Aristotle And Science

Philosophy's Byrne says the ancient Greek had more in common with today's scientists than meets the eye

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Aristotle may have favored eternal truths over experimentation, but the ancient Greek philosopher had more in common with today's scientists than is widely believed, argues Prof. Patrick Byrne (Philosophy).

In his recent book, Analysis and Science in Aristotle , Byrne departs from traditional thinking to explore the ties between Aristotelian and modern scientific thought, which are usually regarded as fundamentally at odds with each other.

"My interest was to go back to what Aristotle had to say about analysis, which is a very important term throughout modern science, and see whether there was really as much discontinuity between Aristotle and modern science as either those rejecting traditional ideas - or those embracing them - seem to have thought," he said. "The gist of my book is that there are important commonalties that have been overlooked, and that have an important bearing on these questions."

Prof. Patrick Byrne (Philosophy)-"My interest was to go back to what Aristotle had to say about analysis, which is a very important term throughout modern science, and see whether there was really as much discontinuity between Aristotle and modern science as either those rejecting traditional ideas - or those embracing them - seem to have thought."
Byrne said followers of Aristotle saw science as a means of deducing eternal truths: As far as they were concerned, he said, "there was nothing new under the sun." By contrast, the modern approach to science pioneered by 17th century thinkers like Descartes and Newton emphasized analysis and "discovery of new things," said Byrne, in what has been widely held as a reaction against Aristotle.

Intrigued by Aristotle's choice of title, The Analytics, for his central two volumes on scientific methodology, Byrne set out to examine how Aristotle viewed analysis, or the process of finding solutions. He found it curious that Aristotle would set forth his reflections on science in a work with such a title, instead of one which might seem more in line with his eternal-truths philosophy.

Byrne determined that a non-deductive form of ancient mathematical analysis influenced Aristotle's thinking. To Byrne, Aristotle's use of the word "analytics" in reference to the solution of complicated mathematical problems "made him sound a lot closer to the scientists of the 17th century."

If the central thesis represents a departure, so, for Byrne, did the writing of the book. By specialty a scholar of modern scientific thought, Byrne spent 10 years researching Aristotle for the book, studying ancient Greek in the process.

Byrne said his book may be of particular interest to students of the thought of the late Boston College philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan, SJ, since it builds upon suggestions derived from Fr. Lonergan's work.

"I got interested in the whole question of what was radically novel, and what was conserved, in the transition to modern science," said Byrne. "This question has far reaching religious and ethical implications, since the stature of modern science has been used to bolster rejections of traditional religious and ethical norms."

Byrne expects some may differ with the book's conclusions. "The basic thesis is unusual, depending on how you look at it," he acknowledged. "The reception the book has got from some of the reviewers suggests it is kind of novel."

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