From the Micro- to the Macrocosm - And Back Again. Some Remarks on the Use of Models in Ancient and Modern Science


Models are one of the most important tools of science. This holds true not only for today’s science, which has been developing revolutionarily novel means for describing the natural world in lockstep with the impressive and tremendous progress in computer science. It also holds true for ancient science: it was in ancient Greece where the systematic use of models with the purpose of generating objective knowledge seems to have been invented first. Since then models have become a most indispensable tool for describing reality. 

Nonetheless: as important as models are for describing reality, it is not the case that they are “reality.” Rather they represent reality and thus have a categorically different mode of being. And they not only represent reality, but they represent reality merely partially and on the basis of a subjective judgment, with the result that, at least to a not unimportant degree, depend on the individual and / or cultural perspective of those human beings who devise and use them.

These insights have ramifications not only for understanding models themselves, be it in general, be it particular models. They are also important for our notion of scientific theory and thus scientific ‘truth,’ for scientific theories often are formulated on the basis of and / or in connection with models. Accordingly, scientific theories – even after having lost the ties to their contexts of discovery and justification – only appear to be objective, but actually, they still (more or less closely) conceptually rely on their original model basis.

This paper will discuss these model-theoretic claims exemplarily by taking a look at select examples taken from ancient science and natural philosophy. In particular, light will be shed on the relation between theories and models in ancient science aiming to explain the macrocosm with the help of the microcosm. This analysis will, hopefully, illuminate an important aspect of ancient science: though it has long been seen that there is a narrow connection between macrocosm and microcosm in general, of which sort this connection specifically is and which consequences follow from an epistemological perspective seems to not have been answered sufficiently yet. Answers to these questions might also contribute to a better understanding of the differences between ancient and modern science in general.

In this vein, this paper will focus on the beginnings of ancient science, in which period the general importance of models for the development of scientific theories is quite palpable. The guiding question will be – in the sense of an applied epistemology – what was regarded as astronomical knowledge and “fact.”

The following analysis will take four steps: first, I will briefly sketch a model theory that will allow to adequately address the given question. The second step will take us back to the beginnings of ancient science and review the Greeks’ use of the microcosm for understanding the macrocosm. This analysis will finally serve as the basis for addressing some relevant consequences from, third, the perspective of the history of science and, fourth, from the perspective of the philosophy of science.