This is the eighth 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. Bracketed 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: 108–130
by Francis Bacon
[[Bacon continues his listing of reasons we should believe much greater scientific progress is possible.]]
108. That's all I have to say about getting rid of despair and creating hope by banishing or fixing past errors. Now, what other ways are there of creating hope? Here’s a thought that occurs at once: Many useful discoveries have been made accidentally by men who weren’t looking for them but were busy about other things; so no-one can doubt that if men seek for something and are busy about it, proceeding in an orderly and not a slapdash way, they will discover far more. Of course it can happen occasionally that someone accidentally stumbles on a result that he wouldn’t have found if he had searched hard for it, but on the whole the opposite is the case—·things are discovered by methodical searching that couldn’t have been found by accident·. So, far better things, and more of them, and at shorter intervals, are to be hoped for from •hard thinking, hard focussed work and concentration than from •·lucky· accidents, undisciplined whims and the like, which until now have been the main source of discoveries.
109. Here is another ground for hope: Discoveries have sometimes been made that would have been almost unthinkable in advance, and would have been written off as impossible. Men think about the new in terms of the old: to questions about what the •future holds they bring an imagination indoctrinated and coloured by the •past. This is a terrible way of forming opinions, because streams fed by nature’s springs don’t run along familiar channels.
Suppose that before gunpowder was invented someone described it in terms of its effects—‘There is a new invention by means of which the strongest towers and walls can be demolished from a long way off’. That would no doubt have set men thinking about how to increase the power of catapults and wheeled ramming devices. The notion of a fiery blast suddenly and forcefully expanding and exploding would hardly have entered into any man’s mind or imagination, because nothing closely analogous to that had ever been seen. Well, except perhaps in earthquakes and lightning, but they wouldn’t have been seen as relevant because they are mighty works of nature which men couldn’t imitate.
Or suppose that before the discovery of silk someone had said: ‘They’ve discovered new a kind of thread for use in clothing and furniture-coverings; it is finer, softer, more beautiful and stronger than linen or wool.’ Men would have begun to think of some silky kind of plant or of very fine hair of some animal or of the feathers and down of birds; they would not have thought of a web woven by a tiny worm in great quantities and renewing itself yearly. If anyone had said anything about a worm, he’d have been laughed at as dreaming of a new kind of cobweb! [Bacon then gives a third example: the magnet.] Yet these things and others like them lay concealed from men for centuries, and when they did come to light it wasn’t through science or any technical skill but by accident and coincidence. As I have remarked, they were so utterly different in kind from anything previously known that they couldn’t possibly have been discovered through a preconceived notion of them.
So there are strong grounds for hoping that nature has concealed in its folds many wonderfully useful •things that aren’t related to or parallel with anything that is now known, and lie right outside our imaginative reach. As the centuries roll on, •they too will doubtless come to light of their own accord in some roundabout way, as did gunpowder and the others; but by the method I am discussing they can be presented and anticipated speedily, suddenly and all at once.
110. Other discoveries prove that this can happen: splendid discoveries are lying at our feet, and we step over them without seeing them. The discoveries of
- the magnet,
or the like may seem to depend on certain properties of things of and nature—·properties that might have been hard to discover·. But there is nothing in printing that isn’t wide open and almost easy. All that was needed was to see that
- although it is harder to arrange letter-types than to write by hand, the two procedures differ in that once the types have been arranged any number of impressions can be made from them, whereas hand-writing provides only a single copy,
and to see that
- ink can be so thickened so that it does its job but doesn’t run, especially when the type faces upwards and the ink is rolled onto it from above.
It was merely because they didn’t notice these ·obvious· facts that men went for so many ages without this most beautiful invention which is so useful in the spreading of knowledge.
But the human mind is such a mess when it comes to this business of discoveries that it first •distrusts and then •despises itself:
- before the discovery: it is not credible that any such thing can be found,
- afterwards: it is incredible that the world should have missed it for so long!
And this very thing entitles us to some hope, namely the hope that there is a great mass of discoveries still to be made—not just ones that will have to be dug out by techniques that we don’t yet have, but also ones that may come to light through our transferring, ordering and applying things that we do know already, this being done with the help of the experimental approach that I call ‘literate’ .
111. Another ground of hope should be mentioned. Let men reflect on their infinite expenditure of intellect, time, and means on things of far less use and value ·than the discoveries I am talking about·. If even a small part of this were directed to sound and solid studies, there is no difficulty that couldn’t be overcome. I mention this ·matter of the use of resources· because a collection of Natural and Experimental History, as I envisage it and as it ought to be, is a great—as it were, a royal—work, and I freely admit that it will involve much labour and expense.
[It will appear in Book 2-11 that the ‘collection’ Bacon talks of is an orderly written account of phenomena, experiments and their results, not a physical museum.]
112. In the meantime, don’t be put off by how many particulars there are; rather, let this give you hope. ·The fact is that you will be in worse trouble if you don’t engage with them·; for the •particular phenomena of nature are a mere handful compared to the ·great multitudes of· •things that human ingenuity can fabricate if it cuts itself off from the clarifying effects of reality. And this road ·through the study of real events· soon leads to open ground, whereas the other—·the route through invented theories and thought-experiments·— leads to nothing but endless entanglement. Until now men haven’t lingered long with •experience; they have brushed past it on their way to the ingenious •theorizings on which they have wasted unthinkable amounts of time. But if we had someone at hand who could answer our questions of the form ‘What are the facts about this matter?’, it wouldn’t take many years for us to discover all causes and complete every science [the Latin literally means ‘to discover all causes and sciences’].
113. Men may take some hope, I think, from my own example (I’m not boasting; just trying to be useful). If you are discouraged ·about the chances of progress in the sciences·, look at me!
- I am busier with affairs of state than any other man of my time,
- I lose a lot of time to ill-health, and
- in this ·scientific· work I am wholly a pioneer, not following in anyone’s tracks and not getting advice from anyone.
And yet, ·despite these three sources of difficulty·, I think I have pushed things on a certain amount by sticking to the true road and submitting my mind to reality. Well, then, think what might be expected (now that I have pointed out the way) from men
- with plenty of free time,
- ·in good health·, and
- working together, on the basis of previous work ·by others·.
Unlike the work of sheerly thinking up hypotheses, proper scientific work can be done collaboratively; the best way is for men’s efforts (especially in collecting experimental results) to be exerted separately and then brought together. Men will begin to know their strength only when they go this way—with one taking charge of one thing and another of another, instead of all doing all the same things.
114. Lastly, even if the breeze of hope that blows on us from that New Continent were fainter and less noticeable than it is, still we have to try—unless we prefer to have minds that are altogether abject! The loss that may come from •not trying is much greater than what may come from ·trying and· •not succeeding: by •not trying we throw away the chance of an immense good; by •not succeeding we only incur the loss of a little human labour. But from what I have said (and from some things that I haven’t said) it seems to me that there is more than enough hope not only •to get a vigorous man to try but also to make a sober-minded and wise man believe ·that he will succeed·.
115. That completes what I wanted to say about getting rid of the pessimism that has been one of the most powerful factors delaying and hindering the progress of the sciences. I have also finished with the signs and causes of errors, of sluggishness and of the prevailing ignorance. ·I’ve said more about this than you might think·, because the more subtle causes—the ones that aren’t generally noticed or thought about—come under what I said about the ‘idols’ of the human mind.
And this should also bring to an end the part of my Great Fresh Start [see note in 31] that is devoted to rejection, which I have carried out through three refutations:
(1) the refutation of innate human reason left to itself [see Preface];
(2) the refutation of demonstrations [see 44 and 69];
(3) the refutation of the accepted philosophical doctrines [see 60–62].
I refuted these in the ·only· way I could do so, namely through signs and the evidence of causes. I couldn’t engage in any other kind of confutation because I differ from my opponents both on first principles and on rules of demonstration.
So now it is time to proceed to the actual techniques for interpreting nature and to the rules governing them—except that there is still something that has to be said first! In this first book of aphorisms my aim has been to prepare men’s minds not just for •understanding what was to follow but for •accepting it; and now that I have •cleared up and washed down and levelled the floor of the mind, I have to •get the mind into a good attitude towards the things I am laying before it—to look kindly on them, as it were. ·This has to be worked for·, because anything new will be confronted by prejudgments ·against it·, not only ones created by old opinions but also ones created by false ideas about what the new thing is going to be. So I shall try to create sound and true opinions about what I am going to propose; but this is only a stop-gap expedient—a kind of security deposit—to serve until I can make the stuff itself thoroughly known.
116. First, then, don’t think that I want to found a new sect in philosophy—like the ancient Greeks and like some moderns such as Telesio, Patrizzi or Severinus. For that’s not what I am up to; and I really don’t think that human welfare depends much on what abstract opinions anyone has about nature and its workings. No doubt many old theories of this sort can be revived and many new ones introduced, just as many theories of the heavens can be supposed that fit the phenomena well enough but differ from each other; but I’m not working on such useless speculative matters.
My purpose, rather, is to see whether I can’t provide humanity’s power and greatness with firmer foundations and greater scope. I have achieved some results—scattered through some special subjects—that I think to be far more true and certain and indeed more fruitful than any that have so far been used (I have collected them in the •fifth part of my Fresh Start); but I don’t yet have a complete theory of everything to propound. It seems that the time hasn’t come for that. I can’t hope to live long enough to complete the •sixth part (which is to present science discovered through the proper interpretation of nature); but I’ll be satisfied if in the middle parts I conduct myself soberly and usefully, sowing for future ages the seeds of a purer truth, and not shying away from the start of great things. [See note in 31.]
117. Not being the founder of a sect, I am not handing out bribes or promises of particular works. You may indeed think that because I talk so much about ‘works’ ·or ‘results’· and drag everything over to that, I should produce some myself as a down-payment. Well, I have already clearly said it many times, and am happy now to say it again: my project is not to get
works from works or
experiments from experiments (like the •empirics),
but rather to get
causes and axioms from works and experiments,
and then to get
new works and experiments from those causes and axioms (like the •legitimate interpreters of nature).
[An ‘empiric’ is someone who is interested in what works but not in why it works; especially a physician of that sort, as referred to by Locke when he speaks of ‘swallowing down opinions as silly people do empirics’ pills, without knowing what they are made of or how they will work’.]
If you look at
- my Tables of Discovery that ·will· constitute the fourth part of the Fresh Start, and
- the examples of particulars that I present in the second part, ·i.e. the present work·, and
- my observations on the history that I ·will· sketch in the third part,
you won’t need any great intellectual skill to see indications and outlines of many fine results all through this material; but I openly admit that the natural history that I have so far acquired, from books and from my own investigations, is too skimpy, and not verified with enough accuracy, to serve the purposes of legitimate interpretation.
To anyone who is abler and better prepared ·than I am· for mechanical pursuits, and who is clever at getting results from experiment, I say: By all means go to work snipping off bits from my history and my tables and apply them to getting results—this could serve as interest until the principal is available. But I am hunting for bigger game, and I condemn all hasty and premature interruptions for such things as these, which are (as I often say) like Atalanta’s spheres. I don’t go dashing off after golden apples, like a child; I bet everything on art’s winning its race against nature. [On Atalanta and the race see 70.] I don’t scurry around clearing out moss and weeds; I wait for the harvest when the crop is ripe.
118. When my history and Tables of Discovery are read, it will surely turn out that some things in the experiments themselves are not quite certain or perhaps even downright false, which may lead you to think that the foundations and principles on which my discoveries rest are ·also· false and doubtful. But this doesn’t matter, for such things are bound to happen at first. It’s like a mere typographical error, which doesn’t much hinder the reader because it is easy to correct as you read. In the same way, ·my· natural history may contain many experiments that are false, but it won’t take long for them to be easily expunged and rejected through the discovery of causes and axioms. It is nevertheless true that if big mistakes come thick and fast in a natural history, they can’t possibly be corrected or amended through any stroke of intelligence or skill. Now, my natural history has been collected and tested with great diligence, strictness and almost religious care, yet there may be errors of detail tucked away in it; so what should be said of run-of-the-mill natural history, which is so careless and easy in comparison with mine? And what of the philosophy and sciences built on that kind of sand (or rather quicksand)? So no-one should be troubled by what I have said.
119. My history and experiments will contain many things that are
- trivial, familiar and ordinary, many that are
- mean and low [see 120], and many that are
- extremely subtle, merely speculative, and seemingly useless [see 121].
Such things could lead men to lose interest or to become hostile ·to what I have to offer. I shall give these one paragraph each·.
Men should bear in mind that until now their activities have consisted only in explaining unusual events in terms of more usual ones, and they have simply taken the usual ones for granted, not asking what explains them. So they haven’t investigated the causes of
- rotation of heavenly bodies,
and the like. They have accepted these as self-evident and obvious, and have devoted their inquiring and quarrelling energies to less common and familiar things.
But I have to let the most ordinary things into my history, because I know that until we have properly looked for and found the causes of common things and the causes of those causes, we can’t make judgments about uncommon or remarkable things, let alone bring anything new to light. Indeed, I don’t think that anything holds up philosophy more than the fact that common and familiar events don’t cause men to stop and think, but are received casually with no inquiry into their causes. A result of this we need •to pay attention to things that are known and familiar at least as often as •to get information about unknown things.
120. As for things that are low or even filthy: as Pliny says, these should be introduced with an apology, but they should be admitted into natural history just as the most splendid and costly things should. And that doesn’t pollute the natural history that admits them; the sun enters the sewer as well as the palace, but isn’t polluted by that! I am not building a monument dedicated to human glory or erecting a pyramid in its honour; what I’m doing is to lay a foundation for a holy temple in the human intellect—a temple modelled on the world. So I follow that model, because whatever is worthy of being is worthy of scientific knowledge, which is the image or likeness of being; and low things exist just as splendid ones do. And another point: just as from certain putrid substances such as musk and civet the sweetest odours are sometimes generated, so also mean and sordid events sometimes give off excellent and informative light. That is enough about this; more than enough, because this sort of squeamishness is downright childish and effeminate.
121. The third objection must be looked into much more carefully. I mean the objection that many things in my history will strike ordinary folk, and indeed ·non-ordinary· ones trained in the presently accepted systems, as intricately subtle and useless. It is especially because of this objection that I have said, and should ·again· say, that in the initial stages ·of the inquiry· I am aiming at experiments of light, not experiments of fruit [see 99]. In this, as I have often said [see 70], I am following the example of the divine creation which on the first day produced nothing but light, and gave that a day to itself without doing any work with matter. To suppose, therefore, that things like these ·‘subtleties’ of mine· are useless is the same as supposing that light is useless because it isn’t a thing, isn’t solid or material. And well-considered and well-delimited knowledge of simple natures is like light: it gives entrance to all the secrets of nature’s workshop, and has the power to gather up and draw after it whole squadrons of works and floods of the finest axioms; yet there is hardly anything we can do with it just in itself. Similarly the •letters of the alphabet taken separately are useless and meaningless, yet they’re the basic materials for the planning and composition of all discourse. So again the •seeds of things have much latent power, but nothing comes of it except in their development. And ·light is like scientific subtleties in another way, namely·: the scattered rays of light don’t do any good unless they are made to converge.
If you object to speculative subtleties, what will you say about the schoolmen [= ‘mediaeval and early modern Aristotelians’], who have wallowed in subtleties? And their subtleties were squandered on •words (or on popular notions—same thing!) rather than on •facts or nature; and they were useless the whole way through, unlike mine, which are indeed useless right now but which promise endless benefits later on. But this is sure, and you should know it:
All subtlety in disputations and other mental bustling about, if it occurs after the axioms have been discovered, comes too late and has things backwards. The true and proper time for subtlety, or anyway the chief time for it, is when pondering experiments and basing axioms on them.
For that other ·later· subtlety grasps and snatches at [captat] nature but can never get a grip on [capit] it. . . .
A final remark about the lofty dismissal from natural history of everything •common, everything •low, everything •subtle and as it stands useless: When a haughty monarch rejected a poor woman’s petition as unworthy thing and beneath his dignity, she said: ‘Then leave off being king.’ That may be taken as an oracle. For someone who won’t attend to things like •these because they are too paltry and minute can’t take possession of the kingdom of nature and can’t govern it.
122. This may occur to you: ‘It is amazing that you have the nerve to push aside all the sciences and all the authorities at a single blow, doing this single-handed, without bringing in anything from the ancients to help you in your battle and to guard your flanks.’
Well, I know that if I had been willing to be so dishonest, I could easily have found support and honour for my ideas by referring them either •to ancient times before the time of the Greeks (when natural science may have flourished more ·than it did later·, though quietly because it hadn’t yet been run through the pipes and trumpets of the Greeks), or even, in part at least, •to some of the Greeks themselves. This would be like the men of no family who forge genealogical tables that ‘show’ them to come from a long line of nobility. But I am relying on the evidentness of ·the truth about· things, and I’ll have nothing to do with any form of fiction or fakery. Anyway, it doesn’t matter for the business in hand whether the discoveries being made now •were known to the ancients long ago and •have alternately flourished and withered through the centuries because of the accidents of history (just as it doesn’t matter to mankind whether the New World is the island of Atlantis that the ancients knew about or rather is now discovered for the first time). It doesn’t matter because discoveries—·even if they are rediscoveries·—have to be sought [petenda] from the light of nature, not called back [repetenda] from the shadows of antiquity.
As for the fact that I am finding fault with everyone and everything: when you think about it you’ll see that that kind of censure is more likely to be right than a partial one would be—and less damaging, too. For a partial censure would imply that the errors were not rooted in primary notions, and that there had been some true discoveries; they could have been used to correct the false results, ·and the people concerned would have been to blame for not seeing this·. But in fact the errors were fundamental; they came not so much from false judgment as from not attending to things that should be attended to; so it’s no wonder that men haven’t obtained what they haven’t tried for, haven’t reached a mark that they never set up, haven’t come to the end of a road that they never started on.
As for the insolence that ·you might think· is inherent in what I am doing: if a man says that
•his steady hand and good eyes enable him to draw a straighter line or a more perfect circle than anyone else,
he is certainly •making a comparison of abilities; but if he says only that
•with the help of a ruler or a pair of compasses can draw a straighter line or a more perfect circle than anyone else can by eye and hand alone,
he isn’t •making any great boast. And I’m saying this not only about these first initiating efforts of mine but also about everyone who tackles these matters in the future. For my route to discovery in the sciences puts men on the same intellectual level, leaving little to individual excellence, because it does everything by the surest rules and demonstrations. So I attribute my part in all this, as I have often said, to good luck rather than to ability—it’s a product of time rather than of intelligence. For there’s no doubt that luck has something to do with men’s thoughts as well as with their works and deeds.
123. Someone once said jokingly ‘It can’t be that we think alike, when one drinks water and the other drinks wine’; and this nicely fits my present situation. Other men, in ancient as well as in modern times, have done their science drinking a crude liquor—like water
(1) flowing spontaneously from a spring or (2) hauled up by wheels from a well, (1)flowing spontaneously from the intellect or (2) hauled up by logic.
Whereas I drink a toast with a liquor strained from countless grapes, ripe and fully seasoned ones that have been gathered and picked in clusters, squeezed in the press, and finally purified and clarified in the vat. No wonder I am at odds with the others!
124. This also may occur to you: ‘You say it against others, but it can be said against you, that the goal and mark that you have set up for the sciences is not the true or the best.’ ·The accusation would develop like this·:
Contemplation of the truth is a worthier and loftier thing than thinking about how big and useful one’s practical results will be. Lingering long and anxiously on •experience and •matter and •the buzz of individual events drags the mind down to earth, or rather sinks it to an underworld of turmoil and confusion, dragging it away from a much more heavenly condition—the serene tranquillity of abstract wisdom.
Now I agree with this line of thought; what the objectors here point to as preferable is what I too am after, above everything else. For I am laying down in the human intellect the foundations for a true model of the world—the world as it turns out to be, not as one’s reason would like it to be. This can’t be done unless the world is subjected to a very diligent dissection and anatomical study. As for the stupid models of the world that men have dreamed up in philosophical systems—like the work of apes!—they should be utterly scattered to the winds. You need to know what a big difference there is (as I said above ) between the •idols of the human mind and the •ideas in the divine mind. The former are merely arbitrary abstractions; the latter are the creator’s little seals on the things he has created, stamped into matter in true and exquisite lines. In these matters, therefore, truth and usefulness are the very same thing; and practical applications ·of scientific results· are of greater value as pledges of truth than as contributing to the comforts of life.
125. Or you may want to say this: ‘You are only doing what the ancients did before you; so that you are likely, after all this grinding and shoving, to end up with one of the systems that prevailed in ancient times.’ The case for this goes as follows:
The ancients also provided at the outset of their speculations a great store and abundance of examples and particulars, sorted out and labelled in notebooks; then out of them they constructed their systems and techniques; and when after that they had checked out everything they published their results to the world with a scattering of examples for proof and illustration; but they saw no need to take the considerable trouble of publishing their working notes and details of experiments. So they did what builders do: after the house was built they removed the scaffolding and ladders out of sight.
I’m sure they did! But this objection (or misgiving, rather) will be easily answered by anyone who hasn’t completely forgotten what I have said above. The form of inquiry and discovery that the ancients used—they declared it openly, and it appears on the very face of their writings—was simply this:
From a few examples and particulars (with some common notions thrown in, and perhaps some of the most popular accepted opinions). they rushed to the most general conclusions, the ·would-be· first principles of ·their· science. Taking the truth of these as fixed and immovable, they proceeded to derive from them—through intermediate propositions— lower-level conclusions out of which they built their system. Then if any new particulars and examples turned up that didn’t fit their views, they either •subtly moulded them into their system by distinctions or explanations of their rules, or •coarsely got rid of them by ·tacking· exceptions ·onto their principles·. As for particulars that weren’t in conflict ·with their views·, they laboured away through thick and thin to assign them causes in conformity with their principles.
But this wasn’t the experimental natural history that was wanted; far from it. And anyway dashing off to the highest generalities ruined everything.
126. will occur to you too: ‘By forbidding men to announce principles and take them as established until they have arrived at the highest generalities in the right way through intermediate steps, you are inviting them to suspend judgment, bringing this whole affair down to Acatalepsy.’ Not so. What I have in mind and am propounding is not Acatalepsy [from Greek, = ‘the doctrine that nothing can be understood’] but rather Eucatalepsy [from Greek, = ‘the provision of what is needed for things to be understood’]. I don’t •disparage the senses, I •serve them; I don’t •ignore the intellect, I •regulate it. And it is surely better that we should
know everything that we need to know, while thinking that our knowledge doesn’t get to the heart of things
than that we should
think our knowledge gets to the heart of things, while we don’t yet know anything we need to know.
127. You may want to ask—just as a query, not an objection—whether I am talking only about natural philosophy, or whether instead I mean that the other sciences—logic, ethics and politics—should be conducted in my way. Well, I certainly mean what I have said to apply to them all. Just as •common logic (which rules things by syllogisms) extends beyond natural sciences to all sciences, so does •mine (which proceeds by induction) also embrace everything. I am constructing a history and table of discovery for
•anger, fear, shame, and the like; for
•matters political; and for
•the mental operations of memory, composition and division, judgment and the rest,
just as much as for
•heat and cold, light, vegetative growth and the like.
But my method of interpretation ·differs from the common logic in one important respect; my method·, after the history has been prepared and set in order, concerns itself not only with •the movements and activities of the mind (as the common logic does) but also with •the nature of things ·outside the mind·. I guide the mind so that its way of engaging with any particular thing is always appropriate. That’s why my doctrine of interpretation contains many different instructions, fitting the discovery-method according to the quality and condition of the subject-matter of the inquiry.
128. ‘Do you want to pull down and destroy the philosophy, arts and sciences that are now practised?’ There ought to be no question about that. Far from wanting to destroy them, I am very willing to see them used, developed and honoured. I don’t want to get in the way of their •giving men something to dispute about, •supplying decoration for discourse, •providing the ‘experts’ with an income, and •facilitating civil life—acting, in short, like coins that have value because men agree to give it to them. Let me clear about this: what I am presenting won’t be much use for purposes such as those, since it can’t be brought within reach of the minds of the vulgar except ·indirectly·, through effects and works. My published writings, especially my Two Books on the Advancement of Learning, show well enough the sincerity of my declaration of friendly good will toward the accepted sciences, so I shan’t expend more words on that topic here. Meanwhile I give clear and constant warning that the methods now in use won’t lead to any great progress in the theoretical parts of the sciences, and won’t produce much in the way of applied-science results either.
129. All that remains for me to say are a few words about the excellence of the end in view. If I had said them earlier they might have seemed like mere prayers; but perhaps they’ll have greater weight now, when hopes have been created and unfair prejudices removed. I wouldn’t have said them even now if I had done the whole job myself, not calling on anyone else to help with the work, because ·words said in praise of the object of this exercise· might be taken as a proclamation of my own deserts. But ·I’m not going it alone·; I do want to energize others and kindle their zeal, so it is appropriate that I put men in mind of some things, ·even at the risk of seeming to boast·.
The making of great ·scientific· discoveries seems to have pride of place among human actions. That was the attitude of the ancients: they honoured the makers of discoveries as though they were gods, but didn’t go higher than demigods in their honours for those who did good service in the state (founders of cities and empires, legislators, saviours of their country from long endured evils, quellers of tyrannies, and the like). And if you think accurately about the two ·kinds of benefactor· you will see that the ancients were right about them. Why? (1) Because the benefits of ·scientific· discoveries can •extend to the whole of mankind, and can •last for all time, whereas civil benefits •apply only to particular places and •don’t last for very long.
(2) Also, improvements in civil matters usually bring violence and confusion with them, whereas ·scientific· discoveries bring delight, and confer benefits without causing harm or sorrow to anyone.
·Scientific· discoveries are like new creations, imitations of God’s works. . . . It seems to be worth noting that Solomon, the marvel of the world, though mighty in empire and in gold, in the magnificence of his works, his court, his household, his fleet, and the lustre of his name, didn’t glory in any of these, but pronounced that ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honour of kings is to search out a matter’ (Proverbs 25:2).
If you compare how men live in the most civilized provinces of Europe with how they live in the wildest and most barbarous areas of the American continent, you will think the difference is big enough—the difference in •the condition of the people in themselves as well as in •what conveniences and comforts they have available to them—to justify the saying that ‘man is a god to man’. And this difference doesn’t come from the Europeans’ having better soil, a better climate, or better physiques, but from the arts [see note on ‘art’ here].
Notice the vigour of discoveries, their power to generate consequences. This is nowhere more obvious than in three discoveries that the ancients didn’t know and whose origins (all quite recent) were obscure and humdrum. I am talking about the arts of •printing, •gunpowder, and •the nautical compass. These three have changed the whole aspect and state of things throughout the world—the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation—bringing about countless changes; so that there seems to have been no empire, no philosophical system, no star that has exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.
For my next point, I need to distinguish the three kinds— three levels, as it were—of human ambition. (1) Some people want to extend their power within their own country, which is a commonplace and inferior kind of ambition. (2) Some work to extend the power and dominion of their country in relation to mankind in general; this is certainly not as base as (1) is, but it is just as much a case of greed. (3) If a man tries to get mankind’s power and control over the universe off to a fresh start, and to extend it, hisambition (if it is ambition at all) is certainly more wholesome and noble ·than the other two·. Now—·this being the point I wanted to make·—man’s control over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences, for we can’t command nature except by obeying her.
A further point: it sometimes happens that •one particular discovery is so useful to mankind that the person who made it and thus put the whole human race into his debt is regarded as superhuman; so how much higher a thing it is to discover something through which •everything else can easily be discovered! ·Not that a discovery’s consequences are the main thing about it·. Light is useful in countless ways, enabling us to walk, practise our arts, read, recognize one another, and yet something that is finer and lovelier than all those uses of light is seeing light. Similarly, merely contemplating things as they are, without superstition or imposture, error or confusion, is in itself worthier than all the practical upshots of discoveries.
Final point: If anyone counts it against the arts and sciences that they can be debased for purposes of wickedness, luxury, and the like, don’t be influenced by that. The same can be said of all earthly goods: intelligence, courage, strength, beauty, wealth—even light! Just let the human race get back the right over nature that God gave to it, and give it scope; how it is put into practice will be governed by sound reason and true religion.
130. The time has come for me to present the art of interpreting nature—the art itself, ·not just remarks about the need for it, its virtues, and so on·. Although I think I have given true and most useful precepts in it, I don’t say that this art is absolutely necessary, implying that nothing could be done without it. In fact, I think that if
•men had ready at hand a sound history of nature and of experiments, •were thoroughly practised in it, and •imposed on themselves two rules: (1) set aside generally accepted opinions and notions, and (2) for a while keep your mind away from the highest and second-to-highest generalizations,
they would arrive at my form of interpretation sheerly through their own natural intelligence, with no help from any other rules or techniques. For interpretation is the true and natural work of the mind when it is freed from blockages. It is true, however, that it can all be done more readily and securely with help from my precepts.
And I don’t say, either, that my art of interpreting nature is complete so that nothing can be added to it. On the contrary: I am concerned with the mind not only in respect of its own capacities but also in respect of how it engages with things; so I have to think that the art of discovery can develop as more discoveries are made.
The next post in the sequence will be posted Thursday, October 24 at latest by 4:00pm PDT.
This makes me wonder to what degree people think science is difficult and fiddly because they've been trained to pursue tiny effect sizes in established areas.