The Inadequacy of Current Science (Novum Organum Book 1: 1-37)

This is the third post in the Novum Organum sequence. For context, see the sequence introduction.

We have used Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum in the version presented at Translated by and copyright to Jonathan Bennett. Prepared for LessWrong by Ruby.

Ruby’s Reading Guide

Novum Organum is organized as two books each containing numbered “aphorisms.” These vary in length from three lines to sixteen pages. Titles of posts in this sequence, e.g. Idols of the Mind Pt. 1, are my own and do not appear in the original.
While the translator, Bennett, encloses his editorial remarks in a single pair of [brackets], I have enclosed mine in a [[double pair of brackets]].

Bennett’s Reading Guide

[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as though it were part of the original text. Occasional •bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations, are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. Every four-point ellipsis . . . . indicates the omission of a brief passage that seems to present more difficulty than it is worth. Longer omissions are reported between brackets in normal-sized type.

Aphorism Concerning the Interpretation of Nature: Book 1: 1–37

by Francis Bacon

1. Man, being nature’s servant and interpreter, is limited in what he can do and understand by what he has observed of the course of nature—directly observing it or inferring things ·from what he has observed·. Beyond that he doesn’t know anything and can’t do anything.

2. Not much can be achieved by the naked hand or by the unaided intellect. Tasks are carried through by tools and helps, and the intellect needs them as much as the hand does. And just as the hand’s tools either •give motion or •guide it, so ·in a comparable way· the mind’s tools either •point the intellect in the direction it should go or • offer warnings.

3. Human knowledge and human power meet at a point; for where the cause isn’t known the effect can’t be produced. The only way to command nature is to obey it; and something that functions as the •cause in thinking about a process functions as the •rule in the process itself.

4. All that man can do to bring something about is to put natural bodies together or to pull them away from one another. The rest is done by nature working within.

5. The mechanic, the mathematician, the physician, the alchemist and the magician have all rubbed up against nature in their activities; but so far they haven’t tried hard and haven’t achieved much.

6. If something has never yet been done, it would be absurd and self-contradictory to expect to achieve it other than through means that have never yet been tried.

[[Similar: not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is a change.]]

7. If we go by the contents of •books and by •manufactured products, the mind and the hand seem to have had an enormous number of offspring. But all that variety consists in very fine-grained special cases of, and derivatives from, a few things that were already known; not in a large number of fundamental propositions.

8. Moreover, the works that have already been achieved owe more to chance and experiment than to disciplined sciences; for the sciences we have now are merely pretty arrangements of things already discovered, not ways of making discoveries or pointers to new achievements.

9. Nearly all the things that go wrong in the sciences have a single cause and root, namely: while wrongly admiring and praising the powers of the human mind, we don’t look for true helps for it.

10. Nature is much subtler than are our senses and intellect; so that all those elegant meditations, theorizings and defensive moves that men indulge in are crazy—except that no-one pays attention to them.

[Bacon often uses a word meaning ‘subtle’ in the sense of ‘fine-grained, delicately complex’; no one current English word will serve.]

[[An especially good example of this point, that nature is far more “subtle” than our senses and mind, is the generally counterintuitive fact that our universe runs on quantum mechanics. In Can You Prove Two Particles Are Identical?, Eliezer points to this weird aspects of reality that one is very unlikely to discover without the empiricism/​appropriate tools and methodology which Bacon is advocating for.]]

11. just as the sciences that we now have are useless for devising new inventions, the logic that we now have is useless for discovering new sciences.

[Bacon here uses inventio in two of its senses, as = ‘invent’ and as = ‘discover’.]

12. The logic now in use serves to •fix and stabilize errors based on the ideas of the vulgar, rather than to •search for truth. So it does more harm than good.

[[The next few aphorisms dealing with syllogism and axioms are made with reference to the Aristotelian ‘scientific method.’ In that classical approach, a few real-world examples are used to derive high-level universal rules or laws which are then operated on with logic to derive further conclusions. See this comment below for more detail.]

The leap from a few examples to high-level general principles is what Bacon is calling out when in 19 he speaks of ‘swooping up’ from particulars to general axioms. This is in contrast to his gradual, incremental, inductive method that starts with limited statements of rule and only slowly generalizes as more data is accumulated.]]

13. The syllogism isn’t brought to bear on the •basic principles of the sciences; it is applied to •intermediate axioms, but nothing comes of this because the syllogism is no match for nature’s subtlety. It constrains what you can assent to, but not what can happen.

[[These remarks bear resemblance to those in The Parable of Hemlock.]]

14. A •syllogism consists of •propositions, which consist of •words, which are stand-ins [tesserae, literally = ‘tickets’] for •notions. So the root of the trouble is this: If the notions are confused, having been sloppily abstracted from the facts, nothing that is built on them can be firm. So our only hope lies in true induction.

15. There is no soundness in ·our· notions, whether in logic or in natural science. These are not sound notions:

  • substance, quality, acting, undergoing, being;

And these are even less sound:

  • heavy, light, dense, rare, moist, dry, generation, corruption, attraction, repulsion, element, matter, form

and so on; all of those are fantastical and ill-defined.

[‘Rare’ = ‘opposite of dense’. Generation is the coming into existence of living things; corruption is rotting or falling to pieces, and so refers to the going out of existence of living things. For the next sentence: a ‘lowest species’ is one that doesn’t further divide into subspecies.]

16. ·Our· notions of the lowest species (man, dog, dove) and of the immediate perceptions of the senses (hot, cold, black, white) don’t seriously mislead us; yet even they are sometimes confusing because of how matter flows and things interact. As for all the other notions that men have adopted—they are mere aberrations, not being caused by things through the right kind of abstraction.

17. The way •axioms are constructed is as wilful and wayward as the abstractions through which •notions are formed. I say this even about the principles that result from vulgar induction, but much more about the axioms and less basic propositions that the syllogism spawns.

18. The discoveries that have been made in the sciences up to now lie close to vulgar notions, scarcely beneath the surface. If we are to penetrate into nature’s inner and further recesses, we’ll need •a safer and surer method for deriving notions as well as axioms from things, as well as •an altogether better and more certain way of conducting intellectual operations.

19. There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. (1) One of them starts with the senses and particular events and swoops straight up from them to the most general axioms; on the basis of these, taken as unshakably true principles, it proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of intermediate axioms. This is the way that people follow now. (2) The other derives axioms from the senses and particular events in a gradual and unbroken ascent, ·going through the intermediate axioms and· arriving finally at the most general axioms. This is the true way, but no-one has tried it.

[[Reminder that ‘dialectics’ is generally Bacon’s term for logic, but he is seemingly specifically referring to the logic and processes followed in Aristotle’s methods.]]

20. When the intellect is left to itself it takes the same way—namely (1)—that it does when following the rules of dialectics. For the mind loves to leap up to generalities and come to rest with them; so it doesn’t take long for it to become sick of experiment. But this evil, ·though it is present both in natural science and in dialectics·, is worse in dialectics because of the ordered solemnity of its disputations.

21. When the intellect of a sober, patient, and grave mind is left to itself (especially in a mind that isn’t held back by accepted doctrines), it ventures a little way along (2) the right path; but it doesn’t get far, because without guidance and help it isn’t up to the task, and is quite unfit to overcome the obscurity of things.

22. Both ways set out from the senses and particular events, and come to rest in the most general propositions; yet they are enormously different. For one of them (1) merely glances in passing at experiments and particular events, whereas the other (2) stays among them and examines them with proper respect. One (1) proceeds immediately to laying down certain abstract and useless generalities, whereas the other (2) rises by step by step to what is truly better known by nature.

[In calling something ‘known to nature’ Bacon means that it is a general law of nature; ‘better known by nature’ could mean ‘a more general law of nature’ or ‘a generality that is more completely lawlike’.]

23. There is a great difference between •the idols of the human mind and •the ideas of God’s mind—that is, between •certain empty beliefs and •the true seals [= ‘signs of authenticity’] and marks that we have found in created things.

24. There’s no way that axioms •established by argumentation could help us in the discovery of new things, because the subtlety of nature is many times greater than the subtlety of argument. But axioms •abstracted from particulars in the proper way often herald the discovery of new particulars and point them out, thereby returning the sciences to their active status.

25. The axioms that are now in use are mostly made so that they just cover the items from which they arise, namely thin and common-or-garden experiences and a few particulars of the commonest sorts, so it is no wonder if they don’t lead to new particulars. ·And it’s not only the axioms, but also the way they are handled, that is defective·. If some unexpected counter-example happens to turn up, the axiom is rescued and preserved by some frivolous distinction, rather than (the truer course) being amended.

[[Once upon a time, the philosophers of Plato’s Academy claimed that the best definition of human was a “featherless biped”. Diogenes of Sinope, also called Diogenes the Cynic, is said to have promptly exhibited a plucked chicken and declared “Here is Plato’s man.” The Platonists promptly changed their definition to “a featherless biped with broad nails”. - Similarity Clusters]]

26. To help me get my ideas across, I have generally used different labels for human reason’s two ways of approaching nature: the customary way I describe as anticipating nature (because it is rash and premature) [Note from the preface: throughout this work, ‘anticipation’ means something like ‘second-guessing, getting ahead of the data, jumping the gun’. Bacon means it to sound rash and risky; no one current English word does the job.] and the way that draws conclusions from facts in the right way I describe as interpreting nature.

27. Anticipations are a firm enough basis for consent, for even if men all went mad in the same way they might agree one with another well enough.

[[consent = agreement]]

28. Indeed, anticipations have much more power to win assent than interpretations do. They are inferred from a few instances, mostly of familiar kinds, so that they immediately brush past the intellect and fill the imagination; whereas interpretations are gathered from very various and widely dispersed facts, so that they can’t suddenly strike the intellect, and must seem weird and hard to swallow—rather like the mysteries of faith.

[[Bacon appears to be saying that the easy, quick, rash science is easy convince people of since it has low inferential distance owing to it being derived from a few familiar examples; in contrast, his difficult and true science built on many observations and facts has high inferential distance, causing it to seem strange and weird.]]

29. Anticipations and dialectics have their place in sciences based on opinions and dogmas, because in those sciences the aim is to be master of •what people believe but not of •the facts.

30. Even if all the brains of all the ages come together, collaborate and share their results, no great progress will ever be made in science by means of anticipations. That is because errors that are rooted in the first moves that the mind makes can’t be cured later on by remedial action, however brilliant.

31. It is pointless to expect any great advances in science from grafting new things onto old. If we don’t want to go around in circles for ever, making ‘progress’ that is so small as be almost negligible, we must make a fresh start with deep foundations.

[‘Fresh start’ translates instauratio, from the verb instauro = ‘make a fresh start (on a ceremony that has been wrongly performed)’. Bacon planned a six-part work on science and its philosophy and methods, which he called his Instauratio magna—his Great Fresh Start. There are other informal mentions of fresh starts in 38 and 129, and the Great Fresh Start is referred to in 92 and each of 115117. Bacon died six years after publishing the present work. It is Part 2 of the Great Fresh Start, and the only Part he completed.]

32. This is not to attack the honour of the ancient authors or indeed of anyone else, because I am comparing not •intelligences or •competences but •ways ·of proceeding in the sciences·; and the role I have taken on is that of a guide, not a judge.

33. This must be said outright: anticipations (the kind of reasoning that is now in use) can’t pass judgment on my method or on discoveries arising from it; for I can’t be called on to submit to the sentence of a tribunal which is itself on trial!

34. It won’t be easy for me to deliver and explain my message, for things that are in themselves new will be understood on analogy with things that are old.

35. Borgia said that when the French marched into Italy they came with chalk in their hands to •mark out their lodgings, not with weapons to •force their way in. Similarly, I want my doctrine to enter quietly into the minds that are fit to receive it and have room for it. ·Forcing my way in with weapons, so to speak, won’t work· because refutations—·and more generally arguments pro and con·—can’t be employed when what’s at stake is a difference of view about first principles, notions, and even forms of demonstration.

36. There remains for me only one way of getting my message across. It is a simple way, namely this: I must lead you to the particular events themselves, and to the order in which they occur; and you for your part must force yourself for a while to lay aside your •notions and start to familiarize yourself with •facts.

37. Those who deny that anything can be known for sure •start off their thinking in something like my way, but where they •end up is utterly different from and opposed to where I end up. They say that nothing can be known, period. I say that not much can be known about nature by the method that is now in use. And then they go on to destroy the authority of the senses and the intellect, whereas I devise and supply helps for them.

The next post in the sequence, Book 1: 38-52 (Idols of the Mind Pt. 1), will be posted Tuesday, September 24 at latest by 4:00pm PDT.

No nominations.
No reviews.