Novum Organum


The New Organon:
Directions for the Interpretation of Nature


Where Did All This Neat Stuff Come From?

It is tempting to view history through the lens of Great Men, or Great Ideas. It is probably more correct to see historical progress in terms of people and broad-based movements. But there are occasional examples of milestones in history so profound and meaningful that they assume a stature so elevated that one must look at them in awe, and remark with a trembling awareness of accomplishment -- "That changed everything." Francis Bacon's New Organon is one such milestone. Here we find nothing less than the birth of modern science.

What is the New Organon? It is a book, a philosophy, a rebellion against nearly two thousand years of established thought. The "old" Organon was a system of deductive logic established by medieval scholastic philosophers, drawing on the teachings of Aristotle. The New Organon, published in 1620, was an essential element in Lord Bacon's "Great Renewal" -- a blueprint for a new instrument upon which to base the scientific enterprise.

Death to the Syllogism!

Bacon's work is both destructive and creative. In order to create the new science, the old order had to be destroyed. And the old order was that of Aristotle and deductive logic, symbolized by that ubiquitous artifice, the syllogism. The syllogism is a logical form requiring three parts, a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. For example:

Major Premise: Beer is Good
Minor Premise: Stag is Beer
Conclusion: Stag is Good
One can already begin to see the troubles with this, but the major problem is that the philosopher making the argument has no methodology for investigating the premises themselves. Rather than waxing philosophical and constructing argument after argument, the path of true knowledge lies in investigating the world itself. To this end, Bacon argues we ought to utilize induction, rather than deduction to understand the world around us. And understanding our world is important because it then allows us to control and manipulate our environment. Aphorism III:
Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. For Nature is conquered only by obedience; and that which in thought is a cause, is like a rule in practice.
Unlike the magicians and theoreticians before him, Bacon places humanity back into the natural world, which we can tame and control, but only if we play by nature's rules.

Be Crafty

While those priests and starry-eyed dreamers have been obsessing over Aristotle and producing nothing, there have been people intimately involved in exploring nature -- craftsmen. Blacksmiths, Architects, Cobblers, Bakers, and the like have been slowly learning how to perfect their trades. It is here that Philosophers must look for the origins of the new science. But these doers of deeds have their own problems, chief amongst them that they're illiterate savages. A man can work his trade for forty years, perfecting the baking process and producing the most wonderful bread that the world has ever seen... but is all for nought, for when he dies, he takes his knowledge with him. The Philosophers must leave their monasteries, towers, and well-upholstered dens and learn from the craftsmen, and then write it down. This, at least, is the first part of the new instrument.

Philosopher + Craftsman = Scientist

Bacon explains the middle path between the two in Aphorism XCV (95, for those of you unhip to Roman Numerals), the ant, the spider, and the bee:

Those who have treated of the sciences have been either empiricists or domatists. Empiricists, like ants, simply accumulate and use; Rationalists, like spiders, spin webs from themselves; the way of the bee is in between: it takes material from the flowers of the garden and the field; but it has the ability to convert and digest them. This is not unlike the true working of philosophy; which does not rely solely or mainly on mental power, and does not store the material provided by natural history and mechanical experiments in its memory untouched by altered and adapted in the intellect. Therefore much is to be hoped from a closer and more binding alliance (which has never yet been made) between these faculties (i.e. the experimental and the rational).
If people could have easily understood and accepted this truth, the rest of the book would be superfluous. This is science: the synthesis of philosophy and practicality.

The Four Idols

Perhaps the most famous portion of the work is Bacon's deconstruction of the illusions present in the human mind: the four idols of thought.

Idols of the Tribe are problems with our sensory perception. These are illusions shared by all humankind due to the inherent fallibility of our senses. Just because the world looks flat, does not mean that it is. Just because you hear your own echo, does not mean that someone is answering you. Escaping from this idol is a matter of knowing our shared limitations, and augmenting our senses with artifacts (rulers, telescopes, particle colliders, etc.)

Idols of the Cave are problems for the individual. Quite apart from our shared (mis)perceptions, each of us has his/her own prejudices, false beliefs, vanities, and other baggage that color our view of the world. Know this, and try not to be a prisoner to your own preconceptions. This idol also argues for the creation of a scientific community -- one man's prior beliefs may cause error in his theories, but not in everyone elses.

Idols of the Marketplace are the opposite -- mistakes made through the agreement of men. The problem here is fundamentally one of language. The words we use may say things we don't mean, or that we have no evidence for. Scientists should strive for clarity and exactitude in their language. Remember this the next time you're stuck reading something overly technical -- scientific jargon is a feature, not a bug.

Idols of the Theatre are false dogmas or theories, presented almost as a form of art. Bacon's recurring example is the uselessness of the syllogism, considered in his time to be the highest form of philosophy. But what has the syllogism ever accomplished? Nothing! I don't care how revered or famous a theory is, if can't stand up to rigorous scrutiny, throw it out!

The Project

In addition to destroying the old order, laying out a new direction for how to do science (in addition to induction, Bacon prescribed making hypotheses, falsifying them, and submitting them to peer review), and cataloguing the common mistakes men make when attempting to understand the world; Bacon inaugurated a project of Natural History. His new breed of scientists were to build a library of "Natural History", what we would now call a Database of Scientific Knowledge. Scientist Philosophers were to take the knowledge of craftsmen, use the new method of true induction to distill this practical knowledge to scientific knowledge, and record it. This record could then be used in other practical applications as a glorious project for the future of humankind, so that we could advance industry, cure diseases, fly to the moon, and share in the joy of indoor plumbing.

"The human understanding is.. prone to suppose the existence of more and regularity in the world: .. once it has adopted an opinion, it draws all things to support it.. Such is the way of all superstition, omens, and astrology."
- Francis Bacon on "Idols of the Tribe"

Bacon's Personal Background

As a prelude to explanation of Bacon’s philosophy in Novum Organum, we need to touch upon a few biographical details to illustrate the personal context in which Bacon’s ideas arose. Bacon was born to a father active in the royal service and started out working as a lowly clerk upon his father’s death. His great ambition to rise higher in the ranks led him to befriend Queen Elizabeth’s confidant, the Earl of Essex, who tried to convince Elizabeth to appoint Bacon to important posts such as attorney general and solicitor general. Later his friendship with the Earl of Buckingham secured him the posts of privy councilor (King’s lawyer) and Lord Chancellor (top prosecutor in the land.)

With so much of his effort directed towards ambition, Bacon backstabbed his friends. When Earl of Essex was charged for treason for concluding a truce with Ireland instead of crushing the Irish rebellion, Bacon was only to happy to serve as the prosecutor against a close friend who had been at his side for years. As Lord Chancellor, Bacon accepted gifts in exchange for favoring certain parties in proceedings, was convicted of bribery, fired, and harshly fined.

The irony is that Bacon's corrupt and back stabbing nature did not hinder him in his work as a legal theorist. The man who had contempt for laws in his own life loved elaborating on the ideal function of legal systems in his theoretical writings. Bacon’s love for working on the nitty-gritty complexities of laws explains his fascination with classifying knowledge. His project The Great Instauration of Human Dominion of the Universe, of which the Novum Organum is the most famous part, is about defining the proper standards for extending the knowledge of nature by overcoming the unclear and confusing philosophies of the past whose criteria for knowledge were erroneous. Again, this mission is very much in tune with legal reforms in England where increasingly clear and uniform laws had to come to replace the inconsistent and arbitrary principles of monarchs past.

Why science doesn't progress

The Novum Organum by Francis Bacon was published in 1620, four years after the cardinals of Inquisition ordered Galileo to recant his assertion that the earth revolved around the sun. In the light of this controversy, it's no surprise that Bacon's treatise on "natural philosophy" or science had a lot to complain about.

With the systematic approach of a doctor, Bacon classified the ills of science precisely. He identified four impediments that prevented science from flourishing. Analyzing nature in a way that would reveal its reality was not happening because too many people - both laymen and philosophers - ignored this very nature because they were blinded by false idols: the idols of the tribe, cave, marketplace, and theater.

Who is to blame for the still-stand in science?

Bacon is skim on the historical background, perhaps out of fear of stoking controversy. Nevertheless, the idol worshippers that shy away from the appropriate study of nature are obviously identifiable. It is only his contemporaries that Bacon refuses to call out by name. He is explicit enough in accusing Aristotle of creating a philosophy that made a lot of premature conclusions about the supposed reality of matter and organic life. Aristotle's ideas of nature were poorly derived despite his astute power observation, and their failure to adequately account for many natural phenomena stopped further research in its tracks.

The thought expressed in that last sentence seems to lack justification. How is it fair to write a diatribe against Aristotle and blame the man for the failures of scientific progress over a thousand years after his death! But then again, there's a certain logic to it. It's much easier to criticize dead people to spare your contemporary readers the accusation that it is their modern age, the current philosophers and theologians who deserve the wrath of scientists for sticking to a thousand-year philosophy that cannot possibly fit the new research.

Bacon's descriptions of where the Greek philosophers went wrong are extensive. Their mistakes would fit under the category Idols of the Tribe because their anthropocentrism made them conceive of nature having an order that suited human needs and made man important. No wonder then that early philosophers thought that the earth was at the center the universe with stars orbiting around it in aesthetically pleasing circles. The belief in circular orbits demonstrated the tendency of the mind to superimpose patterns over nature instead of approaching it in purely empirical terms and without preconceived notions.

The fact that sincere ignorance of the Greeks stood in the way of scientific truth is frustrating, but much less so than cultural position of Catholicism that fought against new research. Although Francis Bacon does not directly name any contemporary theologians guilty of this, he does allude to this problem via his category of The "Idols of the Theater." The people who belong to this category are adamantly committed to old established systems of "natural philosophy" like Aristotle's and therefore unwilling to accept research that would contradict these.

Now, Bacon's complaint against the people who stick to systems of knowledge approved by tradition and culture sounds rather innocuous. He cites laziness to explore new research that's intellectually mind boggling and the fear of having to break away from a culturally convenient and comfortable system of thought as the primary reasons why science that threatens medieval scholastic philosophy gets sidelined.

The fact that forgets to mention the Church's willingness to go after rogue scientists and persecute is heretics is rather suspicious. That reason motivates the adherence to old philosophy just as much as laziness and comfort with the old. But, if he did want to appeal to as many readers as possible, he would of course not have wanted to come across as hostile to Catholicism. That could have had consequences. Remember, Bacon wanted to achieve career advancement at all costs and publicly attacking theologians would not have courted him favor in a country that was still predominantly in outlook.

Avoiding direct criticism of theology is a smart strategy

Bacon's strategy of advocating for science while not appearing as a harsh critic of the church turns out to be effective in this text. He doesn't load himself with the odious burden of proving that Catholicism's outdated scientific theories as well as the theology that rests on them are wrong. Instead of being a critic who contrast the new research with old dogma, he simply treats old dogma is irrelevant. His contention is that a scientist's responsibility is only empirical truth. The cultural implications of his discoveries are outside of his field of concern. That stance may seem like common sense, but it can be actually be controversial. Imagine a laboratory of scientists experimenting with bacteria and viruses that would turn out to be very effective biological weapons. In case any of their fabrications get out of the lab, they might not be able to disclaim legal consequences by claiming that they are not responsible for the social side-effects of their scientific discoveries.

Bacon's ideas are still influential for modern science

In far as the practical suggestions for conducting science are go, Bacon's principles are still relevant today. The belief that concepts should be posited precisely by using careful induction so that we don't end up with ideas about nature that are too general and could be refuted with counter-examples is a mainstay of modern scientific practice*1

That is certainly progress because when Bacon was writing, philosophers of nature like himself were constantly stumbling on wrong concepts that were contradicted by empirical facts. Bacon's insistence that better tools of observation had to be used to overcome the limitations of the senses marks modern scientific discourse and prevents scientists from being dogmatic.

The problem with medieval philosophy was the theologians' belief or hope that no new instruments like telescopes or microscopes would be discovered that would contradict the ideas previously derived by the naked unassisted senses.*2 Thankfully, in our modern age, we're not so attached to our scientific truths that a new discovery would make us doubt our place in the world. Novum Organum, however, was written in an age where science contradicted wide-spread and deeply held-religious beliefs. This text serves to remind us of why science was rejected and what it had to fight against to fight against to find acceptance. Francis Bacon was its cautious and yet daring advocate.

*1 Scientists who made erroneous hypotheses "i.e" based on concepts that were mistaken because they were too general are Idols of the Marketplace, because their education or social milieu has taught them the wrong ideas.

*2 .(Scientists who let themselves be mislead by hasty conclusions or who trust their senses without doubting them are Idols of the Cave, because they let their personal tendencies affect their research.)

P.S: If you see any errors in this node, don't hesitate to let me know about it. I do end up changing my mind about philosophy quite often anyhow.

Secondary Sources:

Zagorin, Perez. Francis Bacon Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey 1998.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.