Friday, March 04, 2016

Ethics and its importance to ancient Greek science

I noted in my previous blog post thatancient Greek science consisted of many different natural philosophies. In fact, it’s wrong to speak of Greek science in the singular. I’ve also noted in the past that if we judge Greek sciences by the standards of today (which, despite the anachronism, many people do), it was not very effective at generating true theories about the natural world. Finally, with few exceptions, science in the ancient world had no technological or practical applications.

So, what was it for? That’s what I want to explain in this post. 

Each school of Greek philosophy, whether Aristotelian, Platonic, Stoic or Epicurean, had a particular ethical system. Philosophers of each school believed that their moral values were objectively true: that’s to say they could use them to tell the difference between right and wrong. For these Greeks, morality was not just a matter of opinion: it was a rational issue with correct answers. Of course, the schools disagreed on what the truth was, a point gleefully pointed out by the sceptics.

Consider for a moment what it means for there to be objective moral values. It means that there is something about reality, outside human minds, that makes those values true. J.D. Mackie used the analogy of a game of chess. The rules of chess determine what is right and wrong in the universe of a chessboard. Whatever happens in a chess match as pieces are moved around, attack and defend, win or lose, ought to be consistent with the external rules the game. For any move, you can analyse whether this is true – you can get to ‘is’ from ‘ought’. Almost all philosophies of the past have treated moral values in the same way. For any given action or thought, they said, it is possible to determine through rational analysis whether it is consistent with objective moral values.      

So, like the rules of chess are for a chessboard, objective moral values must be part of the rules that govern the universe. In the owrds of Peter Harrison, ancient philosophers assumed that “a moral order is built into the structure of the cosmos.”

For Platonists and Christians, the source of these values is external to nature, that is the ideal Form of the good or the nature of God respectively. Nonetheless, both Platonists and Christians both assume that this external factor, be it the Form or God, is reflected in physical reality. Their natural philosophies are intended to validate the existence of the source of external moral values. That’s why Christian natural philosophy is based on the universe as God’s creation, while Platonists emphasized how the perfect Forms could be discerned in nature by philosophical reflection.

Aristotelians held that the function of humans was to live in line with virtue and that was the way to good living. This functionalist approach is reflected in Aristotle’s natural philosophy as well. He interpreted his famous observations of animals using this framework. His theory of natural motion states that even matter strives to reach its proper place and naturally moves towards it. To be happy, human beings must also adhere to the path that nature has laid out for them.

The Stoics defined right living as being in harmony with nature, which they deified through a form of pantheism. Because they believed moral laws were built into the very structure of the universe, Stoics had no trouble treating them as part of objective reality. The essential point, though, is that the ethics of Stoicism informed their natural philosophy, even though they might argue that it was nature that gave rise to their ethics.

Epicureans emphasised human freedom and so their natural philosophy demystified nature so that it provided a safe space for human choice. In his On the Nature of Things, Lucretius systematically runs through various phenomena to show how the free man has nothing to fear from them. Indeed, Epicurus himself said that once you understand a phenomenon sufficiently well to stop fearing it, you don’t need to delve any further. In a way, this is the opposite approach to the Stoics because the intention of Lucretius and Epicurus is to show that humans are objectively free. Nonetheless, this is still an ethical maxim and one that the Epicureans used to determine their natural philosophy. Once again, the ethical maxims were prior to the natural philosophy which served them.

The primacy of ethics and the belief in objective moral values explains both the multiplicity of Greek natural philosophies and the differences between them. It also shows us how utterly unlike modern science Greek natural philosophy was. Finally, it illustrates that the Greek attitude towards science was identical to that of early and medieval Christians. David Lindberg was fond of a metaphor he found in the work of Roger Bacon – that natural philosophy was the handmaiden of Christian theology. For the pagan Greek philosophers, whether they were theists or not, science was the servant of ethics.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Chris Kirk said...

Obvious in a way and yet very helpful. I'm not sure 'ethics' in our modern sense is what they're aiming at though. It seems often a certain psychological state - especially the so-called Pyrrhonian sceptics, with their emphasis on *ataraxia*, and similar states of tranquility for the Stoics, and the *hexis* of 'flourishing' for Aristotelians etc. Or are these also means to a more narrowly-defined ethical end, to be good, not just happy?

C Kirk

James said...

Thanks Chris. I agree that 'ethics' is not the ideal term, but I'm not sure which one to use. I think we need something much wider that encompasses the concepts you note, but also includes everything from Christian metaphysics to Marxism. My broader point is that natural philosophy, at least until the nineteenth century, has always been subservient to some other ideology or agenda. And if we look at the use to which 'science' is put in the modern world, some seem to wish that it still was. Indeed, it may actually be so, but I can't see it as I buy into the relevant ideology myself.

David Duffy said...

As regards proportion of one's time spent on different topics, perhaps not that different from Newton, "the last of the magicians".

But the Greeks had scientist-inventors too, such as Archimedes, who express only a fascination with numbers, physics and engineering of the type we would see as scientific.

James said...

Hi David,

I'm not sure we know anything like enough about Archimedes to know what motivated him. He was clearly an extraordinary mathematician but does not seem to have invented some of the machines attributed to him (like the screw). He was best known for producing war machines for his native Syracuse but we don't know if he produced anything "new" in that respect. But most importantly, he was not a natural philosopher so the argument in the post above does not really apply to him in any case.

Best wishes