Theorizing: The Greek Dialectical Method as a Precursor for the Scientific Method

Assertion: The ancient Greek philosophers’ Dialectical Method is the main influence on the premise of the modern Scientific Method.

According to the Oxford-English Dictionary, the Scientific Method is defined as “A method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” This definition encompasses the fundamental strategy behind scientific experimentation and its source since the coining of the term “Scientific Method.” I intend, however, to demonstrate a link between Greek philosophy and physical science before the term was in use; namely, identifying the origin of a philosophical way of thinking based in the practice of dialectic that made the creation of the Scientific Method in the 17th century possible.

While writings from various other philosophers have shown that Socrates and Aristotle had many contemporaries and predecessors, the Socratic Method and Aristotle’s work in philosophy and science are excellent case studies for demonstrating the essence of ancient Greek philosophy and dialectic, as well as the links these philosophies have with logical thought and physical science.  Therefore, for the purposes of brevity and simplicity, I will focus mainly on the writings and methods of Aristotle to make this argument.

How the Greeks Invented Rationalism

A scholarly article written by Helmut Heit states that, “The ancient philosophers indeed lived a long time ago in a world significantly different from ours and had no idea of science (Hait 1).” This article also holds that although “It is a widely held view that the historical and geographical beginnings of scientific thought lie in ancient Greece sometime between 800 and 400 BC,” the origin of such philosophical and scientific thinking actually began with the pre-Socratic philosophers, and the author credits Thales of Miletus as the “originator of scientific thought.” This assertion seems somewhat self-contradictory, as Thales of Miletus, was, in fact, of the era the author attempts to refute: Thales of Miletus lived in Anatolia from 624-546 BCE. The underlying principle of the author’s argument outside of this erroneous detail, however, remains sound: Ancient Greek philosophy is the premise for scientific thought.

This author also puts forth that the pre-Socratic philosophers – such as Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Pythagoras of Samos, Heraclitus of Ephesus, Leucippus, and Protagoras – all laid the philosophical groundwork for examining the objective nature of reality, which was continued with greater specificity and a more objective approach by those that followed, such as Aristotle and Plutarch.  The real value, in my opinion of this article lies in the incisive nature of the questions it raises on the topic of rationalism: “Was it an autochthonous and original Greek achievement, or did it dwell on non-Greek influences and predecessors?” and “What does it mean to be ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’?”

To be sure, the rest of the world was not simply asleep, philosophically speaking, during the time of Socrates and the other great ancient Greek philosophers. For the purpose of proving a point, however, it might very logically be argued that these forays into logic which must have occurred in other parts of the world, at or before the same time as the invention of the Socratic Method, have seemingly led to similar conclusions. Logic, therefore, seems (comparatively) objective in nature. Before such rationalistic approaches to the natural world, subjective mysticism and religion ruled human thinking processes and beliefs. Philosophy, in any part of the world, seemingly lends itself to rationalism and scientific thinking.

In a similar vein, the author seeks to “examine the contributions of philosophy of science” borrowing the assertions of Paul Karl Feyerabend (an Austrian born philosopher of science) on the topic as its basis for argument. The article is challenged by the prevailing belief of the academic community that its [i.e. philosophy’s] “attempt to provide a universal measure of meaning and validity is altogether hopeless.” In the lectures that follow this statement, Feyerabend sets out “to show that this belief is not true.” Substantial headway is made into proving his argument in the apparent evidence supporting his claim that an “attitude of criticism… is the most fundamental difference between the closed society that is governed by a myth and an open society” founded on rationalism.

Feyerabend’s (and Hait’s) conclusion on the topic of the origin of rationalism and the pre-Socratic philosophers is that their thinking “marks an unprecedented step in human thought” because they were “subjected to norms of rationality, as those of their mythologizing predecessors were not (Hait).” This historical transition from mythology to rationalism in the belief systems of man marks the beginnings of scientific objectivity and the Scientific Method. It is also interesting to note that Feyerabend, a known detractor of Western society and its cumulative effect on the world at large, should find value in this philosophical stance, which lies at the core of Western thinking today. Considering the objective nature of truth, even a particular philosophy’s nay-sayers can find value in its systems of logic and reasoning, despite their personal concerns as to the particulars of its theorems. I believe this commonality is the thread connecting all truth. Many scholars of philosophy hold that all philosophy and similarly theoretical systems of logic are connected in many ways.  Many attempts have been made to illustrate this connectivity of philosophical ideas, as with this incredible graph on the relative history of philosophy. This correlative representation of philosophy was created using modern AI technology and matrices by Simon Raper, an analytics expert at Coppelia in the United Kingdom:

“Though dizzying and complex, the graph’s overall significance is found in the connectivity demonstrated among all philosophy in the history of mankind. There is an apparent link among all of man’s systems of thinking that spans innumerable cultures, as well as time. This connection provides a premise for the irrefutable nature of truth and rationalism as set forth by many philosophies and, possibly in turn, all physical sciences.”

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A Brief Summary of the Scientific Method

According to Theodore Garland Jr., a renowned professor of Biology at the University of California at Riverside, the Scientific Method begins with a hypothesis about “why things are the way they are.” The most important facet of the hypothesis is that it must have testable predictions, which eliminates those questions which are theological and metaphysical in nature. Such predictions are tested, often by “mathematical or physical models,” after which further hypotheses might be made based on the findings of the tests. The result of this testing and hypothesis revision is the “alteration, expansion, or even rejection” of the original hypothesis. It is important that this process of skeptical inquiry be repeated numerous times to eliminate plausible doubt as to the validity of the hypothesis. If the hypothesis withstands the scrutiny of such testing across the scientific community, it may become “a general theory.” This supposition comes with the caveat that “any such theory must accommodate all available evidence, and be consistent with other theories, hypotheses and observations” on similar topics. Professor Garland illustrates the steps of the Scientific Process in a diagram:

This process is widely considered the most reliable method for discerning fact from fallacy in the natural world. The principles set forth in this scientific process are a direct reflection of the sort of logic and objectivity modeled in the Socratic Method and philosophical dialectic.

Aristotle’s Empiricism and an Introduction to Dialectic

At the heart of the Scientific Method and the objective, rational thinking it requires is evidence-based logic supported by empirical evidence. Similarly, the first Socratic philosophers used dialectic to arrive at unbiased, evidence-based conclusions on the nature of humankind and its motivations. Aristotle, whose application of philosophy went beyond mere ethical concerns, also used dialectic to create a scientific process to support claims and prove or disprove hypotheses concerning the physical world.

Aristotle’s learning began in the 4th century Platonic Academy in Athens, where he became a student of Socratic philosophy and dialectic under Plato.  A scholarly article by Sabine Follinger asserts that Aristotle’s writing strategy was “methodically based in the dialectic method, as it was applied in the school conversations of Plato’s Academy.” This process is described as including steps in which “the questioner proposes the problem,” and then “the person answering chooses one of the two sides as his position.” This resembles, almost exactly, the definition of a scientific hypothesis. The formation of a hypothesis is the first step in testing in the Scientific Method.

According to Follinger, the process of dialectic is structured so as to produce a conclusion which resembles the truth as derived from constant speculation and argument. This is also parallel to the Scientific Method, which allows (and some would argue, encourages) speculation and opposition for the purpose of either strengthening or disproving a scientific theory. Follinger calls this the “internalization of the dialectical proceedings… which in fact takes place between the interlocutors,” and argues that in the parallel of the Scientific Method, this internalization “becomes the method of the investigator researching for himself.” According to the author, the advantage of the dialectical method is in its “privative benefit: by eliminating wrong solutions, one reaches the correct result.”

Another interesting parallel between Aristotle’s dialectic and the Scientific Method described by the author is the convention of dialectic procedure in which the procedure itself is “translated into the medium of writing,” which then provides “a fact-oriented representation” which “is also a recipient-oriented representation.” This correlates almost exactly to the data collection step of the scientific process, in which part of the method is recording the method itself, as well as recording the results. This step, as scientists know, is crucial in eliminating factors outside of the intended experimental process which might otherwise affect the results; this control of variables allows for a more valid experimentation process.

Follinger borrows a quote from Aristotle to illustrate the empirical premise of the dialectic procedure:

“We have only to bring before our minds the special and particular facts concerning bees, on the one side, and on the other the facts more generally applicable to other animals, to see that all of these theories are impossible.”

In this way, the author supports her argument for dialectic being the basis for formulating scientific theory, as “all preceding theories prove to be untenable” when considering everything anyone has ever observed before. It is this process of constant speculation and challenging of current belief which grants credibility to the Scientific Process. It is the accumulation of knowledge upon knowledge, in which more accurate truths are achieved through an ongoing inner dialectic (question and answer) process.

Natural Philosophers: The First Scientists

Prior to the 19th century, those who investigated nature referred to themselves as natural philosophers. The term “scientist” did not exist until William Whewell coined the term in one of his many treatises on investigative processes and the search for a universal theory of knowledge.  In one article, scholar Roberto Lo Presti purports that Aristotle was not only a natural philosopher, but also “the first scientist,” having “pioneered the techniques of logic, observation, inquiry and demonstration.” The article is written in an effort to re-categorize and recognize Aristotle and his contemporaries as a Biologist, with discoveries in scientific thinking that place him “alongside Charles Darwin and Carl Linnaeus.”

The author recounts how Aristotle, like Darwin, detailed “the theoretical and methodological principles governing the functional anatomy” of numerous species in his On the Parts of Animals, as well as “the descriptive zoology” of Aristotle’s History of Animals. He also draws meaningful parallels between the modern scientific theories of taxonomy, embryology and evolution-based theories that Aristotle had glimpsed long before the official recognition and exploration of such scientific ideas centuries later.

Interestingly, the author supports these early evolutionary posits by citing a quote attributed to Aristotle himself. Aristotle is credited as having expressed his “gradualist conception of the natural world” in saying Natura non facit saltum, or ‘Nature does not make jumps.”  He also describes the impact of these findings on the formation of the study physical science on the scholarly efforts of historians and scientists for centuries to come. This notably includes an expostulation on the unique beauty of viewing the natural world “through Aristotelian eyes.”

While the author does not speak to the use of dialectic specifically, I believe it can be fairly assumed that the teachings of Socrates were the most important influence upon Aristotle’s methodology. It follows that dialectic, which forms the basis of the Socratic Method, was the source of Aristotle’s genius and the catalyst for the many discoveries catalogued in the article.

The Importance of Evaluative Philosophy in Modern Science

In some crucial ways, science and philosophy inextricably enhance one another. Not only have dialectic and philosophy provided the means of evaluating the natural world, but the aims of philosophy continue to shape the ongoing process of scientific discovery. In a book by Alexander Spirkin, the importance of philosophy beyond the inspiration of dialectic and the Scientific Method is described: “Philosophy… is the highest form of generalization of all human knowledge and life experience” and “the sum-total of the development of world history.” This implies that it is the key to evaluating all of our achievements to this point, which in turn enables us the dream of the next development. In short, philosophy fuels the imagination. Its free-form version of analysis by dialectic is, by nature, highly imaginative and boundless in possibility. It could even be argued that science, without philosophy, would be completely devoid of ambition, as strict logic has none; empirical logic desires nothing of its own accord. We cannot achieve what we have not yet dared to dream, and philosophical meanderings are the stuff dreams – and ambitions – are made of. Conversely, as Spirkin outlines, those without exposure to science and rational thinking risk becoming “helpless grown-up children” at the mercy of purely “reactionary ideology,” such as certain irrational principles espoused by certain religious and mythological belief systems.

Similarly, by valuating scientific achievements philosophically, scientific discovery takes on an interesting facet. The nature of dialectic philosophical thought, with its consideration of purely human-centered factors that are not directly correlated to the scientific process itself, adds the potential for assigning humanitarian meaning to otherwise potentially inhumane pursuits. The discovery of atomic energy, for example, is only helpful in the hands of those with a morally-based, humanitarian philosophy in mind, for whom efficiency, rather than destruction, is the goal.

While philosophy and dialectic alone cannot provide the complete structural and procedural basis for scientific analysis, they do provide crucial parameters and insight for any scientific endeavor. This limitation is largely due to the divergence of the human experience from the natural experience, in which the former is subjective and qualitative by nature, and the latter objective and quantitative. This distinction does not, however, render the human-centered philosophical viewpoint useless, as evidenced by the previously mentioned arguments on the topic: They outline the necessity for skepticism, as well as the comparison and contrast which forms the basis of any provable hypothesis. In addition to being the historical catalyst for the invention of the scientific method, the process of philosophical dialectic continues to provide the essential methodology for the accumulation of scientific knowledge in today’s scientific endeavors.


In terms of framing Aristotle’s dialectical method from a historically significant perspective, Aristotle was also a teacher and mentor to Alexander the Great, who proved to be a highly influential leader. Historians hold that Alexander the Great was a formidable king and conqueror who changed the course of history through the artistic, social and cultural diffusion as a result of his highly successful military campaigns in the ancient world. All of Alexander’s systems of thought and motivations for his innovative decisions which shaped an empire were formed under the tutelage of Aristotle.


Works Cited

De Groot, Jean. Aristotle’s Empiricism: Experience and Mechanics in the Fourth Century BC.  Las Vegas, US: Parmenides Publishing, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 December 2016.

http://site.ebrary.com.ruby.uhv.edu/lib/uhv/reader.action?docID=10954720

Garland, Jr., Theodore. “The Scientific Method as an Ongoing Process”. U C Riverside.   Archived from the original on 19 Aug 2016.

http://idea.ucr.edu/documents/flash/scientific_method/story.htm

Helmut Heit, Reasons for relativism: Feyerabend on the ‘Rise of Rationalism’ in ancient Greece,  Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Volume 57, June 2016, Pages 70-    78. Web. 02 Dec 2016.

http://www.sciencedirect.com.ruby.uhv.edu/science/article/pii/S0039368115001673

Presti, Roberto Lo. “The First Scientist: Roberto Lo Presti Applauds A Brilliant Reappraisal Of   Aristotle As The Father Of Observational Biology.” Nature 7514 (2014): 250. InfoTrac Health Reference Center Academic. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v512/n7514/full/512250a.html

Raper, Simon. “Graphing the History of Philosophy.” Coppelia. N.p., 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

http://www.coppelia.io/2012/06/graphing-the-history-of-philosophy/

Sabine Föllinger, Aristotle’s biological works as scientific literature, Studies in History and  Philosophy of Science Part A, Volume 43, Issue 2, June 2012, Pages 237-244. Web. 03 December 2016.

http://www.sciencedirect.com.ruby.uhv.edu/science/article/pii/S0039368111001361

Spirkin, Alexander.  Dialectical materialism [translated from the Russian by Robert Daglish]. Progress Publishers Moscow, 1983. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/spirkin/works/dialectical-materialism/ch01-     s04.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Theorizing: The Greek Dialectical Method as a Precursor for the Scientific Method

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