Aristotle on Motion
COMBINING PHILOSOPHY AND SCIENCE
In his book, Living Time and the Integration of the Life, Maurice Nicoll describes some of Aristotle’s main ideas regarding the concept of motion: “That the existence of all things can be understood as movement from potential to actual existence; that the movement of all things is an unceasing movement, and that the source of movement is the First Mover which draws finite things from potential into actual existence (Nicoll, p125, p161).”
In his book, The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra says, “The scientific knowledge of antiquity was systematized and organized by Aristotle, who created the scheme which was to be the basis of the Western view of the universe for two thousand years (Capra, p8).”
Aristotle was a brilliant philosopher, but many of his scientific beliefs have been proven to be incorrect. One example is the fact that Aristotle believed that the earth was the center of the universe.
THE CONCEPT OF MOTION
Regarding Aristotle’s views on the idea of motion, he was in conflict with another Greek thinker named Zeno who 2 had attempted to analyze the motion of an object as a series of “still frames.”
Aristotle did not believe that motion could not occur this way. Aristotle believed that, “In real life an object moved as a continuous whole (Wolf, p.13),” and he was successful in turning others away from thinking along Zeno’s train of thought. His contemporaries came to agree that motion, at least in principle, was a continuous stream of inseparable still instants. Basically, Aristotle believed in the continuity of movement and not with earlier scientific thoughts which espoused the discontinuity of movement.
It seems that Aristotle’s primary reasoning for believing in the continuity of motion revolved around the idea of the infinity of space and time, or the space and time which an object occupied while in motion, i.e., specifically as it moved form one place to another.
He reasoned that one cannot add up small pieces of space or time into infinity, but that if one took a finite region of space or moment of time, that then one could go on dividing it up into infinity by making smaller and smaller sections (Wolf, p15). This would prove that motion was continuous.
Aristotle used an example of a runner in a race. He pointed out that because the distance of the race is finite, it could be divided into as many small pieces as one wanted… into infinity. He said that the time it would take the runner to run the race was also finite, and so could also be divided up into as many small pieces as one wanted. He concluded that, “continuous motion exists because it doesn’t take an infinite amount of time for the runner to run the race, and that both the time taken and the distance covered are finite, even though they can be infinitely subdivided (Wolf, p.20).”
Aristotle’s view of motion reflected his view of the physical universe and nature: that things operate as a continuous flow, changing by process into something (or somewhere) else. He believed time was infinite, or eternal, and that all things flowed and moved in cycles.
NEWTONIAN SCIENCE AND QUANTUM PHYSICS
In the book, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking explains that Aristotle believed that matter itself was continuous, and that it too could be divided up into smaller and smaller bits without any limit. A few other Greeks in his time disagreed with him. They believed that matter could be broken down into basic separate components, or building blocks (Hawking, p63). For centuries, scientists searched for these “basic building blocks to life” only to realize that as they divided molecules and atoms into smaller and smaller pieces, they were unable to actually find a “basic building block.” Instead, they began to discover a strange new subatomic, or invisible, world that operated on principles that were not at all as straight forward as philosophers such as Aristotle liked to believe, i.e., they discovered the strange world which came to be known as quantum physics.
To illustrate this idea of continuous and discontinuous motion, one can use the idea of movies or film: putting still pictures together on film and playing them at 24 frames per second certainly gives one the illusion of movement, or more specifically, the movement of action of characters or events for instance. And because the human eye can’t see the separated (subdivided) pictures, it causes the action to appear as smooth and continuous motion. For more information go to PhDify.com
According to newer quantum thinking, however, it’s easy to say motion is continuous and smooth provided we can’t see it (just as when we watch a movie). But if we can see it, by using experiments that allow scientists to observe at the subatomic level, motion then appears to be discontinuous (Wolf, p23).
Newer quantum theory does not agree entirely with Aristotle’s view of motion. It sees truth in Zeno’s theories and in Aristotle’s, saying that sometimes motion is continuous and sometimes it is discontinuous.
Aristotle was more a philosopher than he was a scientist. It may be important to note that he believed time was absolute, but, along with Newton, he did not believe in absolute space (Hawking, p18). This means that he thought the time between two events could be measured exactly, and that it would be the same regardless. He also viewed time as completely separate from space, whereas it is now seen as a dimension that is connected to the three dimensions of space, and is often referred to as space-time (Capra, p154). In other words, Aristotle could see the relativity of space and events occurring in space, but he did not see the relativity of time.
Perhaps if Aristotle would have believed in or conceptualized the theory of relativity, he would have come to different conclusions regarding many of his ideas, theories, and beliefs, and perhaps his concept of motion would have been different. But he believed that, “The questions concerning the human soul and the contemplation of God’s perfection were much more valuable than investigations of the material world (Capra, p8).”
In conclusion, Aristotle was a deep thinker, a philosopher and contemplator, but his concept of motion and time could almost be called more spiritual than scientific.
- Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. Boston: Shambhlala Publications, 1984.
- Hawking, Stephen W. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
- Nicoll, Maurice. Living Time and the Integration of the Life. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1985.
- Wolf, Fred Alan. Taking the Quantum Leap. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.