I'm back after a hiatus. Who was it who said old age is a ship wreck? Anyway, my health has not been of the best lately and I've been prone to melancholy. My 'Black Dog' is always lurking in the depths of my psyche and sometimes comes forth to bite. It robs me of my muse and I find it difficult to put pen to paper. The dog on my shoulder has decided to tarry no more and has retreated to his den deep within my soul. But he will be back baying, howling and slavering upon my very core.
Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650), is considered the founder of 'Modern Philosophy', and in my opinion, quite rightly. He was one of the first great scholars to relinquish the hitherto reliance on 'Scholastic Philosophy' which had dominated and stifled the advancement of knowledge for over a 1,000 years. A system heavily reliant upon the philosophy of Aristotle that had become the stale mainstay of philosophic thought. It took a bold mind indeed to break with this tradition, such was the reputation of the Stagirite.
Descartes great contribution to thought progression was to strip the subject of philosophy to its fundamental base and then proceed to build upon this solid intellectual bed rock, layer by layer, to complete a novel philosophical edifice. However, this post is not about Descartes, (I've covered Descartes previously; check the post here) but concerns a contemporary, Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626). Sadly, most folk know little about this Great Man even though, in terms of original thought and ultimate influence, he has had a more far reaching and lasting impact than Descartes. Bacon was perhaps the first great thinker to emphasise the importance of the scientific inductive method and to formally put forth in writing, its underlying principles. Again, like Descartes, he departed from the Scholasticism to break new ground in the acquisition of knowledge, however, they differed upon ultimate methodology and philosophical emphasis.
Unlike Descartes, who managed to embed the Christian deity firmly into his philosophical model, Bacon insisted that science (it is to be remembered that the concepts of science and philosophy were interchangeable at this time) and religion should occupy separate knowledge domains, without overlap. This innovative idea was enough for Bacon to be labelled as an atheist, during his time. But a close reading of his work reveals Bacon as a genuine and devout believer, although his views were certainly unorthodox. If born a generation earlier he would undoubtedly have suffered the indignity of his corporeal quintessence being placed upon a stake and subjected to a profound and terminal thermal insult; crispy Bacon.
Bacon did not take the bible literally, but appreciated the bible's use of metaphor and literary devices, sundry. He considered biblical miracles and 'wonders' as lying outside natural law and consequently discounted their historical occurrence. The mysteries, of revelation, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, were not subject to scientific scrutiny and therefore belonged to the province of 'faith', not science. This was quite revolutionary for its time but this timbre of thought, much to the disquiet of the church, would become more prevalent amongst thoughtful men as the 'secular revolution' developed. Bacon's thoroughly secular thinking, although not in itself opposed to theological dogma and tenets, opened novel avenues of thought, which over time, would prove perniciously corrosive to religious thought. Wise heads soon came to realise that Christian theology, if carefully scrutinised, had no role to play except in the realm of 'faith'. However, even this limited domain would come under attack from thorough going rationalists. It is as if a slight crack in the dam of theology had produced a breach that no religious finger could stem.
Bacon and Descartes differed not only in their notions of theology, but in their interpretation of knowledge acquisition. Descartes, in tune with the philosophy of the ancients, considered that the application of pure thought, if rendered by the 'wise', and if undertaken correctly, would result in the discovery of infallible knowledge. In contrast, Bacon considered 'natural thought processes' prone to numerous errors. However, Bacon was a severe critic of extreme skepticism; the idea that certainty can never be achieved. An idea that Bacon considered self defeating. While acknowledging that certainty is illusive and difficult to achieve, nevertheless a methodology employing sound principles, strictly adhered to can overcome these difficulties. Truly it was a philosophy of intellectual honesty and optimism. While recognising and accepting that the human intellect was inherently fallible, Bacon stressed that the development of 'cognitive instruments', judicially applied, would enable the acquisition of scientific knowledge, albeit that acquisition would be cumulative and open ended. Progress is a surety as scientists build upon the past achievements of their scientific predecessors. Certainty is achieved, not by the wholesale acquisition of knowledge, but piece by piece by sound inductive processes.
Bacon clearly enumerated the obstacles that stand in the way of the cognitive process, which he termed, 'fallacies in the minds of man', or 'idols'. These 'idols' are clearly defined and classified. They can be summarised as follows: 'Idols of the Tribe'. In this regard he includes distortions naturally inherent within human nature; 'Idols of the Cave'. This includes individual bias and distortions; 'Idols' of the Market'. Concerns the 'idol' formed from associations between men; and finally, 'Idols of the Theatre'. This 'idol' relates to the torpor of the intellect when it comes to formulating and accepting new principles. We are apt to rely on previous dogmas and perhaps accept established philosophies without engaging our critical faculties.
Bacon emphasised the quirks of the human mind which interferes with our judgment. For instance we are prone to accept data which fits our preconceived notion of order, while ignoring counter data that might conflict with our pet theory. We are perhaps happy to accrue affirmative data when in fact we should be looking for data that negates our theory. A single negation, as far as a theory is concerned, is vastly more informative than a 1,000,000 confirmatory data points.
Perhaps Bacon's greatest contribution was the removal of all references of 'divine purpose' or the 'first cause' from science. God was not required and this was a distinct break from the dominant philosophy of the Aristotelian schoolmen of his day. What I admire about Bacon, is his undaunted, sure footed innovative nature. He was breaking new ground and, unlike most scientists, of any era, he had no one to refer back to. In this regard, he was truly alone. It must have taken great courage to 'go it alone' against the entrenched orthodoxy, which had ruled acadaemia for over a 1,000 years.
And, Francis Bacon, of course set the scene for the next great English philosopher of the empiric mold, John Locke.