Here’s a brief posting, not unrelated to the previous two. I spoke in the first of a “tap root” running back from what we think of as “modern science” to sources in an ancient past. Such a tap root is not just a connection to the past, something of interest to academic historians, but potentially a powerful source of nourishment today. This may seem a strange claim to make for Aristotle in relation to modern science, but I do put it forward in earnest. Aristotle generally gets a bad rap from those who tell the story of modern science, but to a large extent it’s latter-day Aristotelians (such as Galileo’s Simplicio), not Aristotle himself, who are the targets of such criticism. It is well-known, and widely acknowledged, that Aristotle was a serious empiricist, conducting dissections and drawing such generalizations as he could perceive. But what was his account of scientific method, that we might give it serious attention today? I’m writing this from memory, so my references for the moment must be inexact. But in crude summary, here is the account which culminates in his “Posterior Analytics”.
He has said elsewhere that the objects of true knowledge which Plato calls the “forms” are “nowhere”, not in the sense that they do not exist, but that they do not exist in separation. The forms are everywhere in the observable world. We meet them when mind grasps something as whole and true. He says somewhere that scientific inquiry, as we gather data, is like an army in retreat: first one soldier takes a stand, then another, then more – and soon, the whole column stands fast. That standing fast is the mind grasping something true: “seeing something” whole, as we say, or achieving an intellectual intuition. Such an intuition is not the additive sum of the component data. Between such an empirical summation (which Plato calls the “all”), and the grasp of a truth, (a “whole”), lies the difference between data-processing and great science.
We are so concerned today to emphasize the “objectivity” of true science, that we fail to acknowledge the role of mind – a function which grasps something the data do not themselves present. In that sense, great science, serious science, cannot be reduced to objectivity. It cannot fly in the face of the data, but it cannot be reduced to those data, either. We live at a time when it is becoming increasingly urgent that we rise to the challenge of recognizing whole systems as such. An ecology is something more than the sum of any quantity of data. In biology, this whole beyond the parts is termed an “organism”; perhaps Aristotle would be reminding us today that we are in danger of failing to recognize life itself when it lies before us in our laboratories or in the seas.