This is an excerpt from The Cosmic Machine: The Science That Runs Our Universe and the Story Behind It

By Scott Bembenek, PhD

Aristotle (c. 384 BC–c. 322 BC) was born in Stagira, Greece. His father was the personal physician to the King of Macedonia, a position he inherited. Aristotle studied with Plato (c. 427 BC–c. 347 BC) in Athens beginning at the age of eighteen and remained there for nearly twenty years until Plato’s death. In 343 BC, Aristotle became the tutor to Alexander the Great, who was then thirteen, and continued until he was sixteen, when Alexander’s father made him regent at Pella.

Aristotle’s writings provided the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy covering topics in politics, ethics, logic, metaphysics, and science. There was hardly an area he didn’t write about. Believing all of human knowledge couldn’t fall under a single category, Aristotle was the first to divide it into categories. Here, we are interested in Aristotle’s theory of matter and form.

Just as others did, Aristotle sought to rise to Parmenides’ challenge of permanency while maintaining room for change in the world, as Heraclitus had demanded; his theory of matter and form is an attempt at this reconciliation. According to Aristotle, objects as we know them comprise two parts: “matter” and “form.” The form gives a particular arrangement to matter, and it’s by virtue of the form that we identify an object as a “thing”; to know a thing is to have knowledge of its form.

For example, imagine that a sculptor starts with a lump of clay and proceeds to mold it into the shape of a dog. Here the clay is the matter, and the shape of a dog conferred to the clay by the sculptor is the form. Now, imagine the sculptor begins again, transforming the piece of clay, which once held the shape of a dog, into something else, perhaps a cat this time. Clearly, the matter is still the clay, but now the form has changed from that of a dog to a cat. However, the sculptor does not create the form; it was always there. Instead, the sculptor’s efforts merely brought the form and the matter together. According to Aristotle, change results from a change in the form of matter.

Moreover, Aristotle describes such a process as being governed by four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. These are the axioms governing the way a material object comes to be, and you can think of them in terms of these questions: What’s the material the object is made of? What’s the object? How was the object built? What’s the purpose of the object? The most important of these is the last one, known as the final cause. Indeed, if there were a central tenet underlying Aristotle’s philosophy, it would be the question posed by the final cause.

It’s the final cause that provides a certain goal for the matter as it moves through its various forms. For the most part, it’s the final cause that provides a sense of permanency throughout the overall process. Thus, Aristotle’s doctrine of matter and form attempts to unify the seemingly disparate ideas of change and permanency. Related to Aristotle’s theory of form and matter are the concepts of “potentiality” and “actuality.” Again, consider the sculptor and the clay. When the clay was merely a lump on the sculptor’s workbench, it had only the potentiality to take the form of a dog or a cat, among other things. But when the clay acquired form through the sculptor’s efforts, it increased its actuality. Thus, the more form something has, the greater its actuality is. Aristotle worked these principles into his theology as well, where his version of God is depicted as perfection consisting of pure form and actuality.

Aristotle’s works were rediscovered after the fall of the Roman Empire by the Arab civilization ruling the region spanning from Persia to Spain. Among this group of Arabs were Muslim and Jewish scholars, who translated the works of Aristotle (and virtually every important work in Greek culture, as well as Persian and Indian culture) into Arabic. These translated works were then acquired by medieval Christians, who by 1100 began to gain control over this Arab civilization in regions such as Toledo, Spain, and Lisbon, Portugal.

The Muslim and Jewish scholars included addendums to the original works. Thus, not only did they translate the original works from Greek to Arabic, they also completed ideas left unfinished by the ancient Greeks, thus enhancing the original works. The timing couldn’t have been better for Christian scholars, because by the mid-twelfth century they were already beginning to wonder about the relationship between God and, well, everything else. It was Aristotle who provided them with the insight they were looking for – that is, once they had all his works translated from Arabic to Latin.

There were probably several reasons Christian scholars favored Aristotle over the other ancient Greek philosophers. For one thing, he provided a very complete system of philosophy, having commented on just about everything. His writings were written in a very academic manner while still being very tractable to a general audience, having just enough common sense mixed in. Aristotle’s common sense, in part, came from the fact that he was very much an empiricist – whereas Democritus was more theoretical in thought, Aristotle was more observational; he observed nature and believed we could acquire useful information from the world in this way. Finally, Aristotle’s vision of God, although not that of a Christian God, evidently provided enough of a starting point to be integrated into a new version of Christianity of the time, thanks mostly to the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).

Once successfully integrated into Christianity (and with the early European universities being tied to the Christian Church), Aristotle became the authority on just about everything, in particular science, up until about the seventeenth century. So the works of Democritus really didn’t have a chance to flourish for these reasons and a few others. Nonetheless, the seventeenth century would soon change all that as scientists sought to understand the world in a more systematic (mechanistic, or mechanical) way with the new tools available to them in the rapidly changing areas of physics and mathematics.

Dr. Scott Bembenek is a principal scientist in the Computer-Aided Drug Discovery group at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development in San Diego. He is also the author of The Cosmic Machine: The Science That Runs Our Universe and the Story Behind It. To learn more about Dr. Bembenek and his work, visit http://scottbembenek.com and connect with him on Twitter

IMAGE CREDIT: Giovanni Dall’Orto

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