The Baconian Method (Novum Organum Book 1: 93-107)

by Francis Bacon 10 min read10th Oct 20191 comment

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

In this section, Bacon lists reasons why we should believe much greater progress in science is possible, and in doing so begins to describe his own inductivist methodology in detail.

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: 93–107

by Francis Bacon

93. We have to assume that the force behind everything is God; for our subject matter—·namely nature·—is good in such a way that it plainly comes from God, who is the author of good and the father of light. Now in divine operations even the smallest beginnings lead unstoppably to their end. It was said of spiritual things that ‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation’ [Luke 17:20], and it is the same with all the greater works of divine providence: everything glides on smoothly and noiselessly, and the work is well under way before men are aware that it has begun. And don’t forget Daniel’s prophecy concerning the last ages of the world: ‘Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased’ [Daniel 12:4], clearly indicating that the thorough exploration of the whole world is fated to coincide with the advancement of the sciences. (By ‘fated’ I mean ‘destined by ·God’s· providence’. I would add that there have been so many distant voyages that ‘the thorough exploration of the whole world’ seems to have reached completion or to be well on the way to it.)

94. Next topic: the best of all reasons for having hope, namely the errors of the past, the wrong roads so far taken. In the course of censuring a poorly run government the critic said something excellent:

The worst things in the past ought to be regarded as the best for the future. For if you had conducted yourself perfectly yet still ended up in your present ·miserable· condition, you would have not even a hope of improvement. But as things stand, with your misfortunes being due not to the circumstances but to your own errors, you can hope that by abandoning or correcting these errors you can make a great change for the better.

Similarly, if throughout many years men had gone the right way about discovering and cultivating the sciences, and the sciences had still been in the state they are now actually in, it would have been absurdly bold to think that further progress was possible. But if the wrong road has been taken, and men have worked on things that weren’t worthwhile, it follows that the troubles have arisen not from •circumstances that weren’t in our power but from •the human intellect—and the use and application of that can be remedied. So it will be really useful to expound these errors; because every harm they have done in the past gives us reason to hope to do better in the future. I have already said a little about these errors, but I think I should set them out here in plain and simple words.

95. Those who have been engaged in the sciences divide into experimenters and theorists. The experimenters, like •ants, merely collect and use ·particular facts·; the theorists, like •spiders, make webs out of themselves. But the •bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and the field, but uses its own powers to transform and absorb this material. A true worker at philosophy is like that:

  • he doesn’t rely solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind ·like a theorist = spider·, and
  • he doesn’t take the material that he gathers from natural history and physical experiments and store it up in his memory just as he finds it ·like an experimenter = ant·. Instead,
  • he stores the material in his intellect, altered and brought under control.

So there is much to hope for from a closer and purer collaboration between these two strands in science, experimental and theoretical—a collaboration that has never occurred before now.

96. We have never yet had a natural philosophy that was pure. What we have had has always been tainted and spoiled: in Aristotle’s school by logic; in Plato’s by natural theology; in the second school of Platonists (Proclus and others) by mathematics, which ought only to set natural philosophy’s limits, not generate it or give it birth. From a pure and unmixed natural philosophy we can hope for better things ·than can be expected from any of those impure systems·.

97. No-one has yet been found who was sufficiently firm of mind and purpose to decide on and to carry out this programme:

Clean right out all theories and common notions, and apply the intellect—thus scrubbed clean and evenly balanced—to a fresh examination of particulars.

[[By particulars, Bacon likely means something close to specific individual data points and observations.]]

For want of this, the human knowledge that we have is a mish-mash, composed of •childish notions that we took in along with our mothers’ milk, together with •·the results of· much credulity and many stray happenings. So if someone of mature years, with functioning senses and a well-purged mind, makes a fresh start on examining experience and particular events, better things may be hoped for from him. In this respect, I pledge myself to have good fortune like that of Alexander the Great. Don’t accuse me of vanity until you have heard me out, because what I am getting at—taken as a whole—goes against vanity. Aeschines said of Alexander and his deeds: ‘Assuredly we don’t live the life of mortal men. What we were born for was that in after ages wonders might be told of us’, as though Alexander’s deeds seemed to him miraculous. But ·what I am saying about myself is not like that, but rather like this·: in the next age Livy took a better and a deeper view of the matter, saying of Alexander that ‘all he did was to have the courage to neglect sources of fear that were negligible’. I think that a similar judgment may be passed on me in future ages: that I did no great things, but simply cut down to size things that had been regarded as great. . . .

98. We can’t do without experience; but so far we haven’t had any foundations for experience, or only very weak ones. No-one has searched out and stored up a great mass of particular events that is adequate

  • in number,
  • in kind,
  • in certainty, or
  • in any other way

to inform the intellect. On the contrary, learned men— relaxed and idle—have accepted, as having the weight of legitimate evidence for constructing or confirming their philosophy, bits of hearsay and rumours about experience. Think of a kingdom or state that manages its affairs on the basis not of •letters and reports from ambassadors and trustworthy messengers but of •street-gossip and the gutter! Well, the way philosophy has managed its relations with experience has been exactly like that.

  • Nothing examined in enough careful detail,
  • nothing verified,
  • nothing counted,
  • nothing weighed,
  • nothing measured

is to be found in natural history. And observations that are loose and unsystematic lead to ideas that are deceptive and treacherous. Perhaps you think that this is a strange thing to say. You may want to comment:

Your complaint is unfair. Aristotle—a great man, supported by the wealth of a great king—composed an accurate natural history of animals; and others, with greater diligence though making less fuss about it, made many additions; while yet others compiled rich histories and descriptions of metals, plants, and fossils.

If so, it seems that you haven’t properly grasped what I am saying here. For the rationale of a •natural history that is composed for its own sake is not like the rationale of a •natural history that is collected to supply the intellect with the concepts it needs for building up philosophy. They differ in many ways, but especially in this: the former attends only to the variety of natural species ·as they are found in nature·, not to ·deliberately constructed· experiments in the mechanical arts. In the business of life, the best way to discover a man’s character, the secrets of how his mind works, is to see how he handles trouble. In just the same way, nature’s secrets come to light better when she is artificially shaken up than when she goes her own way. So we can hope for good things from natural philosophy when natural history—which is its ground-floor and foundation—is better organized. Then, but not until then!

99. Furthermore, even when there are plenty of mechanical experiments, there’s a great scarcity of ones that do much to enlarge the mind’s stock of concepts. The experimental technician isn’t concerned with discovering the truth, and isn’t willing to raise his mind or stretch out his hand for anything that doesn’t bear on his ·practical· project. There will be grounds for hope of scientific advances when ·and only when· men assemble a good number of natural-history experiments that •are in themselves of no ·practical· use but simply •serve to discover causes and axioms. I call these ‘experiments of light’, to distinguish them from the ·practically useful but theoretically sterile· ones that I call ‘experiments of fruit’ [here ‘fruit’ = ‘practical results’]. Now, experiments of this kind have one admirable property: they never miss or fail! Their aim is not to •produce some particular effect but only to •discover the natural cause of something; and such an experiment succeeds equally well however it turns out, for either way it settles the question.

100. Many more experiments should be devised and carried out, and ones of an utterly different kind from any we have had up to now. But that is not all. There should also be introduced an entirely different method, order, and procedure for carrying through a programme of experiments. To repeat something I have already said [82]: when experimentation wanders around of its own accord, it merely gropes in the dark and confuses men rather than instructing them. But when there is a firmly regulated, uninterrupted series of experiments, there is hope for advances in knowledge.

101. Even after we have acquired and have ready at hand a store of natural history and experimental results such as is required for the work of the intellect, or of philosophy, still that is not enough. The intellect is far from being able to retain all this material in memory and recall it at will, any more than a man could keep a diary all in his head. Yet until now there has been more thinking than writing about discovery procedures—experimentation hasn’t yet become literate! But a discovery isn’t worth much if it isn’t ·planned and reported· in writing; and when this becomes the standard practice, better things can be hoped for from experimental procedures that have at last been made literate.

102. The particulars ·that have to be studied· are very numerous, and are like an army that is dispersed across a wide terrain, threatening to scatter and bewilder the intellect ·that tries to engage with them·. There’s not much to be hoped for from intellectual skirmishing ·with these particulars·, dashing here and there among them in a disorderly way. What is needed is first •to get the relevant particulars drawn up and arranged, doing this by means of tables of discovery that are well selected, well arranged, and fresh (as though living); and •to put the mind to work on the prepared and arranged helps that these tables provide.

[[By axiom, Bacon means something akin to hypothesis or model.]]

103. But after this store of particulars has been laid before our eyes in an orderly way, we shouldn’t pass straight on to the investigation and discovery of new particulars or new discoveries; or anyway if we do do that we oughtn’t to stop there. I don’t deny that when all the experiments of all the arts have been collected and ordered and brought within the knowledge and judgment of one man, new useful things may be discovered through taking the experimental results of one art and re-applying them to a different art (using the approach to experiments that I have called ‘literate’, ·meaning that the results are properly recorded in writing·). But nothing much can be hoped for from that procedure. Much more promising is this: from those particular results derive axioms in a methodical manner, then let the light of the axioms point the way to new particulars. For our road does not lie on a level, but goes up and down—up to axioms, then down again to scientific practice.

[[For a modern plain English description of Bacon's method see: 1, 2, 3.

A concrete example of what Bacon is discussing might be as follows:

Particular: you observe that both parents of sparrows care for their young*.
Highly-General Axiom/Hypothesis: both sexes of all bird species care for the young;
Medium-General Hypothesis: both of sexes small birds care for their young;
Narrow Axiom/Hypotheses: Some of both sexes of sparrows living in South England care for their young.

Aristotle might start with a fews observations or a folk belief that some birds of both sexes care for their young and then formulate a universal truth: For all X such that X is a bird, it cares for its young. By syllogism, Aristotle will derive new particular cases: Robins are are kind of bird therefore box sexes of Robins care for their young. This is syllogistic demonstration.

Bacon states that the Aristotelian approach is utterly invalid and instead one musts only generalize modestly from observations, using each expansion of the generalization to seek out further evidence which will either confirm or deny further expansion.

*This is a fictitious example.]]

104. But the intellect mustn’t be allowed •to jump—to fly—from particulars a long way up to axioms that are of almost the highest generality (such as the so-called ‘first principles’ of arts and of things) and then on the basis of them (taken as unshakable truths) •to ‘prove’ and thus secure middle axioms. That has been the practice up to now, because the intellect has a natural impetus to do that and has for many years been trained and habituated in doing it by the use of syllogistic demonstration. Our only hope for good results in the sciences is for us to proceed thus: using a valid ladder, we move up gradually—not in leaps and bounds—from particulars to lower axioms, then to middle axioms, then up and up until at last we reach the most general axioms. ·The two ends of this ladder are relatively unimportant· because the lowest axioms are not much different from ·reports on· bare experience, while the highest and most general ones—or anyway the ones that we have now—are notional and abstract and without solid content. It’s the middle axioms that are true and solid and alive; they are the ones on which the affairs and fortunes of men depend. Above them are the most general axioms, ·which also have value, but· I am talking not about abstract axioms but rather about ones of which the middle axioms are limitations ·and which thus get content from the middle axioms·. So the human intellect should be •supplied not with wings but rather •weighed down with lead, to keep it from leaping and flying. This hasn’t ever been done; when it is done we’ll be entitled to better hopes of the sciences.

105. For establishing axioms we have to devise a different form of induction from any that has been use up to now, and it should be used for proving and discovering not only so-called ‘first principles’ but also the lesser middle axioms— indeed all axioms. The induction that proceeds by simply listing positive instances is a childish affair; its conclusions are precarious and exposed to peril from a contradictory instance; and it generally reaches its conclusions on the basis of too few facts—merely the ones that happen to be easily available. A form of induction that will be useful for discovery and demonstration in the sciences and the arts will have •to separate out a nature through appropriate rejections and exclusions, and then, after a sufficient number of negatives, •to reach a conclusion on the affirmative instances. [Bacon will start to explain this in 2-15.] No-one has ever done this, or even tried to, except for Plato who does indeed make some use of this form of induction for the purpose of discussing definitions and ideas. But for this kind of induction (or demonstration) to be properly equipped for its work, many things have to be done that until now no mortal has given a thought to; so that much more work will have to be spent on this than has ever been spent on the syllogism. And this induction should be used not only in the discovery of axioms but also in drawing boundaries around notions. It is in this induction that our chief hope lies.

[[Here Bacon again mentions the importance of Looking Into the Dark.]]

106. When establishing an axiom by this kind of induction, we must carefully note whether the axiom is shaped so as to fit only the particulars from which it is derived, rather than being larger and wider. And if it is larger and wider, we must see whether its greater scope is confirmed and justified by new particulars that it leads us to. Such a justified increase of scope saves us from being stuck with things that are already known (but if it isn’t justified then we are over-stretching, loosely grasping at shadows and abstract forms rather than at solid things in the world of matter). When we do things in this way we shall at last have justified hope.

107. At this point I should remind you of what I said earlier [80] about extending the range of natural philosophy so that the particular sciences can be grounded in it, and the branches of knowledge don’t get lopped off from the trunk. For without that there will be little hope of progress.

The next post in the sequence, Book 1: 108-130 (Reasons for Hope & Objection Preemption), will be posted Thursday, October 17 at latest by 4:00pm PDT.

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