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For a very long time Aristotle’s book Physics had a profound effect on the development of natural science. This paper is aimed at discussing his views on the tasks of a natural philosopher. Moreover, it is necessary to evaluate its applicability to modern science. One of the key arguments that he makes is that nature has a purpose and that it does act spontaneously or by chance (Aristotle, 39). In his opinion, a natural philosopher has to take this issue into consideration and try to ascertain this purpose or final cause.
Nonetheless one should not assume that Aristotle held the belief that nature was created by some intelligent designer or higher power which imposes pattern of development. According to him, purposefulness is inherent to nature, and that is controlled from outside. This claim may seem rather controversial to contemporary scientists and it is vital for us to understand why this claim gives rise to disputes.
Aristotle’s view on the tasks of a natural philosopher
Aristotle argues that that a physicist must know the nature “as a doctor must know sinew or the smith bronze (i. e .,until he understands the purpose of each” (Aristotle, 29). In this case, the word purpose should be understood as something “for the sake of which a thing is done” (Aristotle 30). It is worth mentioning that when Aristotle speaks about nature, he does not necessarily refers to the entire universe; this concept should be interpreted as any entity or physical phenomenon which has such characteristic as matter and form.
However, the most important attribute of nature is propensity to change such as growth or decrease, alteration, or change in place (Aristotle, 20). It is worth mentioning that when Plate speaks about changeability of nature, he mostly refers to form rather than matter. These are the key premises, which underlie his opinions about nature and science.
Therefore, a natural philosopher must understand not only the properties of things but the reasons for their existence. When speaking about the reasons, Aristotle refers to the so-called four causes: 1) material or the matter “out of which a thing comes”; 2) formal or the arrangement of these material; 3) efficient cause or the reason why a nature changes; 4) final cause which is the aim or purpose of thing (Aristotle, p 28).
Judging from this, one can argue that the task of a natural philosopher is to ascertain each of these causes and , most importantly the final cause. From Aristotle’s perspective, to know the purpose of nature is the most essential task of a philosopher and his strategies should be subjected to this task. In this book, Aristotle addresses one of the most crucial epistemological questions; he tries to explain what we need to know and how we can assess the depth of our knowledge.
Aristotle draws several examples to explain his claim. One of them is seed; according to Aristotle, its ultimate goal or purpose is to grow into a plant. At this point, we need to point out that Aristotle regards natural transformations as some limited series of events rather than an incessant cycle.
This assumption lies at the core of his natural philosophy. To some degree this means that the purpose of nature is an ultimate stage of its development. Thus, one cannot claim to know nature or natural phenomenon, to be more exact, unless he/she can indentify its ultimate purpose or final cause. This is how Aristotle views the goals that a natural philosopher should try to achieve.
In Physics, he does not tell whether this goal is always attainable and whether it is necessary. At this point, we can argue that in this book Aristotle sets the standards of knowing and unknowing. It is even possible to say that this work was intended as guidelines for natural philosophers or scientists.
It has to be admitted that with time passing Aristotle importance as a natural philosopher declined, and many of his argument were later disproved. Nonetheless, his opinions on the role of scientists are still debated in academic community, and it is important for us to determine whether these principles can serve the need of modern science.
The application of Aristotle’s view to modern science
Aristotle’s ideas had a very strong influence of natural science, especially in the Middle Ages; however, rapid development of science during the Epoch of Enlightenment rendered some of his ideas irrelevant. One of the most contradicting issues is the search for a purpose or a final cause.
Furthermore, it is possible to say that in some circumstances, a nature can have an infinite number of purposes, especially if we are speaking about the interactions of physical phenomena with each other. In such cases, Aristotle’s framework of four causes is not longer appropriate.
The third reason is that nature’s transformation can be perpetual, even as far as form as concerned. This perpetual motion or change makes the very notion of final cause or purpose inapplicable. In the following sections, we will try to explain in more detail why Aristotle’s ideas cannot be used for by contemporary scholars.
The first problem is that it cannot be readily identified and there are no means of doing it. This is why researchers can say that the role of sciences can be purely descriptive. Such situation can be observed in many natural sciences, for instance, astronomy, zoology, or chemistry. Therefore, one can say that the goals, identified by Aristotle are not feasible, at least nowadays.
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Probably, in the future, when technologies will become even more sophisticated, natural scientists will be able to do, but at this point their resources are limited. This is the first reason why Aristotle’s ideas are not always applicable to the needs of contemporary natural science.
Aristotle emphasizes the importance of establishing the connection between the cause and consequences; but lack of tools and technologies often prevents scientists from doing it. In addition to that, modern science has become very utilitarian; it has to serve some practical needs of people, while Aristotle’s focus on the final causes seems to be more theoretical. The idea of knowledge for knowledge sake is usually rejected by modern researchers.
Certainly, scholars do not only describe natural phenomenon; they also try to ascertain what kind of functions a natural phenomenon performs, or how it interacts with other phenomenon. Moreover, they do try to trace every stage of its development. Still, Aristotle’s principles are regarded as valid.
Modern scholars do not reject the idea that nature is developing according to chance or coincidence. This idea runs contrary to the views of this philosopher. In order to identify the final goal of a nature, one has to clearly see the pattern of its development. In many cases, it is hardly possible.
The example of such a science is meteorology or the study of atmosphere. Therefore, we can argue that the standards set by Aristotle cannot always be met. Again, we have to stress the point that contemporary science does dismiss the importance of chance, while Aristotle’s argument largely rely on the idea that there is a certain governing pattern. Thus, this fact can undermine Aristotle’s model of four causes and ultimate purpose.
One should not suppose that inapplicability of Aristotle’ principles can be explained only by lack of technologies or tools. Another reason why the views of this philosopher are not tenable in modern day science is that almost every natural phenomenon may have multiple final causes or purposes.
For instance, Aristotle argues that the ultimate goal of a seed is to transform into a plant (22); however, one can object to this claim by saying that its purpose is to be eaten either by animals or human beings. In other words, its ultimate goal may be to become just another link in food chain. This is one of the cases which illustrates that a natural phenomenon can have several final causes and purposes, especially if we look at its interactions with other natural phenomena.
As it has been said before, Aristotle believes that the key attribute of nature is changeability and the last stage of transformation will be the last final cause or purpose. However, one should take into account that changes, occurring in nature, are cyclical. For instance, we can refer to the hydraulic cycle which describes the movement of water which can exist as liquid, ice or vapor. This chain of transformations is infinite and it serves an infinite number of purposes.
By applying Aristotle’s approach, one can single out thousands of purposes or final causes. This example proves why Aristotle’s views on natural science are not suitable for the needs of modern scientists. This discussion should not be perceived as complete dismissal of Aristotle’s work. Epistemological questions raised by this philosopher still remain relevant for modern scholars; however, his interpretation of a scientist’s role does not seem to fit the needs of contemporary natural science.
Overall, in his book Physics Aristotle attempted to develop research methods that a natural philosopher or a scientist should use. He set the objectives which must be attained by scholars. In his discussion Aristotle focuses on the functions which a nature fulfills.
Yet, modern scholars do not always try to adhere to his principles. It can be explained by several facts: lack of methods that can identify the final cause. The second reason is that natural phenomena may have a large number of final causes or purposes. Thus, Aristotle’s model of four causes may not be acceptable for the needs of modern natural scientists.
Naturally, Aristotle’s ideas cannot be taken for granted by modern scientists, but his boos Physics can still be regarded as an important milestone in the development of natural science. It posed some of those questions, which scientists continuously try to answer, and it provided a powerful stimulus to the development of natural philosophy because it asked natural philosophers very important questions about the nature of knowledge.
Aristotle. Physics. Trans. Hardie R. and Gaye R. NuVision Publications, LLC. 2007. Print.