Sunday, February 6, 2011

Democritus and the Scientific Method

"Democritus, however, does seem not only to have thought carefully about all the problems, but also to be distinguished from the outset by his method." -- Aristotle, philosopher, On Generation and Corruption, Book I, 350 B.C.

"Of all the more ancient systems, the Democritean is of the greatest consequence. ... Now for the first time do we have a rigorous, scientifically useful hypothesis." -- Friedrich W. Nietzsche, philosopher, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, 1872-1876

"[Democritus was]... the first of the savants and natural philosophers of his time." -- Eduard Zeller, philosopher, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, 1881

"Aristotle consequently reckons Democritus, in spite of his moral sayings, among the Physicists...." -- Eduard Zeller, philosopher, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, 1881

"It is necessary to insist on the scientific character of the philosophy we are about to study." -- John Burnet, classicist, Early Greek Philosophy, 1892

"It would surely be absurd to imagine that the men who could make these observations had not the curiosity or the ability to make many others of which the memory is lost. Indeed, the idea that the Greeks were not observers is ludicrously wrong, as is proved by the anatomical accuracy of their sculpture, which bears witness to trained habits of observation, while the Hippokratean corpus contains models of scientific observation at its best. We know, then, that the Greeks could observe well, and we know that they were curious about the world. Is it conceivable that they did not use their powers of observation to gratify that curiosity? It is true that they had not our instruments of precision; but a great deal can be discovered by the help of very simple apparatus." -- John Burnet, classicist, Early Greek Philosophy, 1892

"For reasons that will appear soon scientists are very much inclined to regard the Ionians (Thales, Anaximander, etc.), and, above all, the great atomist, Democritus as their spiritual ancestors." -- Erwin Schrödinger, physicist, Nature and the Greeks, 1954

"The speculations of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are to be regarded as scientific hypotheses...." -- Bertrand Russell, philosopher, A History of Western Philosophy, 1972

"Anaximander of Miletus was a friend and colleague of Thales, one of the first people we know of to do an experiment. By examining the moving shadow cast by a vertical stick he determined accurately the length of the year and the seasons." -- Carl Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

"The first recorded experiment on air was performed by Empedocles, who flourished around 450 B.C. ... Empedocles performed his experiment with a household implement people had used for centuries, the so-called clepsydra or 'water thief,' which was used as a kitchen ladle." -- Carl Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

"Their [Leucippus and Democritus's] theory was indeed a scientific one, in the old Ionian fashion; it was not a myth, nor an abstract philosophy." -- Jonathan Barnes, philosopher, The Presocratic Philosophers, 1982

"Democritus was, indeed, the most successful of the Greek natural philosophers in the uncanny accuracy of his ideas (at least from our present viewpoint)...." -- Isaac Asimov, author, Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, 1982

" is for his physics that Democritus is today most famed." -- Paul R. Cartledge, professor, Democritus, 1997

"Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.E.), considered the father of modern science, was the last of the pre-Socratics and is best known for creating mechanical explanations for all of nature that surrounded him." -- Pamela Gossin, Encyclopedia of Literature and Science, 2002

"[Democritus was] the first particle physicist." -- Leon M. Lederman, physicist, The God Particle, 2006

In response to:

"Democritus went on to interpret the universe in atomic terms and came up with a number of suggestions that sound quite modern. However, it all rested on pure reasoning. He could suggest no evidence for the existence of atoms other than 'this is the way it must be'. ... One of those who came under the influence of Gassendi was the English scientist Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and with him atomism enters a new phase; it is no longer a matter of philosophy and deduction, but rather one of experiment and observation." -- Isaac Asimov, author, Understanding Physics, 1966

"It must not be supposed that their reasons for their theories were wholly empirical. The atomic theory was revived in modern times to explain the facts of chemistry, but these facts were not known to the Greeks." -- Bertrand Russell, philosopher, A History of Western Philosophy, 1972

"By good luck, the atomists hit on a hypothesis for which, more than two thousand years later, some evidence was found, but their belief, in their day, was none the less destitute of any foundation." -- Bertrand Russell, philosopher, A History of Western Philosophy, 1972

"It seemed to Democritus that the atoms of each element were distinct in size and shape and that it was this distinction that made each element different in properties. The actual substances we could see and handle were composed of mixtures of the atoms of the different elements, and one substance could be changed into another by altering the nature of their mixture. All this sounds remarkably modern to us, but Democritus had no way of appealing to experiment for corroboration. (The Greek philosophers did not experiment but came to their conclusions by arguing from 'first principles.')" -- Isaac Asimov, author, A Short History of Chemistry, 1979

"About this time [17th century], however, some scholars were beginning to perform experiments...." -- Isaac Asimov, author, Atom, 1992

"The first to perform experiments that seemed to have a connection with the question of atomism was the British scientist Robert Boyle (1627-1691)...." -- Isaac Asimov, author, Atom, 1992

"D's views - all his views - were purely theoretical and in no way empirically based or tested." -- Paul R. Cartledge, professor, July 14th 2009

I present the following refutations in particular:

"Nor is it true that the Greeks made no use of experiment. The rise of the experimental method dates from the time when the medical schools began to influence the development of philosophy, and accordingly we find that the first recorded experiment of a modern type is that of Empedokles with the klepsydra. We have his own account of this (fr. 100), and we can see how it brought him to the verge of anticipating Harvey and Torricelli. It is inconceivable that an inquisitive people should have applied the experimental method in a single case without extending it to other problems." -- John Burnet, classicist, Early Greek Philosophy, 1892

"There is no justification either for the idea that Greek science was built up by more or less lucky guesswork, instead of by observation and experiment." -- John Burnet, classicist, Early Greek Philosophy, 1892

"Whenever this kind of thing happens one has to envisage two possibilities. The first is that the early thinkers made a lucky guess which later proved to be correct. The second is that the thought pattern in question is not so exclusively based on the recently discovered evidence as the modern thinkers believe...." -- Erwin Schrödinger, physicist, Nature and the Greeks, 1954

"This record is far too good to be chalked up to lucky guesses. Such consistently successful results show that Democritus and his followers had developed a powerful new system for gaining knowledge -- they had begun to explore empirical science, and its methods, thousands of years before it rose up again...." -- Robert L. Oldershaw, cosmologist, Democritus - Scientific Wizard of the 5th Century B.C., Speculations in Science and Technology, Volume 21, Number 1, Pages 37-44, 1998

No comments: