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This month, Agnes Callard and I talk to Aristotle about his philosophy, including his work on physics, biology, and ethics. Featuring an introduction by our awesome intern, Noadia Steinmetz-Silber! Click here to download Episode 133 of Elucidations.

Not everyone is familiar with Aristotle’s work today, but the case could be made that science, political theory, logic, ethics, and philosophy exist in their current form largely due to the precedent he set. That said, in this episode, Aristotle opens by telling us a little about how the foundational assumptions made by a number of today’s scientists and philosophers differ from his. One distinctive feature of his work—both as compared to today’s intellectuals and as compared to his peers in 4th century B.C. Athens—was how his philosophy was meant to accommodate the possibility of different types of phenomena requiring totally different types of theoretical explanation.

Today, this is reflected in the fact that we have different departments for different sciences in universities. Like, we don’t have a ‘science’ department. We have a physics department that aims to explain the behavior of physical matter and energy, a biology department that aims to explain the behavior of living organisms, a chemistry department that aims to explain the behavior of chemical compounds, a psychology department that aims to explain the behavior of minds, an economics department that aims to explain the behavior of markets, and so on. Could all of these things be reduced to one fundamental science? Maybe, maybe not. It’s possible that there’s a way of, for example, reducing all of biology to physics, but if there is, we haven’t figured it out yet. Aristotle’s main thought here is that that’s fine. If we have to have separate scientific fields for physical matter and biological organisms, that isn’t necessarily a failure on the part of the hard sciences—it could just be that different types of entities in the world need different types of explanations.

Aristotle then observes that if you’re okay with the idea that there could be different types of phenomena that need to be explained in different ways, that goes along with believing that things can be created and destroyed. How come? Well, at the level of common sense, you and I would say that when a dog is born, the universe now has a new thing in it: this dog. But if you’re one of these ‘nothing exists other than fundamental physical particles’ people, you think that nothing is ever created or destroyed. It’s just that the atoms—or maybe the quarks and leptons—are just rearranging themselves, and the nickname we give that at the macroscopic level is that ‘a dog came into existence’. One of the main tasks that Aristotle set for himself was explaining how it makes sense to take talk of things being created and destroyed literally, at face value.

Join us as we discuss the ancient Greek perspective on causality, matter, biology, physics, and whether or not people have a purpose!

Matt Teichman

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Further Reading

For more background on what the three of us discussed in this episode, Aristotle recommends you look at Book II of his knock your socks off masterpiece, The Physics!

Physics, Book II, Aristotle