13 Causes of Bad Science (Novum Organum Book 1: 69-92)

by Francis Bacon44 min read4th Oct 20191 comment


Practice & Philosophy of Science

This is the sixth 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: 69–92

by Francis Bacon

[[Bacon continues on from the discussion of Idols of the Mind. Demonstration might be interpreted simply as experiment, but is likely closer to meaning of Aristotle's demonstrations: a scientific deduction where one moves from premises in which one has high confidence to new conclusions.]]

69. But the idols have defences and strongholds, namely defective demonstrations; and the demonstrations we have in dialectics do little except make •the world a slave to •human thought, and make human thought a slave to •words. Demonstrations are indeed incipient philosophies and sciences: how good or bad a demonstration is determines how good or bad will be the system of philosophy and the thoughts that follow it. Now the demonstrations that we use in our whole process of getting from the •senses and •things to •axioms and conclusions are defective and inappropriate. This process has four parts, with a fault in each of them. (1) The impressions of the senses itself are faulty, for the senses omit things and deceive us. Their omissions should be made up for, and their deceptions corrected. (2) Notion are abstracted badly from the impressions of the senses, and are vague and confused where they should be definite and clearly bounded.

(3) Induction goes wrong when it infers scientific principles by simple enumeration, and doesn’t, as it should, take account of the exceptions and distinctions that nature is entitled to. (4) The method of discovery and proof in which you first state the most general principles and then bring the intermediate axioms into the story, ‘proving’ them from the general principles, is the mother of errors and a disaster for all the sciences. At this stage I merely touch on these matters. I’ll discuss them more fully when, after performing these cleansings and purgings of the mind, I come to present the true way of interpreting nature.

70. The procedure that starts with experience and sticks close to it is the best demonstration by far. A procedure that involves transferring a result to other cases that are judged to be similar is defective unless the transfer is made by a sound and orderly process. The way men conduct experiments these days is blind and stupid. Wandering and rambling with no settled course and only such ‘plans’ as events force on them, they cast about and touch on many matters, but don’t get far with them. Sometimes they are eager, sometimes distracted; and they always find that some further question arises. They usually conduct their experiments casually, as though this were just a game; they slightly vary experiments that are already known; and if an experiment doesn’t come off, they grow weary and give up the attempt. And even if they worked harder at their experiments, applying themselves more seriously and steadfastly, ·they still wouldn’t get far, because· they work away at some one experiment, as Gilbert did with the magnet and the chemists do with gold. That is a way of proceeding that is as unskilful as it is feeble. For no-one successfully investigates the nature of a thing taken on its own; the inquiry needs to be enlarged so as to become more general.

And even when they try to draw some science, some doctrines, from their experiments, they usually turn aside and rashly embark on premature questions of practical application; not only for the practical benefits of such applications, but also because they want to do things that will •assure them that it will be worth their while to go on, and •show themselves in a good light to the world and so •raise the credit of the project they are engaged in. They are behaving like Atalanta ·in the legend from ancient Greece·: she turned aside to chase a golden ball, interrupting her running of the race and letting victory slip through her fingers. But in using the true course of experience to carry out new works, we should model our behaviour on the divine wisdom and order. On the first day of creation God created light and nothing else, devoting an entire day to a work in which no material substance was created. We should follow suit: with experience of any kind, we should first try to discover true causes and axioms, looking for •enlightening experiments rather than for •practically fruitful ones. For axioms don’t singly prepare the way for practical applications, but clusters of rightly discovered and established axioms do so, bringing in their wake streams—crowds!—of practical works. The paths of experience are just as rocky and jammed as the paths of judgment, and I’ll discuss that later. I have mentioned ordinary experimental work at this stage only in its role as a bad kind of demonstration. But considerations of order now demand that I take up next ·two linked topics·: •the signs or omens (mentioned a little way back) that current systems of philosophy and of thought are in a bad condition; and •the causes of ·this badness, which· seems at first so strange and incredible. When you have seen •the signs you will be more likely to agree ·with me about the badness·; and my explanation of •its causes will make it seem less strange. These two together will greatly help to render the process of wiping the idols from the intellect easier and smoother. ·My discussion of •the signs will run to the end of 77, and •the causes will run from there to the middle of 92·.

[In the next seven sections, the Latin signa will be translated sometimes as ‘signs’ and sometimes as ‘omens’.]

71. The sciences that we have come mostly from the Greeks. For the additions by Roman, Arabic and later writers are neither plentiful nor important, and such as they are they have been built on the foundation of Greek discoveries. Now, the wisdom of the Greeks was that of teachers of rhetoric, and it spawned disputations, which made it the worst kind of inquiry for finding the truth. Those who wanted to be thought of as philosophers contemptuously gave the label ‘sophists’ to the ancient rhetoricians Gorgias, Protagoras, Hippias and Polus; but really the label fits the whole lot of them: Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Theophrastus, and their successors Chrysippus, Carneades and so on. There was this just difference: •the rhetoricians were wandering and mercenary, going from town to town, offering their wisdom for sale, and taking a price for it; whereas •the others were more ceremonial and ‘proper’—men who had settled homes, and who opened schools and taught their philosophy without charging for it. But although the two groups of philosophers were in other ways unalike, they had one thing in common: both lots were teachers of rhetoric; both turned everything into a matter for disputations, and created sects that they defended against heresies. They turned it all into •‘the talk of idle old men to ignorant youths’ (Dionysius’s jibe against Plato, a not unfair one!). But the earlier of the Greek philosophers—Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Philolaus and so on (omitting Pythagoras because he was a mystic)—didn’t open schools, as far as we know. What they did was to apply themselves to the discovery of truth, doing this

  • more quietly, severely and simply—that is, with less affectation and parade—

than the others did. And in my judgment they also performed

  • more successfully,

·or would have done so· if it weren’t for the fact that their works were in the course of time obscured by less substantial people who offered more of what suits and pleases the capacity and tastes of the vulgar. Time is like a river, bringing lightweight floating stuff down to us and letting heavier and solider things sink. Still, not even they—·Empedocles and the rest·—were entirely free of the Greek fault: they leaned too far in the direction of ambition and vanity, founding sects and aiming for popular applause. The inquiry after •truth has no chance of succeeding when it veers off after •trifles of this kind. And I ought to mention the judgment, or rather the prediction, that an Egyptian priest made about the Greeks, namely that ‘they are always boys, with no •long-established knowledge and no •knowledge of ancient times’ [neater in Latin: •antiquitatem scientiae and •scientiam antiquitatis]. Assuredly they were like boys in their readiness to chatter, and in their inability to father anything—for their wisdom is full of words but sterile in works. So when we consider the currently accepted philosophy in the light of its place of origin and its family tree, the omens are not good!

72. And the omens provided by the character of the time and age aren’t much better than the ones from the character of the place and the nation. For knowledge at that period concerned only a short stretch of time and a small part of the world, and that’s the worst state to be in, especially for those who base everything on experience. For the preceding thousand years they had no history worthy of the name, but only fables and verbal traditions. And they knew only a small portion of the regions and districts of the world; they indiscriminately called everyone to the north of them ‘Scythians’. and those to the west ‘Celts’; they knew nothing of Africa beyond the nearest part of Ethiopia, or of Asia beyond the Ganges. They knew even less about the provinces of the New World. . . .and declared to be uninhabitable a multitude of climates and zones where actually countless nations live and breathe. . . . (Contrast that with the present day: we know many parts of the New World as well as the whole of the Old World, and our stock of experience has grown infinitely.) So if like astrologers we take omens ·for contemporary systems of philosophy· from the facts about when they were born, we can’t predict anything great for them.

73. Of all the signs ·we can have of the value of a field of endeavour·, none are more certain or more conspicuous than those based on the upshots ·of the endeavour·. For upshots and useful practical applications are like sponsors and guarantors of the truth of philosophies. [Throughout this work, ‘philosophies’ include ‘sciences’.] Now, from all those systems of the Greeks and the particular sciences derived from them, you can hardly name a single experiment that •points the way to some improvement in the condition of man, and that •really does come from the speculations and theories of philosophy. Hardly one, after all those years! And Celsus honestly and sensibly admits as much, when he tells us that •the practical part of medicine was discovered first, and that then •men philosophized about it and hunted for and assigned causes; rather than the reverse process in which •philosophy and the knowledge of causes led to •the discovery and development of the practical part. So it isn’t strange that among the Egyptians, who rewarded inventors with divine honours and sacred rites, there were more images of the lower animals than of men; for the lower animals have made many discoveries through their natural instincts, whereas men have given birth to few or none through their discussions and rational inferences.

The work of chemists has produced a little, but only •accidentally and in passing or else •by varying previous experiments (just as a mechanic might do!), and not by any skill or any theory. For the theory that they have devised does more to confuse the experiments than to help them. And the people who have busied themselves with so-called ‘natural magic’ have come up with nothing but a few trifling and apparently faked results. In religion we are warned to show our faith by our works; the same rule applies in philosophy, where a system should be judged by its fruits, and pronounced frivolous if it turns out to be barren, especially when it bears the thorns and thistles of dispute and contention rather than the fruits of grape and olive.

74. The growth and progress of systems and sciences provides signs ·as to their value·. Something that is grounded in nature grows and increases, while what is based on opinion alters but doesn’t grow. 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. This is the opposite of what happens with the mechanical arts, which are based on nature and the light of experience: they (as long as they find favour with people) continually thrive and grow, having a special kind of spirit in them, so that they are at first rough and ready, then manageable, from then onwards made smoothly convenient by use—and always growing.

75. Admissions made by the very authorities whom men now follow constitute another sign ·that today’s sciences are in trouble·—if it is all right to apply the label ‘sign’ to what is really testimony, indeed the most reliable of all testimony. Even those who so confidently pronounce on everything do intermittently pull themselves together and complain of the subtlety of nature, the obscurity of things, and the weakness of the human mind. ·These complaints are not just a sign of trouble in the sciences; they are worded in such a way that they cause further harm·. If these people merely complained, some cowards might be deterred from searching further, while others with livelier minds and a more hopeful spirit might be spurred and incited to go on. But the complainers don’t merely speak for themselves: if something is beyond their knowledge or reach, and of their master’s, they declare it to be beyond the bounds of possibility, something that can’t be known or done; so that their lofty ill-nature turns the weakness of their own ‘discoveries’ into a libel against nature herself and a source of despair for the rest of the world. •Thus the school of the New Academy, which doomed men to everlasting darkness by maintaining as a matter of doctrine that nothing at all could be known. •Thus the opinion that men can’t possibly discover the forms, i.e. the real differentiae of things ·that put things into different species· (really they are laws of pure action [see note here]). •Thus also certain opinions in the field of action and operation, e.g. that the heat of the sun is quite different in kind from the heat of fire, so that no-one will think that the operations of fire could produce anything like the works of nature ·that are produced by the sun·. •That’s the source of the view that. . .

Latin: . . . compositionem tantum opus hominis, mistionem vero opus solius naturae esse

literal meaning: . . . men are capable only of composition, and mixing has to be the work of nature

intended meaning? . . . men are capable only of assembling things into physical mixtures (e.g. salt and pepper), and the subtler kind of combination involved in something’s being gold or water or salt or the like must be the work of nature

—lest men should hope to develop techniques for generating or transforming natural bodies, ·e.g. creating water or turning lead into gold·. ·I point out· this sign ·of second-rateness· to warn you not to let your work and your career get mixed up with dogmas that are not merely discouraging but are dedicated to discouragement.

76. Here is another sign ·of something’s being wrong· that I oughtn’t to pass over: the fact that formerly there existed among philosophers such great disagreement, and such differences between one school and another. This shows well enough that the road from the senses to the intellect was not well defended ·with walls along each side·, when the same raw material for philosophy (namely the nature of things) has been taken over and used to construct so many wandering pathways of error. These days, most of the disagreements and differences of opinion on first principles and entire ·philosophical· systems have been extinguished; but there are still endless questions and disputes concerning some parts of philosophy, which makes it clear that there is nothing certain or sound in the systems themselves or in the modes of demonstration ·that they employ·.

77. Some men think this:

There ·is great agreement in philosophy these days, because there is· widespread agreement in assenting to the philosophy of Aristotle; as witness the fact that once it was published the systems of earlier philosophers fell into disuse and withered away, while in the times that followed nothing better was found. Thus, it seems to have been so well laid out and established that it has drawn both ages—·ancient and modern·—to itself.

[[Philosophy here likely means philosophy and science unlike in modern usage where philosophy has been separated from science.]]

I start my reply to this by remarking that the general opinion that the old systems stopped being used or consulted when Aristotle’s works were published is false. In fact, long afterwards—even down to the times of Cicero and later centuries—the works of the old philosophers still remained. But in the times that followed, when the flood of barbarians pouring into the Roman empire made a shipwreck of human learning, then the systems of Aristotle and Plato, like planks of lighter and less solid material, floated on the waves of time and were preserved. As for the point about agreed assent: if you look into this more carefully you’ll see that the view I am discussing is wrong about that too. For genuine agreement is based on people’s having duly examined some matter and reached, freely ·and independently·, the same opinion about it. But the great majority of those who have assented to the philosophy of Aristotle have delivered themselves over to it on the strength of the prejudices and the authority of others; so that this is less a case of agreement than of moving together as a crowd. But even if it had been a real and widespread agreement, that is so far from being •solid confirmation of the truth ·of Aristotle’s philosophy· that it actually creates a •strong presumption of its falsity. For in intellectual matters the worst of all auguries is ·general· consent, except in theology (and in politics, where there is a right to vote!). This is because of something I have already mentioned: that nothing pleases the multitude unless it appeals to the imagination or ties the intellect up with knots made from the notions of the vulgar. Something that Phocion said about morals can very well be re-applied to intellectual matters, namely that if the multitude accept ·what you say· and are united in their applause, you should immediately check yourself to see where you have gone wrong. So this sign is one of the least favourable.

That brings me to the end of what I have to say to make my point that the signs of health and truth in the currently accepted philosophical systems and sciences are not good, whether they be drawn from their origins (71–2), their upshots (73), their progress (74), the admissions of their founders (75), or agreed acceptance (77).

78. I now come to the causes of these errors—so many of them, and such bad ones!—that have continued on through all those centuries. ·My discussion of thirteen of them will run on through 92·. You may have been wondering how the points I have made could have escaped men’s notice until now; my account of the causes should stop you wondering about that. When you understand the causes, you may have something else to be surprised by, namely the fact that someone has now seen through the errors, thought about them, and come up with my points against them. As for that, I see it as coming from my good luck rather than from my superior talents; it’s not that I am so clever, but rather that I was born at the right time.

(1) The first point ·about how long the errors went undetected· is this: If you look hard at ‘all those centuries’ you’ll see that they shrink into something quite small. We have memories and records of twenty-five, and of those you can hardly pick out six that were fertile in the sciences or favourable to their development. (There are wastelands and deserts in times just as in regions of the earth!) We can properly count only three periods when learning flourished, and they lasted barely two centuries each: that of •the Greeks, the second of •the Romans, and the last among us—•the nations of western Europe. The intervening ages of the world were not flourishing or fertile for the growth of knowledge. (Don’t cite the Arabs or the schoolmen ·as counter-examples to that·; for they spent the intervening times not •adding to the weightiness of the sciences but crushing them with the weight of their books!) So there is one cause for the lack of progress in the sciences, namely the brevity of the periods that can properly be said to have been favourable to them.

79. (2) Here is a second cause, and one of great all-around importance: Precisely at the times when human intelligence and learning have flourished most, or indeed flourished at all, men didn’t work at natural philosophy [here = ‘natural science’]. Yet it should have been regarded as the great mother of the sciences; because all arts and all sciences, though they may be polished and shaped and made fit for use, won’t grow at all if they are torn from this root ·of natural philosophy·. It is clear that after the Christian religion was generally accepted and grew strong, the vast majority of the best minds applied themselves to theology, that this offered the best promise of reward and the most abundant research support of all kinds, and that this focus on theology was the chief occupation ·of able people· in western Europe during the third period ·of the three I have named·—all the more so because at about the same time literacy began to be more widespread and religious controversies sprang up. During the Roman period—the second of my trio—philosophers mostly worked on and thought about moral philosophy, which was to the pagans what theology is to us. Also, in those times the best intelligences usually devoted themselves to public affairs, because the sheer size of the Roman empire required the services of a great many people. And—·moving back to the first of my trio·—there was only a tiny portion of time when natural philosophy was seen to flourish among the Greeks; for in earlier times all except Thales of the so-called ‘seven wise men’ applied themselves to morals and politics; and in later times, when Socrates had drawn philosophy from heaven down to earth, moral philosophy became more fashionable than ever and diverted men’s minds from the philosophy of nature.

And right at the time when inquiries into nature were carried on energetically, they were spoiled and made useless by controversies and the ambitious display of new opinions. During those three periods, then, natural philosophy was largely neglected or impeded, so it’s no wonder that men made so little progress with something that they weren’t attending to.

[This is the first of eleven remarks along the lines of ‘No wonder science hasn’t progressed, given the fact that. . . ’—one for each of Bacon’s causes of non-progress except the first and last.]

80. (3) I would add that especially in recent times natural philosophy, even among those who have attended to it, has scarcely ever had anyone’s complete and full-time attention (except perhaps a monk studying in his cell, or an aristocrat burning the midnight oil in his country house); it has usually been treated as merely a bridge leading to something else. And so ·natural philosophy·, that great mother of the sciences, has been subjected to the astonishing indignity of being degraded to the role of a servant, having to help medicine or mathematics in their affairs, and to give the immature minds of teen-agers a first dip in a sort of dye, to make them better able to absorb some other dye later on. Meanwhile don’t look for much progress in the sciences—especially in their practical part—unless natural philosophy is applied to particular sciences, and particular sciences are applied back again to natural philosophy. It is because this hasn’t been done that many of the sciences have no depth and merely glide over the surface of things. What sciences? Well, astronomy, optics, music, many of the mechanical arts, even medicine itself—and, more surprisingly, moral and political philosophy and the logical sciences. Because once these particular sciences have become widespread and established, they are no longer nourished by natural philosophy, which could have given them fresh strength and growth drawn from the well-springs—from true thoughts about

  • motions, rays, sounds and textures, and
  • microstructures of bodies [Bacon’s many uses of the word schematismus show that for him a body’s schematismus is its fine-grained structure. This version will always use ‘microstructure’, but be aware that Bacon doesn’t use a word with the prefix ‘micro’.], and
  • feelings and intellectual processes.

So it’s not at all strange that the sciences don’t grow, given that they have been cut off from their roots.

81. (4) Another great and powerful cause why the sciences haven’t progressed much is this: You can’t run a race properly when the finishing-post hasn’t been properly positioned and fixed in place. Now the true and lawful finishing-post of the sciences is just new discoveries and powers in the service of human life. But the great majority of the mob ·of supposed scientists· have no feeling for this, and are merely hired lecturers. Well, occasionally some ambitious practitioner who is abler than most spends his own resources on some new invention; but most men are so far from aiming to add anything to the arts and sciences that they don’t even attend to what’s already there or take from it anything that they can’t use in their lectures or use in the pursuit of money or fame or the like. And when one of that multitude does pay court to science with honest affection and for her own sake, even then it turns out that what attracts him is not the stern and unbending search for truth so much as the richness of the array of thoughts and doctrines. And if there should happen to be one who pursues the truth in earnest, even he will be going after •truths that will satisfy his intellect by explaining the causes of things long since discovered, and not •truths that hold promise of new practical applications or •the new light of axioms. If the •end of the sciences hasn’t yet been placed properly, it isn’t strange that men have gone wrong concerning the •means.

82. (5) So men have mislocated the end and finishing-post of the sciences; but even if they hadn’t, their route to it is completely wrong and impassable. When you think about it carefully, it is amazing that •no mortal has cared enough or thought hard enough to lay out a securely walled road leading to the human intellect directly from the senses and experiment, and that •everything has been left either to the mists of tradition, or the whirl and eddy of argument, or the waves and mazes of random and fragmentary experience. Think about this soberly and carefully: What route have men customarily travelled in investigating and discovering things? No doubt what you will first come up with is a very simple and naive discovery procedure, the most usual one, namely this:

A man is bracing himself to make a discovery about something: first he seeks out and surveys everything that has been said about it by others; then he starts to think for himself; shaking up his mind and, as it were, praying to it to give him oracular pronouncements

—a ‘method’ that has no foundation at all, rests only on opinions, and goes where they go. Another man may perhaps call on dialectics to make his discovery for him, but the discoveries that dialectics is good for are irrelevant to what we are discussing—there’s nothing in common except the word ‘discovery’.

[Regarding the passage between *asterisks*: Bacon writes of ‘arts’ but doesn’t give examples (medicine and ship-building). This text also expands his in other ways that ·dots· can’t easily indicate.]

*Arts such as medicine and ship-building are made up of principles and axioms, and dialectics doesn’t discover these; all it can ‘discover’, given that you have the principles and axioms from some other source, is what else is consistent with them. If we try to insist on more than that, demanding that dialectics tell us what the •principles and axioms are, we all know that it will fling the demand back in our faces: ‘For •them you must trust the art in question. For the foundations of medicine, for example, don’t ask dialectics, ask medicine!’* ·Setting aside the opinions of others, and dialectics·, there remains simple experience—which we call ‘experiment’ if we were trying to produce it, and ‘chance’ if we weren’t. But such experience is no better than a broom with loose bristles, as the saying is—·those who steer by it are· like men in the dark, patting the walls as they go along hoping to find their way, when they’d have done much better to wait for daylight, or light a candle, and then set off. But experience managed in the rightorder first lights the candle and then uses it to show the way. It starts with experience that is ordered and classified, not jumbled or erratic; from that it derives axioms, and from established axioms it moves on to new experiments; just as God proceeded in an •orderly way when he worked on matter. So don’t be surprised that science hasn’t yet reached the end of its journey, seeing that men have gone altogether astray, either abandoning experience entirely, or getting lost in it and wandering around as in a maze. Whereas a rightly ordered method leads by an unbroken route through the thickets of experience to the open ground of axioms.

83. This trouble ·concerning not-finding-the-way· has been greatly increased by an old and harmful opinion or fancy, namely the self-important view that it is beneath the dignity of the human mind to be closely involved with experiments on particular material things given through the senses— especially as they are

  • hard work to investigate,
  • trivial to think about,
  • nasty to report on,
  • not suitable things for a gentleman to perform,
  • infinite in number, and
  • full of extremely small-scale details.

So that it has finally come to this: the true way is not merely departed from but blocked off. It’s not that experience has been abandoned or badly handled; rather, it has been fastidiously kept at arm’s length.

84. (6) Men have been kept back from making progress in the sciences, as though by a magic spell, by •their reverence for antiquity, by •the authority of men of high standing in philosophy, and then by •the general acceptance ·of certain propositions·. I have spoken of the last of these ·in 77· above.

As for ‘antiquity’, the opinion that men have about it is a lazy one that does violence to the meaning of the word. For really what is antique is •the world in its old age, that is the world now; and •the earlier age of the world when the ancients lived, though in relation to us it was the elder, in relation to the world it was the younger. We expect •an old man to know more about the human condition than •a young man does, and to make more mature judgments about it, because of his experience and the number and variety of things he has seen, heard and thought about. In the same way, more could be fairly expected from •our age (if only we knew and chose to employ its strength) than from •ancient times, because ours is a more advanced age of the world, and has accumulated countless experiments and observations.

It is also relevant that through long voyages many things in nature will be discovered that may let in new light on philosophy (and such voyages will be increasingly frequent in our age). And given that the regions of the •material domain—i.e. of the earth, the sea and the stars—have been opened up and brought to light, it would surely be disgraceful if the •intellectual domain remained shut up within the narrow limits of old discoveries.

And with regard to authority: there is something feeble about granting so much to •authors while denying •time its rights—time, which is the author of authors, or rather of all authority. For the saying is ‘Truth is the daughter of time’, not ‘. . . the daughter of authority’!

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when we find that the enchantments of •antiquity and •authority and •general agreement have tied up men’s powers—as though putting them under a spell—making them unable to rub shoulders with •things themselves.

85. (7) What brings man’s work to a halt in face of the discoveries that have already been made is not merely his admiration for antiquity, authority and general agreement, but also his admiration for the long-time achievements of the human race. When you look at the variety and beauty of the devices that the mechanical arts have assembled for men’s use, you’ll surely be more inclined to admire man’s wealth than to have any sense of his poverty! You won’t take into account the fact that

the original human observations and natural processes (which are the soul and first mover of all that variety)

are not many and didn’t have to be dug deeply for; and that apart from them it has been merely a matter of

patience, and the orderly and precise movements of hands and tools.

For example, it certainly takes precise and accurate work to make a clock, whose wheels seem to imitate the heavenly bodies and, in their alternating and orderly motion, to imitate the pulse of animals; but ·there isn’t much scientific content in this, because the entire mechanism· depends on only a couple of axioms of nature.

[Bacon next writes about ‘the refinement of the liberal arts’ and of the ‘art’ that goes into ‘the mechanical preparation of natural substances’, and lists the achievements in astronomy, music, language, the alphabet (‘still not used in China’), the making of beer, wine and bread, and so on. His point is that these achievements took centuries of tinkering, and that they involve very little in the way of genuinely scientific knowledge. So they—like the clock—make it less appropriate to wonder at how much we know than to wonder at how little. Then:]

If you turn from the workshop to the library, and wonder at the immense variety of books you see there, just look carefully into their contents and your amazement will be flipped: having seen their endless repetitions, and seen how men are always saying and doing what has been said and done before, you’ll pass from •admiration at the variety to •astonishment at the poverty and scantiness of the subjects that have so far possessed the minds of men.

[Next Bacon comments derisively on the intellectual poverty of alchemy. Then:] The students of natural magic, who explain everything by ‘sympathies’ and ‘antipathies’, have in their lazy conjectures credited substances with having wonderful powers and operations. If they have ever they produced any results, they have been more productive of astonishment than of anything useful. [Followed by a slap at ‘superstitious magic’; Bacon expresses some embarrassment at even mentioning this, as he does with alchemy. Finally:] It isn’t surprising that the belief that one has a great deal has been a cause of our having very little.

86. (8) Furthermore, men’s feeble and almost childish admiration for doctrines and arts has been increased by the tricks and devices of those who have practised and taught the sciences. For they produce them with so much fuss and flourish, putting them before the world all dressed up and masked ·and seemingly ready to go·, as though they were wholly complete and finished. Just look at the structure and the classifications they bring with them! They seem to cover everything that could come up in that subject, and to the minds of the vulgar they present the form and plan of a perfected science; but really the classificatory units are little more than empty bookshelves. The earliest seekers after truth did better than this. Their thoughts about things resulted in knowledge that they want to set down for later use, and they did this in aphorisms—i.e. short unconnected sentences, not linked by any method—and didn’t pretend or profess to cover the entire art. But given the way things are these days, it’s not surprising that men don’t try to make further progress in matters that have been passed down to them as long since perfect and complete.

87. (9) The •ancient systems have also gained considerably in their reputation and credit from the empty-headed foolishness of those who have propounded •new ones, especially in the area of applied science. There has been no shortage of talkers and dreamers who—partly believing what they say and partly not—have loaded mankind with promises, offering the means to

  • prolong life,
  • slow down the aging process,
  • lessen pain,
  • repair natural defects,. . . .
  • control and arouse affections,
  • sharpen and heighten the intellectual faculties,
  • turn substances into other substances (·e.g. lead into gold·),
  • make things move, or move faster, at will,
  • make changes in the air,
  • arrange for influence from the stars,
  • prophesy the future,
  • make things visible from a long way off,
  • reveal things that are hidden,

and many more. With regard to these ‘benefactors’ it wouldn’t be unfair to say that •their absurdities differ as much from •true arts (in the eyes of the philosopher) as •the exploits of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great differ from •those of ·such fictional characters as· Amadis of Gaul or the Knights of the Round Table. . . . It isn’t surprising that prejudice is raised against new propositions, especially ones that are said to have practical implications, because of those impostors who have tried something similar. . . .

[[Bacon seems to speaking of idea inoculation here where people have been inoculated against new sciences because of the charlatans promising things they fail to deliver.]]

88. (10) Far more harm has been done to knowledge by pettiness, and the smallness and triviality of the tasks that men have tackled. It is made worse by the fact that this pettiness comes with a certain air of arrogance and superiority. A now-familiar general device that is found in all the arts is this: the author blames nature for any weakness in his art, declaring—on the authority of his art!—that whatever his art can’t achieve is intrinsically impossible. [‘Art’ refers to any human activity that involves techniques and requires skills.] If arts are to be their own judges, then clearly none will be found guilty! Moreover, the philosophy that is now in play hugs to itself certain tenets whose purpose. . . .is to persuade men that we can’t expect art or human labour to come up with any results that are hard to get, requiring that nature be commanded and subdued. The doctrine that the sun’s heat and fire’s heat differ in kind is an example of this, and another is the doctrine about mixture—both mentioned earlier, ·in 75·. If you think about it carefully you’ll see that all this involves a wrong limiting of human power; it tends—and is meant to tend—to produce an unnatural despair; and this not only messes up the auguries that might give hope but also cuts the sinews and spurs of industry, and loads the dice against experience itself. And all for the sake of having us think that their art has been completed, and for the miserable ‘triumph’ of getting us to believe that whatever hasn’t yet been discovered and understood can’t ever be discovered or understood.

And when someone does get in touch with reality and try to discover something new, he will confine himself to investigating and working out some one topic, such as

  • the nature of the magnet,
  • the tides,
  • mapping the heavens,

and things like that, which seem to be somewhat isolated from everything else and have hitherto been tackled without much success; whereas really it is an ignorant mistake to study something in isolation. Why? Because a nature that seems to be •latent and hidden in some things is •obvious and (as it were) palpable in others, so that people puzzle over it in •the former while nobody even notices it in •the latter. Consider the holding-together ·of material things·. Wood and stones hold together, but people pay no attention to that fact, merely saying of wood and stone that ‘they are solid’ and giving no further thought to why they don’t fall apart, breaking up their continuity; while with water-bubbles—in which a sort of hemispherical skin is formed, fending off for a moment the breaking up of the continuity—the holding together seems to be a subtle matter.

In fact, what in some things is regarded as special to them ·and not present in the rest of nature· also occurs elsewhere in an obvious and well-known form, but it won’t be recognized there as long as the experiments and thoughts of men are engaged only on the former, ·i.e. on the less obvious and supposedly ‘special’ cases·. But generally speaking, in mechanics all that is needed for someone to pass off an old result as something new is •to refine or embellish it, •to combine it with some others, •to make it handier for practical application, •to produce the result on a larger or a smaller scale than had been done before, or the like.

So it is no wonder that no important discoveries worthy of mankind have been brought to light, when men have been satisfied—indeed pleased—with such trifling and puerile tasks, and have even fancied that in them they were trying for something great, if not achieving it.

89. (11) Bear in mind also that in every period natural philosophy has had a troublesome and recalcitrant adversary in superstition and blind religious extremism. Among the Greeks those who first proposed natural causes for lightning and for storms were condemned for disrespect towards the gods. And some of the fathers of the early Christian church were not much milder in their attitude to those who, on most convincing grounds that no sane person would question today, maintained that the earth is round and thus that the antipodes exist.

Even today it is harder and more dangerous ·than it ought to be· to talk about nature, because of the procedures of the theological schoolmen. They regularized theology as much as they could, and worked it into the shape of an art [here = ‘academic discipline’], and then incorporated into the body of religion more of Aristotle’s contentious and thorny philosophy than would properly fit there. The same result is apt to arise, though in a different way, from the theories of those who have been so bold as to infer the truth of the Christian religion from the principles of •philosophers, and to confirm it by •their authority. They have solemnly and ceremonially celebrated this union of the senses with faith as a lawful marriage, entertaining [permulcentes] men’s minds with a pleasing variety things to think about but also mixing [permiscentes] the human with the divine in an unseemly fashion. In such mixtures of theology with philosophy only the accepted doctrines of philosophy are included, while •new ones—which may be changes for the better—are driven off and wiped out.

Lastly, you will find that some ignorant divines close off access to any philosophy, however ‘purified’ it may be. •Some are feebly afraid that a deeper search into nature would take one beyond the limits of what is proper; and they take what is said in the Scriptures against those who pry into

  • sacred mysteries,

wrenching it away from there and transferring it to

  • the hidden things of nature,

which are not fenced off by any prohibition ·in the Bible·. •Other divines are more complex and thoughtful: they think that if middle causes [see note in 65] aren’t known then it will be easier to explain everything in terms of God’s hand and rod; and they think that this is greatly in the interests of religion, whereas really it’s nothing but trying to gratify God by a lie. •Others are led by past examples to fear that movements and changes in philosophy will end in attacks on religion. And •others again—·bringing us to the end of my list·—seem to be afraid that if nature is investigated something may be found to subvert religion or at least to shake its authority, especially with the unlearned. But these two last fears strike me as having come from thinking at the level of the lower animals, ·like a dog cowering in fear when it hears an unfamiliar noise·; it’s as though these men in their heart of hearts weren’t sure of the strength of religion and of faith’s domination of the senses, and were therefore scared that the investigation of truth in nature might be dangerous to them. But in point of fact natural philosophy is second only to the Bible as the best antidote to superstition and the most approved nourishment for faith. So natural philosophy deserves its place as religion’s most faithful handmaid: religion displays God’s •will, while natural philosophy displays his •power. . . . ·Summing up·: it isn’t surprising that •natural philosophy is stunted in its growth when religion, the thing that has most power over men’s minds, has been pulled into the fight against •it by the stupidity and incautious zeal of certain people.

90. (12) Moving on now: in the customs and institutions of schools, academies, colleges, and similar bodies whose role is to house learned men and to develop learning, everything turns out to work against the progress of the sciences. Their lectures and tests are devised in such a way that it would be hard for anyone to think or speculate about anything out of the common rut. And if one or two have the courage to judge freely, they’ll have to do it all by themselves with no help from the company of others. And if they can put up with that too, they will find that their hard work and breadth of mind are a considerable hindrance to their careers! For the studies of men in these places are confined—as it were imprisoned—in the writings of certain authors, and if anyone disagrees with them he is immediately accused of being a trouble-maker and a revolutionary. But ·this is all wrong, because· the situation of the •arts is quite different from that of the •state, and the coming of •new light ·in the arts· is not like the coming of •new events ·in the state·. In matters of state any change—even a change for the better—is under suspicion of making trouble, because politics rests on authority, consent, fame and opinion, not on demonstration. But arts and sciences should be like quarries, where the noise of new works and further advances is heard on every side. That is how things stand according to right reason, but it’s not what actually happens; and the things I have reported in the administration and government of learning severely restrain the advancement of the sciences.

91. Indeed, even if that hostility ·towards new work· stopped, the growth of the sciences would still be held back by the fact that high aims and hard work in this field go unrewarded. For the rewarding of scientific achievement and the performing of it are not in the same hands. The growth of the sciences comes from high intelligence, while the prizes and rewards of them are in the hands of the common people, or of ‘great’ persons who are nearly all quite ignorant. Moreover, not only do scientific advances bring no rewards or other benefits, they don’t even get popular applause. For the common run of people aren’t up to the task of understanding such matters, so that news about them is apt to be blown away by the gales of popular opinions. And it’s not surprising that endeavours that are not honoured don’t prosper.

92. (13) By far the greatest obstacle to the progress of science—to the launching of new projects and the opening up of new fields of inquiry—is that men despair and think things impossible. For in these matters it’s the careful, serious people who have no confidence at all, and are taken up with such thoughts as that

  • nature is dark,
  • life is short,
  • the senses are deceptive,
  • judgment is weak,
  • experiments are hard to do,

and the like. They think that •throughout the centuries the sciences have their ebbs and flows, sometimes growing and flourishing and at others withering and decaying, but that •a time will come when the sciences are in a state from which no further progress will be possible. ·And they evidently think that that time lies in the very near future·. So if anyone expects or undertakes to make further discoveries, they set this down to his immature irresponsibility. Such endeavours, they think, start well, become harder as they go on, and end in confusion. This is a way of thinking that sober intelligent men are likely to fall into, and we mustn’t let their charms and attractions lead us to relax or mitigate our judgment ·of their line of thought·. We should carefully note what gleams of hope there are and what direction they come from; and—·changing the metaphor·—we should disregard the lighter breezes of hope but seriously and attentively follow the winds that seem to be steadier. We must also look to political prudence for advice, and to take the advice it gives; it is distrustful on principle, and takes a dim view of human affairs. So my topic here ·and to the end of 114· is hope; for I don’t trade in promises, and don’t want to affect men’s judgments by force or by trickery; rather, I want to lead them by the hand without coercion. The best way to inspire hope will be to bring men to particulars, especially ones that are set out in an orderly way in the Tables of Discovery (partly in this work ·112–113 and 218·, but much more in the fourth part of my Great Fresh Start [see note in 31], because this isn’t merely a •hope for the thing but •the thing itself. But I want to come at things gently, so ·instead of jumping straight to the Tables· I shall proceed with my plan of preparing men’s minds, for hope is a significant part even of preparation. If all the other inducements aren’t accompanied by hope, their effect on men is not to •ginger them up and get them busy but rather to •make them depressed by giving them an even darker view of how things now stand and making them even more fully aware of the unhappiness of their own condition. So there is a point in my revealing and recommending the views of mine that make hope in this matter reasonable. It’s like what Columbus did before his wonderful voyage across the Atlantic, giving reasons for his belief that hitherto unknown lands and continents might be discovered. His reasons were rejected at first, but later they were vindicated by experience, and were the causes and beginnings of great events.

The next post in the sequence, Book 1: 93-130 (The Baconian Method), will be posted Thursday, October 10th at latest by 6:00pm PDT.


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I think a similar attitude of pessimism persists today due to lack of legible paradigm shifts in several major fields:

physics: the standard model keeps fending off all challenges

medicine: biology is hard; we face big combinatorial explosions in many of the search spaces

materials science: although there is progress in exotic materials, very few make the transition to being scalably useful to build cool stuff we couldn't before. Instead we get mostly incremental improvements in specific dimensions. Also a big combinatorial explosion search space.

politics/coordination: Arrow's impossibility theorem and various game theoretic tools have shown our representational schemes for aggrageting messy preferences to have some unfortunate difficulties

philosophy of science: hasn't recovered from Kuhn's critique and the failure of the Vienna circle's approaches to find a new formalism that improves the actual practice of science.

math: math exists in dialectic with cutting edge applications (despite strenuously objecting to this) and the lack of progress in the others has likely contributed to the stagnant theorem proving regime we find ourselves in

AI: with the death* of GOFAI we are relegated to competing to see who can figure out how to copy existing innovations (biological brains) fastest. This isn't all that inspiring in the grander scheme of things. Is the best we can imagine an AI to do the thinking for us?

I don't think doom and gloom inclined metaphysics are all that surprising given this state of affairs. I think it's worth pushing back hard against this. What if huge innovations are still hanging out in plain sight? What if the penicillin of mental health exists? What if a heuristic as important as natural selection is waiting for the right person to come along to articulate it? What if coordination problems have enormous breakthrough potential such that once people have the right set of simple as-yet undiscovered ideas a level of coordination is possible that is scarcely imaginable at present, in the same way that the global coordination that modern finance make possible would have been unimaginable in a mercantilist world?

Obviously, given that I work with Qualia Research Institute, I think major breakthroughs in consciousness research are one such possibility in this space. I imagine a world in which huge insights into phenomenology (beyond recapitulating Buddhism or just understanding psychedelics) cause it to take its place next to things like the scientific method or rule of law or information theory as a set of heuristics that enable a civilization worth living in. But there is a wide open field for other approaches too.

"If a problem seems hard, the formulation is probably wrong." -David Chapman

I think big, new syntheses are coming. There is more than one Bitcoin (cryptography, finance, game theory) like thing on the horizon and I don't think they'll be exclusively AI related or enabled.

I invite you to imagine that you live in a civilization that has barely scratched the surface, yet promotes pessimism as a coping strategy for those who don't feel they can contribute to the Main Plotline.