What's the what with Francis Bacon?

Francis Bacon is remembered as the Father of Science, but he didn’t invent anything, like Galileofrancis-bacon Galilei’s thermometer, or discover anything, like Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. He didn’t do much in the way of experiments, spending the majority of his career in law and politics. He was an advocate of science, rather than a practitioner, but his advocacy was pivotal. His 455th birthday is coming up (January 22); a nice time to remember his contributions to the modern world. 

The Father of Science Administration

One of Bacon’s enduring works is his utopian vision of the perfect society, The New Atlantis. In many ways it presciently described a modern research university, except for the lack of piety and chastity. Also, ours include women. Bacon understood that true science was larger than any individual. The work required teams across generations. He strongly believed it should be funded by the government and conducted in institutions free from the temptations and influences of the mundane world.

Bacon’s chief aim was to advance the frontiers of learning. The Advancement of Learning, his great catalog of things known (a short list) and things yet to be studied (a very long list), was intended as a starting point for this enterprise. He dedicated it to King James, who did nothing.  Still, the work was a major inspiration for the founding of scientific societies throughout Europe in the century after Bacon’s death.

God’s will be done

Perhaps the most important thing Bacon did was construct witty, persuasive arguments for the wholesomeness of scientific enquiry. Far from being a trespass on God’s prerogative, he explained, the quest to reveal the workings of the natural world is a way of fulfilling God’s intentions for mankind. God gave us these gifts, he wants us to use them.


This seems like nothing to us; it even seems a little peculiar. We don’t think of God as being particularly interested in the sorting of Navajo morphemes or segments of mouse DNA, either pro or anti. But in the sixteenth century, powerful forces opposed inquiry beyond the Bible and curiosity could literally kill the cat. Galileo was lucky; he only got house arrest for the last ten years of his life. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. Tommaso Campanella was tortured on the rack.

The English didn’t torture philosophers, but the lines were fine, the risks enormous, and things could change in a minute. Also Bacon and other contemporaries perceived a decline in learning, partly owing to attacks from religious zealots from both ends of the spectrum, and partly from a general disillusionment that afflicted the period around the turn of the seventeenth century. So Bacon explained the value of learning and exploration, every chance he got. “And it is without all controversy that learning does make the minds of men gentle, generous, and pliant to government, whereas ignorance makes them churlish, thwart, and mutinous.”

Tear down the idols

Bacon pioneered the field of psychology, though he didn’t call it that. He was deeply concerned with mental impediments that got in the way of good science. He called them ‘idols of the mind.’ We call them cognitive biases: errors in thinking that derive from aspects of our nature and our culture.

The School of Athens. Wikimedia Commons.

Idols of the cave arise from our own peculiar constitutions, both mental and physical. A simple example is a small person who underestimates the space needs of other people. “These clothes are huge! That can’t be right.” Another example is a person of limited imagination who assumes whatever an author writes must somehow derive from their personal experience and be an expression of their own views. (Trust me, that’s not how fiction works.)

Idols of the tribe address the tendency of humans to prefer certain kinds of arguments, evidences, and conclusions, regardless of the observable facts. Bacon lists several. My favorite is this one: “The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.”

Idols of the marketplace result from differences in word usage: “…when superior wits engage in argument the discussion often becomes a mere dispute over words.” Anyone who has ever tried to design something with a committee will recognize this one.

Idols of the theater are biases caused by philosophical (political, religious, etc.) beliefs. We are mental captives of our world views. This is a major problem in modern political discourse. Any report above the level of raw data has been interpreted by someone with an agenda, whether liberal, conservative, neo-conservative, libertarian, or other.

Tune the harp and let us play

Perhaps Bacon’s greatest contribution was simple encouragment, recognizing that “men despair and think things impossible.” He had much to say on this theme. “Another argument of hope may be drawn from this – that some of the inventions already known are such as beofre they were discovered it could hardly have entered any man’s head to think of; they would have been simply set aside as impossible.” We take this attitude for granted, but we have Bacon to thank for it.

He was knew that he had done little science himself and in the end, regretted spending so much time in fruitless politics. He viewed his work as preparation for those who would follow. “I have been content to tune the instruments of the muses, that they may play that have better hands.”

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