Philosophical Backdrop

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Ancient Greek world map
Ancient Greece's view of their world. Select the image to go to Jim Siebold's ancient maps database from which this picture came (will display in another window).

By the 7th Century B.C.E. a common viewpoint had arisen in Greece that the Universe is a rational place following universal, natural laws and we are able to figure out those laws. Open inquiry and critical evaluation was highly valued. The emphasis was on the process of learning about the universe rather than attaining the goal. But people eventually got tired of learning and wanted absolute answers. Science is not able to give absolute, certain answers. There was disagreement among the experts and there came to be a crisis in confidence that led to the rise of the Sophists.

The Sophists taught that an absolute truth and morality are myths and are relative to the individual. Since truth and morality were just cultural inventions for the Sophists, they said a person should conform to the prevailing views, rather than resolutely holding to some belief as an absolute one. Socrates (lived 470--399 B.C.E.) disagreed with the Sophists, teaching that we can attain real truth through collaboration with others. By exploring together and being skeptical about ``common sense'' notions about the way things are, we can get a correct understanding of how our world and society operate. This idea of being skeptical so that a truer understanding of nature can be found is still very much a part of modern science.

Plato statue Socrates' student, Plato(lived 427--347 B.C.E.), developed Socrates' ideas further. Plato taught that there are absolute truths---mathematics is the key. While statements about the physical world will be relative to the individual and culture, mathematics is independent of those influences: 2 + 2 = 4 always, here on Earth or on the far side of the galaxy. Plato had Four Basic Points:

  1. There is certainty.
  2. Mathematics gives us the power of perception.
  3. Though the physical applications of mathematics may change, the thoughts themselves are eternal and are in another realm of existence.
  4. Mathematics is thought and, therefore, it is eternal and can be known by anyone. [Today we view mathematical ideas as free creations of the human mind. They are the tools we use to map the world. Experience is the key. Although absolute certainty is not possible, we can still attain accurate knowledge and reasonable beliefs about the world.]

Out of Plato's teachings grew the belief that when one studies mathematics, one studies the mind of God. Mathematical symmetries are the language of universal design and harmony. Their faith in order caused the Greeks to try to find explanation for the seemingly unordered planets (particularly retrograde motion). Their faith in an ordered universe compelled them to make precise observations and they were sustained by their belief in the power of reason. In one form or another, modern scientists have this faith in an ordered universe and the power of human reason.

Pythagoras bust The Greeks were guided by a paradigm that was first articulated by Pythagoras (lived c569--475 B.C.E., picture on left) before Socrates' time. A paradigm is a general consensus of belief of how the world works. It is a mental framework we use to interpret what happens around us. It is what could be called ``common sense''. The Pythagorean Paradigm had three key points about the movements of celestial objects:

  1. The planets, Sun, Moon and stars move in perfectly circular orbits;
  2. The speed of the planets, Sun, Moon and stars in their circular orbits is perfectly uniform;
  3. The Earth is at the exact center of the motion of the celestial bodies.

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last updated: 05 May 2001

Is this page a copy of Strobel's Astronomy Notes?

Author of original content: Nick Strobel