Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rovelli defends Aristotle

Physicist Carlo Rovelli has just written an excellent summary of Aristotle's physics
I show that Aristotelian physics is a correct approximation of Newtonian physics in its appropriate domain, in the same precise sense in which Newton theory is an approximation of Einstein's theory. Aristotelian physics lasted long not because it became dogma, but because it is a very good theory.
This is important because Aristotle is widely reviled for stunting physics with wrong ideas, and requiring a Kuhnian revolution to overturn them.
Aristotelian physics is often presented as the dogma that slowed the development of science. I think that this is very incorrect. The scientists after Aristotle had no hesitation in modifying, violating, or ignoring Aristotle's physics. ...

In my own field of research, theoretical physics, a "vulgata" of Kuhn's incommensurability thesis has strong hold. According to this vulgata, advance in science is marked by discontinuity, the greatest the discontinuity the strongest the advance, and not much more than the phenomena survives across the discontinuity. This has fostered a style of research based on the ideology of discarding past knowledge as irrelevant and working by "guessing" possible theories. In my opinion this ideology is one of the reasons for the current sterility of theoretical physics.

Science generates discontinuities and constantly critically reevaluates received ideas, but it builds on past knowledge and its cumulative aspects by very far outnumber its discontinuities.
Rovelli is exactly correct. This blog's motto, that nature makes no jumps, refers both to physical law and to the accumulation of scientific knowledge. The whole concept of scientific revolutions is mistaken because the supposed discontinuities do not exist.

(The term vulgata means early Latin and Greek translations of the Bible.)
From this perspective Aristotle's physics deserves a sharp reevaluation. With all its limitations, it is great theoretical physics. Its major limitation is that it is not mathematical. ...

Of course Galileo, master of propaganda and grand master in the use of words, did his best to ridicule Aristotle, in the effort to win a difficult battle against a giant. From this, much of the bad press suffered by Aristotle's physics followed. ...

Aristotle's physics bad reputation is undeserved, and leads to diffused ignorance:
Right again. Aristotle was a genius who greatly advanced science. Sure, his work seems primitive compared to today's quantitative physics, but he was on the right track and he inspired progress.

It was not just just Galileo and Kuhn who unfairly trashed Aristotle, Bertrand Russell also did:
Then we get a hint of Russell's frustration: "almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine; in logic, this is still true at the present day" (160).
and this:
“Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths.”
Maybe Aristotle miscounted teeth, but his works are filled with brilliant observations. Observing the natural world certainly did occur to him. Richard Dawkins is one of those who believe that Aristotle stunted science. But only because someone told him, and not from any facts.

I defended Aristotle against Kuhnian criticisms last year. I have also posted at great length about how modern theoretical physics like string theory has lost its way because of a failure to connect with pre-existing science. These supposed proposed paradigm shifts and revolutions are usually justified with entirely fallacious analogies to faulty historical accounts of Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, and Einstein. We need to get the history correct if it is to be used as an example.

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