Sunday, February 22, 2015

Francis Bacon and the Origins of Modern Science

"We cannot command nature except by obeying her."

Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626) was an English aristocrat, lawyer, and parliamentarian, who was also, in his spare time, one of the most influential philosophers who ever lived. In the New Organon (1620) he outlined a new approach to philosophy, which historians call the Baconian Program, and which the world calls Science. It's main components are:

1. Emphasis on eliminative induction (I.e. establishing what is *not* true) on the ...basis of observation and experiment, collaborative effort, and the systematic accumulation, organization, and communication of information. (The traditional method in philosophy was additive deduction - that is, positively affirming what *is* true - on the basis of known principles and individual reason.) The approach to philosophy Bacon advocated was institutional rather than individual - it envisaged a vast cooperative effort extending across kingdoms and cultures and generations, in order to systematize all knowledge, and also expand it.

2. Avoidance of metaphysics, theology, politics, and ethics (the traditional concerns of philosophy.) According to Bacon, the questions raised in these fields form no part of his philosophical project, because they are incapable of resolution through experiment or observation.

3. Rigorous application of reason in order to minimize the pernicious influence of faulty habits of reasoning, which he called Idols of the Mind. He divided these into Idols of the Tribe, the Theater, the Cave, and the Market place (ie those arising from human nature, from social convention, from personal attachment, and from language.) Clear, rigorous thinking is essential, and can only be achieved by dissociating oneself from one's particular context.

4. Application of knowledge thus gained for the improvement of life through mastery over nature, summed up in his famous dictum Knowledge Is Power. Science thus has a moral quality - that of improving the human condition, and the pursuit of science is itself a moral activity.

Bacon's New Organon was written as a response to the Organon of Aristotle, and was thus an implicit challenge to the intellectual orthodoxies of his time, for whom Aristotle was *the* philosopher. It was written toward the end of his life, and he did not live to see it's success in the following generation. According to legend he caught pneumonia while experimenting with snow. However, his philosophy inaugurated what has since been called The Age of Reason.

Part of a series on Science, Technology, and Society (II of XX)

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