Humanist Perspectives: issue 160: Bringing Home the Bacon

Bringing Home the Bacon
— a primer on Lord Francis Bacon
by Ian Johnston

What is science? The short answer to this potentially complex question is that science is whatever the consensus of those recognized as reputable practitioners of science says it is. Nowadays that consensus is so firm and has such a massive authority that we can easily forget how our modern notions of science began to emerge from revolutionary and often bitter arguments a few hundred years ago.

Ancient and medieval science involved observations and explanations, but the latter were anchored on the search for moral purposes in nature (what Aristotle and his medieval disciples called final causes). The scientist (aka natural philosopher) looked at the world and accounted for what he saw by appealing to the attributes of metaphysical things. Hence, the colours or shapes of particular animals were established in a certain way to celebrate this or that aspect of holy scripture, the planets orbited the earth in a certain fashion to remind us of God’s presence everywhere, and so on.

Modern science began with a desire to break with this tradition on the ground that the knowledge it delivered was repetitive and impractical. It failed to offer us any power over the phenomena being explained. To say, for example, that the plague is caused by God’s anger with his sinful people is an explanation which may offer solace to many people. But such a scientific account provides no way of dealing with the plague here and now in a manner which will prevent the deaths (other than the dubious powers of prayer).

The two names most commonly associated with the break in the tradition are Rene Descartes in France (1596–1650) and Francis Bacon (1561–1626) in England, both of whom made their ambitions clear. Descartes wanted knowledge that would make us masters and possessors of nature, and Bacon wanted changes that would lead to a relief of man’s estate. Hence, they both demanded an end to the search for final causes and a concentration on efficient causes, immediate physical phenomena which the scientist must explore by treating the world as a machine which had to be examined one bit at a time (a method pioneered by Galileo).

And they both insisted on a total rejection of misleading traditions in science (especially the authority of Aristotle). Descartes famously began by rejecting everything he had been taught and subjecting everything to doubt; Bacon demanded new experimental evidence as the essential criterion of knowledge. Science, as it were, must make a completely new start by cleansing the mind of all potential sources of error, those inherent in human thinking generally, those generated by an individual’s own thinking, those embedded in false learning (especially in traditional authorities), and those emerging from the nature of language. These sources of error Bacon called the Four Idols — of the Tribe, the Cave, the Theatre, and the Marketplace (see the Letter to Lord Bacon below). His remedy was to rely on the incontrovertible evidence provided to our senses by repeated experiments. Descartes demanded that scientific thinking base itself on the immediately clear and unambiguous language of mathematics, so that the activity did not degenerate into endlessly inconclusive arguments about interpreting the language of ancient authorities or scripture or some new variations on the old game.

Both men acknowledged the possibilities for scientific error but stressed that the continuing efforts of scientists who adhered to the new basic principles would, over time, remove mistakes and give us a clearer understanding of and a firmer control over nature. In that sense, their view of science challenged traditional Christian notions of human beings as permanently fallen creatures always mired in error. For everyone had sufficient reason or sense perception to engage in the activity, so that if we all worked together, we could make rapid and significant progress.

For a while, there was a lively dispute about which might be the better of the new approaches — mathematically based hypotheses or experimental evidence — an argument often fueled by distrust of defective experimental equipment (like faulty lenses on telescopes or leaky air pumps) and suspicions about the political agenda of scientific societies. But these were quickly and triumphantly reconciled in the greatest early achievement of modern science, the work of Isaac Newton in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The abandonment of final causes apparently divorced the new science from traditional religious concerns. After all, there’s nothing spiritually relevant about mechanical causation, and thus such explanations tended to remove God from His traditional place in accounts of natural events. To counter the latent atheism in the new method, Descartes separated the spiritual soul from the mechanical world of nature, which included the human body and non-human animals and, in the process, created the dualism which modern biologists are still wrestling with as their single greatest philosophical challenge (how does one move from random and mechanically operating selfish genes to human consciousness and its desires for contraception and the welfare state). Less philosophically astute than Descartes, Bacon, like many of his English colleagues, took refuge in the design argument: revealing the complex mechanical designs of nature helps to establish the existence of the Divine Designer (what people now call the Intelligent Design argument), a stance which was destroyed by the philosophers (Kant among them) who pointed out that no valid conclusions about metaphysical things could be made on the basis of physical evidence.

In the space of two hundred years the revolution initiated most prominently by Descartes and Bacon swept aside all opposition (which was, at times, considerable), largely because it delivered on its most attractive promise — it did provide power over nature to a degree that would have amazed its originators. As one would expect, such an unprecedented source of power over nature quickly became something of interest to political leaders, who promptly sponsored learned societies and (later) universities to promote scientific work which might lead to profitable and more powerful inventions. That’s natural enough. While few rulers may wish to fund an activity which merely encourages contemplation or a freshly honed religious sensibility, many of them are keen enough to assist and regulate a restless, competitive, and increasingly successful search for more efficient control over the world and the people in it.

Such political interest works two ways, of course. It wants to foster science for the good of the state but also to control or limit science for the benefit of this or that political constituency. We may like to think of science as essentially a disinterested search for truth or as an activity motivated primarily by contemplative wonder. The truth of the matter, however, is rather different, especially given the enormous cost of certain lines of enquiry and the fabulous rewards awaiting the scientist who comes up with a commercially successful or politically desirable discovery. If we lament the interference of legislators in the activity we now call science, we must acknowledge that the victory of power over wonder in the recent history of that activity has made such interference inevitable.

Ian Johnston is Associate Editor and Book Review Editor of Humanist Perspectives.

Letter to Lord Bacon
from Patangi Rangachari

My Lord,

It is with some hesitation that I write to you. When I say write, I do not use a quill or a pen, but place my hands on a mouse and tap on a keyboard, part of those marvelous instruments that men have wrought that extends our senses.

In the New Organon, you gave us True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature. You explained the difficulties that beset those who seek to wend their way through Nature’s labyrinth. You cautioned us against excessive reliance on authority as well as mere commitment to an empirical approach shorn of method. You provided an approach which you called “learned experience” (experientia literata) as a guide. You sought to give explorers order and direction so that they would not merely grope in the dark. Thus by judicious adaptation of existing knowledge, one could discover new knowledge aided by new extensions of the senses. You also provided eight different ways by which that knowledge could be extended. These were by “the Variation, or the Production, or the Translation, or the Inversion, or the Compulsion, or the Application, or the Conjunction, or finally the Chances of experiment.”

You would be truly amazed at what those approaches have wrought in the centuries that followed. Solomon’s House encompasses many lands and men and women of all colours and races. Women are no longer confined to hearth and home but take an ever increasing role in probing Nature’s secrets. We have been able to traverse space and time, giant telescopes orbit the earth extending ours senses so we can probe deeper and ever deeper into the secrets of the universe. Men have set foot on the moon and brought to Earth rocks from that silvery orb. At the other end, the microscope that Mr.Hooke used in your time to look at cork cells has proven to extend our vision to narrower spaces within ourselves. We have, by the judicious use of chemistry and physics, learned to manipulate life itself. We know the stuff we are made of, and our experimental techniques let us make new creatures that have never been heard of before. We can with marvelous new instruments peer into our minds and see patches glow when we feel hurt or tired, angry or happy.

Yet it is with deep regret that I have to inform you that those of us who form part of the Global Solomon’s House find ourselves increasingly under attack. The glories and wonders that our instruments and our extended senses have revealed seem to pale in comparison by some of the problems that have been let loose. Have we made a Faustian bargain? Or are we merely beset by those same Idols that you warned us about that stood in the Way of True Understanding?

You may recall, my Lord that you noted that there were 4 classes of Idols that beset men’s mind, which for sake of distinction you assigned names: the idols of the Tribe, the Cave, the Market-place and those of the Theatre. Each of those still haunts us. Unfortunately, we cannot simply blame the others, since scientists themselves have their own Idols which compound the problem.

The Idols of the Tribe, you noted, stem from our human nature, the inherent limitations of the human mind and senses, our inclination to draw conclusions from limited evidence and to exaggerate and distort. The Idols of the Tribe are to some extent common with both the general public and the scientists, since they stem from deep within our human natures. They do take different forms. The general public is often convinced about what they can see or perceive and fail to recognize that scientists have special instruments that help them see deeper into nature. Unfortunately, these instruments themselves may distort and produce erroneous information. Then again we latch on to what we hold dear and allow our emotions to cloud reason.

The Idols of the Cave are more individualistic and stem from a person’s education, their learning and the views they hold dear. Here the chasm between those who explore the natural world and the general public is much wider. Scientists have realized that complex entities can be better explained by invoking simpler ones. Thus the functioning of a whole organism can be better explained by understanding the functions of simpler entities such as organs, tissues, cells and parts of the cell. These approaches that are termed “reductionist” are very, very powerful. We have learned that fruit flies and lowly bugs can help us learn about our own bodies and they give us new tools to fight disease and change our bodies at will. Yet and yet, these approaches have been pilloried and castigated. The term reductionism has become a term of abuse. Many equate reductionism with determinism and the suggestion that there is no free will. Charlatans of all stripes propagate their antidote which they call “holism”, which often grades into arrant nonsense. Many who use such reductionist approaches are quite conscious of their limitations and are aware that complexities arise at different levels of organization that need a more integrated framework. Though we can define with great precision the chemical nature of substances released from nerves that affect the beating of a heart, we know equally well that in the whole animal or person that itself may not explain everything as compensatory changes come into play. Nevertheless, by studying these “reduced” bits, we can design useful drugs. But the charlatans who condemn us are singularly ignorant of how we really work.

Unfortunately even scientists themselves inhabit Caves of their own making. They too tend to see the world from the perspective of their own discipline and fail to give due credit to approaches used by others. For instance, you distinguished between what you called experimenta fructifera and experimenta lucifera. The former are designed to be recipes that produce some particular effect for useful purposes whereas the latter were of no use in themselves but served to discover the natural causes of some effects. You recognized that the latter were far more important. This has been amply shown over the last century. Probing the lives of fruit-flies, moulds and bugs has given us the deepest insight into our own beings. Asking ourselves what makes up matter has given us powerful tools to probe the world, seek other worlds or even threaten our own existence!

Unfortunately the expensive nature of modern science has forced scholars to tread narrower paths focusing on narrower outcomes. This clearly satisfies the accountants and bureaucrats that dispense money. Worse, that accountant mindset has seeped into the very fabric of the research enterprise, at least in some of the softer sciences such as the clinical ones. This has led to the emergence of a new dogma called “evidence-based” where ever narrower outcomes with marginal relevance to philosophy are aggressively promoted. The proponents of such views are dismissive of understanding in the truest sense and are satisfied with counting and mere measurement.

The Idols of the Marketplace you said were the ill and unfit choice of words that wonderfully obstruct understanding. You told us that “the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right” Both scientists and the lay public create endless confusions and their choice of words adds to these misunderstandings. This constant impact of words variously used without attention to their true meaning creates confusion and breeds fallacies. Those who probe the deepest secrets of nature use special words to describe the phenomena they study. In the context in which they use them, they make profound sense. Unfortunately, these common sounding words become distorted and confused by others and begin to mean things entirely different. Those scientists exploring fundamental aspects of matter find at some point, there is a limit to the accuracy of their measuring devices such that increasing the accuracy of one measurement increases the uncertainty with which another quantity can be measured at the same time. This indeterminacy or uncertainty becomes significant only in the sub-atomic world, not in the world of everyday actions. However the term uncertainty is widely abused. The so-called uncertainty principle is blithely evoked to justify quackery and charlatanism of the highest order. None of these charlatans, my Lord, would dare stand in the way of a runaway carriage and take their chances that the uncertainty principle will save them from hurt!

All life on earth has been found to have carbon as an essential element and a whole branch of chemistry called “organic chemistry” deals with the chemistry of carbon compounds. Yet that word “organic” is widely abused. It is taken out of context and used by certain practitioners to refer to foods that are derived from materials not treated with pesticides. Proponents of “organic” foods seem to assume that the rest of the world eats foodstuffs that are not organic in character, which of course is quite ludicrous!

The Idols of the Theatre are those false notions perpetuated by the great systems of thought that seem to defy questioning. You pointed out that all received systems are like stage-plays that portray worlds of their own creation after an unreal or scenic fashion. The problems are confounded by the tendencies inherent in our human natures to exaggerate and distort.

One cannot just blame the general laity; scientists, particularly those who practice the softer parts of science, indulge in exaggerated claims. In part this arises, because the modern practice of science has become very expensive, so searchers jockey for funds. This leads them to promise more than they can deliver. New cures are announced, new genes are shouted about and people are led to believe that miracles are just around the corner. An eminent poet from your country once wrote

that the scientists, to be truthful
Must remind us to take all they say as a
Tall story; that abhorred in the Heavens are
All self-proclaimed poets who to wow an
Audience utter some resonant lie

When these exaggerations are found to be just that, public trust is eroded, providing ammunition to those who would denigrate all such endeavours.

The greatest clashes are played out on a different stage and concern two traditions, those of organized religion and modern science. One of the most remarkable achievements of modern science is to extend awareness of our origins into the remotest past. So powerful have been our approaches that we can dare to gaze meaningfully through the most powerful instruments at the very first minutes of our Universe’s existence. We can trace the paths by which we emerged from the primordial oceans to our current position as dominant beings on this planet. But this knowledge does not sit well with those who doubt our capacities or even our right to define our own origins. They would ban the teaching of such knowledge to school children in many places depriving the youngest minds of mankind’s most exciting discoveries. Not to be outdone, those of a more secular bent castigate the devout as primitive and simple-minded. You wrote that “For man by the Fall, fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences” You proposed a two-fold recovery of a lost Eden, through separate yet related paths. Sadly this distinction has become blurred and in today’s world the clashes between religious dogmas on the one hand and scientific pronouncements on the other seem irreconcilable. So, my Lord, the advancement of learning that you espoused has taken us far, very far indeed, but Eden seems beyond our grasp.

Patangi K Rangachari is a pharmacologist who teaches in the Bachelor of Health Sciences and the Arts and Sciences Programs at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He is also Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Medicine.