francis bacon and the scientific method -- 8/23/23

Today's selection -- from The Story of Western Science by Susan Wise Bauer. Francis Bacon was an English philosopher and statesman who served under King James I. Known for the advancement of the scientific method and as the father of empiricism, he argued for scientific knowledge based upon careful observation and inductive reasoning: 

“In 1603, Francis Bacon, London born, was forty-three years old: a trained lawyer and amateur philosopher, happily married, politically ambitious, perpetually in debt.

“He had served Elizabeth I of England loyally at court, without a great deal of recognition in return. But now Elizabeth was dead at the age of sixty-nine, and her crown would go to her first cousin twice removed: James VI of Scotland, James I of England.

“Francis Bacon hoped for better things from the new king, but at the moment he had no particular ‘in’ at the English court. Forced to be patient, he began working on a philosophical project he'd had in mind for some years--a study of human knowledge that he intended to call Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human.

“Like most of Bacon's undertakings, the project was ridiculously ambitious. He set out to classify all learning into the proper branches and lay out all of the possible impediments to understanding. Part I condemned what he called the three ‘distempers’ of learning, which included ‘vain imaginations,’ pursuits such as astrology and alchemy that had no basis in actual fact; Part II divided all knowledge into three branches and suggested that natural philosophy should occupy the prime spot. Science, the project of understanding the universe, was the most important pursuit man could undertake. The study of history (‘everything that has happened’) and poesy (imaginative writings) took definite second and third places.

“For a time, Bacon didn't expand on these ideas. The Advancement of Learning opened with a fulsome dedication to James I (‘I have been touched--yea, and possessed--with an extreme wonder at those your virtues and faculties . . . the largeness of your capacity, the faithfulness of your memory, the swiftness of your apprehension, the penetration of your judgment, and the facility and order of your elocution .... There hath not been since Christ's time any king or temporal monarch which hath been so learned in all literature and erudition, divine and human’), and this groveling soon yielded fruit. In 1607 Bacon was appointed as solicitor general, a position he had coveted for years, and over the next decade or so he poured his energies into his government responsibilities.

Sir Francis Bacon, portrait by Paul van Somer I, 1617

“He did not return to natural philosophy until after his appointment to the even higher post of chancellor in 1618. Now that he had battled his way to the top of the political dirt pile, he announced his intentions to write a work with even greater scope--a new, complete system of philosophy that would shape the minds of men and guide them into new truths. He called this masterwork the Great Instauration: the Great Establishment, a whole new way of thinking, laid out in six parts.

“Part I, a survey of the existing ‘ancient arts’ of the mind, repeated the arguments of the Advancement of Learning. But Part II, published in 1620 as a stand-alone work, was something entirely different. It was a wholesale challenge to Aristotelian methods, a brand-new ‘doctrine of a more perfect use of reason.’

“Aristotelian thinking relies, heavily, on deductive reasoning for ancient logicians and philosophers, the highest and best road to the truth. Deductive reasoning moves from general statements (premises) to specific conclusions.

“ MAJOR PREMISE: All heavy matter falls toward the center of the universe.

MINOR PREMISE: The earth is made of heavy matter.

MINOR PREMISE: The earth is not falling.

CONCLUSION: The earth must already be at the center of the universe.

“But Bacon had come to believe that deductive reasoning was a dead end that distorted evidence: ‘Having first determined the question according to his will,’ he objected, ‘man then resorts to experience, and bending her to conformity with his placets [expressions of assent], leads her about like a captive in a procession.’ Instead, he argued, the careful thinker must reason the other way around: starting from specifics and building toward general conclusions, beginning with particular pieces of evidence and working, inductively, toward broader assertions.

“This new way of thinking--inductive reasoning--had three steps to it. The ‘true method’ Bacon explained,

‘first lights the candle, and then by means of the candle shows the way; commencing as it does with experience duly ordered and digested, not bungling or erratic, and from it deducing axioms, and from established axioms again new experiments.’

“In other words, the natural philosopher must first come up with an idea about how the world works: ‘lighting the candle.’ Second, he must test the idea against physical reality, against ‘experience duly ordered’--both observations of the world around him and carefully designed experiments. Only then, as a last step, should he ‘deduce axioms,’ coming up with a theory that could be claimed to carry truth. 

“Hypothesis, experiment, conclusion: Bacon had just traced the outlines of the scientific method.

It was not, of course, fully developed. But Part II of Bacon's Great Instauration was a clear challenge to the deductive thinking of the Aristotelian corpus. Bacon even named it Novum organum (‘New Tools’), after Aristotle's logical treatises titled Organon. On the cover of the Nocum organum, Bacon placed a ship--his new inductive method--sailing triumphantly past the Pillars of Hercules, the mythological pillars that marked the farthest reach of Hercules's journey to the ‘far west.’ Identified by most ancient authors as the promontories on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Pillars represented the outermost boundaries of the ancient world, the greatest extent of the old way of knowledge. 

“Barely a year after publication of the Novum organum, Francis Bacon was accused by his enemies at court of taking bribes. And although he protested that he had ‘clean hands and a clean heart,’ he was unable to disprove the charges. He was removed from the chancellorship, ordered to pay a fine, and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London; although James I ultimately rescinded his fine and pardoned him, the wind had been thoroughly taken out of his sails. He died five years later of pneumonia, without coming close to finishing his Great Instauration.

“But the Novum organum continued to shape the seventeenth-century practice of science. In 1662, King Charles II granted a royal charter to the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, a gathering of natural philosophers who were committed to the experimental method of science; they were all students of the Novum organum, devotees of the Baconian methods. The poet Abraham Cowley, himself an enthusiastic amateur scientist, wrote the Royal Society's dedicatory epistle; it was all in praise of Francis Bacon, who had overthrown ancient authority with ‘true reason.'"



Susan Wise Bauer


The Story of Western Science


W. W. Norton & Company;


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