Meditation XX, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) – Novum Organum

Francis Bacon

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.

~

Knowledge is power,’ said Francis Bacon and it remains to this very day his most celebrated philosophical statement. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, Bacon believed what he said for he carved a reputation for being one of the most ambitious philosophers that ever lived. Being a lawyer, politician and philosopher, Bacon had two great objectives. The first was hugely political, holding the position of Lord Chancellor for four years before being charged for corruption (which he denied). His other ambition was in the field of philosophy where he advocated human knowledge on the basis of a systematic methodology of scientific enquiry.

The systematic enquiry that Bacon advocates as an answer to scepticism was institutional. He saw the advancement of science as a social activity held in a faculty like a college or university equipped with all essential research instruments. This includes laboratories, botanical and zoological gardens, specialist technicians and etc. Although he failed in his lifetime to gain royal support for the establishment of such an institution, he was credited of having inspired the birth of the Royal Society. The importance that Bacon placed on science can be seen in his last work, The New Atlantis, in which he prescribes science as the main solution to achieve Utopia.

The scientific methodology that Bacon proposed for the overall reclassification of the sciences was to be centred on an inductive structure of the study of nature. At the heart of this inductive structure was his insistence on empirical observations guided and disciplined by method. This can be achieved by carrying out these empirical observations under laboratory conditions where better control can be exerted over nature. His concern with method would be one of the important preludes to the modern scientific fields of study and a major contribution in the philosophy of science.

In his major work and one of the most important philosophical documents in the development of modern science, Novum Organum (New Instrument, in contrast to Aristotle’s Organon), he considered it crucial that ‘scientists interrogate nature by their experiments in order to be able to tabulate both the various circumstances in which instances of the phenomenon under investigation have been found to be present and also the circumstances under which they have been found absent’. Like Aristotle’s syllogism, he insisted that this methodology is applicable to both normative and factual issues.

Legal maxims in English common law, according to Bacon, are akin to axioms of nature in science which are grounded on induction from individual cases. These axioms once formulated are reapplied to new similar cases. Following this reasoning, he placed emphasis on good legal reports that were valuable for jurisprudential induction in the same way that experimental results are important for scientific induction. In law, good legal reports reduce the uncertainty of our legal rights and duties and in science, accurate experimental results would reduce the uncertainty of the laws of nature.

Similar to Karl Popper, Bacon considered it an imperative in both enquiries to eliminate false propositions. He considered the method of induction by simple enumeration, ‘whereby a generalization that is as yet not proven false is supposed to acquire support that varies in strength with the number of known instances that verify it’, ‘childish’. In modern terms, Bacon is an advocate of the hypothetico-deductive method, which follows that a theory of science is a general statement (or hypothesis) from which particular inferences may be deducted. Observations or experiments can then be carried out to confirm or prove false the hypothesis.

Bacon, in his Novum Organum, describes how human beings fall into the traps of four kinds of idols that lead them away from knowledge and understanding.

1. Idols of the Tribe, Idola Tribus (Perceptual Illusions)

    This idol represents the features of human nature that lead us astray, for example, errors in perception, memory and the effects of passions.

    2. Idols of the Cave, Idola Specus (Personal Biases)

      This idol represents the limitations and distortions related to our individual shortcomings. Not to be mistaken with Plato’s Analogy of the Cave.

      3. Idols of the Forum, Idola Fori (Linguistic Confusions)

        This idol represents the misleading tendencies of language.

        4. Idols of the Theatre, Idola Theatri (Dogmatic Philosophical Systems)

          This idol represents the confusing and misleading effects of abstract theory and ideology upon our minds.

          In The Advancement of Learning, Bacon compares some thinkers to ants that were diligent and successful in accumulating a great deal but due to the lacking of systematic method, compiles just bits and pieces of knowledge without understanding. Other thinkers are like spiders that are solitary and aloof, spinning theoretical webs that entraps the unsuspecting but produces nothing. The best of thinkers are those like bees, working together in an organized and orderly fashion to produce the sweetest and most nourishing of products!

          ~ Ee Suen Zheng

          Bibliography

          • Peter E. Cooper & Peter S. Fosl, eds, 2010, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.
          • Tom Honderich, ed, 2005, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, United States.
          • Will Durant, 2005, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, United States.
          • Robert Paul Wolff, ed, 2002, Ten Great Works of Philosophy, Signet Classic, Penguin Group, United States.

          “Knowledge is power”

          ~ Francis Bacon

          Comments
          2 Responses to “Meditation XX, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) – Novum Organum”
          1. kseverny says:

            he is a true creative legend.
            Thanks for sharing

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