Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Aristotle's Physics - the Five Elements

Joel posted Is PowerPoint Anti-Intellectual? earlier this month in which he claimed:

"If Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had had PowerPoint available, there might not have been any western philosophy handed down to us."
I replied:

"I'm not sure what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would have done with PowerPoint. I guess Socrates would have avoided it. Plato would have used it grudgingly, but Aristotle -OH! ARISTOTLE- he would have been (almost) as good as me!"

Well. that remark has cost me dozens of hours during which I have been researching Aristotle's books on Physics and Meteorology and building the PowerPoint charts I think he would have created had they been available in his time, some 2300 years ago. In particular, I tried to explain Aristotle's view of the Five Elements (Aether, Air, Fire, Earth, and Water) as well as his take on the Four Causes (Material, Formal, Efficient, and Final).


Once I made the PowerPoint charts I decided to go the extra step and use them to construct two new Google Knols. The first, on the Five Elements was published today and another, on the Four Causes, is under construction and will follow soon.

Like me, you may find philosophy hard to understand. As my PhD advisor (Howard Pattee) told me, philosophers make simple things complex, using a language specially created for that purpose!

You have undoubtedly heard about "the five elements" of the ancient philosophers. I couldn't understand how the ancients thought Fire was a basic element, or that the essence of Air was wet or of Water cold. It turns out they were not using these words according to the literal, narrow scientific meanings we employ. They were thinking about what we would now call the qualities of "energy" and "fluidity". They used Air, Fire, Water, and Earth as examples of things that had a lot or a little energy and/or fluidity.

Modern scientists dismiss the concept of Aether out of hand. However, the idea of a non-material substrate is important if we want to understand what the most intelligent and well-informed humans of two millenia ago were thinking. (If modern string theory, which says there are ten or eleven dimensions of which humans may comprehend only four, holds up to scientific examination, it may turn out that the six or seven "tightly curled up" dimensions we humans cannot comprehend might be what the ancients called the Aether!)

The graphic that appears at the head of this posting is the first chart and there are two others described in the Knol:

Have a look at the Five Elements Knol and please comment on it!
Ira Glickstein


joel said...

Nice job. I read some of your knol, but it was a little too "Alice in Wonderlandish" for me. I couldn't go down the rabbit hole, even with the lovely graphics. Aristotle was known as the peripatetic. Having him pacing up and down in front of the "slides" would have been very distracting. Personally, I prefer the ancient Chinese system of five elements as found it wikipedia.

* Wood parts earth;
* Earth absorbs water;
* Water quenches fire;
* Fire melts metal;
* Metal chops wood.

Within this system we clearly see the origins of the modern rock-paper-scissor (jun-ken-pon) school of decision making. This ancient system was used for many years, but people strongly objected to having their hands spit upon for water and the hot foot for fire resulted in many serious injuries, because the straw sandals of that time were highly flammable. However, wikipedia indicates that there
may be a revival of the ancient system as follows.

"The official roshambo rules of the Ultimate Players Association add "fire" and "water" as potential trumps. Fire will beat any of the standard weapons (rock, paper, scissors), but a player may only throw it once in his entire lifetime. Water may be played as many times as one wishes, but loses to any throw except fire. (Those who adopt this trump depend on good sportsmanship to enforce the once-per-lifetime rule.)"

With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, sorry you found Aristotle "a little too 'Alice in Wonderlandish'" for your tastes. I found it facinating to follow a brilliant and well-informed mind of 2300 years ago doing a nearly fact-free analysis of the physics of the elements. (By fact-free I mean he had lots of knowleged of water changing to steam and vapor condensing back into water and so on but he had absolutely no knowledge of the chemistry behind it all, not to mention no idea of the atomic physics. Yet, he plods on with brilliant immagination and great logic and I found that facinating. Will humans 2000 years hence, or sooner, laugh at us?).

As for your rock->paper->scissors ->rock, where "->" stands for "beats", which the Chinese extended into wood->earth->water->fire->metal->wood, that is an example of a non-transitive set.

In a transitive set A->B->C you know that A->C. For example, If A is 10 and B is 5, A>B. If C is 2, B>C. If you know the set is transitive, which nearly all natural sets are, you know that A>C without checking that 10>2.

When the sets are non-transitive, all bets are off. Thats why we find rock->paper->scissors->rock so phony and impractical in any real-world sense, as is the Chinese sequence.

But, there is a great example of a real-world set of non-transitive dice. At first I though it was impossible. The way it was demonstrated to me, Prof. Don Gause at Binghamton U, took out four regular cubes, one was Black, one Red, one Yellow, and one Blue. They had numbers on each of their six faces like regular dice, but they were not 1,2,3,4,5,6.

For example, the Black die had: 1,1,1,5,5,5

The Red die had: 2,2,2,2,6,6

If you picked the Black die and I picked the Red die, and we tossed them ten or twenty times, I would win about 2/3 of the time. Red beats Black 2/3 of the time. OK.

Then there was the Yellow die with: 3,3,3,3,3,3.

It turns out the Yellow die beats the Red die 2/3 of the time. OK.

Then there was the Blue die: 0,0,4,4,4,4. Blue beats Red 2/3 of the time. OK.

But, what is surprising is that Black beats Blue 2/3 of the time!!!!! HOW CAN THAT BE ???

How can Blue->Yellow->Red->Black->Blue ???

Well, IT BE !! (See Non-transitive Dice for details.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

This evening we went to see the Angels and Demons movie based on Dan Brown's book.

It was interesting to see the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water figure prominently in the plot line.

I was hoping to see Aether as the fifth element, but it turned out to be crossed keys.

Ira Glickstein