Science or Speculation?
What is science? Suppose someone hears rumbles of thunder in the storm clouds overhead. He can make an observation, like, “Wow! That was a loud rumble of thunder.” This report is a simple observation of a natural event. Is it science?
Suppose our observer goes further and says, “The thunder was caused when two clouds bumped together.” Lucretius gave this explanation for thunder in his book On the Nature of Things. This is an explanation for the event. It goes beyond a simple statement. This explanation appears rational. It gives what seems to be a reasonable justification for the thunder. But is it science or speculation?
Questions regarding science are very important when studying atheists. Atheists claim that their beliefs are “scientific.” They say their explanations are based on science, not superstition. Atheists claim their beliefs are based on facts, not faith. What is science? Where does one draw the line between science and speculation?
When people engage in any philosophical, theological, or scientific discussion, they should begin by defining the meaning of important words. Any in-depth discussion with an atheist must begin with a definition of science. But be advised—atheists will not give up their definition of science. What is their definition? Science is anything they want (or need) it to be. But this is not good enough. Science is facts. It is not a toy to feed anti-theistic imaginations.
Let’s begin to construct our definition for science as we look at the earliest Greek philosophers. When you think of Greek philosophers what names pop into your head? Most people think first of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These are the “big three” of Greek philosophy. They are considered the founders of Western philosophy. But they are not the earliest Greek philosophers. Greek philosophy started more than a hundred years before Socrates.
The very first Greek philosophers were from places we don’t even consider part of Greece today. Several were from Asia Minor, that is, from modern Turkey. These early philosophers also hailed from the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea and from Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily. While the Greeks in Greece were fighting the Persians at Thermopylae, Greeks in other places “invented” philosophy.
What was early Greek philosophy like? Greek philosophy was an entirely new and different form of thought. What made it different? According to Frederick Copleston in his massive A History of Philosophy, Greek philosophy involved “free speculation on the essence of things.”
“They first sought knowledge for its own sake, and pursued knowledge in a scientific, free and unprejudiced spirit.”
Robin Waterfield stated in his book The First Philosophers,
“Both Plato (Theaetetus 155d) and Aristotle (Metaphysics 982b) rightly held that the springboard for philosophy is a sense of wonder or puzzlement, the irritating need to ask ‘Why?’”
Early Greek philosophers focused on the physical world. They longed to discover the “why” of matter and change.
The very first Greek philosophers lived in the town of Miletus in Western Turkey. These Milesians wanted to know the truth about the world around them. They wanted to identify the most primitive physical element—the element from which all physical objects are made. The Milesian school consists of three philosophers: Thales, (c. 585 B.C.) considered the first philosopher; Anaximander (c. 546 B.C.); and Anaximenes (before 494 B.C.).
Thales is the first of these men. He was known for being a practical engineer. His mathematical discoveries helped formulate a more accurate calendar.
However, Thales is best known for his speculative reasoning. His theories were based on observation and reasoning. He was looking for the unifying principle of the universe. He believed he would find this unifying principle when he identified the most primitive element—the element from which the entire universe was made.
Observing the importance of water to growth and life, Thales postulated that water is the primitive element. He believed the world and everything in it are derived from water. He had no proof for this. No experimentation was conducted to confirm his theory. His theory was based entirely on speculative reasoning. But speculative reasoning is not science. His theory was based on his belief system. But his theories are beliefs, not facts.
Did Thales believe in God? It’s difficult to say. Thales considered the principle of movement to be the soul. According to Aristotle, “Some say that the universe is shot through with soul, which is perhaps why Thales too thought that all things were full of gods.” (Aristotle, On the Soul, 411a)
Anaximander also is known for scientific works. He is credited with drawing the first map of the world. But, unlike Thales, he did not believe the universe originated from any one element. The primitive element for Anaximander was found in the “boundless.” No one has figured out exactly what Anaximander meant by that. The German word Urstoff is used as a handle for this unknown primitive, primal “stuff” which was used to create the entire world.
This primal substance (Urstoff) is composed of many substances or gives rise to many substances, notably the elements earth, fire, and water. The elements constantly encroach one upon the other. Change results from the conflict of one element against the other. The elements are kept in balance by the laws of the universe. According to Bertrand Russell,
“But there is a kind of necessity or natural law which perpetually redresses the balance; where there has been fire, for example, there are ashes, which are earth. This conception of justice—of not overstepping eternally fixed bounds—was one of the most profound of Greek beliefs.”
Anaximander was possibly the earliest Greek to propose a geocentric (earth-centered) universe. This may have been a Greek belief much earlier than Anaximander. In Greek mythology the god Apollos mounts a sun-chariot every morning and rides across the sky, bringing sunlight to earth. This sun-chariot relationship between earth and sun implies the earth is the fixed center.
But Anaximander imagined the entire universe has the earth as its center. He also believed the earth is cylindrical, three times as wide as it is deep. According to Plutarch, Anaximander believed,
“When the universe was created, the part of the eternal which is productive of hot and cold was separated off, and that a kind of sphere of flame emerged from this and grew all around the vapour that surrounds the earth, like bark on a tree.” (Plutarch, Miscellanies)
The stars are part of a circle of fire that surrounds the sphere containing the earth. Stars are seen through breathing holes in this sphere. From where did Anaximander draw these ideas? Waterfield stays, “with a brilliant leap of imagination.” Waterfield continues, “Anaximander began the pre-Socratic trend to explain these phenomena as the product of natural and comprehensible forces.”
With a brilliant leap of imagination, Anaximander created an origin-myth. Matter is eternal and apparently self-organizing. According to Aristotle (Physics 203b) Anaximander considered this physical matter to be divine because it was immortal and imperishable.
Anaximenes completes this triad of philosophers. His theory is perhaps the least controversial. He believed the primary element is air. When air condenses it becomes water and then earth. The primal air is the great god. The lesser gods were derived from the air. Anaximenes obviously believed in a god or gods.
Were They Really Scientists?
What is a scientist? Where these men scientists? Aristotle thought they were but Aristotle was not familiar with the scientific method. Bertrand Russell, the atheist, called the Milesians “scientific rationalists.”
Science, for the ancient Greeks, consisted in observing natural phenomenon and commenting on it. Aristotle filled volumes using this approach. But true science did not arise in ancient Greece. True science requires more than mere observation followed by speculation. True science requires the testing of theories through carefully planned experiments. In fact, the best science starts with observation and experimentation before any theory is formulated.
Regarding the Milesians, Copleston wrote, “They did not arrive at their conclusions through a scientific, experimental approach, but by means of speculative reason”
Although Aristotle does refer to their theories as “science,” the theories were not science. They were speculation. While they might be based on observation, they were not confirmed through experimentation. Waterfield reports:
“They differ from hard-line scientism in lacking scientific method, and in lacking some scientific attitudes, in being too visionary. They were interested in constructing elegant systems, not verifiable systems.”
In other words, Waterfield continues, they were able to form hypotheses but
“Scientific reasoning is a combination of forming testable hypotheses . . . and of testing and re-testing these hypotheses by experimentation and logic. . . . They [the pre-Socratics] were, in short, dogmatists, not experimental scientists.”
But Anaximander took his theories one step further. Anaximander is one of the earliest examples of a person who invented an origin myth to support his world-view of atheistic materialism. The best examples are seen in his cosmology. How did he know the earth is cylindrical? Science was not advanced enough to draw such a conclusion through observation and experimentation. How did he know the stars were breathing holes in the sphere that surrounds the earth? Was it a lucky guess or science? It was not a very good guess. It was not science at all.
What is science? Science is a process, a method. It begins with simple observation. Suppose our scientist goes outside on a cold morning. He gets a handful of snow from his driveway. He brings the snow into the house and places it in a bowl in the warm kitchen. When he returns to the kitchen a few hours later he notices the snow is gone. The bowl is filled with water.
He wonders, “Did the snow melt and become water?” This becomes his theory. But at this moment his theory is speculation. Someone may have come into the kitchen during his absence, thrown the snow out, and replaced it with water.
So our scientist comes up with an experiment to test his theory. His gets some more snow from the driveway. He brings the snow into the house and places it in the bowl in the kitchen. Then he sits down in the kitchen and observes the snow as it melts. Aha! He was right! The snow turns into water. Scientific theories must be tested and retested. This is what separates science from speculation.
Were the Milesians true scientists? Yes, they did observe the natural world. By ancient Greek standards they qualified as scientists. But science did not arise from ancient Greece. By modern standards these men were observers, not scientists. Their science was only speculation.