Hellenistic and Hellenic Interpretation of Popper

Hellenistic and Hellenic Interpretation of Popper

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Hellenistic and Hellenic Interpretation of Popper


Sir Karl Popper states in his treatise "Philosophy of Science: a Personal Report" asserts that "the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability" (Popper 23). He claims that a 'good' scientific theory must meet a single requirement: its capability of being tested. In other words, a good theory predicts future observations, and the accuracy of the prediction supports or refutes it. If a theory can't be tested then it isn't scientific.

While agreeing with Popper's falsifiability criteria, I question his initial assumptions of the nature of science. He suggests that all scientific thought is purely logical and scientific theories are rigorous, mathematical and precise. While true for most modern theories, this assumption is not true for ancient scientific theories.

Modern science is a product of Hellenistic thought, which evolved from Alexandrine culture. Modern theories, as well as those which follow the Hellenistic tradition, are characterized by their narrow focus of logic and mathematics -- they explain how something works (Kuhn 104).

However, the scientific predecessor of Hellenistic thought, Hellenic science, provided explanations for not only how something works, but also why it was there. Hellenic theories, by their nature, were loosely constructed in order to explain both observed anomalies and questions of existence. Since Hellenic theories tackle both of these questions, they often cannot be tested (how does a person test the nature of reality?).

So Popper's claim of falsifiability can't apply to Hellenic science, as the majority of its theories fail Popper's criteria. Indeed, the foundations of scientific thought are unscientific. His argument eliminates the backbone of scientific thought by the presumption that all science is Hellenistic.

Modern science bases itself on Hellenistic thought, so its theories are characterized by quantitative value rather than qualitative thought. Relating the two fields of scientific thought, Kuhn observes that Hellenistic science is "less philosophical [and] more mathematical and numerical, than its Hellenic predecessor" (104). Compared to Hellenic thought, the very nature of science changed from speculative and philosophical to precise and mathematical. In fact, the modern scientific method is Hellenistic.

But, Hellenistic thought does not address any philosophical implications which arise from scientific theories. Kuhn addresses this dichotic split between philosophy and logic: "Economy as a purely logical function, and cosmological satisfaction as a purely psychological function, lie at opposite ends of a spectrum" (39).

Einstein's gravitational theory illustrates modern Hellenistic theory.

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Einstein claims that "light must be attracted by heavy bodies (such as the sun), precisely as material bodies [are]" (Popper 22). His theory states strict conditions for application of his theory and predicts precise and mathematical results.

According to the theory, light which passes near any massive object should deflect along its path. But the only massive object which would produce observable results on the earth is the sun. Applying Einstein's theory, any starlight traveling to the earth which passes near the sun should be deflected by a few measurable degrees. But the sun's brilliance obscures any starlight close enough for Einstein's predicted deflection.

However, a solar eclipse would provide the necessary means for masking the sun's light, and on May 29,1919, such an eclipse took place. Astronomers photographed the eclipse and the now visible background stars and compared those plates with pictures of the same starfield in different parts of the night sky. The stars in the vicinity of the solar eclipse appeared closer to the sun than they should been, thus supporting Einstein's hypothesis (Calder 55-56).

If the stars didn't appear compressed about the solar disk, then Einstein's theory would have been refuted. By Popper's argument, Einstein's gravitational theory is scientific because it could have been refuted if the observations didn't meet the theory's predictions.

Similarly, Ptolemy, another Hellenistic scientist, theorized about the cosmos. He developed "the first systematic mathematical [theory] to give a complete, detailed, and quantitative account of all celestial motions" (Kuhn 73). Ptolemy used epicycles and deferants to model planetary motion. His theory predicted planetary but not accurately (Kuhn 64-73).

When observed planetary motion did not match his theory's predictions, Ptolemy (or his successors) added epicycles or deferents which accounted for the abherent motion. Each time new planetary observations refuted Ptolemy's theory, astronomers would add more circles, making the theory match the data (Kuhn 73-74).

By Popper's argument, Ptolemy's theory was not scientific because it wasn't refuted when its predictions failed to account for observed planetary motion. Every addition of a new epicycle or deferent lessened the theory's scientific status.

But these preceding Hellenistic theories are mathematically precise; there are monumental scientific theories that aren't. Hellenistic science evolved from Hellenic, and changed the nature of science from vague and philosophical to rigid and mathematical. Hellenistic science separated philosophy from science -- two different fields.

But, Hellenic science possesses unified thought. Its theories aren't very mathematical, but they provide the 'how' and 'why' for observed phenomenon; thus, Hellenic theories explain mechanical processes and philosophical answers. Specifically, cosmological theories explain how the universe works and provide insights into divinity and man's purpose. Kuhn argues that "a conceptual scheme that is believed and that therefore functions as part of a cosmology has more than scientific significance" (39).

One particular example of a Hellenic theory was written by Aristotle, who claimed that the whole universe was "contained within . . . the outer surface of [a stellar] sphere" (Kuhn 79). All of the celestial bodies, including the planets, moon, sun and the earth, were surrounded by a finite stellar sphere. Beyond that sphere, nothing existed, thus the universe was bound. Aristotle states in his book, On the Heavens:

It is plain, then, . . . that there is not, nor do the facts allow there to be, any bodily mass beyond the heaven. The [universe] in its entirety is made up of the whole sum of available matter. . . , and we may conclude that there is not now a plurality of [universes], nor has there been, nor could there be. This [universe] is one, solitary, and complete. It is clear in addition that there is neither place nor void . . . beyond the heaven; for in all place there is a possibility of the presence of body, [and] void is defined as that which, although at present not containing any body, can contain it. . . . (79)
Aristotle's theory gives meaning to people; his theory provides a scheme in which man was an integral part. "An infinite [universe] has no center. . . , [and] it is natural to presume that there are other worlds scatters here and there through all of space. . . . Thus the earth's uniqueness vanishes; . . . man and the earth cease to be at the focus of the universe" (Kuhn 89).

However, Aristotle's theory can't meet Popper's criteria of falsifiability: it isn't scientific. But, this Hellenic theory transcends Popper's rigid requirements for scientific status. Aristotle's cosmological scheme explains not only the dynamics of the universe but provides meaning and purpose for man.

Popper attempts to qualify all science as Hellenistic. But, Hellenic theories base themselves on philosophical content first and details second. Thus, Hellenic theories can not be tested by the falsifiability criteria as purpose and meaning have no quantitative value. They must be accepted or rejected on faith -- a qualitative measure. Thus, Hellenic theories transcend Popper's criteria for scientific status. They explain observations with reason and philosophy in a scientific approach.

Popper claims that a theory is scientific when it meets the requirement of falsifiablility. This means if a theory can make predictions which can be objectively tested, then that theory is scientific, otherwise it isn't. Additionally, altering a scientific theory to account for refutable evidence lessens or even negates its scientific status.

However, all science is not logical. The ancient scientists whose works founded modern science explained more than dynamics; they related meaning and purpose. Hellenic scientists didn't separate philosophy from science, because they were integral parts of each other. The union of the questions, "How does the universe work, and why are we here?" characterize Hellenic theories.

Since Popper presumes all science only asks the question, "how does the universe work?", he implies all science is Hellenistic. His presumption is false so his argument is unsound. For validation of his argument, Popper must assert that his claims will work only within the realm of Hellenistic science. By limiting Popper's presumptions, his argument for the classification of the scientific status of a theory works extremely well.

Works Cited

Aristotle. On the Heavens. Trans. Sir William David Ross. Oxford, 1928-1952. Rpt. in The Copernican Revolution. Thomas S. Kuhn. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Calder, Nigel. Einstein's Universe. New York: The Viking Press, 1979.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Copernican Revolution. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Popper, Sir Karl. "Philosophy of Science: a Personal Report." British Philosophy in Mid-century. Ed. C.A. Mace, 1957. Rpt. in Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science. Rev. ed. Ed. Klemke, E.D., Robert Hollinger, and A. David Kline. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988. 19-27.

This paper is the best I've seen so far!!! Bravo!!!

And, this paper is mine, so you can ignore this posting.

I do need to clean up some typos within the paper, and get rid of some of the lard content of the paper.

Overall rating: Excellent

I think you've hit two interesting points about Popper's criteria for a theory being scientific. Historically we would like to say that somehow science begins with the ancient greeks, and Popper's criteria does not seem to allow that. In fact, carried to it's logical conclusion, Newtonian physics is not scientific since Popper's criteria implies that not only does a theory have to be testable but it also has to be true. So there is an implication that it may be difficult to use Popper's criteria to say exactly when, historically, science began (it would appear to have begun only as recently as the latest new theory and the starting point continues to shift as new theories replace older ones). You may wish to expand on this point.

A second point you touch on (and which you may wish to expand) is the problem of partial knowledge. Scientist and engineers (and everyone else) operate constantly on theories which have not been tested, some of which have not yet been formulated carefully enough to test. Mendel established the rules of genetics long before the possibility of testing any theories about the existence and function of genes. Popper's criteria may be too harsh for theories which are in an early stage of incubation and not fully formed. (We may in fact be seeing something like this in present day psycology; we have partial knowlege, some statistical evidence but no tight, all encompasing theory which we can test. Surely some of the ideas there are right or close to right but we can't yet formulate them in such a way as to conclusively test them. Another example might be the period after Dirac's relativistic quantum theory but before anti-particles were discovered. It was not clear exactly what the full implications of the theory were so that it was not clear what a valid test would be.)

1. You need to clarify some of your argument: you claim (paragraph #2) that you agree with Popper's falsifiability criterion, and you claim (paragraph #4) that this criterion is not met by Hellenic science. But then, later in your paper, you want to restrict Popper's criterion to Hellenistic science (last paragraph) and allow for Hellenic theories to be scientific. This is confusing. If your position is the one you close the paper with, you should modify your opening paragraphs so that you don't start by asserting what you later deny.

2. It would be helpful for you to explain why it is that mathematics, precision and logic cannot be features of theories that also explain purposes and meanings and are very general. Much of your paper depends upon a contrast between Hellenic theories (cannot meet Popper's criterion because they are not precise enough, or logical enough, or quantitative enough, or because they are too philosophical, or because they include claims as to meaning and purpose, or because they explain why we are here, or because they don't supply details) and Hellenistic theories (can meet Popper's criterion because they are precise, quantitative, logical, do not include claims as to meaning and purpose, or explain how but not why we are here, or do supply details). And you need to make this distinction clearer than you have done in the paper: you mention Ptolemaic theory as Hellenistic, and point out the mathematical precision; and you mention Aristotle's theory as Hellenic. But the Aristotelian theory you cite is included in most Ptolemaic theories; Copernicus and Kepler also include in their theories the idea that the sun is at the center of the universe (or at one of the foci of the elliptical orbits) because it is fitting that it be there; and consider the ancient Pythagoreans -- were they Hellenic or Hellenistic?

3. Finally, you need to elaborate on the connection between quantitative precision and falsifiability. Does Popper really make this connection? If he does, is it reasonable? Consider the following two claims:

A bunch of basket balls are shot out of the sun and land on the campus of IUS every day.
God creates angels at the rate of 37.45832 angels per hour.
The first claim is not very precise or quantitative (doesn't say how many basketballs and doesn't give a precise location on campus or a precise time of arrival for any of them). Still, It seems to be falsifiable (if no basketballs land on campus today, one would think that would falsify it). The second claim is more precise, but I don't have any idea as to what would falsify it.

My first question involves the opening sentence; "Sir Karl Popper states in his treatise "Philosophy of Science: a Personal Report" asserts that "the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability" (Popper 23)."

State in his treatise....asserts? Do we have a grammar problem? I believe you more than adequetly state that modern science is a product of Hellenic thought. Stop hitting me in the head with it (grin). I agree with the problems in Popper's statements concerning proof of theory. Light cones and event horizons come to mind. I do think you could expand on this, however.
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