Everybody’s a Platonist, Nobody’s an Aristotelian

This is funny:


I spent a while when I was teaching middle school thinking about What Science Is. The class was called “Science” after all, not Biology or Chemistry or Geology; I should know what it was I was teaching. The best I could come up with was that Science was a kind of movement between different kinds of perception and intuition, moving towards the kinds of perception that could be most reliably measured and the kinds of intuitions about those measurements that could be most consistently described and questioned. Yes, yes, I know about Karl Popper and falsified hypotheses. I watched the They Might Be Giants video:


But the world isn’t just a series of falsified or not-yet-falsified hypotheses, and lots of things are science that don’t fit into an experimental framework or attached fully to a set of theories. Someone hands you a sample of pond water, it’s stinky and gross:


Is it science yet? Maybe not. You look at it under the microscope, and see something like this (actually first you see nothing, then you see bubbles and water on the lens that look cool but are just bubbles and water on the lens, and finally you switch to a lower power and see):


Is it science now, watching the things squiggle around and bump into each other? Is it more science if you know to call them bacteria and a paramecium? What if, like Anton can Leewenhoek, you draw them and describe them without knowing what they are?

Science has something to do with honesty, and something to do with sanity. If old Anton had just said he saw all this crazy stuff under his single-ground-glass microscope, like how Domenico Scandella, an Italian miller who lived a few decades before Leeuwenhoek, said the universe was an old cheese in which worms appeared as angels, that wouldn’t be science, even if he believed it. The fact that others could make their own microscopes and see similar animalcules (while only the blessed can see what Scandella saw), would seem to be a relevant distinction.  Louis Pasteur “massaged” his data to make it conform more closely with his theories, but we forgive him for it because he was right. Still, sanity and honesty seem to be key.

And an admission that one thing is not another. The tweet from The March for Science at the top is an example of what one might call the Neo-Platonism of the current mainstream left, the desire to see all as but the shadows cast on cave walls by the light that is the hidden oneness of all things, or at least the hidden intersectionality. A few years ago, Greenpeace decided that environmentalism and poverty reduction are really the same thing, for example. And Teach For America now believes education reform is really about immigration.

Physics is the most Platonic of sciences, succeeding in reducing the buzzing confusion of the world to the smallest number of forces, particles, and laws. But as Richard Feynman notes in his Lectures on Physics, that process of reduction begins with a realization of the complexity and “manyness” of the natural world, which can only then begin to be simplified, stylized and combined.

The things with which we concern ourselves in science appear in myriad forms, and with a multitude of attributes. For example, if we stand on the shore and look at the sea, we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sound, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may be even happiness and thought. Any other spot in nature has a similar variety of things and influences. It is always as complicated as that, no matter where it is. Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand this multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations.

For example: Is the sand other than the rocks? That is, is the sand perhaps nothing but a great number of very tiny stones? Is the moon a great rock? If we understood rocks, would we also understand the sand and the moon? Is the wind a sloshing of the air analogous to the sloshing motion of the water in the sea? What common features do different movements have? What is common to different kinds of sound? How many different colors are there? And so on. In this way we try gradually to analyze all things, to put together things which at first sight look different, with the hope that we may be able to reduce the number of different things and thereby understand them better.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics

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