"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
, 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 worshipper
s 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 philosopher
s 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 Greek
s 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
The fact that forgets to mention the Church's willingness to go after rogue scientists and persecute is heretic
s 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 weapon
s. 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-example
s 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 theologian
s' 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.
Zagorin, Perez. Francis Bacon
Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey 1998.