Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/May 1910/The Prophecy of Francis Bacon (1560-1910)

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I. Bacon and the Spirit of Discovery.—There are several ways in which the importance of a philosopher may be estimated. He may be regarded as an exponent of his times; that is, as a representation in which the manifold tendencies of an age are focalized and idealized. Or he may be regarded as the author of a panorama of existence, of a world-view or system, which, while it may be superseded, will always retain enough of logical and imaginative coherence to make it typical and classic. Or the philosopher, like other servants of mankind, may be judged according to the degree in which he has been confirmed by posterity. Judged by this last standard, the great philosopher will be the philosopher who, while he may, like Bacon, have been born three hundred and fifty years ago, is nevertheless modern, in the sense that he is identified with important ideas which are now generally held to be true. This brief summary aims to present the Bacon that is living to-day in our common opinion, in our expert knowledge, and in our dominant ideals.

Any one who considers Bacon in relation to European civilization of the modern period must be impressed with the degree to which he represents its progressive ideas. Those characteristics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which are most marked in Bacon are the characteristics in which they anticipate later centuries. It is possible for our immediate purposes to reduce these characteristics to one: the disposition, namely, to look for a betterment of human life from the advancement of knowledge. "Advancement of knowledge" does not here mean the education of the individual, but the winning of new truths by the race and for the good of the race. We may call this the spirit of discovery, where "discovery" is used both in the theoretical and in the practical sense. Bacon himself was not a discoverer of new scientific truths, but the discoverer of the art of discovery. As he expressed it, he "rang the bell that called the other wits together." "While it is doubtless inaccurate to attribute so general an idea to any individual authorship, Bacon was its greatest prophet. His brilliant literary gifts, his imagination, his sanguine temperament, his breadth of view and his native regard for utility, the very qualities that helped to unfit him for exact research, made him the most important medium through which the idea of discovery, or of intellectual conquest, has gradually become the hope of mankind.

II. The Baconian Reform.—This idea was defined by Bacon largely in opposition to what he believed to be the blindness and errors of his own and earlier times. Philosophical literature nowhere else contains so acute and so comprehensive an examination of man's intellectual bad habits. Bacon's criticisms may conveniently be brought together under four heads.

First, he defined the persistent error of anthropomorphism. It is customary for man to fashion things after himself. He is deceived by what Bacon calls the "idols of the tribe" or the prejudices characteristic of human nature in general, and by the "idols of the den" or the prejudices peculiar to the individual. But if he is to view nature as it is, he must efface himself.

Second, he found the thought of his own time to suffer peculiarly from conventionality. It was customary for men to accept what was current and supported by general opinion. There are two important means through which arbitrary or ungrounded ideas are foisted upon belief: language, which gives rise to what Bacon calls the "idols of the market-place," and established systems, or theories which have the stage, and which give rise to what Bacon calls the "idols of the theatre." In the interests of truth it is necessary to guard against the suggestive power of words, which are often obscure or even meaningless, and against the inertia of doctrines that have acquired repute and prestige.

Third, it was customary in Bacon's time, to a degree that is scarcely intelligible to-day, to assent to theories of nature on grounds of authority, ecclesiastical or political. Bacon is among the first to formulate the principle of tolerance, according to which there is hope of knowledge, provided only that the mind be free from external constraint. The truth-seeking mind can acknowledge no obligations except to evidence.

Fourth, Bacon attacked the tendency, common at the time of the Benaissance, to rely on antiquity. The essentially modern character of Bacon's mind is nowhere more apparent than in his repudiation of the idea that dominated the revival of letters. He detected the dangerous fallacy which had arisen with the new study of the ancient languages and literatures. Historical retrospect inverts the intellectual values of the race. The wisdom of the ancients is but the folly of youth—Antiquitas sæculi juventus mundi. The hope of knowledge lies not in a return to childhood, but in a maturity yet to come.

III. The Baconian Survey.—As a pioneer in a new intellectual enterprise, it fell to Bacon to draw a rude map of the settled domain and border wilderness of knowledge. It is impossible here to enter into the merits and demerits of his classification of the sciences. Most interesting to us of the present is his explicit provision for what is now known as "applied science." But there can be no doubt of the service which Bacon rendered in making such a classification at all. To Bacon modern science is largely indebted for the sense of solidarity that obtains among all special investigators. He was, in a measure at least, responsible for the organization of the Royal Society in London, and of similar societies on the continent. He inspired the collective scientific movement of the Encyclopædists; and, directly or indirectly, the systematization of science made by Comte, Spencer and others. The present idea, then, that the several sciences are the members of one body, and that those who serve them are serving in one army to achieve the conquest of the unknown, is an idea to which Bacon testified clearly and effectually.

IV. The Baconian Method.—But Bacon did not merely point out the promised land and exhort men to discovery; he organized a plan of campaign. There is an opinion to the effect that while Bacon was enlightened in his general ideas, he was benighted in his particular ideas. This opinion is entirely unjust. Bacon does make many of the mistakes current in his time; and he deliberately makes many loose statements in the hope that they may prove suggestive and stimulating. Furthermore, he necessarily uses terms, such as "form," which, because they were borrowed from Greek and medieval thought, suggest to our minds something pre-scientific and obsolete. But this very term, as actually employed by Bacon, is the closest approxmiation in his time to the modern conception of cause, as employed in such sciences as molecular physics and chemistry. Furthermore, and be it said to his great and enduring credit, he was the great systematizer and popularizer of experimental method. The incompleteness of the Baconian method is the incompleteness of the experimental method. Although he did not by any means ignore it, it is true that Bacon did not adequately realize the importance of the quantitative or mathematical formulation of scientific laws. But this fact in no wise affects the correctness of his statement of the experimental method. The Baconian plan of research, avoiding technicalities, may be said to contain four important ideas, all of which have been approved and employed in subsequent scientific procedure.

His first and fundamental idea is that of observation. Bacon never wearies of reminding us that the mind must be brought into direct contact with things. In the study of nature, we may see, he believes, by the "ray direct." To avoid verbalism, dogmatism or ambiguity, it is necessary that the mind should be open to the facts, and that it should follow their leading. We can only conquer nature by first obeying her." But Bacon understood the fruitlessness of desultory observation. For purposes of explanation all facts are not equally significant.

Hence, secondly, he was led to define certain methods or canons of induction. It was Bacon who first called attention to the importance of "glaring" or "striking" instances, in which the phenomenon under investigation is thrown into relief; "parallel" instances, which permit of the argument from analogy; and "crucial" instances, which serve as tests of contrary hypotheses. From Bacon, Mill derived the methods to which he gave such prominence in his Logic, the methods, namely, of "agreement," "difference" and "concomitant variation." By means of these methods it is possible to single out from among the circumstances attending or preceding the phenomenon to be explained, that which is its probable cause. That which is present when the phenomenon is present, which is absent when the phenomenon is absent, and which shows like quantitative changes, may be assumed to be connected with the phenomenon, and to point the way to its explanation.

But, thirdly, it is necessary to supplement observation of the natural course of events with artificial experiments. Nature, like men, will reveal her secrets only when put to the torture. Bacon was a consistent advocate of the first-hand manipulation of natural bodies. He saw this to be the only method of study which afforded any prospect of laying bare the more "subtle" physical phenomena, such as heat, light and the transmutation of substances. The later development of physics and chemistry not only confirmed this judgment, but in several signal cases fulfilled definite predictions which Bacon based on it.

Fourthly, Bacon recommended the comparative and historical method. He was one of the first to appreciate the importance of studying all phenomena that develop, in different stages of their development. In the particular case of anatomy, he called attention to the importance of studying the structure of organs in their simpler forms, and using the results as a key to the complex forms.

V. The Baconian Pragmatism.—Bacon's extraordinary modernism appears not only in his definition of sound and fruitful methods of scientific study, but also in his conception of the relation of science to civilization. And in nothing is he so modern as in this. He asserted that the hope of man lay in his advancing knowledge and control of nature. This idea is undoubtedly a present commonplace, but there are few philosophers that anticipate the commonplaces of mankind by three centuries and a half! But the idea is too fundamental properly to be called a commonplace. It is the most fruitful idea in modern life, the main presupposition of progress. Bacon sought to promote learning for the sake of power. That this is essentially a modern idea will be apparent to any one who will study the motives underlying earlier periods of European civilization. The ancient world had its critical and its dogmatic idea of progress. The former was that of national or racial aggrandizement, the conquest of territory and political control. The latter, contributed by the genius of Greece, was the humanistic idea of the intensive cultivation and refinement of human nature. These ancient ideas were superseded by Christian supernaturalism, which referred man's hope of salvation to another world which might be won by the repudiation of this. As christian Europe became secularized there developed the theocratic idea of a fixed system in which all human activities should be limited and controlled by religious authority. Finally, as a reaction against the established order, there appeared the idea of the Renaissance, an enthusiasm for antiquity, and desire to reverse the course of history. The modern idea, though it borrows something from all of these ideas, is fundamentally different. It bespeaks a solidarity of mankind in the enterprise of life, and in this manifests its Christianity; and it derives from paganism a respect for human capacities, and a confidence in man's power to win the good for himself. But these motives are so united in the modern spirit as to produce something genuinely new. The good is to be won by the race and for the race; it lies in the future, and can result only from prolonged and collective endeavor; and the power to achieve it lies in the progressive knowledge and control of nature. This is the Baconian idea. The incentive to knowledge lies in its application to life. "For fruits and inventions are, as it were, sponsors and sureties for the truth of philosophies." Therefore, Bacon would have men of learning begin and end their study with the facts of their present environment. "For our road does not lie on a level, but ascends and descends, first ascending to axioms, then descending to works." In the last part of the New Atlantis there is a remarkable description of the riches of Solomon's House, the great museum and laboratory, the treasure house and workshop, which was "the lantern of this kingdom." The words with which the father of Solomon's House receives his visitors are a terse and eloquent summary of that which Francis Bacon prophesied, and which posterity has steadily achieved. "The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible."