followers are still frantically hand-waving to cover that up. Only Aristotle himself did more damage to science, which leaves a bitter aftertaste that drives most scholars, myself included, away from the rest of his work. Although I'm looking forward to reading Feser in order to recover what is good in Aristotle, I would never consider reading the original, since I basically don't trust him as I do Feser.

Anonymous said...

That was a great review of your book Dr. Feser. I would add that the clarity of your explanations rival those of Mortimer Adler who, in my opinion, was the most clear expositor of Aristotelian and Thomistic thought.

Ed De Vita

Brandon said...

Why didn't Aristotle simply do some of Galileo's simplest experiments before he propounded silly physics ideas off the top of his head? Where do you think Ptolemey got his disastrous perfection-of-circles ideas?

I don't think it makes much sense to call Aristotle's approach "anti-experimental"; and to draw Galileo's conclusions from Galileo's experiments you have to have several well-developed notions that allow you to idealize and abstract from actual circumstances (air resistance, friction) -- notions Aristotle did not have yet, because they only began to be developed in the Middle Ages. Far from stopping science cold, Aristotle's thought stimulated the work that led to the rejection of certain aspects of Aristotelian (mathematical) physics largely by medieval Aristotelians (the problem of impetus, etc.). (What did almost stop science cold at times were certain strands of Renaissance humanism, which occasionally tried to insist on texts, including Aristotle's, rather than logic and experience, and which Galileo criticized in the character of Simplicio.) And Ptolemy's perfection of circles idea wasn't disastrous (and wasn't especially his, since he was just refining and developing the astronomical work of Hipparchus, the greatest astronomer of antiquity, and wasn't especially Aristotelian because it was a common Greek view) but, on the contrary, extraordinarily successful -- it's one of the simplest models to save the phenomena and allow precise calculation, to the degree of precision that would usually have been required prior to the development of new astronomical methods. In the early modern period it took an immense amount of work to establish the new view, and it really became established not when people rejected the perfection-of-circles view but when they rejected the distinction between celestial and terrestrial matter (which was the real impediment).

But I think it's definitely right to think that direct reading of Aristotle is often not a good place to start, precisely because there are places where what we're really getting are Aristotle's first efforts based on what had already been done, and not the full potential of Aristotelian ideas.

Interstellar Bill said...

Brandon, thank you for your considered reply.
As for experiments, why didn't Aristotle just take his water clock and see what happened when he rolled a ball or cylinder down an incline? Or a piece of polished marble sliding down an oil-slicked incline? Plenty of similar things happened in his day for observation by any passerby of large Greek civic engineering projects. Did Aristotle ever study mechanical engineering, sails and oars, or military catapults? Apparently, Leonardo he was not.

As for circles, why didn't Aristotle distinguish between the subjective aesthetic/symbolic aspects of a circle that so entranced his contemporaries and its objective mathematical aspects, namely that it is merely a zero-eccentricity ellipse, with foci coincident. Didn't he have to use string to draw ellipses, in his geometry lessons as a child? Or maybe mere geometry was beneath him?

Sorry, but the fact that such elementary considerations completely eluded an otherwise brilliant culture is hard for me to believe. Maybe the high-falluting philosophers never talked to the low-caste engineers. It looks like the entire Hellenistic era was that way, or else Alexandria might have spawned a proto-Galileo, had there not been so damned much slavery.

evagrius said...

"Didn't he have to use string to draw ellipses, in his geometry lessons as a child? Or maybe mere geometry was beneath him?

Sorry, but the fact that such elementary considerations completely eluded an otherwise brilliant culture is hard for me to believe."


Yeah -- idiot philosophers like Pythagoras.

Oh, and to think that right above Plato's Academy, it practically read in Dantesque fashion, "Let No One Ignorant of Geometry Enter".

But, hey, these Greek Philosophers were nothing more than idiots.

Interstellar Bill said...

If they knew ellipses so well, why didn't any Greeks try them on the planets, instead of epicycles?

I notice no takers on why they didn't try inclined-plane experiments.

Brandon said...

Hi, Bill,

As for experiments, why didn't Aristotle just take his water clock and see what happened when he rolled a ball or cylinder down an incline?

I remember looking at Galileo's notebooks on this experiment once. He spent quite a bit of time trying to get it right. It is not an immediately obvious experiment to do, quite a few things can go wrong with it, and in order to get the right conclusion you still have to abstract from the right things, discarding what is irrelevant to the experiment and extrapolating to other inclinations. The planes have to be long enough, and your timekeeping precise enough, to get you useful results; you have to try more than one inclination; you have to recognize that the result you are getting is a fact about motion and not a fact about motion on an inclined plane in particular; and, despite not being able to measure instantaneous velocities you have to come up with them on what you can measure (to do which Galileo had to work long and hard on deriving various relationships among time, distance, and speed). You keep talking as if Galileo just did something that any idiot could have done. In fact, even his simplest experiments gave him trouble because they're not easy to do unless you've already figured out what works. Hindsight is 20/20.


As for circles, why didn't Aristotle distinguish between the subjective aesthetic/symbolic aspects of a circle that so entranced his contemporaries and its objective mathematical aspects, namely that it is merely a zero-eccentricity ellipse, with foci coincident.


Because (1) no Greek would have had the term "zero-eccentricity ellipse", and would have considered it a contradiction in terms -- 'ellipse' for them meant 'defective approximation to a circle' (getting to where circles could be considered a special case of an ellipse required a level of abstraction they had not yet reached, & requires thinking of ellipses as shapes in themselves rather than squashed circles); and (2) they weren't drawing their conclusions about circles on the basis of aesthetics but on the the fact that it had no beginning and end, and therefore that it was the only motion suitable for an infinite past (which was a common Greek belief), and on its simplicity -- in which the primary mistake they made was not in seeing how you could analyze circular motion into distinct linear forces (which, again, required the development of notions they did not have). And, again, you're talking as if Kepler and Newton just did something any schoolboy could do, when in fact it took an immense amount of work, and the application of at the time difficult mathematics to the task of organizing a massive amount of very carefully collected evidence.

If you just want to list all the experiments Aristotle couldn't possibly have done, it's a pretty dull task; and one can come up with a similar long list (and continually growing) for everyone who has ever contributed anything to our knowledge of the world. The question we have to ask is not, "Did Aristotle get everything on the mathematical physics side right?" To which the answer is, "Obviously not; we're not in a position to do so, and we are in a much better position to do it than Aristotle was." Rather, the two questions one should ask are, (1) "Was Aristotle's mathematical physics a useful development for the time?" and )2) "Did it stimulate the sort of research that allowed people to progress beyond it?" If the answer is 'yes' on both accounts, Aristotle's work wasn't disastrous, but good in the way even the best scientific works usually are.

Interstellar Bill said...

Hi Brandon,
Thank you for your informed reply, with most of which I agree. I appreciate the time you take to write here.

I never said that what Galileo and Kepler did was easy, but I think that one of the factors making it so hard was their having to set aside so much ancient thinking, more than making use of them, as you seem to imply.

There's no way to make a case that Ptolemey's epicycles and geocentrism were anything but a disaster, because nobody could question them (he, rather than Hipparcos, became the Last Word in astronomy). Are you truly trying to say that the abstractions needed to come up with epicycles are much easier than those needed to play around with sticks and string?

As for ellipses, once your draw one in the dirt with those string and (three) sticks, you get a circle by gradually lengthening said string, or alternatively, bringing the foci (sticks in the ground) together, making it obvious that a circle is a special case of an ellipse. Only a prior mystical commitment to the subjective poetics and aesthetics of circles and their 'perfection', rather than their objective mathematics, would have shrouded the latter in so much intellectual confusion. After all, ellipses have no beginning or end either, nor do parabolas or hyperbolas (or a Mobius strip), so why couldn't they also be up there in the 'perfect' celestial realm?

This is the same crowd that got so upset with 'irrational' and 'imaginary' numbers that they tried making them a trade secret, so I don't regard it as excuseable that the ancients ignored ellipses in favor of what was obviously a congeries of fudge-factors, namely epicycles (which every practicioner did differently than all others). So what if astrologers could congratulate themselves at getting naked-eye predictions of Mars? They were all wildly off during its retrograde motion anyway, so they truly weren't all that empirical, if they ignored their worst mistakes.

No, let me conclude with the thought that the ancient world's intellectual deficiencies were deep and wide, and in my opinion constituted a kind of laziness that was fundamentally due to the widespread prevalence of slavery, from which flowed their relative lack of entrepreneurship, invention, and experimentation (all of which were socially insignficiant factors back then). In fact, slavery may be the answer to the Fermi Paradox. Just look at its destructive present-day comeback, as socialism and big-government statism.

PS I doubt that either Newton or Kepler dealt with 'massive' amounts of data. Kepler did use Tycho's observations, but the years he spent discovering the ellipse were mostly spent discarding ancient notions, rather than hunting through 'data'. And wasn't Newton inspired by ideas rather than data?

Profa said...

Interstellar Bill. Your indictment strikes me as a curious reversal. Rather than condemn Pythagoras for being boggled by irrational numbers, why not marvel that we figured them out in the first place? They are a truly remarkable mathematical...they should boggle anyone, and they only seem "easy" now because of the generations of brilliant thinkers who finally did crack them and pass them on to us. "Oh yeah, irrational numbers...yawn" is something said by someone who does not really understand them.

Similarly, ragging on his methods is anachronistic. Why didn't he invent the method we use today? In some ways he did, but he's just that...the prototype, the v1.0, the rough draft. That he was that much is more a matter of marvel than contempt, I think.

At any rate, differing on this or that point of Aristotle's contributions or detractions is one thing. Disqualifying him from greatness because he failed to live up to your 21st century standards of brilliance seems to be another ball of wax entirely.

He was different AND brilliant. He stood at the transition of things--made that transition happen, in some ways--but that also means, perforce, that in other ways he stands "behind" us who come after more such transitions. It's like saying Morphy was no Kasparov...the one is simply completely dependent on the other.