PHYS Physics

Without scientific data, ancient philosophers created theories that remain true today

Ancient philosophers were the first to discover some of the laws of nature, but often go unheralded.

Pre-Socratic philosophers pondered some of the more arcane questions of existence, sometimes coming up with answers that hold true today. Still, they are rarely credited with progress in the scientific field largely because they lacked scientific proof for their theories. According to Joe Carmichael in an article for Inverse, philosophy and science share a long, intertwined history, and these early philosophers were the Western world’s first empiricists.

Ancient philosophy professor at Brigham Young University, Daniel Graham, tells Inverse that these early philosophers have been discredited, because despite their incredible ideas, they had “no way of proving or disproving any of their theories.” The danger, Carmichael suggests, is that history will repeat itself and modern scientists may be ignored or repudiated by future researchers even if they uncover new paths to knowledge. Carmichael points to Parmenides, who developed a cosmology and was the first person in history to determine the earth’s true shape. Leucippus and Democritus, in late-5th-century B.C., hypothesized that atoms exist, while Anaxagoras discovered how eclipses work.

Graham believes that modern scientists should look to ancient philosophers as “soul mates” because they were people that already thought like scientists, even without access to the tools of science. “Proof follows conjecture,” Carmichael writes. In fact, concepts like the Big Bang began as speculation. The methodology of science is always the same, says Yasunori Nomura, a theoretical physics professor. “You just make the theories based on what you can measure.” As Carmichael puts it, scientists ought to consider any theory that is robust, steeped in evidence, and falsifiable.

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