Philosophy Monday: The Baconian Ideal

Francis_Bacon,_Viscount_St_Alban_from_NPG_(2)Francis Bacon (1561-1626) has been–and will continue to be–an infamous individual in the history of science for he managed to influence countless scientists from numerous generations through his keen understanding of human nature and his tremendous rhetorical skill. First in Novum Organum Scientiarum and later in New Atlantis, Bacon establishes his understanding of science along with a new methodology which he developed of how research should and ought to be conducted.(1)For a full translation of Novum Organum Scientiarum, see here. For the New Atlantis, see here. The methodology that we shall call the Baconian Method establishes three principles as central to the advancement of science. A scientist must (1) proceed independently, (2) minimize potential biases, and (3) construct theory solely on observations.

Having fulfilled these goals, Bacon argued, a scientist would produce pragmatic and beneficial results for society—the ultimate goal for science. Bacon saw in his numerous dealings with fellow politicians and so-called gentleman philosophers that a blind reliance on commonly accepted ideas or prescriptive truths was antithetical to progress and therefore an impediment to the scientific process. By focusing on a foundation of independent and open thought, Bacon argued, the scientist can formulate new and novel ideas while avoiding the trappings of false theories and historical precedent.

As Bacon endeavoured to pull the scientific community away from the support of historical dogma, he realized that observations will always be necessary yet never be perfect. That is, there will still remain an uncertainty and fallibility to any and all observations.  Over time he developed his notion of inherent, natural biases of the human species and eventually placed them within a conceptual framework of four categories. These categories, the Four Idols, are a warning to all scientists that Bacon hoped would facilitate not only improved observations but also improved recognition of how the observations may be imperfect. The Four Idols are (1)the Idol of the Tribe, (2)the Idol of the Cave, (3)the Idol of the Marketplace and (4)the Idol of the Theater. While I will not go into detail regarding their aspects here, I would direct an interested read to either the IEP page (link) for an introduction or to the Sophia Project (link) for an advanced treatment.

Below are just three of the countless scientists impacted by the Baconian method of science. I chose these three individuals for they left behind a legacy of trendsetting science and, more importantly, a cache of commentary and writings outside of their academic achievements.

Robert Boyle & Robert Hooke

Robert Boyle provides an exemplar of the propagation and power of Baconian ideals Although not living up to all of his personal standards (RH:NS), Boyle does attempt to conduct his research from an “untwisted” and “experimental” basis as narrated in The Skeptical Chemist. In this work Boyle works an allegory establishing a distinction between chymists and the vulgar chymist and demonstrates his personal, philosophical values. This work was the result of Boyle’s “labor to establish the identity of the new experimental philosopher” (269 RH:NS) which turned out to be described as an independent ‘Christian virtuoso’. The independence must include both independence of influence from external actors as well as independence from previous, possibly false, conceptions. This independence permits the virtuoso to “display no deference to reputation or standing” (271-2 RH:NS) just as Bacon recommends in his New Atlantis. Furthermore, Stephen Shapin describes Robert Boyle as someone “uninterested in the material rewards” (271) and perpetually holding an open mind to experimental outcome.

Robert Boyle, as an early chemist, did not have the benefit of previous ‘shoulders to stand on’ and therefore only broke so far from the alchemical tradition, yet he did so in important ways. While the methods Boyle used were largely from the traditions of the alchemists, the first principles he started from were quite novel. Rather than starting from a chemical theory and developing work from it, Boyle stuck to the Baconian method of relying on experimental observations first and foremost without indebtedness to theory.

While Hooke certainly did not live up to the high standards of Boyle’s Christian Virtuoso, he did conclusively demonstrate the practicality of chemical research. In preface to his report in Micrographia, Hooke plainly states the inherent ‘frailties’ of the senses. Before scientific advancement can proceed, Hooke notes that mistakes stem from “narrowness and wandring (sic) of [the] Senses, from the slipperiness of delusion of [the] Memory… or rashness of Understanding” (2 Micrographia). These missteps are precisely the ones that Bacon warns of in his Idols. Hooke understands the limited perception of the senses and therefore undertakes to improve them with the use of instruments like the microscope. In addition to his philosophical ideals, Hooke worked along side Boyle to construct the first high vacuum chamber used for experimentation. With this instrument, Hooke was able to carryout countless experiments with all sorts of practical applications.

Working together Hooke and Boyle were able to transition chemistry from its antiquated alchemical roots to a new, scientific discipline. While not a sweeping change, the change effected by Hooke was important: the application of experimental methods to the pre-scientific processes of alchemy.

Joseph Priestly

Although working more than 150 years after Bacon published his New Atlantis and its philosophical methodology, Joseph Priestly communicates his work in a manner which portrays Baconian influence. Priestly is the first chemist to write-up his experiments and methodology together into a comprehensive narrative of chemical protocol along with his personal understanding, expectations, and theory. This format permits insight into Priestly’s own ‘rules for philosophizing’. Within his manuscript Priestly admits to being surprised often enough to warrant a note on the “frequent repetition of the word surprise” (119 JP), and claims that he was “far from having formed any hypothesis” (113 JP) just as Bacon prescribed for true science.

By Priestley’s time, chemistry had largely succeeded in divorcing itself from its alchemical past in many respects, yet there were still several assumptions which required updating. On one side, Priestly’s science rested squarely on experimental methods, and therefore showed the practical and observational aspects of a Baconian ideal. On the other side, Priestly found difficulty in accepting the Baconian philosophy in toto. At the end of his career, he could not accept air as a composite after working his whole career under the alchemical assumption of the elemental composition of air. Priestly found no recourse but to reject the findings of scientific research even when he had contributed to their unraveling. Not surprisingly Priestly was only human and just like Boyle, Hooke, and even Bacon, he could not vanquish all his Idols.

What fortified Bacon’s ideas into such an influential methodology for scientific research? By stressing the independence of though, Bacon formalized a concept which all scientists now accept as dogma: that science is a search for objective truth with no room for subjectivity. The debates over scientific objectivity and research ethics still return to Bacon’s Idols in one form or another since science progresses can only truly progress once a steadfast foundation has been laid.

Notes   [ + ]

1. For a full translation of Novum Organum Scientiarum, see here. For the New Atlantis, see here.