This is the ninth post in the Novum Organum sequence. For context, see the sequence introduction. For the reading guide, see earlier posts in the sequence.

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

Aphorism Concerning the Interpretation of Nature: Book 2: 1–9

by Francis Bacon

[[Bacon makes a distinction between human power vs human knowledge which may very roughly analogized as engineering vs science, i.e. being able to do things vs knowing things.]]

1. What human power does and is intended for is this:

  • For a given body, to create and give to it a new nature (or new natures)—·e.g. melting gold or cooking chicken or dissolving salt in water·.

What human knowledge does and is intended for is this:

  • For a given nature, to discover its form, or true specific differentia. . . .

·i.e. the features that a thing must have if it is to qualify as belonging to this or that natural kind, e.g. the features of gold that differentiate it from metal in general·. [Bacon adds two even more obscure technical terms, semi-apologising for them; they don’t occur again in this work. Then:] Subordinate to these primary works are two secondary and less important ones. Under the ‘power’ heading: turning concrete bodies into something different, so far as this is possible—·e.g. turning lead into gold, if this can be done·. Under the ‘knowledge’ heading:

(i) in every case of generation and motion, discovering the hidden process through which the end-state form results from the manifest efficient ·cause· and the manifest material; and
(ii) discovering the hidden microstructure of bodies that are not changing.

·An example of (i): the wax around the wick of a lighted candle melts. Flame is the efficient cause, wax is the material, and meltedness is the end-state form. But ‘flame’ and ‘wax’ stand for items that are manifest, obvious, out there on the surface; we know that when you apply one to the other you get melting; but that isn’t knowing what hidden process is involved—what is really basically going on at the sub-microscopic level when flame melts wax·. ·An example of (ii): discovering what the sub-microscopic structure is of wax when it isn’t melting·.

2. Human knowledge is in a poor state these days—how poor can be seen from things that are commonly said. ·Not that they are all wrong·.

True knowledge is knowledge by causes. Causes are of four kinds: material, formal, efficient, and final.

[A coin’s •material cause is the metal, its •formal cause is the property of being round-with-a-head-inscribed-on-it etc., its immediate •efficient cause is the stamping of a die on the metal, and its •final cause is its purpose, use in commerce.]

So far, so good; but ·the concept of· final cause spoils the sciences rather than furthering them, except in contexts involving human action. The discovery of formal causes is despaired of. Efficient and material causes ·are real and solid and important, but they· are investigated and believed in ·only as they appear on things’ surfaces·, without reference to the hidden process through which the end-state form comes about; and, taken in that way, they are slight and superficial, and contribute little or nothing to true and active science. Earlier in this work [1-51] I noted as an error of the human mind the opinion that to understand what exists you have to look at forms. It’s true that nature really contains only

individual bodies, performing individual pure actions (actus purus) according to a fixed law;

[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’.]

but in science this law is what we inquire into, discover, and explain; it is at the root of our theorizing as well as of our practical applications. When I speak ·approvingly· of ‘forms’, what I’m talking about is this law. . . .; I use the word ‘form’ because it has become familiar.

3. If someone knows the cause of a nature such as whiteness or heat in only some subjects, his •knowledge is incomplete; and if he can produce a certain effect in only some of the substances that are capable of it, his •power is incomplete. Now efficient and material causes

  • are unstable causes, ·i.e. they can’t be depended on to act in the same way in all cases·;
  • they are nothing but vehicles ·in which the operative hidden structures and causes are carried·;
  • they are causes that convey the ·end-state· form in only some cases.

If a man’s knowledge is confined to them, he may arrive at new discoveries ·that hold generally about· some pre-selected class of fairly similar substances; but he doesn’t get to the fixed, deeper boundaries of things—·‘fixed’ in contrast to the ‘unstable’ nature of manifest causes·. But someone who knows forms gets hold of the unity of nature in things that are ·superficially· most unalike, and this enables him to discover and bring to light really new things—things that no-one would ever have thought of, and that would never have come to light in the course of nature, or through deliberate experiments, or even by accident. So the discovery of forms leads to truth in theory-building and freedom in operation.

4. The roads to human power and to human knowledge lie extremely close together and are nearly the same. Still, because of the bad old habit of thinking in terms of abstractions, it is safer to get the sciences started and to carry them on from foundations that have to do with their practical part, and to let the practical part itself be a stamp of authenticity and also a limit-setter for the purely theoretical part. Well, then, let’s think about a man who wants to confer some nature on a given body; he wants, for instance, to give a piece of silver the yellow colour that gold has or to make it heavier (subject to the laws of matter), or he wants to make an opaque stone transparent, or to make glass sticky, or to get something that isn’t a plant to grow. Our question should be: what kind of rule or direction or guidance should he most wish for? And we should answer this in the simplest and plainest terms ·that we can find·. (1) He will undoubtedly want to be shown something that won’t let him down or fail when it is put to the test. (2) He will want a rule that won’t tie him down to this or that particular means and mode of operation. Otherwise he may be stuck: he doesn’t have the prescribed means, others are available and would do the job, but the rule he is to follow doesn’t allow them. (3) He will want to be shown a procedure that isn’t as difficult as the thing he wants to do—·e.g. he won’t want to be told ‘To make that silver yellow like gold, you must make it yellow like gold’·; he’ll want something more practicable than that.

A true and complete rule of operation, then, will have to be a proposition that is (1) certain, (2) not constricting and (3) practicable. And the same holds for the discovery of a true form. For the form of a nature is such that:

  • given the form, the nature is sure to follow; so that the form is absent whenever the nature is absent. . . .

and is also such that

  • if the form is taken away, the nature is sure to vanish; so that the form is present whenever the nature is present. . . .

[Bacon ties each ‘so that. . . ’ clause to the wrong proposition—a mere slip, here corrected, rather than a logical error.]


  • the true form derives the given nature from some essence that many other also things have and that is (as they say) better known to nature than the form ·we are discussing·.

[In calling something ‘known to nature’ Bacon means that it is a general law of nature; ‘better known by nature’ could mean ‘a more general law of nature’ or ‘a generality that is more completely lawlike’.]

Here, then, is the procedure that I urge you to follow to get a true and perfect axiom of knowledge concerning a nature N₁: discover some other nature N₂ that is •convertible with N₁ and is •a special case of some more general nature N₃, falling under it as ·a true species falls· under a true and real genus. Now these two directions, the active ·rule of operation· and the contemplative ·rule of discovery·, are one and the same thing; what is most useful in operation is what is most true in knowledge.

5. There are two kinds of rule or axiom for the transformation of bodies. The first regards a body as a company or collection of simple natures. In gold, for example, the following properties meet:

  • it is yellow in colour,
  • it is heavy up to a certain weight,
  • it is malleable and ductile up to a certain length,
  • it doesn’t vaporize or lose any of its substance through the action of fire,
  • it turns into a liquid with a certain degree of fluidity;
  • it is separated and dissolved by such-and-such means;

and so on for the other natures that come together in gold. This ·first· kind of axiom derives the thing from the forms of its simple natures. Someone who knows •the forms of yellowness, weight, ductility, fixity, fluidity, dissolving and so on, and •the methods for giving them to bodies, and •their intensities and varieties, will work to have them come together in some body which will thereby be transformed into gold. This kind of operation pertains to the primary kind of action; ·the fact that it involves many natures doesn’t mean that it is a later, non-basic kind of event·. For the principle of generating many simple natures is the same as that of generating just one; except that the investigator is more tightly constrained if more than one nature is involved, because of the difficulty of bringing together so many natures that don’t easily combine except in the well-trodden ordinary paths of nature. Anyway, ·despite that drawback· it must be said that this mode of operation that looks to simple natures in a compound body starts from what in nature is constant and eternal and universal, ·namely natures·, and opens broad roads to human power—ones that in the present state of things human thought can scarcely take in.

The second kind of axiom depends on the discovery of hidden processes. It doesn’t start off from simple natures, but from compound bodies just as they are found in the ordinary course of nature. For example, one might be inquiring into the origins of gold or some other metal or stone—How does it start forming? What process takes it from its basic rudiments or elements right through to the completed mineral? Or, similarly, the question of how plants are generated—What process takes the plant from the first congealing of sap in the ground, or from seeds, right through to the formed plant. . . .? Similarly ·we might inquire into· the process of development in the generation of animals from the beginning right through to birth; and similarly with other bodies.

This investigation concerns not only the •generation of bodies but also other motions and operations of nature. For example, we can inquire into •nutrition, the whole continuous series of events leading from the swallowing of the food through to its complete assimilation. Or into •voluntary motion in animals, from the first impression on the imagination and the continuous efforts of the spirits through to the flexing and moving of limbs. Or into •what is involved in the motion of the tongue and lips and other organs right through to the uttering of articulate sounds. Each of these inquiries relates to natures that have been concretized, i.e. brought together into a single structure; they concern what may be called particular and special practices of nature, not its basic and universal laws that constitute forms. ·That drawback of this approach is balanced by an advantage that it has over the other·. It has to be admitted that this second approach seems to have less baggage and to lie nearer at hand and to give more ground for hope than the first approach, ·i.e. the one described first in this aphorism·.

The practical-experimental approach corresponding to this ·second· theoretical approach starts from ordinary familiar natural events and moves on from them to ones that are very like them or at least not too unlike. But ·the merits of the first approach mustn’t be forgotten·. Any deep and radical operations on nature depend entirely on the primary axioms, ·which are the business of the first approach·. And then there are the matters where we have no power to operate but only to know, for example the heavenly bodies (for we can’t operate on them, alter them, or turn them into something else). With these things, whether we are investigating the facts about what happens in the heavens or trying to understand why it happens, we have to depend on the primary and universal axioms concerning simple natures, such as the nature of spontaneous rotation, of attraction or magnetism, and of many others that apply to more things than just to the heavenly bodies. ‘Does the earth rotate daily, or do the heavens revolve around it?’ Don’t think you have a hope of answering this before you have understood the nature of spontaneous rotation.

6. The hidden process of which I speak is utterly different from anything that would occur to men in the present state of the human mind. For what I understand by it is not

  • the different stages—different •steps—that bodies can be •seen to go through in their development,

but rather

  • a perfectly •continuous process which mostly •escapes the senses.

For instance: in all generation and transformation of bodies, we must inquire into

  • what is lost and escapes, what remains, what is added;
  • what is expanded, what is contracted;
  • what is united, what is separated;
  • what is continued, what is cut off;
  • what pushes, what blocks;
  • what predominates, what gives way;

and a variety of other particulars. And it’s not just with the generation or transformation of bodies, but with all other alterations and motions we should inquire into

  • what goes before, what comes after;
  • what is quicker, what is slower;
  • what produces motion, what ·merely· guides it;

and so on. In the present state of the sciences (in which stupidity is interwoven with clumsiness) no-one knows or does anything about any of these matters. For seeing that every natural action takes place

Latin: per minima

possibly meaning: by means of the smallest particles

or it might mean: by smallest steps, i.e. continuously

or at least by ones that are too small to strike the senses, no-one can hope to govern or change nature unless he understands and observes such action in the right way.

7. Similarly, the investigation and discovery of the hidden •microstructure in bodies is something new, as new as the discovery of the hidden •process and of the •form. At this time we are merely lingering in nature’s outer courts, and we aren’t preparing a way into its inner chambers. Yet no-one can give a body a new nature, or successfully and appropriately turn it into a new ·kind of· body without first getting a competent knowledge of the body so to be altered or transformed. Without that, he will run into methods that are worthless or at best cumbersome and wrongly ordered and unsuitable to the nature of the body he is working on. So that is clearly another road that must be opened up and fortified.

It’s true that some good useful work has been done on the anatomy of organized bodies such as men and animals; it seems to have been done subtly and to have been a good search of nature. [The phrase ‘organized bodies’ refers to organisms; but the adjective ‘organized’ emphasizes the idea of a body with different parts of different kinds, unlike such seemingly homogeneous bodies as lumps of lead.] But this kind of anatomizing lies within the visible range and is subject to the senses; also, it applies only to organized bodies. And it’s obvious and easy compared with the true anatomizing of the hidden microstructure in bodies that are thought to be the same all through, ·i.e. homogeneous·; especially in things (and their parts) that have a specific character, such as iron and stone; and homogeneous parts of plants and animals, such as the root, the leaf, the flower, flesh, blood, bones and so on. But there has been some human industry even on this kind of thing; because this is just what men are aiming at when they break up homogeneous bodies by means of distillation and other kinds of analysis so as to reveal how the complex structure ·of the seemingly homogeneous compound· comes from combination of its various homogeneous parts. This is useful too, and is the kind of thing I am recommending; but in practice it often gives the wrong answer, because the procedures that are used—fire, heat, and so on—sometimes create new natures, which the scientist thinks existed in the compound before and were merely brought into the open by the separation procedure. Anyway, this is only a small part of the work of discovering the true microstructure of the compound body—a structure that is far more subtle and detailed ·than these processes could discover·. The operation of fire doesn’t reveal and clarify this structure—it scrambles it.

So the way to separate and analyse bodies is not by fire but by reasoning and true induction, with experiments in a helping role; and by comparison with other bodies, and reduction to simple natures and their forms which meet and mix in the compound. In short, we must pass from Vulcan to Minerva—·from physical activities to intelligent mental ones·—if we want to bring to light the true •textures and •microstructures of bodies. It is on •these that depend all the hidden properties and powers of things, and all their so-called specific properties and powers. They are also the source of every effective alteration and transformation. For example, we must inquire what each body contains in the way of •spirit, and what of •tangible stuff; and regarding the spirit we should inquire into whether it is

  • plentiful (making the body swollen) or meagre and scarce;
  • fine or coarse,
  • more like air than like fire, or vice versa,
  • vigorous or sluggish,
  • weak or strong,
  • increasing or decreasing,
  • broken up or continuous,
  • agreeing or disagreeing with objects in the external environment,

and so on. Similarly, we must inquire into the tangible stuff (which is just as variable as spirit)—into its hairs, its fibres, its kinds of texture. Other things that fall within the scope of this inquiry are: •how the spirit is distributed through the bodily mass, with its pores, passages, veins and cells; and •the rudiments or first attempts at organic body. In these inquiries, and thus in all discoveries relating to hidden microstructure, the primary axioms cast a true and clear light which entirely dispels darkness and subtlety.

8. ·Three fears that you might have can be allayed·:

(1) This won’t lead us to the doctrine of atoms, which presupposes •that there is a vacuum and •that matter doesn’t change—which are both false. All we shall be led to are real particles—which ·are not merely hypothesized but· have been discovered.

(2) Don’t be afraid that all this will be so subtle—·so complex and fine-grained in its detail·—that it will become unintelligible. On the contrary, the nearer our inquiry gets to simple natures the more straightforward and transparent everything will become. The whole affair will be a matter of getting

  • from the complicated to the simple,
  • from the incommensurable to the commensurable,
  • from the random to the calculable,
  • from the infinite and vague to the finite and certain,

like the case of the letters of the alphabet and the notes of music. Inquiries into nature have the best result when they begin with physics and end in mathematics.

(3) Don’t be afraid of large numbers or tiny fractions. In dealing with numbers it is as easy to write or think a thousand or a thousandth as to write or think one.

9. From the two kinds of axioms that I have spoken of [5] arises a sound division of philosophy and the sciences. The investigation of forms, which are. . . .eternal and immutable, constitutes Metaphysics; the investigation of efficient causes, of matter, of hidden processes and of hidden microstructures—all of which concern the common and ordinary course of nature, not its eternal and fundamental laws—constitutes Physics. Each of these has a subordinate practical branch: physics has mechanics; and metaphysics has what in a cleaned-up sense of the word I call magic, on account of its sweeping ways and its greater command over nature. ‘Metaphysics’ etc. are the most accurate labels for these categories, but I am understanding them in senses that agree with my views.

The next post in the sequence will be posted Thursday, October 31 at latest by 4:00pm PT.

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