CR4 - The Engineer's Place for News and Discussion®

Roger's Equations

This blog is all about science and technology (with occasional math thrown in for fun). The goal of this blog is to try and pass on the sense of excitement and wonder I feel when I read about these topics. I hope you enjoy the posts.

Previous in Blog: The Superconducting Super Collider – A Tragedy in Two Parts (Part II)   Next in Blog: The Scientific Method – Part II (Origin Story: Socrates and Plato)
Close

Comments Format:






Close

Subscribe to Discussion:

CR4 allows you to "subscribe" to a discussion
so that you can be notified of new comments to
the discussion via email.

Close

Rating Vote:







5 comments

The Scientific Method - Part I (Origin Story: Pre-Socratics)

Posted March 31, 2011 2:35 PM by Roger Pink

Introduction

"Thy Godlike crime was to be kind, To render with thy precepts less, The sum of human wretchedness, And strengthen Man with his own mind" - Lord Byron, Prometheus

One of the defining features of human beings is the ability to acquire and pass along ideas. Actually, it is less a feature than a pathological obsession. Hundreds of thousands of years ago at least, there is evidence that our ancestors passed ideas and technology on to later generations. This idea of continuity, of the passing on of ideas and technology by a group of individuals, is really what is meant by the term culture. Other animals have been said to have distinct cultures; however, no animal cultures are as complex, versatile, and quick-to-adapt as human cultures. In fact, the very name of our species, Homo sapiens, emphasizes this point.

The Latin word sapien means "wise" or "learned" and the Latin word homo means "man". For billions of years, life came into being, lived, reproduced, and died. Over thousands of generations, small changes in the biology of the animals, combined with external conditions, resulted in natural selection. Natural selection is a process by which the organism best suited for the existing conditions survives while other "less suited" organisms are marginalized or even go extinct. The problem with natural selection is it can take (though not always) a long time to produce an organism adapted for a particular environment. A more efficient system would be an organism that has evolved the ability to adapt, rather than an organism that adapts by evolving. Thus it was only a matter of time before intelligent life evolved.

The term "intelligent life", of course, is a vanity. There is a joke that says that everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac and anyone who drives slower than you is a moron. By "intelligent life", we literally mean "our species". This is evident by the constant revision of what constitutes "intelligence". For instance, the defining characteristic of intelligence was, for a long time, considered to be the use of tools. Implied in this statement was that the use of tools must originate from within the species, not from human training. At any rate, it was found that some primates use tools in the wild - and so the definition was shifted to "has culture", as in "intelligent life has the characteristic of culture". Of course, further study showed that some primates displayed distinct cultures. Another popular definition was "self-awareness", but mirror experiments have shown many species share that trait with us as well.

Clearly there is no line one can draw and point to where intelligence suddenly emerges, but our vanity demands it, so we try anyway. Somewhere over the last 100,000 years since our species evolved, we have come to view ourselves as separate and superior to the other organisms found in the world. It's understandable but ultimately illogical, mainly because our criteria for "superiority" are based on the things we're good at (such as learning). If superiority were instead based on, say durability, or strength, or quickness, or survivability, or longevity, we would score quite low. Some argue that our superiority is self-evident due to the things we've produced; the problem with that argument is that whoever said the point of existence was to produce things? Really in the end it is our vanity as a species that presupposes our superiority, but there is nothing wrong with that. The instinctive urge for survival of a species must necessarily produce a certain level of conceit if that species is self-aware.

With that background, it should not be surprising then that one of the earliest branches of philosophy to emerge was that of epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the acquisition, validity, and limits of knowledge. To better understand what that means, we should probably define knowledge. Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines knowledge as the body of truth, information, and principles acquired by humankind. So epistemology tries to figure out the validity and limits of the "truths, information and principles" acquired by human beings. Epistemology also investigates the methods and means by which knowledge (truths, information and principles) are acquired. To understand modern branches of Epistemology, we should first review its history.

The Pre-Socratics

"Everything has a natural explanation. The moon is not a god but a great rock and the sun a hot rock." - Anaxagoras

When giving a brief history of any type of philosophy, it is always popular to start with the Pre-Socratics. Certainly there have been philosophers as long as there has been man, and undoubtedly the Pre-Socratics of Greece borrowed heavily from other cultures that came before them (I'm looking at you Egypt, Crete, Phoenicia, and Mesopotamia), but we need a starting point and the Pre-Socratics will do. The Pre-Socratics, when it came to Epistemology, had many different schools of thought. Among the Pre-Socractics are, in roughly chronological order, the Milesian, Pythagorean, Eleatic, Pluralist, and Sophist schools.

The Milesian school was significant because of the (supposed) break from the belief that events were the result of the will of gods. Instead, the Milesian School sought a fundamental material from which everything was made and gave it its properties. They believed that through observation one could deduce this fundamental material. Although they disagreed amongst themselves what the fundamental material was, what is significant for our conversation is their implicit Epistemological belief that nature followed logical rules and could be understood through careful observation.

The Pythagorean School was significant because it was the first to tie philosophy and mathematics. The Pythagoreans believed that the world was inherently mathematical. That is not to say "being able to be described by mathematics", but rather "is mathematical in nature". This belief was taken to an extreme (to mysticism). To reconcile the idea of the infinite continuum and discrete world we live in, the Pythagoreans turned to the idea of harmony. Here is an excerpt from an explanation from Wikipedia explaining this idea:

"A musical scale presupposes an unlimited continuum of pitches, which must be limited in some way in order for a scale to arise. The crucial point is that not just any set of limiters will do. One may not simply choose pitches at random along the continuum and produce a scale that will be musically pleasing. The diatonic scale, also known as "Pythagorean," is such that the ratio of the highest to the lowest pitch is 2:1, which produces the interval of an octave. That octave is in turn divided into a fifth and a fourth, which have the ratios of 3:2 and 4:3 respectively and which, when added, make an octave. If we go up a fifth from the lowest note in the octave and then up a fourth from there, we will reach the upper note of the octave. Finally the fifth can be divided into three whole tones, each corresponding to the ratio of 9:8 and a remainder with a ratio of 256:243 and the fourth into two whole tones with the same remainder. This is a good example of a concrete applied use of Philolaus' reasoning. In Philolaus' terms the fitting together of limiters and unlimiteds involves their combination in accordance with ratios of numbers (harmony). Similarly the cosmos and the individual things in the cosmos do not arise by a chance combination of limiters and unlimiteds; the limiters and unlimiteds must be fitted together in a "pleasing" (harmonic) way in accordance with number for an order to arise."

In the above example we see the seeds of the concept of Musica universalis. The above paragraph has subtly introduced math into a philosophical discussion.

"The so-called Pythagoreans, who were the first to take up mathematics, not only advanced this subject, but saturated with it, they fancied that the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things." - Aristotle, Metaphysics 1-5 , cc. 350 BC

The Eleatics insisted simply observing the world wasn't enough to determine truths. They demanded truths have logical consistency. From this school of thought sprang the process where one starts with a sound, indisputable truth and through progressive logical steps obtain another truth. Also emerging in this school of thought was the process of disproving a truth through progressive logical steps that lead to a contradiction (Modernly referred to as reductio ad absurdum). That last method was made famous by Zeno (of Elea) and his paradoxes. This method also emerges later often in Socrates' dialogues (Socratic dialectic method).

At this point, I need to inform any and all reading this that I am picking out aspects of these schools of philosophies corresponding to Epistemology. At that time, the branches of philosophy weren't really separated into things like Epistemology, Metaphysics, Politics, Ethics, and Esthetics. What these Pre-Socratic schools of philosophy did was develop a sort of "supra-philosophy", a straight forward philosophy from which all phenomena were explained. That's why you get mathematical mysticism with the Pythagoreans and some Milesians trying to explain how fire may be made up of water. When we read the Pre-Socratics today, it is easy to get distracted by the "supra-tenets" at the heart of these supra-philosophies and miss the subtle, unconscious epistemological breakthroughs that emerged when they were forced to validate or defend their supra-tenets. For instance, the Milesian idea of nature being governed by principles and these principles being acquired through observation was a huge epistemology breakthrough (probably unfairly attributed to them when mostly likely such ideas occurred to mankind much earlier, but alas our knowledge of history is limited to written history). The Pythagorean idea linking mathematics with nature andthe Eleatic idea of logic superseding the senses as a way of determining truth were epistemological advances that formed the foundation of Socrates, Plato, and most especially Aristotle, who were in their turn the foundation of western Epistemological thought.

Continuing with the Pre-Socratics we come to the Pluralist School, which is notable for replacing the supra-tenet idea escribed above (reducing nature to a single principle) with the idea that nature consists of many principles. One of the lasting ideas of the Pluralists was the idea of the four roots (fire, air, water, and earth) that when combined in different proportions created everything in the universe. An important concept introduced by the Pluralists was that human beings never see the entirety of anything in one glance. For truth to be fully achieved, something must be examined from many angles. This supported the Eleatic view that observation alone wasn't sufficient to determine truth.

This summarizes the Pre-Socratic schools of philosophy contributions to epistemology. I've omitted the Sophists because much of our understanding of them comes in criticism of their work and such biased accounts make it difficult to determine their contributions. Already we start to see bits and pieces of something familiar in the Pre-Socratics in their approach to obtaining knowledge. The ideas that nature is governed by rules, learned through observation and validated through logic, particularly mathematics, are ideas we still hold today.


In Part II of this series, we will examine Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and how Epistemology matured under their watch and set the stage for the development of the scientific method.

Reply

Interested in this topic? By joining CR4 you can "subscribe" to
this discussion and receive notification when new comments are added.
Guru
Popular Science - Evolution - New Member Popular Science - Weaponology - New Member

Join Date: May 2006
Location: The 'Space Coast', USA
Posts: 9471
Good Answers: 750
#1

Re: The Scientific Method - Part I (Origin Story)

03/31/2011 7:25 PM

Excellent, Roger!

You have an excellent aptitude for writing and you should do more of it.

Reply
Guru
Technical Fields - Technical Writing - New Member Engineering Fields - Piping Design Engineering - New Member

Join Date: May 2009
Location: Ketchikan, AK, USA
Posts: 15428
Good Answers: 603
#2

Re: The Scientific Method - Part I (Origin Story)

03/31/2011 9:00 PM

It is amazing how close the ancients (notably Greek, but also in India and other places) came to modern understandings. This thread could prove to be rich in side explorations, resembling James Burke's Connections.

__________________
In vino veritas; in cervisia carmen; in aqua E. coli.
Reply
The Engineer
Engineering Fields - Engineering Physics - Physics... United States - Member - NY Popular Science - Genetics - Organic Chemistry... Popular Science - Cosmology - New Member

Join Date: Feb 2005
Location: Albany, New York
Posts: 4393
Good Answers: 109
#3
In reply to #2

Re: The Scientific Method - Part I (Origin Story)

03/31/2011 9:53 PM

I think we should be careful here about drawing connections that are tenuous at best. What I've presented here is the ideas that we kept from those school of philosophers. To have included the ideas we have discarded would have been too long and too distracting. Thus by only presenting the ideas we kept, I make their ideas of the universe seem more like our own than they really were.

However there does appear to be some methods of epistemology that are instinctive in human beings that also leads to a familiarity. For instance, humans tend to be reductionists, that is they tend to try to define the whole by it's parts. All of the Pre-Socratic schools were reductionist in some way or another, just as we are in our modern times, so that makes them seem familiar.

Certainly there also exists common misconceptions about the sophistication of ancient peoples, since we all (myself included) have a subtle prejudice that associates level of technology with sophistication. I think we could argue that we understand the natural world today better than they did (physics, chemistry etc.), but their ideas of ethics and aesthetics were very much comparable to our own.

Thanks for your comment, and AH, thanks for your compliment. I'm spread thin and writing takes effort, but I write when I can.

__________________
"The energy of the mind is the essence of life" - Aristotle
Reply
Guru
Popular Science - Evolution - New Member Popular Science - Weaponology - New Member

Join Date: May 2006
Location: The 'Space Coast', USA
Posts: 9471
Good Answers: 750
#5
In reply to #3

Re: The Scientific Method - Part I (Origin Story)

04/01/2011 8:22 AM

You are welcome. I understand being spread thin - ask a busy man. ;-)

You not only articulate well, but have a good flair for engaging the reader with well researched material.

Reply
Guru
Panama - Member - New Member Hobbies - CNC - New Member Engineering Fields - Marine Engineering - New Member Engineering Fields - Retired Engineers / Mentors - New Member

Join Date: Dec 2006
Location: Panama
Posts: 4296
Good Answers: 213
#4

Re: The Scientific Method - Part I (Origin Story)

04/01/2011 12:47 AM

As always, not only thought-provoking, but entertaining as well...

Reply
Reply to Blog Entry 5 comments
Interested in this topic? By joining CR4 you can "subscribe" to
this discussion and receive notification when new comments are added.
Copy to Clipboard

Users who posted comments:

Anonymous Hero (2); cwarner7_11 (1); Roger Pink (1); Tornado (1)

Previous in Blog: The Superconducting Super Collider – A Tragedy in Two Parts (Part II)   Next in Blog: The Scientific Method – Part II (Origin Story: Socrates and Plato)
You might be interested in: Gloveboxes and Isolators, Conveyor Chain, Leaf Chain

Advertisement