In this post I present two arguments relevant to Bacon’s thesis. With each argument I offer a quotation and an example.
This was originally written as an essay to a course I have taken on the relationship between management and philosophy.
I do not claim to exhaust the subject, I merely touch upon it.
But it is a fascinating subject, especially in view of the fact that Bacon was one of the great fathers of the technological approach that today is a key pillar of our economy, culture and life.
Argument 1: I claim that Bacon is putting forward an argument to support his inductive approach to human knowledge and power. What he is saying in effect is that before we master nature (and take advantage of it by commanding it) we must understand it. Therefore knowledge begins from the observation of nature, not the other way around.
In substantiating my point of view, I will refer to “Novum Organum”, from which the quotation-theme of this essay originates (Book One, III).
Quotation 1: “Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.” (1)
Bacon is saying that man should approach nature with humility, because there are so many things that our senses cannot sense and our minds do not understand. Instead of wasting time on pointless meditations, speculations and glosses, we should be studying nature.
All of this makes sense in the context of the time Bacon wrote “Novum Organum”. It was time when Aristotelian thought was still strong. Bacon wanted to break away from Aristotle, and march on towards command of nature. In this sense he can be considered as one of the fathers of engineering.
While deduction is the anticipation of nature, and deductive theories may refer to nonobservable entities, induction is driven by empirical observation and study.
I do not suggest that Bacon was alotgether against deduction. But at the time of his writing, he wanted to push forward the notion that man can command nature, provided he understands it well. Bacon saw knowledge and power as interconnected.
Example 1: “There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.” (2)
Bacon’s true way is induction.
Argument 2: Karl Popper introduced his theory of a hypothetico-deductive system in the philosophy of sciences. Popper argued that most of the scientific theories are deductive and they can be falsified, or refuted, but not confirmed.In this he appears to be on the opposite side of Bacon’s argument. However, I claim that in a sense Popper provides the mirror image of Bacon’s thesis. Bacon seeks to derive most of theories from experience, while Popper seeks to falsify theories from experience. Thus experience (as senses, observations from nature) is essential in both philosophers’ theories.
Quotation 2: “In other words: I shall not require of a scientific system that it shall be capable of being singled out, once and for all, in a positive sense; but I shall require that its logical form shall be such that it can be singled out, by means of empirical tests, in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience.” (3)
The example I want to offer comes from Einstein’s theory of reletivity.
Example 2: “Einstein’s theory made one or two predictions which distinguished it from Newton’s theory, and, if true, these predictions would show that Einstein’s model was closer to reality. For example, Einstein predicted that a gravitational field should bend rays of light much more than was expected by Newton’s theory of gravity. Although the effect was too small to be observed in the laboratory, Einstein calculated that the immense gravity of the massive sun would deflect a ray of light by 1.75 seconds of arc – less that one thousandth of a degree, but twice as large as the deflection according to Newton, and significant enough to be measured. During a lunar eclipse in 1919, Eddington compared his eclipse photos with images taken when the sun was not present, and announced that the sun had caused a deflection of roughly 1.61 seconds of arc, a result that was in agreement with Einstein’s prediction, thereby validating the theory of general relativity.” (4)
Here experience comes to NOT falsify a hypothesis. Until a hypothesis is falsified, it remains valid. But when a theory is falsified once, it is falsified for good.
(1). Francis Bacon. Novum Organum.Book One. I.
(2) Francis Bacon. Novum Organum.Book One. XIX.
(3) Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959.
(4) 1919. Eclipse and General Relativity. Times Literary Supplement.