Is there anything a late-20th or 21st century physicist can learn from antique philosophy of nature as stated by Aristotle? Is there any new inspiring notion or thought?

Note. I do not ask about the past; e.g. discriminating between actual and potential once was an inspiring idea. Also I do not ask about late-20th or 21st century philosophy of nature, but about late-20th or 21st century physics.

  • Would the Mpemba effect count here? It has been described, Wikipedia tells us, in Aristotle's Meteorology
    – sand1
    Dec 2, 2015 at 22:11
  • I did not hear before about the Mpemba effect. According Wikipedia I consider both the effect and - if it is real - its explanation an open question. Do you think, that Mpemba was inspired by Aristotle?
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2015 at 22:39
  • I think if anything they are running away from him. There is a good book that you will like published this year - "Spooky Action at a Distance" by George Musser. Many references to Aristotle's thinking and what current physicists are thinking. Dec 3, 2015 at 11:02
  • What exactly do you mean by "contemporary"? Anything after the Middle Ages? After Newton, Galileo, et al.? 19th or 20th century? 21st century? Aristotle has inspired physicists of all these eras, thus your question is quite broad. Please be more specific.
    – Geremia
    Dec 6, 2015 at 21:56
  • @Geremia Contemporary means late 20th and 21th century CE.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 6, 2015 at 22:14

4 Answers 4


Carlo Rovelli wrote a defence of Aristotle's physics which deserves to be read: http://arxiv.org/abs/1312.4057 An idea which is perhaps worth reconsidering is formulated found in De Caelo (305a26): what does not move is merely mathematical and does not exist. Contemporary physics has became almost entirely mathematical and tends to obliterate the divide between mathematics and physics. The 19th c. conceded that absence of obvious contradiction is enough to legitimate a mathematical inquiry; for physics some evidence was mandatory. Today physicists tend to promote purely mathematical constructs as physics - they are cheap and mostly unfalsifiable. But they are offered only on the strength on non-contradiction. Indeed there is an attempt to reverse philosophical perspective by inverting the role of modality and existence - physics pretends to a god's like view in which the actual world is merely one among the possible ones. Possibility is a modality which, as Aristotle knew, escapes the non-contradictoriness manifested by reality.

  • 1
    Upvote +1 for your reference to Rovelli. - On the other hand I do not agree with your general judgement "Contemporary physics has become almost entirely mathematical." I agree concerning string theory. But I do not agree concerning certain other fields, e.g. the high-energy experiments at CERN, which led to the detection of the Higgs boson.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2015 at 22:46
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    The judgement isn't his, but Rovellis - and given he is a theoretical physicist in good standing he should know ... Dec 3, 2015 at 5:59

Does Aristotle inspire contemporary physicists?

No. Newton does. So does Maxwell. And Einstein. But not Aristotle. Au contraire, his work is generally thought to have become doctrinal and held up scientific progress for centuries. Or millennia.

Is there anything a contemporary physicist can learn from antique philosophy of nature as stated by Aristotle?

Yes. See the five elements section of the Wikipedia Aristotle article. The fifth element is aether, aka quintessence. This has a modern version, see quintessence (physics), but set that aside for now. Instead check out this, where Robert B Laughlin says this:

"It is ironic that Einstein's most creative work, the general theory of relativity, should boil down to conceptualizing space as a medium when his original premise [in special relativity] was that no such medium existed... The word 'ether' has extremely negative connotations in theoretical physics because of its past association with opposition to relativity. This is unfortunate because, stripped of these connotations, it rather nicely captures the way most physicists actually think about the vacuum..."

See Einstein describing space as an aether here. And Maxwell here, and Newton here. Space isn't nothing. That's why there's a shear stress term in the stress-energy-momentum tensor:

enter image description here

CCO image by Maschen, based on image created by Bamse, see Wikipedia

The stress-energy-momentum tensor "describes the density and flux of energy and momentum in spacetime". Because space isn't nothing. Space is a gin-clear ghostly elastic continuum. Google on Einstein elastic and search the arXiv.

Is there any new inspiring notion or thought?

If it's new to you, then maybe.

  • Yes, the aether concept experiences a partly renaissance in contemporary cosmology. Sometimes the Higgs field, metaphorically named Higgs ocean, is considered a modern substitute. But different from the aether concept of 19th century the Higgs field interacts only with objects in non-uniform motion and it does not affect the speed of light, see the chapter "The Return of the Aether" from Greene, Brian: The Fabric of the Cosmos. 2004, p. 268ff . - Did the aether concept of Aristotle inspire Brout, Englert and Higgs? Aristotle considers aether the special stuff of celestial bodies.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2015 at 21:00
  • @Jo Wehler : I don't know if the aether concept inspired Brout Englert and Higgs. From whay I've picked up it seems like they were just plugging a gap. The Infinity Puzzle by Frank Close is quite a good read on the history. And see A Zeptospace Odyssey by Gian Guidice. The Higgs mechanism is responsible for only 1% of the mass of matter. Here's an excerpt. I'm afraid it doesn't sit well with E=mc². Is the mass of a body a measure of its energy-content, or something else? Dec 2, 2015 at 21:18
  • The content of Close's book seems interesting, even when the book is written just before the detection of the Higgs Boson. - I agree with the excerpt that the mass of the nucleons is due mainly to the interaction energy of its quarks. Also Greene in his book ascribes the significant part of the nucleon mass to the gluons, i.e. to the bosons responsible for the strong interaction between the quarks of a nucleon. - Do you doubt, that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy-content?
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2015 at 21:47
  • @Jo Wehler : no, I don't doubt that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy-content. I'm a "relativist". But I'm not a fan of Greene. See this: "There are also conjectures about other exotic hadrons in which real gluons (as opposed to virtual ones found in ordinary hadrons) would be primary constituents". Also see low-energy proton-antiproton annihilation to gamma photons. And Einstein's E=mc² paper where the word body and electron feature on the same line. Dec 2, 2015 at 22:08
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    cf. "Aristotle's Aether and Contemporary Science" by Christopher A. Decaen, The Thomist 68 (2004): 375-429.
    – Geremia
    Dec 6, 2015 at 22:07

Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) wrote:

Little by little…mechanical hypotheses came up against obstacles on all sides which were more and more numerous and difficult to surmount. The atomic, Cartesian, and Newtonian systems gradually lost favour with physicists and made way for methods analogous to those advocated by Aristotle. Present-day physics is tending to return to a peripatetic form.

Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem, Mixture and Chemical Combination: And Related Essays, trans. Paul Needham (Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 119. Originally published as: Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem, Le mixte et la combinaison chimique: essai sur l’évolution d’une idée (Paris: C. Naud, 1902), 200: “Peu à peu…les hypothèses mécanistes se heurtent de toutes parts à des obstacles de plus en plus nombreux, de plus en plus difficiles à surmonter. Alors la faveur des physiciens se détache des systèmes atomistiques, cartésiens ou newtoniens pour revenir à des méthodes analogues à celles que prônait Aristote. La Physique actuelle tend à reprendre une forme péripatéticienne.”

(cf. this)

Duhem's "prophecy" came true in Heisenberg, who was influenced by Aristotle. Heisenberg states in his Physics and Philosophy that the probability wave concept in quantum mechanics (p. 41)

was a quantitative version of the concept of 'potentia' in Aristotelian philosophy

and that the (p. 80)

concept of the soul for instance in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas was more natural and less forced than the Cartesian concept of 'res cogitans,' even if we are convinced that the laws of physics and chemistry are strictly valid in living organisms.

Smith, Wolfgang. The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key. Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2005.
and the resources here


In the way that you've phrased the question the answer would have to be no - but that appears to be what you want and that's what's meant by a leading question, so chosen to ignore all evidence to the contrary - which given the subject at hand would be historical, and foundational.

After all Aristotle was writing two Millenia ago; and two thousand years is some time for his ideas to be incorporated into the philosophical fabric in many different ways; after all we are not so far away from Newton or Maxwell, but the language of both are now sufficiently different that a well-educated physicist will have severe difficulties reading their work - yet we have no problem at all stating that now their work is influential, and still influential - Newton on space and time, and Maxwell on the notion of a field.

And this takes us to a position that Gadamer posited, which is that there has been a loss of properly historical consciousness, we might say a kind of 'rootlessness' in knowledge.

Still, in the terms of your circumscribed circumspection, and exclusionary practise - I mean the extremely narrow remit of the question, but taking into account comments by Rovelli, and Maudlin at face-value when they say Aristotles reflections on space, time and the continuum were profound - the Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Math & Logic, in III.2 Aristotle and the intuitionistic continuum relates that:

From Aristotle onwards, mathematicians and philosophers have found this viscosity - this topological unspittability is inconsistent with the view that the continuum is made up of independent points - atoms ... This is a central part of Aristotles Physics and Metaphysics.

Kant endorses this alleged inconsistency, as well as Brouwer - in his early work.

To be sure Cantor, Dedekind and others succeeded in creating such a continuum, but Brouwer pushed all this aside.

Now, one avatar of intuitinionistic mathematics is Topos Theory; and there have been some work by physicists on this - here are a few titles:

Heunon & Spitters: a topos for algebraic quantum mechanics

Isham & Doering: A topos foundation for theories of physics


You might also find the essay by Karin Verelst & Bob Coecke in the inter-disciplinary book Metadebates on Science: Einstein meets Magritte worth looking into, its titled Early Greek Thought and Perspectives for the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: Preliminaries for an Ontological Approach; it's also available on the arxiv; it begins by:

At the origin of our approach lay two encounters between Greek thought and Quantum Mechanics ... the first encounter has been presented in a short lecture byC.Piron in which he attempted to develop a realistic QM-interpretation based on two concepts fundamental to Aristotelian metaphysics, viz. potentiality and actuality. The second one is the doctoral dissertation of D.Aerts . It both by content and title dealt with the problem of the One and the Many, the central theme Plato inherited from the fifth century philosopher Parmenides of Elea ... the thought instruments developed by Plato and Aristotle ... are in use up to the present, be it in slightly modified forms ... our position will be that this classical contradiction has slipped through the ages unimpaired, but in different forms such as to make it hardly recognisable in our present epistemological and ontological concepts, both in philosophy and science. A revelation of this implicit presence by reconstructing the outlines of its historical pathway then becomes the necessary first step towards an approach for the tackling of problems it eventually causes in todays science. The argument will lead us to the conclusion that the paradoxes appearing in QM represent such a problem ...

...This is so because Being, over a lapse of time, has no stability. Everything that it is at this moment changes at the same time, there it is not. This coming togther of Being & Not-Being at one instant is known as the principle of coincidence of opposites. It is crucial to see that this principle is connected to the possibility of motion, for being in motion implies to and not to be at the same time at a certain time, at a certain place. It further implies the unity of the world in the sense that there are no separated objects, its ontology is dynamic.

  • the bolded text is not my emphasis, but was emphasised as such in the original.
  • In your answer I find the names of Newton, Maxwell, Kant, Gadamer(!), Brouwer and several other mathematicians. I read about topos theory, which has been invented by Grothendieck: My question asks about an impact on contemporary physics from Aristotle's philosophy of nature. - The last attempt would be Rovelli. Are his thoughts about loop quantum gravity inspired by Aristotle? Could you please give a reference, thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2015 at 16:04
  • @wehler: if you rread my answer carefully you'll see I'm tracking the intuitionistic continuum historically over a century; and this is why I mentioned Gadamer - ie historical consciousness; the entire answer counts as a reference...I'm talking about elementary topoi not Grothendieck sheaf topoi. Dec 2, 2015 at 16:13
  • ie the generalisation of set theory, not of bundles as in schemes. As for Aristotles philosophy of nature - turn to any textbook of physics and stare very hard at the word potential and energy and see if it actually sinks in... Dec 2, 2015 at 16:17
  • One, by the way shouldn't be surprised(!) to find the name Gadamer on a site devoted to philosophy ... why do you find his name inexplicable given the slant of my answers, and questions? Dec 2, 2015 at 16:21
  • I am surprised to find the name Gadamer in answering a question concerning contemporary physics. I do not know about any contribution of Gadamer to the issue in question. I wonder whether physicists consider him familiar with their subject. - Do you have a reference concerning Rovelli? - My question is not concerning Aristotle's philosophy of nature in general: Do you mean that it inspires any contemporary physicist to a new view on potential energy?
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2015 at 19:06

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