Has Aristotle Been Disproven? Part 1:

It seems most people, if they think about it at all, assume Aristotle has been disproven. They seem to mean this in one of three ways. Here is the first and most common:

1. Because Aristotle has been shown to be incorrect in several of his more scientific observations, such as the relationship of mass to the speed at which falling bodies fall – a rock twice as large as another doesn’t fall twice as fast as the smaller rock – therefore, the reasoning goes, Aristotle has been shown to be wrong in general and must be rejected.

This  view even comes with a historical-flavored founding mythology: For centuries, the world labored in darkness, unable to figure anything out, until brave scientists such as Galileo threw off the shackles of Aristotle and really looked at the world. By carefully teasing out the truth through observation and experimentation, they were finally able to defeat Aristotelian dogma as handed down and brutally enforced by the Church, and create a new thing under the sun: Science! And so, as part of our warm embrace of science, which has given us all that is good, we celebrate its defeat of Aristotle. Aristotle is the disgraced and defeated enemy of Science!

As over the top as the above description is, I don’t think many Science! fans would fundamentally disagree with it. Trouble is, it is contradicted at every turn by history. Galileo (and all natural philosophers) base the whole process of scientific exploration on an Aristotelian foundation:

– logic: formal logic is Aristotle’s baby. Certainly, the early scientists learned how to reason logically from Aristotle via Thomas;

– insistence on natural explanations: the rejection of direct appeals to the will of the gods to explain natural events. Aristotle (and his disciple Thomas) reject as true but unhelpful the idea that the proper response to the question ‘why’ is to say God made it that way. (Compare with Islam after the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongol hordes, the dominant philosophical school of which rejects as blasphemy any other understanding). Instead, it is important to understand the natural world in terms of natural causes;

– the natural world is understandable by people: that, somehow, the human mind can grasp truths about the natural world through evidence acquired through the senses. I can look, feel, weigh, taste, smell and so on, and that these sensations can be processed and understood by my mind. The world is not the evil illusion of the Gnostics, nor the dream of Brahma, but a real, objective thing we can reasonably hope to understand.

– careful observation is the key: that careful and thoughtful examination of the world causes it to reveal itself. This is such a commonplace notion (despite being consistently ignored – but that’s another topic) that we’re tempted to believe it is ‘obvious’. If it’s so obvious, why has it been developed into an art in West and nowhere else?

Conclusion: No, modern science never disproved Aristotle. In fact, Aristotle’s key teachings – logic, and understandable world – are indispensable to science, and always have been. Even Galileo used Aristotelian methods to disprove individual conclusions reached by Aristotle – a fact Aristotle himself would have most likely been fine with or even proud of.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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