Greek Philosophy Boiled Down – Part VII

William of Ockham, an English philosopher, is credited with the principle of Occam’s razor, also used by scientists such as Einstein. The Occam’s razor principle says that the simplest solution is normally the right one, and it rests upon the same rational, empirical view of science that Aristotle and others were promoting in the third century BC and beyond. The Greeks were looking for simplicity, not truth – and in the discipline of astronomy this became the guiding factor. Certain aspects of Greek geometry inspired Isaac Newton, whose understanding of the force of gravity led on from the motion of the plants, which Greek astronomers after Aristotle had worked on – but ultimately it was the work of Greek mathematicians like Archimedes (from the third century BC) that gave science the tools it needed to move on, and allowed Einstein to arrive at his theory of General Relativity.
Still, if the Greeks did not managed to grasp the influence of natural forces on planetary movement (which Newton later understood), they were even further from accepting the kind of universe that Einstein postulated two thousand years later. Einstein’s theories might have made perfect mathematical sense to Aristotle and his successors, but the universal chaos they suggested would have had them throwing up their hands in horror in the academies of Athens.
At the time of the Ancient Greeks, Christianity as we know it had not yet been born. There was not one god but many. But there was at least order. The gods of the Greeks presided over a universe that made sense. Its planets moved in perfect circles, orbiting the sun. There were no issues about whether the earth moved around the sun or the sun moved around the earth, it was enough that there was harmony, and that the gods inspired it.  It was only centuries later, when Christian doctrine took over from the Greeks, that the idea of a heliocentric universe, where the sun is at the centre, became a problem. The Christian Church must have feared that scientists were harking back to the old pagan days of sun worship when in the 16th century men like Copernicus (who based their ideas of the work of Aristarchus, a Greek astronomer of the third century) were banging this new model of the universe down on the table, to the general horror of all.
 After all, Christian belief demanded that the earth, not the sun, lay at the centre of the universe, and that God had created Earth and the people on it as part of His ‘bigger plan’ (whatever that was…). To place the sun at the centre of a solar system within a much bigger universe stuck a major spanner into theological works, and when the Roman Inquisition suddenly woke up and smelled the trouble, Galileo was arrested and forced to recant his Copernican heresy. ‘And yet it moves’ he apparently famously added, with reference to the Earth. Aristotle would surely have sympathised.
Nevertheless, as history has shown, the Greeks were right to worry about the impact of science on theological thinking, and in the end they shied away from challenging the gods. Although they made huge leaps by, for instance, successfully putting forward the theory that the earth is spherical and not flat, ​
MXLLSGreek Philosophy Boiled Down Part VII
​they continued to cling to the idea of divine perfection, and viewed the cosmos as eternal, unchanging and perfect, like the gods themselves. It is hardly surprising that with such imperfection on the ground people should seek it in the heavens. We are not living in a world of earthly harmony, and never have been. The Heavens provided that harmony, for a while at least; they represented an ideal, and the concept of heavenly paradise, which settled in Christian doctrine centuries later, was nothing less than a continuation of this way of thinking – a need that people have for order. When Einstein and his successors finally got to grips with the reality of chaos – now the accepted model of our universe, it destabilised this ideal. The universe decays, changes, and does not move in perfect harmony. And there is an awful lot of it.
 Modern science has now delivered the final blow to the idealistic divine view; we all know our insignificant place in the grand scheme of things (whatever that is…), and must deal with it as we can. We do not necessarily like it; an ordered heavenly paradise continues to have its appeal and nobody likes the hard truth. Einstein may have been the heir to the mathematics of Ancient Greece, but he had to cast the perfect universe aside in order to find the real one.
Read Part VIII next week…
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by Lucille Turner
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A novel about the life of Leonardo da Vinci


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