The philosophy of science is to explain many natural phenomena with simple and least number of axioms(=hypothesis). As Albert Einstein writes in his book, The Evolution of Physics at page number 56:

In the whole history of science from Greek philosophy to modern physics there have been constant attempts to reduce the apparent complexity of natural phenomena to some simple fundamental ideas and relations. This is the underlying principle of all natural philosophy. It is expressed even in the work of the Atomists. Twenty-three centuries ago Democritus wrote:

"By convention sweet is sweet, by convention bitter is bitter, by convention hot is hot, by convention cold is cold, by convention colour is colour. But in reality there are atoms and the void. That is, the objects of sense are supposed to be real and it is customary to regard them as such, but in truth they are not. Only the atoms and the void are real."

Now my question is, if Greek philosophers wanted to explain natural phenomena (as Einstein says) then, why were their theories so ineffectual.

Consider Thales's hypothesis of water as "first principal of matter". Now this hypothesis clearly can't explain any natural phenomena. It can't explain plurality of things, rise of sun, roundness of moon, solar eclipse ... Similar thing can be said for Anaximander and Anaximenes.

Theory of the Atomists is able to explain some phenomenon but still not many. Their theory could not explain apparent things like rise of sun, motion of projectiles.....

So my question is that if Greeks wanted to explain nature then why their theories didn't explained, at least apparent phenomena? As Newton's theory explains almost all natural phenomena that one normal man can experience. I think I don't need to tell how splendidly his theory explains nature with such simple hypothesis.

So does that mean Greeks didn't wanted to explain nature as Einstein thinks? Were they only interested in only answering "What is first principal of matter?" and not in explaining many phenomena of nature with simple and few hypothesis?

  • 11
    By what standard do you measure effectiveness? It is not like they were less effective than anything else offered in their time. Comparing them to something from 2 millenia later, that benefited from their ideas, is very odd. And why is Thales compared to Newton rather than Aristotle, at least? By the same token, we can ask why Newton was so ineffective when relativity and quantum mechanics explain things so much better.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 4:57
  • 4
    Maybe, a more deep understanding of history of science will help... The discussion about causes of so-called Scientific Revolution lasted at least since middle 19th Century and a satisfying answer is still missing. Thus, two considerations: (i) all "civilizations", and not only Ancient Greeks, failed to develop scientific method, as understood since Galileo, Descartes and Newton. (ii) Ancient Greek Science is full of "good science". Aristotle biology and physiology was corrected only from Harvey on; also Aristotle's science of motion was quite successful. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 9:23
  • 3
    Consider this simple "experiment": when you are rowing on a bot, if you stop rowing the boat will stop: thus, "it is evident" that a force is needed to "maintain" a constant motion. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 9:24
  • 3
    @HiterDean - in A's universe there is no vacuum. In A's universe there is no "gravitation": every physical object is either heavy (and goes down) or light (and goes up). In A's physics there is "impressed force" that drive the projectile and "consume" itself in motion. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 13:32
  • 2
    In effect, "to use mathematics to model natural phenomena was not present in antiquity" is not totally correct: geometrical astronomy, Archimedes' statics and geometrical optics are mathematical physics, but the big step forward was the new (mathematical) science of motion. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 13:39

4 Answers 4


Einstein writes, on same page number i.e. 56 in third paragraph:


This idea remains in ancient philosophy nothing more than an ingenious figment of the imagination. Laws of nature relating subsequent events were unknown to the Greeks. Science connecting theory and experiment really began with the work of Galileo. We have followed the initial clues leading to the laws of motion. Throughout two hundred years of scientific research force and matter were the underlying concepts in all endeavors to understand nature.....

From this paragraph I think it is correct to think that Einstein says that the science really began with the works of Great Galileo. So to Einstein science doesn't only consists in forming hypothesis but also testing them to check if they are true or not.

So What Einstein really meant to say was that, Greeks formed hypothesis but they didn't test them, at least rigorously with controlled experiments. What Greeks did was not science, Science consists in inventing ideas but also testing them, rigorously. So science really began with Galileo, he invented ideas(of inertia, acceleration etc.) and tested them as well.

In his book Physics, Aristotle, you can clearly see that Aristotle doesn't focuses on controlled experimentation, if he thinks that a idea is wrong he tries to refute them by reason with some "common experience"(not = to experiment, experiments yield special experience which is not common to all men hence "special") he doesn't perform experiments to refute them, but science cant proceed with "common experience" and reason alone, it need experimentation.

According to Bacon:

' Ille enim prius decreverat, neque experientiam ad constituenda decreta et axiomata rite consuluit; sed postquam pro arbitrio suo decrevisset, experientiam ad sua placita tortam circumducit et captivam; ut hoc etiam nomine magis accusandus sit, quam sectatores ejus moderni (scholasticorum philosophorum genus) qui experientiam omnino deseruerunt.'

Also did you knew that Aristotle believed that women have fewer teeth than men! Now he could have checked this(he had I think 2 wives) but he didn't. See this (2nd topic, 3rd line for a desktop), this and this.

Now If Aristotle, one of the greatest of all philosophers, didn't focus on controlled experiments then is it probable to think that Thales, Anaximander.... the first western philosophers tested their ideas? Obviously no! They didn't. If they had focused experiments then as you state they couldn't have gave ineffectual theories.

But even if their theories are ineffectual, we should praise them for what they did. They were great Philosophers not Scientist, but they tried to achieve Scientific knowledge with philosophic method. This was there biggest mistake.

Mortimer J. Adler writes(18th paragraph from bottom):

[.......] there was in antiquity no clear line between philosophy, on the one hand, and either science or religion, on the other. The ancients did not clearly and explicitly separate questions that cannot be answered without investigation from questions that cannot possibly be answered by investigation. As a consequence of this, Aristotle treated, as if they were properly philosophical questions, questions that can be properly answered only by investigative science -- questions about the nature and motions of the heavenly bodies; questions about the nature, number, and operation of the human senses; questions about the elementary forms of matter; questions about the species of living things, their order, relation, and origin.[......]

[......] He did not separate -- and, in his day, probably could not have separated -- these two modes of inquiry in which he engaged, as we, looking back at him, can retrospectively separate his efforts at scientific inquiry from his lines of philosophical thought.

This, then, is one of the misfortunes of philosophy in antiquity: by virtue of the inchoate togetherness of science and philosophy, philosophy took upon itself a burden that it could not discharge -- the burden of answering questions that did not properly belong in its domain. We can see the particular sciences -- such as physics, astronomy, chemistry, physiology, and zoology -- in the womb of ancient philosophy. Philosophy is, historically, their mother; but they have not yet broken away from her and established themselves as branches of a separate autonomous discipline, the discipline of investigative science. Until this happens -- and it does not begin to happen until the seventeenth century -- they constitute a burden and a distraction to philosophy; worse than that, the errors which philosophers make in unwittingly trying to deal with matter that properly belong to science insidiously affect their treatment of matters that are properly their own concern.

[.....]This misfortune, at the very beginning of philosophy's history, plagues it throughout its history, not only in antiquity, but also in the Middle Ages and in modern times.

Extra, which I think will make the answer more understandable.

What is method of philosophy? Adler answers:

The method of philosophy, like that of science, employs observation and reflection, which is to say, data and theories. Both involve sense-experience and reasoning. But the philosopher, like the mathematician, does not need any more experience than is available to every man by the ordinary use of his senses while awake. Just as the mathematician is properly an arm-chair thinker, so is the philosopher. It would be just as absurd for a philosopher to conduct an empirical investigation to obtain special or additional data in order to solve his problems, as it would be for a mathematician to do so.

Yet the philosopher differs from the mathematician in that he must appeal to the ordinary experience of mankind as supplying the evidence, available to every one, in support of the theories he advances. In this respect, he is like the empirical scientist rather than the mathematician; but where the scientist must always go beyond ordinary experience and by his methods of re. search obtain "scientific data" to support his conclusions, the philosopher needs no special "philosophical data," nor has he any method of obtaining them.

  • A very careful study, not reading articles in popular magazines and journals, of the 1500 or more pages of Aristotle's writings (I've only done 150 pages) might change your opinion about backward and ineffectual. Even today, there is much that he said which seems underappreciated and misunderstood.
    – user37981
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 4:07
  • @CharlesMSaunders I accept that popular magazine can't give you as much knowledge and insights that a book by Aristotle or Plato can give you. I am not saying that they were "backwards", but that there biggest mistake was not doing controlled experiments. Without experiments there can be no true science, this is why the beginning of Science, as said by Einstein, is credited to Galileo. Note that I said "...Aristotle, one of the greatest of all philosopher...". Plato, Aristotle were great philosophers but not not great scientists.
    – user46009
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 4:26
  • @CharlesMSaunders you should read radicalacademy.org/adlermisfortunesphil1.html radicalacademy.org/adlersciwisdom.html radicalacademy.org/adlersciphil1.html
    – user46009
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 4:26
  • @CharlesMSaunders I have edited my question and I hope I have made it clear that I don't think them backward or fool.
    – user46009
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 4:54
  • @CharlesMSaunders also read radicalacademy.org/adlersciencequestions.html
    – user46009
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 4:59

Now my question is, if Greek philosophers wanted to explain natural phenomena (as Einstein says) then, why were their theories so ineffectual.

Their theories were ineffectual relative to modern scientific theories because the ontological and epistemological bases of the various scientific methods hadn't been constructed yet.

From The Origins of Modern Science by Herbert Butterfield, p.7:

It is the so-called "scientific revolution," popularly associated with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but reaching back in an unmistakably continuous line to a period much earlier still. Since that revolution overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world -- since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics -- it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes... within the system of medieval Christendom.

It would take an entire book to begin to do justice to why the "science" of Antiquity was a poor match for the sciences of the 20th century, but let's just give a few important differences.

  1. The mathematization of science starting with Galileo Galilei and modern mathematical methods used in science.
  2. The development of universities and the printing press.
  3. The growth of natural theology into naturalism and the divergence of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology from natural philosophy.
  4. The development of analytic geometry and the formalization of logics leading up to the explosions of mathematics and logics such as Boolean algebra, fuzzy logic, proof theory, and model theory to name too few.
  5. The growth of the population of professional thinkers from a scattered metaphorical handful in the Mediterranean to the current global population. There are very likely more "scientists" alive today than there were in all of Ancient Greece for 500 years.

From a philosophical view, the Ancient Greeks didn't even properly speaking fully explore the idea of empiricism which began fully emerging than 1,500 years later. At best, they were stuck with very simple notions of rationalism, some loose adherence to reason, as they simply weren't advanced enough culturally to have empirically based theories in the modern sense.


Ineffectual? Goodness, that's cold! The short answer, as other have noted, is the whole cumulative history of technology, along with changing social structures, taboos, and belief systems. Plus, the back-seat driving that makes our current knowledge "obvious," when it is not at all. Such modern commonplaces as a moving earth require a radical suspension of commonsense observation.

As for Thales, while shrouded in legend, but he is said to have predicted eclipses and weather patterns, such that he reputedly became rich by predicting a large vine crop and buying up all the wine presses. Wish I were so "ineffectual."

The reduction of all things to some irreducible element by the pre-Socratics was the beginning of "rationalizations" of many different things to one "grounding" force would have effective implications for measurement, and hence for husbandry, agriculture, astronomy, metallurgy, navigation, and mechanics. The Greeks, remember, did a lot of constructing, fabrication, growing, and ship-making, and it obviously did not progress on the basis of trial and error, but by applications of geometry, record-keeping, and hypothesis.

Parmenides and the Pythagoreans deduced the spherical shape of the earth, which is not entirely obvious. Who even knows where to start with Aristotle's origination of observation-based classificatory schemes? It is often said modern science begins with overturning Aristotle. But would it have begun without the earlier rediscovery of Aristotle? Not to mention, somewhat later, the highly "effectual" Archimedes, still one of the world's greatest mathematicians and "scientists." Or Heron, who invented a steam engine, which was not seen as "useful" in an era of abundant slavery.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate as to why the Greeks' great stores of knowledge and curiosity did not lead more directly to an ancient Newton. Or why Galileo didn't leap from his own relativity of motion to Einstein's. We think of our own science as "effectual" not because of the science itself, but the technology that it generates in a self-accelerating cycle, and this has to do with, in a Marxist sense, the whole complex of evolving practices and ideas through which societies reproduce themselves.

It's a very good question, and there are many books on the topic if you care to pursue it further.

  • Please name some books.
    – user44243
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 0:39

Anthropologist David Graeber has a nice suggestion in his https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt:_The_First_5000_Years, that the ideas of a single unifying substance emerging in that era, whether fire, water, or atoms, was stimulated by the emergence of currency. That also became a kind of 'fundamental' store of and reckoner of value.

Our leading ideas about the nature of the universe are invariably shaped by our highest technology, a clockwork universe, a heat engine, or modern digital physics.

We should take the opposite lesson than you suggest, and recognise we do not simply examine the world, but develop models from examples we have.

You must log in to answer this question.