Idols of the Mind Pt. 1 (Novum Organum Book 1: 38–52)

by Francis Bacon 2mo24th Sep 20198 min read1 comment

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This is the fourth post in the Novum Organum sequence. For context, see the sequence introduction.

We have used Francis Bacon's Novum Organum in the version presented at www.earlymoderntexts.com. Translated by and copyright to Jonathan Bennett. Prepared for LessWrong by Ruby.

Ruby's Reading Guide

Novum Organum is organized as two books each containing numbered "aphorisms." These vary in length from three lines to sixteen pages. Titles of posts in this sequence, e.g. Idols of the Mind Pt. 1, are my own and do not appear in the original.
While the translator, Bennett, encloses his editorial remarks in a single pair of [brackets], I have enclosed mine in a [[double pair of brackets]].

Bennett's Reading Guide

[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as though it were part of the original text. Occasional •bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations, are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. Every four-point ellipsis . . . . indicates the omission of a brief passage that seems to present more difficulty than it is worth. Longer omissions are reported between brackets in normal-sized type.

Aphorism Concerning the Interpretation of Nature: Book 1: 38–52

by Francis Bacon

38. The idols and false notions that now possess the human intellect and have taken deep root in it don’t just •occupy men’s minds so that truth can hardly get in, but also when a truth is allowed in they will •push back against it, stopping it from contributing to a fresh start in the sciences. This can be avoided only if men are forewarned of the danger and do what they can to fortify themselves against the assaults of these idols and false notions.

39. There are four classes of idols that beset men’s minds, and to help me in my exposition I have given them names. I call the first class idols of the tribe, the second idols of the cave, the third idols of the market place, and the fourth idols of the theatre.

40. The proper way to keep idols at bay and to drive them off is, no doubt, to form ideas and axioms by true induction. But it is very useful just to point the idols out; for •the truth about the idols serves •the interpretation of nature in the way that •the truth about argumentative fallacies serves •ordinary logical argumentation.

41. The idols of the tribe have their foundation in human nature itself—in the tribe known as ‘mankind’. It is not true that the human senses are the measure of things; for all perceptions—of the senses as well as of the mind—reflect the perceiver rather than the world. The human intellect is like a distorting mirror, which receives light-rays irregularly and so mixes its own nature with the nature of things, which it distorts.

[[This is something of a reference to the Mind Projection Fallacy.]]

42. The idols of the cave are the idols of the individual man. In addition to the errors that are common to human nature in general, everyone has his own personal cave or den that breaks up and corrupts the light of nature. This may come from factors such as these:

  • his own individual nature,
  • how he has been brought up and how he interacts with others,
  • his reading of books and the influence of writers he esteems and admires,
  • differences in how his environment affects him because of differences in his state of mind—whether it is busy thinking about something else and prejudiced against this intake or calm and open-minded.

So that the human spirit is distributed among individuals in ways that make it variable and completely disorderly—almost a matter of luck. Heraclitus was right: men look for sciences in ·their own individual· lesser worlds, and not in the greater world that they have in common.

[[Related: Epistemic Luck. However, I believe Bacon's eventual thesis is that even though luck may determine your starting point, proper use of tools, i.e. empiricism, can lead to correct conclusions even if you started out unlucky.]]

43. There are also idols formed by men’s agreements and associations with each other (·I have in mind especially the agreements that fix the meanings of words·). I call these idols of the market place, because that is where men come together and do business. ·Such transactions create idols· because •men associate by talking to one another, and •the uses of words reflect common folks’ ways of thinking. It’s amazing how much the intellect is hindered by wrong or poor choices of words. The definitions or explanations that learned men sometimes use to protect themselves ·against such troubles· don’t at all set the matter right: words plainly force and overrule the intellect, throw everything into confusion, and lead men astray into countless empty disputes and idle fancies.

[[Bacon grokked that misuses of words were a great cause of confusion. He probably would have like the A Human's Guide to Words Sequence. See Where to Draw the Boundary? and 37 Ways That Words Can Be Wrong.]]

44. Lastly, there are idols that have come into men’s minds from various philosophical dogmas and from topsy-turvy laws of demonstration. I call these idols of the theatre, because I regard every one of the accepted systems as the staging and acting out of a fable, making a fictitious staged world of its own. I don’t say this only about the systems that are currently fashionable, or only about the ancient sects and philosophies; many other fables of the same kind may still be written and produced, seeing that errors can be widely different yet have very similar causes. And I’m saying this not only about whole systems but also about a good many principles and axioms in ·individual· sciences—ones that have gathered strength through tradition, credulity, and negligence. But these various kinds of idols will have to be discussed more clearly and at greater length if the human intellect is to be adequately warned against them. ·I’ll start with the idols of the tribe, which will be my topic until the end of 52·.

45. The human intellect is inherently apt to •suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it •finds there. Many things in nature are unique and not like anything else; but the intellect devises for them non-existent parallells and correspondences and relatives. That is how it comes about •that all the heavenly bodies are thought to move in perfect circles. . . ., •that fire. . . .has been brought in as one of the elements, to complete the square with the other three elements—·earth, air, water·—which the senses detect, and •that the ‘elements’ (as they are called) are arbitrarily said to differ in density by a factor of ten to one. And so on for other dreams. And these fancies affect not only ·complex· propositions but also simple notions.

[[People see patterns everywhere, many that aren't there.]]

46. Once a human intellect has adopted an opinion (either as something it likes or as something generally accepted), it draws everything else in to confirm and support it. [[Confirmation bias.]] Even if there are more and stronger instances against it ·than there are in its favour·, the intellect either •overlooks these or •treats them as negligible or •does some line-drawing that lets it shift them out of the way and reject them. This involves a great and pernicious prejudgment by means of which the intellect’s former conclusions remain inviolate.

A man was shown a picture, hanging in a temple, of people who had made their vows and escaped shipwreck, and was asked ‘Now do you admit the power of the gods?’ He answered with a question: ‘Where are the pictures of those who made their vows and then drowned?’

[[A correct identification of selection bias/survivorship bias/anthropic bias.]]

It was a good answer! That’s how it is with all superstition— involving astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, and the like, Men get so much pleasure out of such vanities that they notice the •confirming events and inattentively pass by the more numerous •disconfirming ones. This mischief insinuates itself more subtly into philosophy and the sciences: there, when a proposition has found favour it colours other propositions and brings them into line with itself, even when they ·in their undisguised form· are sounder and better than it is. Also, apart from the pleasure and vanity that I have spoken of, the human intellect is perpetually subject to the special error of being moved and excited more by affirmatives than by negatives; whereas it ought to have the same attitude towards each. Indeed, when it is a matter of establishing a true axiom, it’s the negative instance that carries more force.

[[The idea of looking for disconfirming negative instances is expounded in Positive Bias: Look Into the Dark.]]

47. The greatest effect on •the human intellect is had by things that strike and enter the mind simultaneously and unexpectedly; it is these that customarily fill—inflate!—the imagination; and then •it feigns and supposes that everything else is somehow, though •it can’t see how, similar to those few things that have taken it by storm. [‘Feign’ translates the Latin fingo, which is the source for the English word ‘fiction’.] But the intellect is altogether slow and unfit for the journey to distant and heterogeneous instances which put axioms to the test—like testing something by fire—unless it is forced to do so by severe laws and overruling authority.

48. The human intellect is never satisfied; it can’t stop or rest, and keeps searching further; but all to no purpose. That’s why we can’t conceive of any end or limit to the world—why we always virtually have to have the thought of something beyond ·any candidate for the role of world’s end·. And we can’t conceive, either, of how eternity has flowed down to the present day. ·A plausible story about this says that time is infinite in both directions, and the present is just a point along this infinite line. But· the commonly accepted idea of infinity in time past and in time to come can’t be sustained, for it implies that •one infinity is greater than another, and that •one infinity is getting used up and tending to become finite. The infinite divisibility of lines is a source of a similar network of difficulties arising from our thought’s inability ·to reach a resting-place·. But this inability interferes even worse in the discovery of causes, ·and here is how·.

The most general principles in nature have to be brute facts, just as they are discovered, and can’t be derived from any ·still more general or basic· cause. Yet the restless human intellect still looks for something

(Latin: notiora = ‘better known’, probably short for: natura notiora = ‘better known to nature’, actually meaning: ‘more general and/or basic’ [see note in 22])—·something to explain why they are true·.

Then in that ·doomed· struggle for something further off, it ·finds itself defeated, and instead· falls back on something that is nearer at hand, namely on final causes—·i.e. on the notion of what a principle is for, what purpose explains its being true·. Science has been enormously messed up by this appeal to final causes, which obviously come from the nature of man rather than from the nature of the world—·that is, which project the scientist’s own purposes onto the world rather than finding purposes in it·.

[[Similarly another case of Mind Projection Fallacy.]]

To look for causes of the most general principles is to do science in an ignorant and frivolous way—just as much as not looking for causes of subordinate and less general truths.

49. The human intellect doesn’t burn with a dry [here = ‘uncontaminated’] light, because what the person wants and feels gets pumped into it; and that is what gives rise to the ‘please-yourself sciences’. For a man is more likely to believe something if he would like it to be true. Therefore he rejects:

  • difficult things because he hasn’t the patience to research them,
  • sober and prudent things because they narrow hope,
  • the deeper things of nature, from superstition,
  • the light that experiments can cast, from arrogance and pride (not wanting people to think his mind was occupied with trivial things),
  • surprising truths, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar.

In short, there are countless ways in which, sometimes imperceptibly, a person’s •likings colour and infect his •intellect.

[[This aphorism calls out the general behavior of motivated cognition.]]

50. But what contributes most to the blockages and aberrations of the human intellect is the fact that the ·human· senses are dull, incompetent and deceptive. The trouble is this: things that strike the senses outweigh other things— more important ones—that don’t immediately strike them. That is why people stop thinking at the point where their eyesight gives out, paying little or no attention to •things that can’t be seen—for example, all the •workings of the spirits enclosed in tangible bodies. Nor do they pay attention to all the subtler changes of microstructure in the parts of coarser substances (which are vulgarly called ‘alterations’ though they are really extremely small-scale •movements). And yet unless these two things—·the workings of spirits, and subtle changes of form in bodies·—can be searched out and brought into the light, nothing great can be achieved in nature in the way of practical applications. A third example: the essential nature of our common air, and of all the many bodies that are less dense than air, is almost unknown. For the senses by themselves are weak and unreliable; and instruments for extending or sharpening them don’t help much. All the truer kind of interpretation of nature comes about through instances and well-designed experiments: the senses pass judgment on the experiment, and the experiment passes judgment on nature, on the facts.

[Bacon’s many uses of the word schematismus show that for him a body’s schematismus is its fine-grained structure. This version will always use ‘microstructure’, but be aware that Bacon doesn’t use a word with the prefix ‘micro’. •Also, here and throughout, ‘spirits’ are extremely finely divided gases or fluids, not mental items of any kind.]

51. The human intellect is inherently prone to make abstractions, and it feigns an unchanging essence for things that are in flux. But better than •abstracting from nature is •dissecting it; which is what Democritus and his followers did, getting deeper into nature than anyone since. What we should be attending to is matter, its microstructures and changes of microstructure, and actus purus, and the laws of action or motion. ·The alternative to studying matter is to study forms, but· forms are fabrications of the human mind, unless you want to call the laws of action ‘forms’.

[Bacon doesn’t explain actus purus. In each of its other three occurrences he connects it with laws, and his meaning seems to be something like: ‘the laws governing the pure actions of individual things, i.e. the things they do because of their own natures independently of interference from anything else’. If x does A partly because of influence from something else y, then x is not purely •active in respect of A because y’s influence gives A a certain degree of •passivity. From here on, actus purus will be translated by ‘pure action’.]

52. Those, then, are the idols of the tribe, as I call them— the idols that ·arise from human nature as such. More specifically, they· arise from the human spirit’s •regularity of operation, or its •prejudices, or its •narrowness, or its •restlessness, or •input from the feelings, or from the •incompetence of the senses, or from •the way the senses are affected.

The next post in the sequence, Book 1: 53-68 (Idols of the Mind Pt. 2), will be posted Thursday, September 26 at latest by 4:00pm PDT.

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