Harrison Middleton University

January Quarterly Discussion Review

January Quarterly Discussion Review

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.

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February 16, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Every January, our Quarterly Discussion centers around Natural Science. Since I was recently reading Carlo Rovelli’s book Anaximander and the Birth of Science, I decided to focus this discussion on the rift between science and philosophy. This is a subject which Rovelli writes about extensively. Honestly, I don’t fully understand the discord, so I used this discussion to better comprehend the places where science and philosophy meet as well as the places which cause the most debate. As with many discussions, we began with basic definitions. According to Merriam-Webster, these terms can be defined as follows.

Merriam-Webster defines science as:

~ knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

~ such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

Merriam-Webster defines philosophy as:

~ all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts

~ a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology

~ a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means

~ search for wisdom

In Rovelli’s mind, Anaximander embodied the ideals of a scientist. He learned everything that he could from his master, Thales, but then found places where Thales’s theories might be improved. According to Rovelli, this analytical process exemplifies a truly scientific exploration. Anaximander refuted Thales’ idea that the earth was a flat disc. Instead, he posited that the earth was created from the infinite, in eternal motion, and suspended in a void. Anaximander, then, disagreed with the Pre-Socratics about the idea that the earth was born of already known and existing materials, though he did agree that all bodies are material. From this, he extrapolated that since bodies do not last forever, how could the eternal also be material? The eternal, by definition, could not be susceptible to change, impermanence, and death.

Though his scientific findings were inaccurate, this discussion between Anaximander, Thales, and other Pre-Socratics is important to Rovelli. Typically, ancient philosophers blindly followed their teachers’ doctrines, or refuted them entirely. In Anaximander’s case, however, he agreed with his teachers in part. He examined their theories carefully and then attempted to root out weak arguments. This, Rovelli claims, was a first step toward scientific thinking.

At no point in our history have we completed a picture of the physical world. We understand so very little of it that even as we create increasingly sophisticated systems, we also find that complexity increases. Therefore, the ability to build upon our teachers’ work, not only to learn from them but to analyze and critique their work, is incredibly important, not only to science but also philosophy.

Reading Anaximander’s Fragments is difficult work. The excerpts that do exist are fragments of fragments, always found in someone else’s work. Therefore, all of Anaximander’s quotes are mediated already. Language difference, cultural difference, and distance in the past increases our struggle with the material. How can we trust that his words are being delivered honestly, without agenda? We cannot. According to Rovelli, however, the focus should be on the fact that during this Pre-Socratic movement, students began to work in a different way. Perhaps due to the open-minded nature of Miletus, where Anaximander lived, he was able to approach philosophy in a new way. In questioning his teachers, Anaximander essentially performed a peer review.

Rovelli emphasizes the importance of this cross-disciplinary debate. Scientists must ask philosophical questions, he says. And philosophers must explore the validity of their claims. General questions such as “what is beauty” or “what is matter made of” may help to guide experiments and our understanding. Rovelli explains that “Science works through continuity, not discontinuity.” In other words, we must work with our predecessors (in our disciplines and others). Science, Rovelli points out, is an important tool in our toolkit for understanding the universe. So too is philosophy.

Rovelli writes, “Philosophers have tools and skills that physics needs, but do not belong to the physicist’s training: conceptual analysis, attention to ambiguity, accuracy of expression, the ability to detect gaps in standard arguments, to devise radically new perspectives, to spot conceptual weak points, and to seek out alternative conceptual explanations.”

We had incredibly rich discussions and I am grateful to those who helped me better understand the differences between science and philosophy. I look forward to our next Quarterly Discussion in April which will include a couple of short stories. Everyone is invited! Reach out to as****@hm*.edu with questions or to register.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ Ella_Ca

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