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The pre-Socratics and modern physics

Views of a physicist

The European nuclear research center CERN is planning to build a new particle accelerator. In a ring-shaped tunnel 500 m below Lake Geneva and with a circumference of 100 km, the physicists want to study the interactions of electrons, positrons and protons at far higher energies than before. With the LHC particle accelerator that exists today, it was possible to test the so-called standard theory, the unified theory of so-called strong, weak and electromagnetic interaction. The result was a picture of our nature on a length scale of about 10-15 m, in which, on the one hand, there was a good agreement between theory and experiment, but on the other hand, new questions arose which the theory could not answer and for which the previous experiments could not yet provide any information. So one would have to look more "more closely", with even higher resolution, i.e. let the particles collide with one another with even higher energy, so that one can discover another substructure in today's picture of nature by analyzing the decay products. [1]
The plan for such a “Future Circular Collider” represents a whole new dimension in the search for a unified theory for all fundamental interactions in nature. The search appears to be a project in the recent history of modern physics, but it is basically one Humanity project that was started 2,500 years ago by the “pre-Socratics”, those ancient Greek philosophers who mainly worked in the time before Socrates, more precisely in the years from -600 to -400.
People have always felt the urge to reduce the complexity of their impressions of the world and have always tried to make sense of the world. At first this happened in the form of stories about the work of gods and spirits who ruled the world and people. We know such myths as the Gilgamesh epic or from the works of Homer and Hesiod. Thales von Milet (approx. -624 to approx. -555) is considered to be the first of the pre-Socratics, as the first philosopher of the Greek antiquity at all, who went a completely different way to explain the world. In the stories “about God and the world”, justifications appeared: statements about the world as a whole were now linked to everyday observations. The gods were no longer supermen who could switch and rule as they wanted. One could even think of them quite differently than in human categories, actually no longer needed their stories. Arguments now counted with which one could justify statements.

Two questions

The pre-Socratics could also be called the first physicists, even the first cosmologists, because with their questions they went straight to the “big picture”, as only theologians today believe in this directness. They were “physicists” anyway, because they referred to nature (ἡ φύσις = physis, Greek: nature) and no longer brought mythical ideas into the field.
Two questions emerged that were decisive for the whole of intellectual history. The first question arose from the feeling that there must be something "behind" the many that we discover in our everyday world, from which this "many" consists or has arisen. The pre-Socratics called it the “primordial material” of all things or the “one” or “being”. In the world in which we live and can gain experience, however, “being” shows itself as “many”. So there are always two levels of being, the “higher”, on which being is “one”, and the “lower”, in which people live and encounter “many”. This “one” could also be a “principle” or what was called “God” in religions.
So the question was: what is the primordial material, what does it have to do with the material that we perceive with our senses? Or: What is the basic principle, what is “the underlying”?
A second question is then inevitable: What can I know about it? Or: How can I gain knowledge about it?
The first question thus concerns the nature of the world, the second our faculty of knowledge. These are questions that still arise today.
In the first question we now see the connection with the physicists' search for a unified theory of all fundamental forces of nature. In this theory there should only be one fundamental force, from which all other forces such as gravitational force and the forces of the standard theory mentioned at the beginning result under certain circumstances. Obviously, people have made some progress in the question of the “one”, even if the question is now posed on a completely different level, namely not on a “material”, but a “spiritual” level. One has good hope of eventually finding the “one” theory that contains the “many” other theories about the individual fundamental forces.
We can indeed have this hope today because we have been able to make very concrete progress on the second question, even in ancient Greece. It was there that mathematics first flourished and one had learned that mathematical conclusions “necessarily” arise. So, in the field of mathematics, one can acquire reliable knowledge. This led to the search for necessary inference rules outside of mathematics as well. Aristotle (-384 to -322), to a certain extent an early “post-Socratics”, was probably the first to formulate final rules of this kind and thus to establish a doctrine of the laws of thought, a logic.
For us today, however, “logical” stands for something that goes without saying in the context of our world of experience and thoughts. This is also sometimes used to refer to the logic of women or men. We often hear “It makes sense - right?” When a friend tells us about a decision they made that they found most sensible because it was obviously in line with their goals or principles. But that has only to do with logic to a limited extent. We'll see this in more detail in later blog posts.

Logos

The term “logic” developed from the word “logos” in ancient Greece. This initially meant something like “word” or “speech”. In connection with the speech, however, the scope of meaning expanded to include intelligible speech and what makes a speech intelligible and convincing: conclusions that prove to be “necessary”, incontestable, which one cannot reject, one does not want to be unreasonable be valid. “Logos” thus also stood for understanding and reason, and it was discovered that rules could be found for such sensible reasoning.
Of course, this development could only take place in a community in which there was a lot of public speaking and discussion. That was the case in the early democracies of ancient Greece. Rhetorical arts and dialectical knowledge were of great advantage in court and in political meetings, and so-called sophists taught these arts. At some point you had to recognize that arguments can be more or less consistent, that some are even incontestable, others have to be viewed as attempts at persuasion or even mislead.
"Logos" initially stood for logical, respected thinking and the teaching for this thinking became "logic". But the term “Logos” itself also made a career for itself when it came to the second question mentioned above, to what extent we as humans can have access to the “higher level”. Of course, the “logos” had to play a role, understood as reason or the ability to cognize. The various philosophical schools that have emerged in the course of history differ in what role this should be. The “logos” became the cause of a capacity for knowledge, could even become a being of its own, a mediator between the two levels and later also played an important role in Christianity. But this is another story.
On this occasion it should only be mentioned that the role of the “logo” as a mediator between two levels can be found today in the term “logistics”, a field of knowledge that deals with the transport of goods, people and information. And it is no coincidence that a large German logistics company is called “Hermes”, after the messenger of the gods who in Greek mythology brought the decisions of Zeus, the father of the gods, to people.
Looking back, and with the term “Logos” in our luggage, we can say that with the “pre-Socratics” the Logos came into a world in which until then the myth had explained the world to people. This new line of thought was to become stronger and stronger in the course of intellectual history, and in many other questions it also competed with myth. In the end, philosophy was split into two fundamentally different schools of thought: logos versus myth. The Logos only gained ground in spurts, with long periods of strong supremacy from myth in between. Today - in the globalized world as well as within individual cultures - we have to deal with a variety of intellectual situations in which the relationship between logos and myth is extremely different. It is not clear which relationship could be particularly beneficial for humanity.
I don't want to report here about the struggle between myth and logos for supremacy in people's minds, as exciting as it is. This is about the history of logic, which is also very exciting in a different way and will lead us to the most modern developments in physics, artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

logic

“Logic” is a doctrine of how to use reason, an answer to the question of what consistency actually means. Aristotle and representatives of the Stoa took the first steps to answer this question. They discovered in the first place that there are such things as rules of inference in arguments and that these can be very different in terms of persuasiveness. In particular, they discussed how incontestable final rules must be constructed. For more than 2,000 years it was believed that nothing more had to be added to these logical doctrines, until the philosophers and mathematicians Frege, Whitehead and Russell developed a mathematical logic that was much more general and meaningful and that was also downright for them at the end of the 19th century Digitization seemed like it was done. Not to be forgotten, however, is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who in the 17th century foresaw important aspects of modern logic such as the need for a formal language and the importance of a calculus on the level of this language.
With modern mathematical logic, logic has become an independent science that is now practiced in mathematics or computer science faculties. In a sense, it emigrated from philosophy, just as mathematics did in ancient Greece.

Logic and math

In fact, logic had been in people's minds before the pre-Socratics, in the form of a rudimentary form of mathematics. In the early communities there was already trade and administration, so you had to be able to count, measure, add, multiply and divide. You will have already known that this type of thinking will lead to incontestable results. In my book “Thinking in Structures and Its History - From the Power of Mathematical Proof” I reported on such first mathematical approaches in early Egypt and Mesopotamia, and also on how this mathematics also reached Greek culture through trade. [2]
The Greeks then brought mathematics to its first prime. The preoccupation with mathematics and above all the discovery of the mathematical proof may also have inspired Aristotle to develop logic. It wasn't until much later that one should understand the connection between logic and mathematics.

Mathematics and Physics in Modern Times

When the scholars of Europe got to know and received the culture and science of the ancient Greeks in the time of the Renaissance, the logos entered an accelerated growth phase, so to speak. Galileo Galilei discovered a “new science” in which mathematics, including logic, was the language in which one communicated. He demonstrated the power of this new science with a phenomenon that is extremely inconspicuous to us today, the fall of a ball. Two generations later, Isaac Newton developed a general theory of motion as part of this new science and also showed how it can be used to calculate and reliably predict movements in the sky and on earth under the influence of gravity. Modern physics had emerged.
In the next few centuries new fundamental forces in physics should be discovered and theories based on Newton's theory should be established for their work. The idea of ​​a unified theory was always on the table, and in fact it was often possible to find a common, superordinate theory for two theories. Today we believe we know all the fundamental forces and are about to take a final step towards standardization. The goal is a single theory for all fundamental forces. Then the pre-Socratics program would have come to an end, albeit in a way that is very different from what could have been imagined at the time.
I want to deal with this important topic of our intellectual history in more detail in future blog posts.

[1] https://home.cern/science/accelerators/future-circular-collider
[2] https://www.springer.com/de/book/9783662563762

Addendum: When I said goodbye to blogging for a while in April 2014, I thought I needed a break. It should be over now. It was also more of a break from blogging than writing, because two new books have appeared in these almost five years: “The Idea of ​​Science” and “Thinking in Structures”. But now I feel like blogging again.

Josef Honerkamp was professor for theoretical physics for more than 30 years, first at the University of Bonn, then for many years at the University of Freiburg. He has worked in the fields of quantum field theory, statistical mechanics and stochastic dynamic systems and is the author of several text and non-fiction books. After his retirement in 2006, he would like to devote himself even more to interdisciplinary discussions. He is particularly interested in the respective self-image of a science, its methods as well as its basic starting points and questions and can report on the views a physicist comes to in view of the development of his subject. Overall, he sees himself today as a physicist and "really free writer".