Sir Francis Bacon marked the turning point in European intellectual history where natural philosophy gave way to natural science. Since the ancient Greeks, the prevailing method of inquiry had been the use of logic, or argumentation. Aristotle had formulated a system of logic by which arguments could be evaluated and their implications teased out. It was a way of discovering the truth by rationally examining a few axioms or “first principles.” Centuries of philosophy in Europe and elsewhere had improved on Aristotle’s basic system, but had retained the central idea that logic itself is the best guide to truth. This was the system of natural philosophy.
Bacon didn’t agree with the Aristotelian method. He thought that logic was a useful guide, but that it could easily be derailed by human misunderstandings or misperceptions. In order to approach truth, we had to rely not just on logic but also on evidence. He was one of the first European philosophers to demand observational and experimental verification of principles used in philosophical argument. It was the spark that lit the Scientific Revolution and brought about the world as we know it.
Sir Francis Bacon lived in England in the late 16th and early 17th century – the era of Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, and the earliest English settlements in what would one day become the United States. He was a statesman in his day job, ultimately attaining the office of Lord Chancellor, one of the highest positions in the English government.
Sadly for Bacon, it was all downhill from there. Like any person with political power, Bacon had plenty of enemies, and they gained the upper hand in 1621 when Bacon was 40 years old. He hadn’t been careful with his money and had fallen into debt, which gave his rivals leverage over him. They accused him of accepting bribes and forced him out of office. There is some doubt about the justice of these accusations: while Bacon did accept gifts from people, it was never proven that these gifts were inappropriate or influenced his exercise of office. Like many modern corruption cases, this one hinges on the distinction between a gift and a bribe – not an easy distinction to make in some cases. Regardless, the charges stuck and Bacon lost his political career.
Rationalism vs. Empiricism
Bacon is sometimes called the father of empiricism, or the idea that knowledge comes from sense experience. This idea was developed further by Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and David Hume, and came into conflict with the competing doctrine of rationalism. Rationalists emphasized the use of logic and deductive reasoning from first principles, moving from general laws to work out particular facts. Empiricists did the opposite, amassing concrete facts first and then using them to derive abstract laws. Curiously, all three of the major empiricists were British, possibly because of Bacon’s cultural influence.
Bacon encouraged natural philosophers to consider not only what was true, but also how their knowledge could be made useful. He emphasized the concept of tekhne, which means “technology” or “technique” – basically practical applications of science. He envisioned a scientific utopia called “The New Atlantis,” which would develop miraculous cures, unstoppable weapons, and labor-saving machines: it was a sort of early, rosy-eyed premonition of the Industrial Revolution.
To achieve this utopia, Bacon argued, science would have to be supported by the government. At that time, natural philosophy was exclusively practiced by men of leisure: wealthy nobles in particular, but also members of the clergy and others who had the free time and resources to ponder the natural world. Working-class people were too busy struggling to survive, and even if they somehow escaped the cycle of poverty they still would have had a hard time getting into a British university. (Sadly, even today many people are shut out of science because they can’t afford to go to college.) Because science was so individual and personal, it progressed only sporadically. Some nobleman would get a notion to study some aspect of astronomy, say, and his work might be pursued or not depending on the whims of his peers. Science was completely disorganized. Bacon thought this was an inefficient way to advance knowledge, and he called on his government to create formal institutions to give science the necessary support and direction. No such institution would arise during his lifetime, but a few decades later Bacon’s ideas would inspire the founding of the Royal Academy of London, which remains one of the leading scientific bodies in the world.
Bacon’s reason for emphasizing applied science was his faith in Christianity. He thought natural philosophers were violating the Christian doctrine of charity when they contented themselves with abstract contemplation. Given that people are suffering all around us, Bacon argued, Christians have a duty to do what they can to alleviate that suffering. Those with knowledge have an obligation to use it for the good of all.
Knowledge is power.
This line of Bacon’s is so widely quoted that it’s almost a cliché. It’s repeated by teachers and in educational TV shows, often without much thought or interpretation. But its meaning for Bacon was complex. At one level, it’s simply a statement of fact: when we know things, we have greater power to do things. That’s true both of technical knowledge (how to manufacture gunpowder or remove a tumor) and of less technical knowledge (understanding people’s motivations and political inclinations, for example). At another level, Bacon’s statement is more than a mere statement of fact: it’s an exhortation. It’s an expression of his belief in practical science over abstract contemplation, and an encouragement to his readers to seek the right kind of knowledge.
Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.
Baconian science is, at its heart, an attempt to gain control of nature. Bacon, like most of his contemporaries, assumed a radical dichotomy between nature and humanity. Nature, he argued, is a subordinate layer of reality, and the task of science is to control and manipulate it. But we can’t just do that through sheer willpower: we have to understand nature in order to control it. We have to work within the laws of nature, which today we would call things like electromagnetism or neurochemistry. By obeying these laws, we can turn nature to our own ends.
In Pop Culture
Bacon’s New Atlantis was one of the first modern books to imagine a techno-utopia driven by science. It’s a trope we still use today: think of the Federation in Star Trek or life onboard the Axiom in Wall-E. These are worlds where every need is taken care of, science has cured disease and poverty, and conflict can only come from outside.
Today, we are much less optimistic about techno-utopia than Bacon was. We’ve lived through the Industrial Revolution and we see the ways that it fueled poverty and inequality, polluted the earth, and created devastating weapons of mass slaughter. We now view techno-utopias with much more skepticism, and when they show up in pop culture it tends to be with a slightly satirical atmosphere: onboard the Axiom, for example, everyone is lazy and ignorant because technology has made their lives too comfortable and safe. The Federation, in the latest Star Trek series, has many elements of an authoritarian police state to go along with its technological advancement. Utopia, to a modern audience, no longer seems plausible.