Phenomena of the Universe Or Natural History for the Building Up of Philosophy

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Since it seems to me that people do not keep strictly to the straight and narrow when forming their opinions or putting things to the test, I have decided to use all the means at my disposal to remedy this misfortune. For in nothing else does the aspiration to deserve well show itself than in that things are so arranged that people, freed both from the hobgoblins of belief and blindness of experiments, may enter into a more reliable and sound partnership with things by, as it were, a certain literate experience. For in this way the intellect is both set up in safety and in its best state, and it will besides be at the ready and then come upon harvests of useful things.

Now the beginnings of this enterprise must in general be drawn from natural history; for the whole body of Greek philosophy with its sects of all kinds, and all the other philosophy we possess seem to me to be founded on too narrow a natural-historical basis, and thus to have delivered its conclusions on the authority of fewer data than was appropriate. For having snatched certain things from experience and tradition, things sometimes not carefully examined or ideas not securely established, they leave the rest to meditation and intellectual agitation, employing Dialectic inspire greater confidence in the matter.

But the chemists and the whole pack of mechanics and empirics, should they have the temerity to attempt contemplation and philosophy, being accustomed to meticulous subtlety in a few things, they twist by extraordinary means all the rest into conformity with them and promote opinions more odious and unnatural than those advanced by the very rationalists. For the latter take for the matter of philosophy very little out of many things, the former a great deal out of a few, but in truth those courses are weak and past cure. But the Natural History which has been accumulated hitherto may seem abundant on casual inspection, while in reality it is sketchy and useless, and not even of the kind I am seeking. For it has not been stripped of fables and ravings, and it rushes into antiquity, philology and superfluous narratives, neglectful and high-handed in matters of weight, overscrupulous and immoderate in matters of no importance. But the worst thing about this abundance is that it has embraced the inquiry into things natural but largely spurned that into things mechanical. Now the latter are far better than the former for examining nature's recesses; for nature of its own accord, free and shifting, disperses the intellect and confuses it with its variety, but in mechanical operations the judgment is concentrated, and we see nature's modes and processes, not just its effects. Yet, on the other hand, all the subtlety of mechanics stops short of what I am seeking. For the craftsman, intent on his work and its end, does not direct his mind or put his hand to other things, things which perhaps do more for the inquiry into nature.

Therefore we need more meticulous care and handpicked trials, not to mention funding and the utmost patience besides. For it has ruined everything in the experimental field that right from the beginning men have continually aimed at Experiments of Fruit not ones of Light, and have devoted their energies entirely to producing some splendid work, not to revealing nature's oracles, which is the work of works and encompasses in itself all power. It also comes about from men's misguided conceit that they have mostly applied themselves to things hidden and rare, and put their efforts and inquiry into those while spurning common experiments and observations, and this seems to have come about either because they sought admiration and fame, or because they fell for the belief that the function of philosophy lies in accommodating and reducing rarer events to those which occur familiarly, not equally to unearthing the causes of these common things themselves and deeper causes of those causes.

But the main point of the whole accusation against natural history is that men have gone astray not only in the work, but in its very plan. For the natural history which is in existence seems to have been composed either for the usefulness of the experiments themselves, or for the agreeableness of their narratives, and to have been made for their own sake, not so as to furnish the markings of philosophy and the sciences and as it were breast-feed them.

Thus, as far as it is within my power, I do not wish to fail to do my duty in this matter. For I have long since decided how much I should grant to abstract philosophies. Indeed, I believe that I hold fast to the ways of true and good induction, in which all things lie, and which can help the frail and crippled faculty of human intellect towards the sciences, as by mechanical aids or by some thread to guide it through a labyrinth. Nor am I unaware that if I had been willing to restrict that instauration of the sciences which I have in mind to any of the greater inventions, I could perhaps have harvested a greater crop of honour. But since God has given me a mind which knows how to submit itself to things and which readily rejects the specious out of a sense of what is right and from confidence that things will turn out well, I have also taken upon myself that part of the work which I think others have wanted either to avoid entirely, or to treat in a way different from my idea of it.

But there are two things which I wish to warn people about in this connection both for the future and, since I am girding myself for the very thing itself, for now especially. The first is to get rid of that idea which, though it be utterly false and harmful, easily invades and takes hold of men's minds, namely that the inquiry into particulars is something infinite and without end, when it would be truer to say that the way of opinions and disputations is the trifling one; but in fact these vain imaginings are condemned to perpetual errors and infinite disturbances, whereas particulars and the informations of the sense (which, when individuals and the gradations of things have been left out, is sufficient for the inquiry into truth) allow understanding for certain, and that, to be sure, neither forlorn nor hopeless.

The second is that I would have men never forget what is involved and, when they have come across troops of thoroughly vulgar things, things slight and to all appearances frivolous, even vile, and which (as the man says) must be brought in with an apology, they do not think I am trifling, or reducing the human mind to things beneath its dignity. For these things are neither examined nor described for their own sake, but in fact there is simply no other alternative open to the human intellect, and the grounds of the work are left insecure without them. I am then certainly undertaking the most serious business of all and most worthy of the human mind, that nature's light, pure and quite unclouded by vain imagination (that light whose name has sometimes been mentioned thus far, while people have known nothing about the thing itself), may be lit in this age of ours by a torch furnished and brought near by the Divine Will.

For I do not hide the fact that I believe that preposterous subtlety of argument and thought can by no means put things right again, though all the intellects of all ages be gathered together, when, at the proper time, the subtlety and truth of the basic information or true induction have been overlooked or incorrectly established, but that nature, like fortune, is long-haired at the front and bald at the back. It remains, therefore, for the matter to be attempted anew, and that with better help and with the zeal of opinions laid aside, so that we may enter into the kingdom of philosophy and the sciences (in which human power is situated, for nature is conquered only by obeying it) in the way that we gain access to the Kingdom of Heaven, which none may enter save in the likeness of a little child. Yet I do not wholly despise the base and indiscriminate custom of working by experiments themselves (for it may doubtless suggest very many useful things to men's knowledge and invention, according to the variety of their arts and capacities), nevertheless I think it is something very trivial in comparison with that entrance into human knowledge and power which I hope for from the Divine Mercy, which indeed I again beseech humbly to allow me to endow the human family with new alms through my efforts.

The nature of things is either free, as in species, or disturbed, as in monsters, or confined, as in experiments of the Arts; yet its deeds of whatever kind are worthy of report and history. But the History of Species currently available, as for example of plants, animals, metals and fossils, is puffed up and full of curiosities; the History of Marvels empty and based on rumour; the History of Experiments detective, attempted piecemeal, dealt with carelessly, and entirely for practical not philosophical use.

Therefore it is my resolve to curb the History of Species, to shake out and purify the History of Marvels, but to our special effort into Mechanical and Artificial Experiments where nature gives in to human intervention. For what are the sports and frivolities of nature to us? That is, the tiny differences of species as to shape, which contribute nothing to works but in which Natural History none the less abounds. Now knowledge of Marvels certainly pleases me, if it be purified and sifted; but why in the final analysis is it pleasing? Not for the fun of being astonished, but because it often reminds Art of its duty to lead nature knowingly where it has itself sometimes gone before of its own accord.

In general I assign the leading roles in shedding light on nature to artificial things, not only because they are most useful in themselves, but because they are the most trustworthy interpreters of natural things. Can it be said that anyone had just happened to explain the nature of lightning or a rainbow as clearly before the principles of each had been demonstrated by artillery or the artificial simulacra of rainbows on a wall? But if they are trustworthy interpreters of natural causes, they will also be sure and fertile indicators of effects and works. However, I do not think it appropriate to divide my history in accordance with this threefold partition, so as to deal with singular instances separately, but I shall mix the three kinds, joining things natural with artificial, ordinary with extraordinary, and paying very close attention to all the most useful ones.

Now it would be more usual to begin with the phenomena of the ether. But I, sacrificing nothing of the seriousness of my undertaking, shall give priority to things which make up and answer to a nature more general, in which both globes share. I shall begin in fact with a history of bodies according to the difference which seems the simplest, that it, the abundance or paucity of the matter contained and spread out within the same space or boundaries, seeing indeed that none of the pronouncements about nature is truer than that double proposition. Nothing comes from nothing, nor is anything reduced to nothing, but the very quantum of nature, or the whole sum of matter always remains and stays the same, and is in no way increased or diminished. Moreover, it is no less certain, even though not so clearly noted or asserted (whatever stories people make up about the impartial potential of matter towards forms) that more or less of this quantity of matter is contained in the same volumes of space according to the diversity of the bodies which occupy them, bodies some of which we find to be very obviously more compact, others more extended or diffuse. For a vessel or cauldron filled with water and air does not hold an equal portion of matter, but more of one and less of the other. Therefore if someone claimed that a given amount of water could be made from the same amount of air, it would be the same as saying that something can come from nothing. For what you deem to be lacking from the quantity of matter would have to have been made up from nothing. On the other hand, if someone claimed that a given amount of water could be turned into the same amount of air, it would be the same as saying that something can be reduced to nothing. For what you deem to be extra in the quantity of matter would likewise have to have vanished into nothingness. There is no doubt in my mind that this business is capable of being reduced to calculation, to indefinite proportions perhaps in some things, but to ones precise and certain in others, and known to nature. As, for example, if someone said that the concentration of matter in a body of gold exceeded that of a body of spirit or wine by a factor of twenty to one or thereabouts, he would not be wrong. So as I now mean to present the history I mentioned concerning the abundance and paucity of matter, and its coming together and expansion, things from which the notions of Dense and Rare (if properly understood) take their origin, I shall so order matters that I shall draw up the relative figures for different bodies (as of gold, water, oil, air and flame) first. Then after examining these, I shall record with calculations or ratios the retreats and expatiations of each particular body. For a given body, even without anything being added to it or taken away, or at least not in proportion to its contraction and extension, allows itself to be gathered by various impulses both external and internal into a larger or smaller sphere. Sometimes the body struggles and strives to restore itself into its old sphere, sometimes it clearly goes beyond that and does not try to revert. Here I shall first record the courses, differences and proportions of any natural body (as to its extent) compared with its openings and closings up, that is, with its powders, its calces, its virrifications, its dissolutions, its distillations, vapours and breaths, its exhalations and inflammations; then I shall set out the actions and motions themselves, the progressions and the limits of contraction and dilation, and when bodies restore themselves and when they go beyond that in respect of their extent; but I shall especially note the efficient causes and media by means of which such contractions and dilations of bodies come about; and meanwhile I shall in passing append the virtues and actions which bodies get and take on from some compressions and dilatations.

And since I know well how difficult a thing it is, in the present climate of opinion, to familiarise oneself with nature right from the very beginning, I shall add my own observations to gain men's attention and arouse them to contemplation. Now as far as the demonstration or revealing of the density and rarity of bodies is concerned, I have no doubt or hesitation that as to dense and palpable bodies the motion of gravity (as they call it) may be taken as the best and most ready test, for the more compact the body, the heavier it is. But when it comes to the level of airy and spiritual things, then scales will for sure be of no use to me, and I shall need another kind of industry. I shall begin, however, with Gold: which of all the things we have (for philosophy has not grown up enough for us to say anything for certain about the bowels of the Earth) is the heaviest and contains the most matter in the smallest space, and I shall relate the ratios of the rest to the sphere of this body, with the reminder that I am not dealing here with the history of weights except in so far as it sheds light for demonstrating the space or dimensions of bodies. . . .

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.