Physics, Mathematics, and Explanation in Aristotle

Professor Robert J. Hankinson (University of Texas at Austin, USA)

It is often said that Aristotle’s physical science (or ‘science’) is more or less entirely qualitative, i.e. non-mathematical, in nature, and also that it relies excessively on supposed a priori givens rather than on anything like empirical investigation. In particular, it is said, Aristotle seeks to impose upon his physics of moving bodies categories that derive from purely formal considerations regarding the nature of what he took to be basic concepts without any regard for predictive testability or empirical adequacy. There is something to these criticisms. Aristotelian science is basically descriptive, and does not have the means or the structure to yield precise empirically-testable consequences, largely because it does not seek to describe the world in terms of a mathematically-precise language of physical quantities. There are indeed cases where Aristotle seems to have been led astray by simply expecting things to be a certain way on the basis of a priori considerations. But things are by no means as simple as this. We shall be looking at a number of texts from Aristotle’s physical and cosmological treatises, those concerned with the way in which the material constituents of the world behave. In particular, we will be considering the early chapters of his On the Heavens, where he seeks, notoriously, to postulate and defend the existence if a fifth element of the heavenly bodies, in addition to the traditional four of standard Greek physics. We will also look at relevant sections both of this text, and of the Physics and Generation and Destruction on the sublunary elements and their motions and interactions. These texts will be supplemented by excerpts from Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, on the proper structure of scientific knowledge, and of explanation. I will be arguing that, in the crucial passages, Aristotle is not imposing an abstract geometrical account of types of possible perfect movement on the observable phenomena of the world, but rather is treating them as very general constraints within which, and subject precisely to considerations of empirical adequacy, a fully-explanatory account of matter and motion can be developed.

Anti-Aristotelianism and the Emergence of Modern Science

Dr. Luka Boršić (Institute of Philosophy, Zagreb)

We are going to inquire into the changes of paradigm that happened notably in the 16th century and which prepared the ground for the emergence of modern science. In more detail we are going to explore the texts of three Renaissance philosophers: Mario Nizolio (De veris principiis), Frane Petrić (Francesco Patrizi, Discussiones peripateticae) and Jacopo Mazzoni (In universam Platonis et Aristotelis philosophiam praeludia). Through various philosophical concepts, and especially through the concept of scientia/ἐπιστήμη, we can follow metamorphoses of some basic epistemological and ontological ideas that led to Galileo’s quantification of natural philosophy.

Astrology: From Science to Pseudo-science

Dr. Ivana Skuhala Karasman (Institute of Philosophy, Zagreb)

A full understanding of the position of astrology in philosophy (especially philosophy of nature) from the 12th to the 16th century requires taking into consideration many cultural, political, and scientific activities of the time. Even more important for the understanding of the rise and decline of astrology as a respected science is the crisis of the Medieval worldview and the newly formed concept of a human being. Today we are so deeply steeped in considering as true natural sciences only those branches of knowledge that can be quantified that it may present a “leap of understanding” to accept that a pseudo-science (to use a modern Popperian term) such as astrology might have been taken as a rigorous scientific endeavour among serious and devoted scholars and “scientists” of earlier times.

Does Relativism Threaten the Sciences?

Professor Jure Zovko (Institute of Philosophy, Zagreb / University of Zadar)

In its early development, philosophy of science did not allow the possibility of a relativistic approach with regard to explanation of external phenomena. Relativism was seen as justified exclusively with regard to internal phenomena, for example in the realm of moral and aesthetic judgment. In the realm of moral judgment, external realism functions as a necessary hypothesis, according to which our moral judgment and moral decisions have a real effect in the external world, for which we can be held responsible. A paradigm shift in the theory of science, inaugurated by Th. S. Kuhn, led to the rise of relativism with regard to judgment in the realm of external phenomena and specifically with regard to the validity of scientific theories. It is an irony of history that philosophy of science which has argued for precision of reasoning, plausibility and strict methodology, today is characterized by epistemic relativism.
Although it is plausible that relativism is logically inconsistent, in current philosophical discourse it has not been refuted. Relativism remains the “universal language” of academic communication, but it is equally strongly represented in the field of the philosophy of science. The slogan “right to different opinions” seems to have established itself where one least expected – in the philosophy of science. However, if Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis holds, it should not be possible to translate past and disproved theories into our philosophical discourse or into the present language or theories, with the consequence that the ability to argue scientifically is lost. The most important scientific terms, however, should retain their meaning and reference beyond incommensurability of the paradigms. Putnam basically repeats the old Platonic argument against relativism from the Theaetetus. In order to overcome the main assumptions of scientific relativism, representatives of scientific realism (Boghossian, Alan Sokal, William Newton-Smith, Stathis Psillos, David  Malet Armstrong etc.)  try to prove that our knowledge is not shaped by social conditions and circumstances. In most cases, they plead for the method of Inference to the Best Explanation, because this method is identical to rational argumentation and philosophical reasoning.

What is an Expert? Scientific and Public Controversies

Dr. Marija Brajdić Vuković (Institute of Social Research, Zagreb)

Having expertise is inextricably linked to the possession of knowledge in some domain, whereas to be a lay person is to lack such knowledge. Expertise is social and performative, being an expert involves familiarity with the formal aspects of knowledge along with the capacity to act and respond to circumstances. Controversies such as Climategate revealed to the public how science works on day to day basis – for many decades the only people who knew that were experienced scientists. In the middle of any scientific dispute is a core set of specialists – these are the people who actually do the experiments, build the theories, and meet together to argue at conferences; the core set is being reported and discussed in the outer rings by hundreds of their fellow scientists, by funders and policy makers, by journalists and, to some extent, by the public at large. The key insight is that what happens in the core is hugely complicated – in some fields every waking moment of the scientists is locked in dispute with calculations, arguments, measurements, and judgments of others’ capabilities and so on. The outcome with respect of those outside of science is that distance lends enchantment. What is nuanced and unclear to those inside the core set becomes, paradoxically, sharp and clear to those outside it. So, people outside the core are much more certain than the people inside who are making it happen. It is further complicated by the fact that being outside of science doesn’t mean that you are not having some kind of specialist knowledge. For example, patients that suffer from some chronic illnesses may become better experts in that illness than their doctors. Also, one of the most important highlights of research on expertise is that expertise is often partial, that experts frequently emphasize some aspects of a problem, but overlook others, and that, even if we could find the right experts, they may not have the answers. To add to the complexity of the course’s topic, technological risks and uncertainties are inextricably mixed with concerns about ultimate value or utility. The debate is not just about or even about the limitations of expertise but about entire research agendas. For example, those opposed to further developments in genetic testing and screening may question their political and moral consequences by stressing the way in which they reinforce existing inequalities, create new forms of discrimination etc.  All this draws attention to the ways in which science, like all knowledge, is intimately bound up with particular sets of institutions and relations of power, domination and control. Those choices are never purely technical but always, and at the same time, about the kind of society that is implicated in the preservation and use of science and technology.

Antiscience within science

Dr. Boris Kožnjak (Institute of Philosophy, Zagreb)

The problem of antiscience is usually discussed as a one-way activity directed toward science from the outside of science itself, mainly in the form of either an intentional (ideological, political, etc.) or unintentional (ignorance, lack of knowledge, etc.) public distrust in science. However, such an exclusive account of the phenomenon of antiscience ignores the fact, clearly demonstrated by historians, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists of science over the last hundredth years, that antiscientific attitudes can also take a reverse direction, either by science transgressing its own boundaries in matters essentially lying outside the scope of science, or by ideological and political misuses of science both by scientists and policymakers. Besides, the very scientific activity by itself is shown to be inherently loaded with certain antiscientific practices and counter-norms like particularism, solitariness, interestedness and organized dogmatism. The purpose of this course is to offer a historical and conceptual analysis, as seen from the perspective of the mentioned metasciences, of the ways in which the factors internal to science contribute to the antiscientific spirit as much as those external to science.

Science and the Scientific Revolution

Professor Matjaž Vesel (Institute of Philosophy of the Slovenian Academy, Ljubljana)

Was there science during the so-called “Scientific Revolution”? I will argue that there was not. Science, as we understand it today, is a result of an almost three centuries long process, but it was not really science that was being revolutionized in that period. The major, ground-breaking changes happened in the field of natural philosophy and the related fields of human knowledge (such as optics, astronomy, mechanics etc.), not in science. I will support this claim by analysing the case of Isaac Newton, who is all too often considered a prototypical scientist. His central work clearly belongs to the tradition of natural philosophy, hence its title: Principia mathematica philosophiae naturalis. This work can be fully understood only if we take into consideration that it was meant to replace Descartes’ Principa philosophiae and address several very important metaphysical issues, especially the role of God in his creation.