Cosmology or Natural Philosophy


We have seen the basic intro to and outline of philosophy and have covered the very basics of logic and will now turn to the various fields of philosophy. We will start with the physical world around us, since this is where the earliest philosophy started with the ancient Greeks.      

1. Some early history
The first philosopher is usually considered to be Thales. Others had sought answers before him of course, but he is the first on record as trying to reason his way to an explanation of the world around him, with reason alone. He lived in Greece (Miletus) in the 600's b.c. (624-546) and began with the question, what is the deepest underlying nature of the world around us? What is the nature of existence? How can we understand reality since it is always changing from one thing into another? Early man had explained it all with a religious explanations. But Thales wondered, does it have an explanation that can be understood apart from myths?

Cosmology does not study reality like a scientist, it takes the data that science provides and looks to find the ultimate causes of ALL reality based what the scientific data reveals. Philosophy began by using what we can observe about the world, then building from it to try to find the base causes of it all.

Thales came up with a way to measure the pyramids using shadows, he was also able to predict an eclipse. But he then began wondered what was the base “stuff” the universe was made of, what gave the vast diversity of things their unity. His answer was water or “the moist”, in various forms of condensation. It is not important if he was wrong, what matters is that it was the first recorded time that a unity was sought to explain all reality.

Other philosophers in Miletus such as Anaximander, a pupil of Thales, followed by saying although water is everywhere, there is something more primary naming "the indefinite realm" or "the unlimited" as the source stuff of all reality. With Anaximander the explanation left the senses behind.

Anaximenes, chose air as his source "stuff", claiming Anaximander's unlimited was too vague, and he claimed the amount of air condensed in things gave them thier different appearances, thus he began the idea of a mathematical explanation of reality

Mathematical formulas or numbers describing reality were proposed by Pythagoras. Continual change based on fire as the base was proposed by Heraclitus, claiming unity was an illusion. Parmenides said all was one, the change was an illusion. Some even thought the universe was made of minute atoms, everything was atoms, even sensation and thought were like a fine mist of atoms – long before any microscopes were around to view them. One widely accepted view came from Empedocles, saying that the four elements, earth, fire, air, and water, organized in various mixtures by a primordial repulsion or attraction, formed all reality. Each philosopher formed arguments as to why they were correct, it was not an appeal to ancient religious myths, but an appeal to reason, and thus was the earliest philosophy.

2. Socrates and Plato.
Socrates did not concern himself with the nature of reality, he moved philosophy away from physics and was most concerned about humans, and ethics, and what makes people tick. Socrates did not write anything that we know of. His ideas are known to us through the dialogs of his most well known pupil, Plato.

Plato followed in Socrates footsteps, seeking to understand what makes a human a human, and how we should act, but also developed a theory of reality and the world as well, thus becoming the first philosopher to have a complete system of thought. Rather than look at a limited aspect, he developed explanations for all the aspects of reality. When he contemplated the material world he came to a different way of understanding than all the previous Greeks, which had remained mostly in the material realm.

See a desk, then close your eyes and think of deskness, not a particular desk, not an image of a desk, just the essence of desk. Which is more real? Many people would say the desk your sitting in of course. Not for Plato. Plato developed the position that all reality is just physical copies of “ideas” or “forms”. There are existing forms of everything, the patterns of all things, such as “goodness”, “horsness”, “love” or “treeness”. The forms are the true reality, perfect and unchanging, and particular things, particular goods, or horses, or trees participate in the eternal form. The things may go away, someday there may be no horses, but the form or eternal pattern never goes away. (refer to division line p. 255, and allegory of the cave p. 250, in the textbook)

This has had a great influence on western thought, often through Christianity (Augustine), which agreed with Plato in some aspects and taught that the visible world is not the most important.

</span><span style="font-family: tahoma; font-size: x-small;">3. Aristotle.</span></span>          <span style="color: #444444;"><span style="font-family: tahoma; font-size: x-small;">Aristotle followed, and combined and tried to synthesize the preceding ideas. He looks at reality from the point of what kind of matter is it, like Thales and Anaximander, but combined with an ideas of forms taken and adapted from Plato. He is often considered the sum in Greek cosmology, or “physics” that name of one of his works. He was so concerned with the physical world, that although he wrote a lot of philosophical works, he wrote even more on biology and scientific methods of the time.

After studying under Plato for so long, he started his own school. He&nbsp;brought matter and the forms together to explain reality, and developed a complete systematic explanation of the world. With some revisions and updating of course as science advances and we find details of his writings to be wrong, the core of his explanation has worked for many as an explanation throughout hundreds of years up to our time. We will look at him in more depth now.

In cosmology we seek the inner dimension of the natural world. Science gives us an explanation of the outer dimension, such as weight, molecules, atoms, chemical interactions, etc.

But the inner dimension of a thing is that which makes it be what it is, what makes it different from other things. Many things are all made of carbon, with the same atoms and such, but what makes each one what it is? Each human cell is pretty much the same and contains all the DNA, but they vary since some genes are turned on and others turned off, making it fill different functions. The outer dimension is this visible aspect we can study, the inner dimension is what it is that makes it arrange itself that way.

4. The Causes.
Aristotle lists four causes of the natural reality to explain things philosophically. Traditionally they are called <u>Material</u> Cause, <u>Formal</u> Cause, <u>Efficient</u> Cause, and <u>Final</u> Cause. For our initial look we will use the example of a wooden table, and then apply it to other reality.

Material cause – the stuff it is composed of, the wood, the oak, the molecules and atoms.

Formal cause – the form, or shape given the wood to make it a table, or given the atoms to make them oak.

Efficient cause – the agent, that which makes the table come to be from the raw wood.

Final cause – the end or goal it was made for, the purpose.

In a table it is easy to see the four causes that brought it to be, so it is used as an example. It is harder to understand them at work in the natural world, so we will look a little closer.


The table is made of oak, oak is made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of protons, electrons, quarks, etc, which are made of ... what. Regardless of how minute we can discover by science, the question remains, what is the most basic reality composed of? Thales said water. Anaximander said an unlimited stuff with no qualities. Others said fire. Aristotle looks over all previous advances, and being a highly developed scientist for the time, as well as philosopher, creates his system, using them and correcting them.

Matter in its most universal basic form is called “<u>prime matter</u>” for Aristotle and is an immeasurable, non physical force of pure potency, it is a potentiality, not a thing. Similar to Einstein's mass-energy concept. It is not a thing, it is the principle of potency in nature underlying all, which can potentially be all things.


This is the principle of reality that gives form to the matter. Prime Matter is not a thing, it cannot be anything by itself, it is just a formless principle of potency. The form is what makes the matter to be what it is. For example the molecule of the element sodium is very plentiful on earth. Do the atoms fully explain it, since the same ones are in other elements as well? Aristotle would say it is not the components that make the sodium molecule what it is, but the arrangement, or form, of these atoms. Like the form of the wood makes the pile of sticks to be a chair. What is a chair but a pile of sticks in a certain arrangement. The natural formal cause of sodium causes the matter to organize and be balanced in a certain arrangement to function as a whole. The form "sodium" Once again the form is not a thing, it is a principle of a thing, a force of its inner dimension, causing it to be.

Unlike Plato who thought the form exists separately, for Aristotle, Matter and Form&nbsp;are inseparable, no matter exists without some type of form, a form does not exist without being in matter. The form is the part of reality that is grasped my the intellect. When I “know” sodium, my mind has the form as well, it exists in the sodium, and in the mind of the knower.

Efficient cause

This is the agent, or active principle in nature that brings about a certain form in the matter. Called the efficacious principle. It explains why a certain matter has a certain form. In the table example, the carpenter would be the efficient cause, trans<u>form</u>ing the oak. In nature many forces work on matter to make it change from one thing to another, building, dying, decaying, changing compounds. Chemical elements interact on each other, electromagnetic and other forces bring about change, etc. &nbsp;These are efficient causes.

Final cause

Lastly, reality is explained by Aristotle according to its <i>telos</i> or end. Things have some kind of a role that they play out, they reach a certain completion in existence. The efficient cause act toward an end of some type. A flea grows but not forever or in a willy-nilly way, it grows till it reaches its complete development, its goal in nature. Things move toward some kind of perfection, not usually to defect. If development in nature was random, without a <i>telos</i> in the essence of things,&nbsp;we would not be able to see any order to things...

These four causes make up Aristotle's explanation of the inner dimension of reality, the essence of things. They are philosophical principles, “discoveries” of the intellect, not detectable or verifiable by scientific equipment. As advances in science are made, adjustments are needed to the philosophical explanations, the terms can change or how we understand them, but the ultimate explanations remains similar. In modern philosophy some deny any aspect that is unverifiable by the senses, and would no longer accept Aristotle's ideas as a whole, but the framework he laid is still being applied in various ways today.

5. Act and Potency.
Since all reality is in a state of change from one type of form in matter, to another type of form in the matter, Aristotle&nbsp;looked at&nbsp;how to explain change, real change from on thing into another. Mental concepts such as mathematical beings do not change, but natural beings constantly change, sometimes a little, sometimes these cease to be and something else come to be in their place. A seed becomes a plant, a tree burns and becomes ash, a rodent dies on the highway, rots and becomes raw elements again. Or during your life you change out your cells constantly – are you still the same you as when you were 2?

Among the early Greeks, Parmenides stated that if something "is", it has existence, and thus if there is change, the only other option than existing is non-existing, and non-existing cannot “be”, therefore things do not change, it is an illusion. Heraclitus stated that everything is constantly changing so much that nothing is ever the same being it was from one second to the next – existence is a running river, you can never dip your hand into the same river twice. Plato tries to find a middle ground with his theory of the realm of the forms. The eternal forms of things are every existing in a perfection, never changing, but the concrete examples here are only poor representations, and thus suffer change.

Again Aristotle seeks a common sense middle way. He explains it with the two concepts of <u>act</u> and <u>potency</u> which make up all beings. He uses the example of regular movement to explain more substantial change. Regular movement is sensed, something moves from one spot to another, or a leaf changes from one color to another in Fall, my hair gets grayer, etc. Substantial movement is a change from one being into another. If a tree burns it ceases to be wood or oak, but becomes ash, a combination of phosphorus, carbon, and other elements. It is no longer wood, it is a new thing (or set of things). It moves from Being to Not-being. Where did it go? Where did the new substance come from?

So Aristotle says there is a third principle between being and non-being – the principle of act and potency, that is in every natural being.

When the tree is there before the fire, it is in act a tree, and in potency many other things – such as a table, a pile of ash, or a termite mound. Once it changes a new form informs the matter. Change is the potency of a substance while it becomes actual. An efficient cause comes along such as&nbsp;fire, that actualizes the potency for ash in the form of tree. We could say, the tree is in point A, and moves to point B as its potency is actualized. As it moves, it is less at point A in act, and more at point B in act, until it arrives fully at point B, fully in act an ash pile.

The tree is a simple example, but all of physical reality is in a constant change from act to potency, and from potency to act in many aspects. They are two of Aristotle most basic explanatory aspects, along with the four causes. Every being is in act existing, limited by its essence to one particular thing, potentially others. Each essence is in act by its form, limited to this individual thing by the matter which is potency to be other things. We can apply the principles of act and potency to the inner dimension of a being with its four causes to get even more insight into how Aristotle tries to explain how reality IS. Aristotle only partially developed these ideas, but they were greatly expanded in the Middle Ages, above all by Thomas Aquinas in the 1300s, so we will supplement our explanation with Aquinas' further thought.      

A being has existence, this existence is its act. But it is not pure existence, it is not all of being, it is just existing as this particular thing. Its act of existence is limited by its essence. Essence and existence are diverse. Existence is a thing's act, limited to this type of existence by the potency of the essence.

The essence in turn is composed of matter and form as we saw. The form is the universal formal principle of the thing, eternal and unchanging, and thus the principle of act for the essence. This form or type of the thing, is limited to this particular thing by material. It is the matter such as wood and metal that separates this single chair from all the other chairs that share the form of “chairness”. The form is the act, the matter is the potency. This can be explained in the type of chart we used in class.

So the being divides into essence and existence, and the essence divides into form and matter. Each completing the role of Act or Potency within the being. Since everything changes, everything is composed of act and potency. A being that was pure act, completely realized in every way, with no potencies - is what&nbsp;Aquinas called God.      

Cosmology looks at many other things if your were to study it more in depth, such as the principles to explain time, place, infinity, laws of nature, causality, relation of philosophy and science, since we are just giving a teaser of the basics here, we will just touch on a few of these.

6. Quantity.
The category of quantity looks at number and quantitative traits of beings. We will not get into this, but one aspect Aristotle looks at is interesting and that is the Infinite. What does infinity mean?

He divides the ways of understanding infinity and addresses each.&nbsp;There is an actual infinity, a possible infinity of thought, and a potential infinity in reality. The complete and actual infinity he says never exists, nor can it exist. If one says there is a complete and fully in-act infinite chain, then one can always add again to it, or go further, etc, so it is never complete in act. In thought we can think of a possible infinity in theory, but this is only a mental concept. In reality one finds only a potential infinity, infinite chains that may be moving toward a goal, or such always further, but since it is tending toward infinite, it is never complete, it is only always potential, increasing in act.

7. Time.
Another trait of natural things is succession or time. Again Aristotle divides different ways of understanding time. There is physical time, or the actual changing and duration and movement of things in the world. There is our sensed experience of time, seeing and sensing things lasting a while and following or preceding other things. And from this sensed time we have our psychological time, the sense of time that the mind has of things succeeding one another, a sense of rhythms such as day night, seasons, musical vibrations, etc.

From this Aristotle defines time as “the numbering/measuring of movement/change according to before and after.” So time is only a part of change, it is the numbering of change. If there was no change there would be no time. But if there is matter there is change. All change is a actualization of potency, a movement from potency to act. So if there was no change it would mean everything was total potency (which is same as non-existing), or everything was total act and thus one pure act of being (what some call God). So time is linked to changing matter. If (when) there was no matter, there was no time. Time started with matter.

We will not cover other aspects of Cosmology here, but will move on to some metaphysical principles in the next section, abstracting further and getting more general.