Novum Organum: Introduction

by Ruby 6 min read19th Sep 20195 comments

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In light of its value as a rationalist text, its historical influence on the progress of science, and its general expression of the philosophy and vision which guides LessWrong 2.0, the moderation team has seen fit to publish Novum Organum as a LessWrong sequence. (Image: the engraved title page.)

Quotes in this post are from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum in the version by Jonathan Bennett presented at www.earlymoderntexts.com


In 1620, Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum was published. Though the work might be succinctly described as Bacon’s views on empiricism and inductivism, it is far more than a list of experimental steps to be followed. It is an entire epistemology and philosophy—possibly the epistemology and philosophy which underlay the Scientific Revolution.

Bacon was damning of the science of his time and preceding centuries. He saw the pseudo-empirical syllogistic paradigm as deeply flawed and incapable of making progress.

If those doctrines ·of the ancient Greeks· hadn’t been so utterly like a plant torn up by its roots, and had remained attached to and nourished by the womb of nature, the state of affairs that we have seen to obtain for two thousand years—namely the sciences stayed in the place where they began, hardly changing, not getting any additions worth mentioning, thriving best in the hands of their first founders and declining from then on—would never have come about. (74) [1]

He also believed that the unaided human mind was incapable of getting far on its own.

Nearly all the things that go wrong in the sciences have a single cause and root, namely: while wrongly admiring and praising the powers of the human mind, we don’t look for true helps for it. (9)

Not much can be achieved by the naked hand or by the unaided intellect. Tasks are carried through by tools and helps, and the intellect needs them as much as the hand does. (2)

When the intellect of a sober, patient, and grave mind is left to itself (especially in a mind that isn’t held back by accepted doctrines), it ventures a little way along the right path; but it doesn’t get far, because without guidance and help it isn’t up to the task, and is quite unfit to overcome the obscurity of things. (21)

Nonetheless, he was optimistic that if the old doctrines were abandoned, idols of the mind (i.e., biases, fallacies, and confusions) were cleared out, and his precise, careful empirical method was followed by a community of scholars, then no knowledge was out of reach and humanity would eventually achieve all of the most splendid discoveries.

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. (112)

The human mind is fallible and flawed—”like a distorting mirror,'' Bacon says—yet its biases can be overcome. Through adherence to properly looking at the world, such that if “the road from the senses to the intellect [is] well defended with walls along each side,” then a scientific community can figure out the world and even reach Utopia.

This a decidedly LessWrong worldview.

Indeed, by my reading, Bacon possessed in some form a large number of concepts employed on LessWrong, not limited to: confirmation bias, motivated cognition, the bottom line, mind-projection fallacy, positive bias, entangled evidence, carving reality at its joints, fake causality, worshipping ignorance, idea inoculation, the surprisingly detailedness of reality, inferential distance, incentives, and dissolving confused language. He even spoke of the appropriate degrees of certainty for each stage of an inquiry and deliberately used epistemic statuses!

Novum Organum was Bacon’s monumental attempt to explain all of the above: how and why the existing scientific methods were entirely broken, why nobody had noticed until then, what the alternative paradigm was, and a vision for a community of scholars and institutions which could help discover all scientific truths.

Covering biases and empiricism as it does, Novum Organum is highly instructive as a rationalist text. Yet why read Bacon when we’ve got the Sequences, Codex, and the rest of modern LessWrong? I answer that it’s worthwhile because there’s a focus and immediacy to a text whose author wasn’t writing abstractly, but direly wanted to redirect all the scientific efforts of his time to be more productive.

There’s an impressiveness to someone grappling with how to do science at a point when so much less was known about the world. Compared to us, Bacon’s time was one of extreme mystery. Recall that he was writing before Boyle, Newton, Maxwell, or Darwin. He did not have access to theories of thermodynamics, electromagnetism, evolution, or atomic physics. They hadn’t even invented the mercury thermometer in his time. He earnestly tried to figure out simply “what is heat?” and by use of his meticulous empiricism correctly inferred it was just something to do with motion—150 years before phlogiston theory was laid to rest and with access to only primitive air-based thermometers!

We get to look back and point to all that modern science has done over the centuries to make us feel enthusiastic. Four hundred years ago, Bacon's enthusiasm came entirely from his ability to look forward.

There is also perhaps a validation of the LessWrong worldview to be found in Bacon. Bacon was a symbolic figure of the Scientific Revolution. Inspirational to the Royal Society and many others. Historical credit allocation is hard, but it seems more likely than not that Bacon gets a good deal of credit in bringing about the Scientific Revolution. Seemingly, many of the same ideas that we cherish now were read by the scholars who first read Bacon and kicked off the modern scientific era. If only people hadn’t stopped reading Bacon in the original after a few generations.

Beyond his instruction in biases and empiricism, Bacon in an inspiration to the LessWrong 2.0 project [2] for his visions of how infrastructure and community are key to intellectual progress. Bacon saw intellectual progress as a technological [3] and collaborative endeavor, exactly as LessWrong 2.0 does.

At the technologies for individual thinking level, Bacon writes:

Not much can be achieved by the naked hand or by the unaided intellect. Tasks are carried through by tools and helps, and the intellect needs them as much as the hand does. And just as the hand’s tools either give motion or guide it, so ·in a comparable way· the mind’s tools either point the intellect in the direction it should go or offer warnings. (2)

Bacon is further adamant that the process of science requires people to write their work down and share it. Perhaps this is obvious now, but Bacon was writing before the first scientific journal, indeed, he is credited as a major inspiration for the Royal Society whose philosophical transactions were the first scientific journal.

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. (101)

Yet another point, maybe, obvious to us now: the work of science can be split up among people.

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. (113)

Though Bacon’s greatest reference to collaborating and institution for knowledge perhaps comes from his utopian novel, New Atlantis. One character describes the fictional institution of Solomon’s House:

Ye shall understand (my dear friends) that amongst the excellent acts of that king, one above all hath the pre-eminence. It was the erection and institution of an Order or Society, which we call Salomon's House; the noblest foundation (as we think) that ever was upon the earth; and the lanthorn of this kingdom. It is dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God. Some think it beareth the founder's name a little corrupted, as if it should be Solamona's House. But the records write it as it is spoken. So as I take it to be denominate of the king of the Hebrews, which is famous with you, and no stranger to us.

The novel goes into great depth about how the institution functions and all the roles different individuals play in the scientific process. According to Wikipedia, it is this vision which inspired Samuel Hartlib and Robert Boyle to found the Royal Society.

To conclude this introduction, I’ll mention that Novum Organum is actually part two of six from Bacon’s much larger, never-completed work, Instauratio Magna. The title is usually translated as The Great Instauration yet Bennett (whose translation of Novum Organum we are posting) translates it as The Great Fresh Start. Seems fitting to Bacon’s intentions.

It is pointless to expect any great advances in science from grafting new things onto old. If we don’t want to go around in circles for ever, making ‘progress’ that is so small as be almost negligible, we must make a fresh start with deep foundations. (31)

Given the Scientific Revolution got going in earnest around his lifetime, I dare say he got what we he asked for.


[1] Novum Organum consists two books each containing "aphorisms" which range in length from three lines to sixteen pages. A bold number on its own refers to an aphorism from Book 1 by default or Book 2 where the context is very clear. When unclear, aphorisms are referenced by a leading 1- or 2- to disambiguate, e.g 2-13 is the 13th aphorism in Book 2.

[2] Usually, we now call ourselves simply “LessWrong” but it feels important to disambiguate here since I cannot make claims to the vision for original LessWrong as founded in 2009 by Eliezer. It does seem clear that Eliezer was not influenced by Bacon in the same way that Habryka (LessWrong 2.0’s team lead and core founder) has been.

[3] By technological I refer broadly to the creation of knowledge and tools that can be used for a specific purpose, including things like methodologies and procedures, not just physical artifacts. I would call a set of techniques for debiasing one’s thinking and likewise training for how to moderate an online forum as both examples of technologies.

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