May 18, 2015

#04-019: Aristotle and Early Science

marble bust of a handsome bearded man in toga-like robes

Note: In the olden days, it was hard to distinguish science from philosophy; but Aristotle was a master of both. See some of his theories in this lesson.

Get Ready: What causes a scientific theory to be disproven? I mean, why is it that things people believed about scientific ideas long ago are no longer believed?

This lesson, along with #04-020 and #04-021, will take us back to the dawn of Western civilization. We begin with a man known largely as a philosopher, but we must remember that in the early days, science was sometimes known as "natural philosophy."

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was known for his wide range of interests. A student of no less than Plato himself, Aristotle's brilliance led to his being engaged by Philip II of Macedon to teach his son, a boy who would become famous in history as Alexander the Great.

Aristotle was not the first Greek to think deeply on nature. Before him, while most of the surrounding cultures were teaching that the gods made the world, Greeks like Thales and other "pre-Socratics"--philosophers working before Socrates--were seeking explanations that did not involve the supernatural.

We find in Aristotle's work such "big thoughts" as "What is the world made of?" and "How are things caused?" as well as more practical studies, such as the classification of living things.

The ancients arrived early at the idea of four elements--earth, air, water, and fire--each with its own properties. Aristotle proposed a fifth element--ether--which he thought made up the area outside of the earth (that is, space and the "heavenly bodies" in it).

He also suggested that everything can be traced back to four types of cause. These are material cause, which determines what something is made of; formal cause, which gives it its form or shape; efficient cause, something like the modern idea of cause, that which makes something happen; and final cause, which is the purpose for which something comes to be.

Like many natural philosophers of his day, Aristotle included many myths and mistakes in his "scientific" writing. For example, he repeated the erroneous thought that life could spring from dead materials, an idea known as "spontaneous generation."

But unlike many before him, he also observed nature directly, and even performed systematic research, like opening fertilized chicken eggs at regular intervals to see how the embryos developed.

Aristotle's ideas remained of great importance until the rebirth of learning in the Renaissance, when many of his ideas were proved wrong.


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. classification
  2. dawn
  3. elements
  4. embryos
  5. erroneous
  6. fertilized
  7. intervals
  8. supernatural
  9. systematic
  10. traced

  1. the start of the day, or a symbol of any beginning
  2. having babies inside
  3. spaces of time
  4. unborn babies at the earliest stages of development
  5. followed; learned by investigation
  6. putting into categories
  7. in an organized way
  8. the basic materials of which things are made
  9. mistaken; untrue
  10. outside of the laws of nature

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for May 18, 2015

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. f; 2. a; 3. h; 4. d; 5. i; 6. b; 7. c; 8. j; 9. g; 10. e