Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Unity and Diversity of Natural Science

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Unity and Diversity of Natural Science

Article excerpt

ON THE QUESTION OF WHERE the study of nature should begin, Aristotle's teaching is clear and familiar. His first treatise on natural science, the Physics, tells us, at the very beginning, that the investigation of nature must

  start from the things which are more knowable and
  certain to us and proceed towards those which are
  clearer and more certain in themselves; for the
  same things are not "knowable relatively to us"
  and "knowable" absolutely. So in the present
  inquiry we must follow this method and advance
  from what is more obscure by nature, but more
  certain to us, towards what is more certain
  and more knowable by nature.--Now what is to
  us plain and obvious at first is rather confused
  wholes, the elements and principles of which
  become known to us later by analysis. Thus we must
  advance from [vague] generalities to particulars.
  For it is a [vague] whole that is more known to
  sense perception, and a generality is likewise a
  kind of whole, comprising many things within it,
  like parts. Much the same happens in relation of
  the name to the definition.

  A name, such as "circle," means vaguely a sort of
  whole: the definition analyses this whole into
  its parts [i.e. defining parts]. Similarly a child
  begins by calling all men "father," and all women
  "mother," but later on distinguishes each of them.

Should the thought occur to us that modern science may have rendered this mode of procedure obsolete, just as it has invalidated much of Aristotle's cosmology, we shall find no support for our suspicion in one of the more advanced expositors of the scientific outlook, namely Lord Russell. Just last year, he wrote of a "prejudice" which he describes as "perhaps the most important in all my thinking."

  ... This is concerned with method. My method
  invariably is to start from something vague but
  puzzling, something which seems indubitable but
  which I cannot express with any precision. I go
  through a process which is like that of first
  seeing something with the naked eye and then
  examining it through a microscope. I find that
  by fixity of attention divisions and distinctions
  appear where none at first was visible, just as
  through a microscope you can see the bacilli in
  impure water which without the microscope are not
  discernible. There are many who decry analysis,
  but it has seemed to me evident, as in the case
  of the impure water, that analysis gives new
  knowledge without destroying any of the previously
  existing knowledge. This applies not only to the
  structure of physical things, but quite as much
  to concepts. "Knowledge," for example, as commonly
  used is a very imprecise term covering a number
  of differ ent things and a number of stages
  from certainty to slight probability.
  It seems to me that philosophical investigation,
  as far as I have experi ence of it, starts from
  that curious and unsatisfactory state of mind
  in which one feels complete certainty without
  being able to say what one is certain of. The
  process that results from prolonged attention
  is just like that of watching an object
  approaching through a thick fog: at first it
  is only a vague darkness, but as it approaches
  articulations appear and one discovers that it
  is a man or a woman, or a horse or a cow or
  what not. It seems to me that those who object
  to analysis would wish us to be content with
  the initial dark blur. Belief in the above
  process is my strongest and most unshakable
  prejudice as regards the methods of philo
  sophical investigation. (2)

Now, what can such a mode of procedure have to do with our question, which is where we ought to begin a study of nature? The method described means that we should begin with generalities which, though vague, are quite certain. Of course no intellect with a speculative vitality can rest in these generalities however reassuring in their certainty. The mind wants to know as much as it can about as much as there is to know. …

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