The Cassandra Syndrome: Prediction, Uncertainty, and Fear of (Climate) Change, Part Three

The third installment of a ten part series which considers the warnings of climate scientists in the context of historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance from guardians of the status quo…

by: Arthur Hoyle

Read Part One Here! Read Part Two Here!

Part Three — From Superstition to Science — Aristotle and Ancient Greek Philosophy

During the sixth century BC in Greece a transition began from pre-scientific attempts to understand and control nature based on magic and superstition to a scientific method based on reason and logic. The mathematician Pythagoras, who used numbers as a way of demonstrating physical relationships (the Pythagorean Theorem), brought to bear on the mysteries of nature a new kind of consciousness that sought to understand natural phenomena by studying and analyzing them, rather than by attributing them to the workings of invisible supernatural beings. This shift in consciousness was a major advance in human intellectual development.

Pythagoras was one of a number of early Greek philosophers who approached the mysteries of nature by asking essential questions and then using logic to try to answer them. Others included Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Socrates. This approach was formalized and systematized by Aristotle in the fourth century BC.

Aristotle was born in Macedonia, northern Greece, in 384 BC. His father was a physician, his mother a woman of independent wealth. When he was seventeen his parents sent Aristotle to Athens to study under Plato in the Academy that Plato had founded. In 343 BC, Philip II, King of Macedon, hired Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander. After Alexander departed Greece on his eastern military campaign, Aristotle returned to Athens and established his own Lyceum. There, he delivered lectures on a wide variety of topics. The subjects he covered included biology, cosmology, physics, poetics, politics, and ethics. Treatises on these subjects were subsequently written out, based on Aristotle’s lecture notes, by the Greek Andronicus in the first century BC. They became the basis for western philosophy for over fifteen hundred years. For the history of science, probably Aristotle’s most important formulation was his cosmology, because it underpinned scientific understanding of the universe throughout the Christian Middle Ages in Europe.

Aristotle described the cosmos as an enclosed sphere containing all matter. It consisted of a celestial region and a terrestrial region, separated by a lunar region. The celestial region was eternal and unchanging. The terrestrial region was composed of four elements — earth, air, fire and water — in constant motion. The motion of these elements kept the terrestrial region in a state of continual change.

The Earth was the center of the universe, responsive to influences from other planets in the celestial region. Although Aristotle believed in a God who was the prime cause of the eternal world, this God had detached Himself from his creation and remained absorbed only in Himself. The changes in the terrestrial region could therefore not be explained by recourse to God. Nature could only be understood by studying its causes and effects, using observation leading to propositions based on reason and logic. In this division of the world into distinct celestial and terrestrial regions governed by different principles we can see an early manifestation of the split between the realms of religion and science that persists today.

Based on Aristotle’s description of the cosmos, the Roman astronomer Claudius Ptolemy in AD 140 constructed a model of the universe that was widely accepted in the scientific world until the Renaissance. In Ptolemy’s model, the Earth was at the center of a ring of perfectly concentric circles drawn by the orbits of the other planets. The closest circle was the Moon’s orbit, followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond Saturn lay the sphere of fixed stars. This perfect, unchanging celestial realm was God’s domain, beyond the reach of human understanding. But humans could understand life on the ever-changing Earth by studying it.

Aristotle’s speculations about the cosmos were based on sensory observation without the aid of instruments such as telescopes and satellites, so many of his conclusions were erroneous. He had poor data from which to theorize, and did not perform experiments. But his method of drawing conclusions inductively from observation is the bedrock of the scientific method still in use today, though with far more sophisticated tools.

Aristotle’s view of the cosmos did not go unchallenged by other Greek astronomers and mathematicians. In the third century BC Aristarchus of Samos proposed that the Sun was the center of the universe, and that the Earth orbited around it while rotating on its axis. Despite the fact that Aristarchus’s theory brought down on him the charge of impiety from Greek officialdom, his claim was later seconded by the astronomer Seleucus in 150 BC. With their proposition of a heliocentric universe, in contradiction of Aristotle’s geocentric model, Aristarchus and Seleucus were forerunners of the struggle between scientists and the Roman Catholic Church over the design of the universe that would erupt in the Renaissance.

To Be Continued


Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, will be published later this year through Sunbury Press.

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