« Hobbes and Rochester | Main | The dream of liberal progress »

Bacon, the new science, and empire

The new science looks away from the past and toward the present utility of knowledge as well as the future possibility of applying science to practical human problems. This all seems really great, no? But what is unmistakable to me is the language of mastery that is all over the text. Here is my favorite quote from the New Organon:
"But any man whose care and concern is not merely to be content with what has been discovered and make use of it, but to penetrate further; and not to defeat an opponent in argument but to conquer nature by action; and not to have nice, plausible opinions about things but sure, demonstrable knowledge; let such men (if they please), as true sons of the sciences, join with me, so that we may pass the antechambers of nature which innumerable others have trod, and eventually open up access to the inner rooms.�

Bacon’s understanding of nature and the intellect is like an edifice – brick by brick we will build our knowledge of the world. We can master it by strokes. But the method of accumulation must be deliberate and must have a purpose. All sorts of good things can come from this – practical things that can change people’s lives even if the common man doesn't understand how we arrived at this knowledge. There is the implication in this that man can shape and exercise his mind to near perfection. Oh, the handle we can get on the world!

But let's situate this within its historical context. First of all, this is a text fitting the context of transcontinental exploration. Bacon is conscious of this when he essentially states: What a shame if we explore the world and fail to expand our intellectual world.

But look, too, at how this intellectual adventure lends itself to the kind of relationships between English people and other peoples of the world and between people and the natural world that will be sadly characteristic of the next few centuries. First of all, a question Bacon doesn't really ask here is where do human beings end and the mystery of nature begin? What is natural and up for mastery and who exactly is the objective agent of science and industry? As the English move about in the world, they are making all sorts of assessments about other people in the world, and many of these are scientifically informed. But the scientific information is already derived from the prejudices the scientist approaches it with, since the notion of the objective observer of nature tends to have hard wired in his mind the mandate of human beings to master nature. It is science, then, that comes up with theories of race that place Africans as natural beings to be numbered, classified, and ultimately mastered. Remember, this is also the era, well almost, that the English acquire Jamaica (a Cromwellian expedition) and deprive many Irish of their homes and offer them up to Presbyterian collaborators in their Civil War – later the best science will confirm that the Irish are a different and inferior race than the English (which makes them great servants but bad politicians) and that the Finns are really descendents of the Mongoloid race (asiatic people) and don’t deserve the same treatment as whites. Really, the English are becoming Masters at the same time they are becoming scientists. What does this tell us about the potential of boundless progress for science and civilization that Bacon seems to be anticipating? Do scientists have to be masters? What about social scientists? What about historians?

Comments

It is hard to tell if this was what Bacon expected science to yeild. I feel science has been used (in the case of the Irish, Africans, and Finns) as a form of expert power to empower one over the other. Obviously there is no acute scientific reason that Irish can actually prove them to be inferior to the english. Merely stating a "plausable opinion" about another group and calling it science is not what bacon would consider science. He wants sure facts, things that can be proven over and over again, and with no signifacant data he might not consider it science at all. It becomes clear to me however, the scientists claiming the English to be superior conducted their science in a way which demonstrated a purpose for their research. This would definantly fit the quote in the paper. Scientists do not need to be masters, I believe bacon would skowl at those who used science to undermind another people and empower themselves.

It seems that the English are using science as a way to control the people that they come into contact with. Through the best science, they claim that they are the supperior race. It seems that because science has all the answers to these question of social status, the scientists become the masters because it is them who have the power to tell if one race is better than the other. Social scientists have similar power, but I don't see how historians would have any imfluence on them.

I agree for the most part with the above observation, and would direct people to Aphorisms XXVI through XXIX in the New Organon, with particular attention paid to XXIX. I'll restate it here.

"In sciences which are based on opinions or accepted views, the use of anticipations [of nature] and dialectic is acceptable where the need is to compel assent without reference to things."

From what I've read of Bacon, he seems to have approached knowledge for knowledge's sake with a reverence approaching religious devotion. He derided professions which used a rough understanding of nature to achieve "effects" (see Aphorism V), while praising those who would make a profession out of increasing their understanding of nature with experiential data.

And, of course, the social "scientists" in question had something to gain from calling the Irish an inferior race, which would have been politically a fashionable idea in England at the time, guaranteeing the "scientist" notoriety and invitations to all sorts of lofty academic posts and stodgy British soirees. Thus the "scientists" ability to "compel assent" would achieve an "effect" of making his life much more comfortable. This is something which I believe Bacon would certainly scoff at. Actually, when you consider the Irish's propensity for poetry, their willingness to get into a fistfight when things become dull, and their ability to comfortably imbibe huge amounts of alcohol without dying outright, you must conclude that, solely based on objective numerical data, the Irish are, indeed, the Master Race. (excepting Klingons)

The ideal Baconian scientist has nothing to gain from the knowledge he accrues, other than the satisfaction of discovering something new. This makes him able to experiment with complete objectivity in any field without biasing data for personal aggrandizement, and in that sense, he is a master of nothing but data and a student of nothing but Nature, a person that Bacon would french kiss if only he weren't really dead by now.

"Bacon is conscious of this when he essentially states: What a shame if we explore the world and fail to expand our intellectual world." I think this the most telling part of the article above. To view this scientific development in lew of an expansion justification would make science very appealing to those in power. As far as boundless science goes it is difficult to anticipate growth when you view almost the rest of society as inferior. The mandate of humans to master society would naturally be tied into the conquering of inferior people. Historians and Political Scientist would most likely have to be English Masters as well. I find it hard to imagine anyone else having credibility.

I would venture that Bacon would applaude this effort to "scientifically" classify people because of two things, the overall approach to the research and the outlook of people at the time. From what I understand, these comparisons were made between people and apes, either chimpanzees or gorillas. The scientist would then observe certain characteristics of each specimen and compare the two. Of course, the englishman was not included in this experiment. When two basic features lined up, it showed the scientist there was a relationship between the two and thus the people in question (Africans, Irish, Finns) would then be less advanced in the heirarchy of creatures. This is not considered "good science" today, but in Bacon's day it probably would have passed his test.

It would not have passed, of course, if this science would have proved that englishmen are, in fact, inferior; which brings me to my next point. These views of people were not uncommon. As we know the Irish were not popular among the English at the time because of religious differences, and so I would assume that the English did not hold very high opinions of non-Christian people such as Africans or Asians (whom apparently the Finns decend from). Thus, these "scientific" findings would probably not be protested among the English because the findings told them what they already know: Most of the world is inferior to us.

More interesting to me is the intersection in history that this discussion brings us to. Here we have classifying people, according to race, into a social heirarchy. This of course is what we now call racism, something that prior to this period was very rare in the world. To say a person was white or black before this era would not have a social context of what that person was like. After this, racism takes off. But, on the other hand this is mostlikely where the Darwinist Movement began, as these scientists clearly point to apes as relatives to the human race, a scientific persuit that Bacon would most likely appreciate.

I agree for the most part with the above observation, and would direct people to Aphorisms XXVI through XXIX in the New Organon, with particular attention paid to XXIX. I'll restate it here.

"In sciences which are based on opinions or accepted views, the use of anticipations [of nature] and dialectic is acceptable where the need is to compel assent without reference to things."

From what I've read of Bacon, he seems to have approached knowledge for knowledge's sake with a reverence approaching religious devotion. He derided professions which used a rough understanding of nature to achieve "effects" (see Aphorism V), while praising those who would make a profession out of increasing their understanding of nature with experiential data.

And, of course, the social "scientists" in question had something to gain from calling the Irish an inferior race, which would have been politically a fashionable idea in England at the time, guaranteeing the "scientist" notoriety and invitations to all sorts of lofty academic posts and stodgy British soirees. Thus the "scientists" ability to "compel assent" would achieve an "effect" of making his life much more comfortable. This is something which I believe Bacon would certainly scoff at. Actually, when you consider the Irish's propensity for poetry, their willingness to get into a fistfight when things become dull, and their ability to comfortably imbibe huge amounts of alcohol without dying outright, you must conclude that, solely based on objective numerical data, the Irish are, indeed, the Master Race. (excepting Klingons)

The ideal Baconian scientist has nothing to gain from the knowledge he accrues, other than the satisfaction of discovering something new. This makes him able to experiment with complete objectivity in any field without biasing data for personal aggrandizement, and in that sense, he is a master of nothing but data and a student of nothing but Nature, a person that Bacon would french kiss if only he weren't really dead by now.

I would like to bring an example to the table that Bacon would undoubtedly view as a shining example of how the progession of science can bring about the bettering of humanity: Norman Borlaug. Norman Borlaug is an agricultural scientist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in for his contribution to the world food supply. He developed super-disease resistant strains of crops that also could produce 4 and 5 times as much per acre. He took this crop supply and farming to countries around the world, making Pakistan, India, Mexico, and Indonesia, as well as countless other countries, self-reliant. By the time he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, IT WAS ESTIMATED THAT HE HAD SAVED ONE BILLION PEOPLE FROM STARVATION. This is twice the population of the entire planet in Bacon's time.
Borlaug gains litterally nothing from this (Bacon's notion that a scientist gains nothing but the satisfaction of knowledge), and he too finds the notion of inferior races absurd. Norman helped to feed people in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America. So I open up the question: is Norman Borlaug the reincarnation of Sir Francis Bacon?

Post Scriptum: I'd take an Irishman over a Klingon any day of the week. Except Sunday. It IS a very staunch Catholic country.

To me it seems that Bacon was trying to break away from the old visions of the world in terms of Church being the authority on everything. Bacon was trying to create progress and try to explain phenomenon in the natural world through science as opposed to explaining everything through the Devine doing. It would seem that people in power just used Bacon’s ideas and methods to prove what was important to them. For example, the English were expanding into the New World and for them to justify the slavery and oppression of other races they had to say that they were Superior and that it was their right to control other races. To me it seems that scientist of all disciplines should be masters, but we do not leave in the ideal world, so the scientific knowledge is being used at a particular point in history for specific purposes to achieve who ever goals it needs to fit.

I believe that Bacon really was thinking ahead of his time... and, of course, he made it quite clear that he thought so, too! Because he was so ahead of his time, though, his contemporaries hadn't yet come to realize the use of new knowledge, which was to better the world, not to subjugate and abuse other human beings. That is, people used "science" or pseudo-science to prove and thereby justify their beliefs and their actions. Therefore, I think that Bacon's hopes for his new science, like the ideas themselves, were ahead of their time. Thus, the new science did have its limitations.

After class yesterday, I told a joke to Aaron that he thought fitting to this subject and ought to be shared on the blog. It goes as follows:

A young man is conducting a science experiment on flies. So, he captures a fly to use for the experiment. He holds it in his hand and says, "Fly fly." And it flew. He does this again. He captures the fly and says, "Fly fly." And, of course, it flew. Then, the third time, he removes the fly's wings. He holds it in his hand and says, "Fly fly." But this time the fly didn't fly. He came to the conclusion that the fly didn't obey because it couldn't hear without its wings.

This joke plays to the idea that people can use science and still come to false conclusions, like the Irish are an inferior race because their heads aren't of the proper dimensions, etc.

the whole concept that scientists have to be masters is really strange. I think they have to master science. to be good scientists but scientists do not need to master other people. the topic brought up about the possible abuse of science racial catagorization just shows the level of science of the time. really if these scientists knew that people could produce offspring with primates the view would be radically different on how to classify the races.

Bacon and his contemporaries were bound by numerous things. Simply because he was offering a standard form of science, a process for scientific experiment if you will, does not free Bacon from his historical or human restraints. Yes his intentions were good and he truly wanted to turn science into a legitimate and accurate field; however, he, like everyone else, was gripped with the human condition. He appears to be quite arrogant in his writings and rightfully so. He was famous and respected, therefore, I do not think that we should just assume he would be terrified at what science was becoming during his time and what it is producing today. He had to have been prejudice towards certain peoples and beliefs even if he "disregarded" them when dealing with scienific experimentation. He put a general method out there and we ran with it. After all it is man that is evil, not science.

Scientists do not have to be masters but in some cases they are/were. I believe Bacon was a master, not one over others, but a master over nature and over his field. He "master"-minded the way we view science as a process today.

It seems obvious that the Irish would be targets of racial prejudice as relations with them were already extremely heated. Using "science" to prove their inferiority was just the natural progression of things. I am not saying that this is what Bacon intended his method of scientific research to be used for but that once a view is projected into the world anyone can take it and do what they will with it. I also think we need to consider that this type of negative racial science is not something of the past. People really can form almost anything they can imagine into seemingly "good" science. The University of Minnesota housed one of the leading eugenics programs of the 20th century proving that it is hard to change an entire way of thinking around in one generation let alone in 500 years.

I think Bacon was trying to pull people away from their faith and introduce them to the world of science. At this time in Britain the citizens believed only what their faith and religion had taught them. The priest in most towns was even considered the most educated. Bacon was convincing people that there is often more than just faith, there are facts and everyday life can be improved using science. While Bacon was thinking ahead of his time, I don't think he realized the impact that the progression of science would make in the world. Scientists back then made mistakes and wrong conclusions, just as they do today. People can take these mistakes and say that the progression of science hasn't been a good thing, or they can look back and realize that mistakes were made and try to improve them. Overall I think Bacon would have been proud of modern science, because in comparison to the good uses of science, the bad ones don't compare.

It's interesting that in trying to get away from the control of the Church, Bacon suggests almost the entire opposite. Science should CONTROL all of humanity...science should determine how questions are answered - hence the quote "not to have nice, plausible opinions about things but sure, demonstrable knowledge." Bacon doesn't want the human race to live their lives based on faith. He wants proof and evidence to show the REALITIES of life. This said, I believe the idea of exploration and expansion is one to strongly consider when discussing the progression of science and how Bacon thought it would/should progress. With an obviously large ego, Bacon believed science was the answer to everything. If it proved other "races" (i.e. the Irish, etc.) were inferior, then it must be true - after all, it would be "proven" by evidence. It would be interesting to see how Bacon reacted to different racial revolutions of our time and if/how he used science to deal with them. Though I would love to have a solid theory on Bacon and his view on the superiority of science, I actually find it bringing up more questions than answers.

It seems to me that the big question here concerns what Bacon meant when he used the word "science." One could easily answer that by saying that science is the use of logic and reason when observing nature to reach sound conclusions concerning the natural world. But this introduces us to even more questions. What is logic and reason? What is the proper scientific method? To what end should science be used? Personally, the more I question the nature of science, the more I realize I don't have a very good grasp of what science is. Then I realize that I should stop throwing the word "science" around so much...

Another point I would like to make is this: Scientific thought has always lead mankind to faulty conclusions. Sometimes, the effects of the mistakes are devastating (Rascism, etc.) and sometimes they are just simple misunderstandings that don't hurt anyone, like how early scientists thought that maggots came to be from garbage, and not from flys laying eggs on garbage. But in most cases, false conclusions lead to better ones. Early natural scientists may have been wrong on so many levels, but their exploration paved the way for future scientists to finetune our understanding of nature (I'm sure we will seem ignorant to future civilizations). The science of race has been explored, and most people agree that there was nothing in it. Would we know that if the question of racial superiority had never been called into question?

Personally, I think that there are some questions that shouldn't be pursued, since they can lead to great human suffering. But I wonder if the first people to study racial superiority would have condoned genocide.

And had we not gone through a scientific revolution, would we know of the dangers of scientific discovery? Now that we are aware of the potential threat of knowledge, perhaps we can be more careful and use science with a little bit of WISDOM.

disclaimer: I am no expert in the ways of science, nor the history of science. Ultimately, there are things that I just don't know. I am not, and never will be, a complete expert on the topic. I know a little about scientific history, but I cannot have a perfect understanding of the subject, for I am but a man.

One weakness I see in Bacon's "accumulating brick by brick" reasoning is that he himself advocates a new method of inquiry. With new knowledge should come a revamping and questioning of past conclusions; for example, when chemists and physicists began to discover atoms, they didnt just expand upon atoms but delved deeper and discovered subatomtic particles. Accumulating historical facts is great, but if one cant step back from the brick pile and examine the edifice that has been constructed and use that to view the current world, the knowledge is useless.
In response to the question contemplating the boundless progress of science, the definition of progress should be reexamined. Eugenics, nuclear weapons, chemical warfare are all examples of scientific progress; all bricks in the building. But they have all led to negative consequences that humans are still struggling to cope with because they introduced new prejudices, power,and possibilities of violence. Humans are slower to change than science; without the ability to examine the picture on a grander scale the lesson learned from these scientific progressions is lost. If nuclear war breaks out, is that progress? If racists base new arguements upon eugenics, this is a practical use eugenics, a new application of science, but it is degenerative in moral progression. Man as master of any discipline, whether history, science, parenting or politics is to be questioned. Change is essential; past ideas can be manipulated and applied to new ideas to rally support (eugenics justifies the idea of blacks being the "natural slave", Aristotle's idea, applied in the 17th century, then reiterated in the 20th). We need a constant flow of new ideas and new inquiries and a rejection of the idea that we can master anything.

Bacon's understanding of knowledge appears similar to that of another philospher, Descartes. Both question what is knowledge and if there is such a thing. If knowledge is derived from our senses then our knowledge maybe falty because our senses sometimes deceive us. The only thing that can be absolute in this world is I think therefore I exist. Also, with the issue of science throughout history it seems as if man's views of morality have changed with science. Science has also been used to justify immoral behavior such as oppresion of others and slavery. The only impediment to science is science is only allowed to expand as far as man's morality will. With science comes the question of morality. Man throughout time has always had a problem of what is moral and immoral.

How i see it is to see other races or any other human being as inferior is not the main intention of Bacon. However, this does not stop other people from using his theories and ideas for their own purposes. THe english were quite arrogant and proud of their achievements and their discoveries during that time. THey were one of the few developed societies with promising technologies that help them higher their standing as compared to others around the world. Therefore, with that thought in mind, they see other people as inferior to them, leading to racism, and that they are the master of every one else. This obviously is frowned upon in our society today, but in that time, the rich got the respect, and the poor were slaves or servants, so when the thought of superiority came upon, no one stood against it. I think that Bacon's idea of science leaned more against improving human's way of life as a whole, not to classify who is better and who isnt. Even so, his ideas and thoughts helped open up many potential progress for the possibilities that science can bring, and it has been brought to our lives today.

I don't believe that scientists have to be masters, nor that they should consider themselves to be. I think that the moment that a scientist believes that they have mastered anything is when the progression of Bacon's idea of accumulating knowledge "brick by brick" ceases to exist. The saying knowledge is power is true, however that power should not, in my opinion, be used to assume a dominating position over others, rather it should aid in the progress of discoveries. As for the theories on race that were concluded through scientific methods, I don't find this to coincide with the new way of thinking that Bacon advocated. There is not demonstratable knowledge to prove that the theories were facts. Theories can aid in the progression of science as long as they are not accepted as fact prematurely without sufficent evidence.

Hmm, how convenient that the scientist are finding facts that 'prove' that they are superior to other races. Now this information that they found could really be either true, but I feel that it is a misuse of their knowledge and ultimately doesn't agree with the ideas propsed by Bacon. Bacon writes that knowledge should be found for the betterment of society as a whole, and to discover other knowledge is virtually pointless.
I don't agree that the scientists have to be (or even should be) the so called masters of society. Under normal circumstances and if everyone has the same opportunities, then some people from every race will accel - not just some people from one particular race. For those that accel from all races to discover knowledge, would ultimaty contribute to the betterment of society. Under the English-Scientist as masters system, so much potential is lost by making those of other races servants to the masters. Essentially, by restricting that status of 'master' to only one race, man is in fact resticting the Baconian practice of discovering knowledge for the betterment of society as a whole.
This is of course a very idealistic way of going about discoveries though. Afterall, this way wouldn't help the English stay in power. Plus, I believe that English comradery was very high at the time, and that the English wanted what was best for the English.

Bacon seems to think that encouraging the progress of science will better the nation as a whole. He feels as though the reason that Europe was more successful than other nations was not because of an better army, but because of better technology. The reason was because of the advancement of science. Better science would mean a more successful nation. We have seen this even to this day with all the new inventions that come out almost every year. There are many things that we rely on just to get through a day. If we did not have the advancment of science than I do not know what our lives would be like without science and new inventions.

Bacon puts too much emphasis on technology and building up the blocks to become the most intelligent nation and highest power. Along with these technological advances, the society needs certain other vital tools to succeed. One of those tools would be using the past as a precurser and a guide to bettering the future. This is not something than can be pulled merely out of nature. With Bacon's idea of science and society, historians probably wouldn't exist, because they are more concerned with studying the past and what is already known that what can be pulled out of nature.

I believe Bacon's overall idea of science was one of human good. He could not have possibly foreseen the fact that humanity would advance enough in science to create massive changes to the world. As for the eugenics thing, I believe in the end, race science used a lot of statistics and comparative/subjective reasoning to come to any conclusions, and so, any result that develops from those studies could have been skewed in either direction. As is said often about statistics, "it's the only science that allows two different people to come to a different conclusion about the same thing."

Francis Bacon's "New Organon" opened a new world of science and discovery, but there's more to his work then that. Bacon also wrote extensively on the use of language, mainly the way in which language barriers hinder progress. He argued for a universal language, and the language he wanted to be universal was English. I find it interesting that one of the classic liberal thinkers of the 17th century, a period that very much laid the foundations for British Empire, argued that English should be the universal language. This would've been an interesting approach to take in the class, had we had time to read Bacon's writings on such topics (which for the life of me I can't remember the titles of the works).