Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ionian and Pythagorean Views Foreshadow Modern Science

The Ionian and Pythagorean views of the world and the resultant philosophies that sprung from it have shaped and lent themselves to the scientific understanding that we have of the world today.  The beginnings of the Ionian and Pythagorean thought processes that developed later into the Socratic method and then to our current scientific method of understanding the world, started from the belief that a world independent of the mind exists, and that we mentally grasp qualities and objects that are a part of that world[1]. 

The Ionians believed that all matter was able to change from one type to another; however they did not know how this was possible.  Rather than experimenting to discover the reasons that matter behaved the way that it did, the Ionians employed abstract reasoning.  This was a different way of thinking, as up to this point most people explained away these phenomena by use of mythology.  The Ionians and the Pythagoreans shared the belief that for matter to be able to change as it does, there must be a shared common base starting point that everything came from. 

The Ionian way of thought on this matter of the makeup of the universe was taken from a more scientific approach than had previously been used in history.  This is the beginnings of the natural sciences such as physics that we have today.  In fact, physics still concerns itself primarily with trying to find and identify the smallest building-blocks of the universe and everything contained therein.  For the Ionians, such as Thales, water was the believed element from whence all matter sprang, but the Pythagoreans believed in a link between the divine and the mortal, and found that link in numbers[2]. 

Pythagorean science on the other hand possessed a sacred dimension.  Pythagoras was a very deeply religious man and as such approached his search to the answer of why we are here from that perspective.  Pythagoras was also a scientist and a great mathematician.  Due to this, Pythagorean philosophy searched for meaning in numbers, and they referred to it simply as Number.  Number is seen not only as a universal principle, it is a divine principle as well.  Hence the aim of Pythagorean and later Platonic science is different from that of modern “Aristotelian” science: it is not so much involved with the investigation of things, as the investigation of principles[3].  This line of thinking allowed the Pythagoreans to postulate and theorise on things beyond just the mundane observable world and look to the sky in things such as astronomy and there use the mathematical skills that they had developed to make discoveries and pose scenarios regarding the nature of the universe and of life itself. 
The Pythagoreans employ abstruser principles and elements than the physicists[4] because they did not draw them from the sensible world, because mathematical objects are devoid of motion.  However, all of their discussions were concerned with the physical world[5].  Using the numbers that the Pythagoreans held sacred, they began to develop comparative analysis of the world.  They saw in the number one perfection, unity, and a universal constant.  Increasing this number to two, they introduced duplicity and multiplicity; the opposite of one.  From here, the ideas of One and Many, Limit and Unlimited (order and chaos), and of all things having an opposite came.  Plato talked about this idea when he said “…and the ancients, who were superior to us and dwelt nearer to the Gods, have handed down a tradition that all things that are said to exist consist of a One and a Many and contain in themselves the connate principles of Limit and Unlimitedness.”[6] 

Using these two views that have been outlined, it is possible to show that both the Ionian and the Pythagorean philosophies have contributed and shaped the way we perceive and use modern science today in the viewing and understanding of the universe.  Despite the fact that Pythagoreans viewed more on a principle and overarching theory, and the Ionians focused more on the physical example and actual empirical data able to be gathered through observation and rational deduction, they both shared a common footing in mathematics.  It was by using mathematics and the newfound way of looking at and asking questions about the world that Thales was able to predict the eclipse that happened in 585BC[7].  Further to this, Pythagoras is known probably most widely as a mathematician to the general public due to his contribution by way of the Pythagorean Theorem.  Indeed, this shows that both the Ionian and Pythagorean philosophers had a keen understanding of mathematics and how they functioned, as well as that they were an important part of gaining insight into the natural world.  

These two different philosophies, through the use of mathematics, deductive reasoning, observation, and interest in the natural and supernatural world around them, can be seen as being the preview or template of modern scientific process.  The philosophers believing that there are things that are both observable and unobservable, or independent of the observer, is a direct foreshadowing of scientists and their respective work to come.  An example of a modern scientist who took the idea something observed and unobserved to a new level and applied it to quantum physics and temporal mechanics, is Erwin Schrodinger.  In 1935 he postulated that a cat locked in a box with a radioactive isotope that would release a poison from a vial upon its decay, would both be alive and dead at the same time because it was unobserved, and that it was the act of observation itself that determined the outcome of the cat’s life or demise[8].  This theory can be viewed as a result of the Ionian and Pythagorean philosophies after thousands of years of development, culminating in current scientific processes which were started and foreshadowed by these philosophers.  Schrodinger’s Cat displays both the aspects of monism and dualism, limit and unlimitedness, at the same time.  It is also a highly advanced theory in the field of physics and requires a keen grasp of mathematics to understand fully.  This would probably not have been possible without the work of both the Ionians and Pythagoreans and the ways that they influenced philosophy and began leading the way into our modern understanding of science. 


Allen, R. E.  (1985).  Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle, 2nd Ed.  The Free Press, New York, NY.

Fidler, D., Guthrie, K., Taylor, T., & Fairbanks, A.  (1987).  The Pythagorean Sourcebook An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and Pythagorean Philosophy.  Phanes Press. 

Mautner, T.  (1997).  Dictionary of Philosophy.  Penguin Books.  London. 

Physicsworld.  (2000).  Accessed 20 Sept, 2011.

[1] Mautner, p. 473
[2] Fidler p. 20
[3] Fidler p. 21
[4] Ionians
[5] Allen p. 6
[6] Plato, Philebus quoted in  Fidler p 20
[7] Allen p. 1

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