Novum Organum: Introduction



In light of its value as a ra­tio­nal­ist text, its his­tor­i­cal in­fluence on the progress of sci­ence, and its gen­eral ex­pres­sion of the philos­o­phy and vi­sion which guides LessWrong 2.0, the mod­er­a­tion team has seen fit to pub­lish Novum Or­ganum as a LessWrong se­quence. (Image: the en­graved ti­tle page.)

Quotes in this post are from Fran­cis Ba­con’s Novum Or­ganum in the ver­sion by Jonathan Ben­nett pre­sented at www.ear­ly­mod­ern­texts.com


In 1620, Fran­cis Ba­con’s Novum Or­ganum was pub­lished. Though the work might be suc­cinctly de­scribed as Ba­con’s views on em­piri­cism and in­duc­tivism, it is far more than a list of ex­per­i­men­tal steps to be fol­lowed. It is an en­tire episte­mol­ogy and philos­o­phy—pos­si­bly the episte­mol­ogy and philos­o­phy which un­der­lay the Scien­tific Revolu­tion.

Ba­con was damn­ing of the sci­ence of his time and pre­ced­ing cen­turies. He saw the pseudo-em­piri­cal syl­l­o­gis­tic paradigm as deeply flawed and in­ca­pable of mak­ing progress.

If those doc­trines ·of the an­cient Greeks· hadn’t been so ut­terly like a plant torn up by its roots, and had re­mained at­tached to and nour­ished by the womb of na­ture, the state of af­fairs that we have seen to ob­tain for two thou­sand years—namely the sci­ences stayed in the place where they be­gan, hardly chang­ing, not get­ting any ad­di­tions worth men­tion­ing, thriv­ing best in the hands of their first founders and de­clin­ing from then on—would never have come about. (74) [1]

He also be­lieved that the un­aided hu­man mind was in­ca­pable of get­ting far on its own.

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. (9)

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. (2)

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 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. (21)

Nonethe­less, he was op­ti­mistic that if the old doc­trines were aban­doned, idols of the mind (i.e., bi­ases, fal­la­cies, and con­fu­sions) were cleared out, and his pre­cise, care­ful em­piri­cal method was fol­lowed by a com­mu­nity of schol­ars, then no knowl­edge was out of reach and hu­man­ity would even­tu­ally achieve all of the most splen­did dis­cov­er­ies.

Un­til now men haven’t lin­gered long with •ex­pe­rience; they have brushed past it on their way to the in­ge­nious •the­o­riz­ings on which they have wasted un­think­able amounts of time. But if we had some­one at hand who could an­swer our ques­tions of the form ‘What are the facts about this mat­ter?’, it wouldn’t take many years for us to dis­cover all causes and com­plete ev­ery sci­ence. (112)

The hu­man mind is fal­lible and flawed—”like a dis­tort­ing mir­ror,″ Ba­con says—yet its bi­ases can be over­come. Through ad­her­ence to prop­erly look­ing at the world, such that if “the road from the senses to the in­tel­lect [is] well defended with walls along each side,” then a sci­en­tific com­mu­nity can figure out the world and even reach Utopia.

This a de­cid­edly LessWrong wor­ld­view.

In­deed, by my read­ing, Ba­con pos­sessed in some form a large num­ber of con­cepts em­ployed on LessWrong, not limited to: con­fir­ma­tion bias, mo­ti­vated cog­ni­tion, the bot­tom line, mind-pro­jec­tion fal­lacy, pos­i­tive bias, en­tan­gled ev­i­dence, carv­ing re­al­ity at its joints, fake causal­ity, wor­ship­ping ig­no­rance, idea in­oc­u­la­tion, the sur­pris­ingly de­tailed­ness of re­al­ity, in­fer­en­tial dis­tance, in­cen­tives, and dis­solv­ing con­fused lan­guage. He even spoke of the ap­pro­pri­ate de­grees of cer­tainty for each stage of an in­quiry and de­liber­ately used epistemic sta­tuses!

Novum Or­ganum was Ba­con’s mon­u­men­tal at­tempt to ex­plain all of the above: how and why the ex­ist­ing sci­en­tific meth­ods were en­tirely bro­ken, why no­body had no­ticed un­til then, what the al­ter­na­tive paradigm was, and a vi­sion for a com­mu­nity of schol­ars and in­sti­tu­tions which could help dis­cover all sci­en­tific truths.

Cover­ing bi­ases and em­piri­cism as it does, Novum Or­ganum is highly in­struc­tive as a ra­tio­nal­ist text. Yet why read Ba­con when we’ve got the Se­quences, Codex, and the rest of mod­ern LessWrong? I an­swer that it’s worth­while be­cause there’s a fo­cus and im­me­di­acy to a text whose au­thor wasn’t writ­ing ab­stractly, but di­rely wanted to redi­rect all the sci­en­tific efforts of his time to be more pro­duc­tive.

There’s an im­pres­sive­ness to some­one grap­pling with how to do sci­ence at a point when so much less was known about the world. Com­pared to us, Ba­con’s time was one of ex­treme mys­tery. Re­call that he was writ­ing be­fore Boyle, New­ton, Maxwell, or Dar­win. He did not have ac­cess to the­o­ries of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, elec­tro­mag­netism, evolu­tion, or atomic physics. They hadn’t even in­vented the mer­cury ther­mome­ter in his time. He earnestly tried to figure out sim­ply “what is heat?” and by use of his metic­u­lous em­piri­cism cor­rectly in­ferred it was just some­thing to do with mo­tion—150 years be­fore phlo­gis­ton the­ory was laid to rest and with ac­cess to only prim­i­tive air-based ther­mome­ters!

We get to look back and point to all that mod­ern sci­ence has done over the cen­turies to make us feel en­thu­si­as­tic. Four hun­dred years ago, Ba­con’s en­thu­si­asm came en­tirely from his abil­ity to look for­ward.

There is also per­haps a val­i­da­tion of the LessWrong wor­ld­view to be found in Ba­con. Ba­con was a sym­bolic figure of the Scien­tific Revolu­tion. In­spira­tional to the Royal So­ciety and many oth­ers. His­tor­i­cal credit al­lo­ca­tion is hard, but it seems more likely than not that Ba­con gets a good deal of credit in bring­ing about the Scien­tific Revolu­tion. Seem­ingly, many of the same ideas that we cher­ish now were read by the schol­ars who first read Ba­con and kicked off the mod­ern sci­en­tific era. If only peo­ple hadn’t stopped read­ing Ba­con in the origi­nal af­ter a few gen­er­a­tions.

Beyond his in­struc­tion in bi­ases and em­piri­cism, Ba­con in an in­spira­tion to the LessWrong 2.0 pro­ject [2] for his vi­sions of how in­fras­truc­ture and com­mu­nity are key to in­tel­lec­tual progress. Ba­con saw in­tel­lec­tual progress as a tech­nolog­i­cal [3] and col­lab­o­ra­tive en­deavor, ex­actly as LessWrong 2.0 does.

At the tech­nolo­gies for in­di­vi­d­ual think­ing level, Ba­con writes:

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. (2)

Ba­con is fur­ther adamant that the pro­cess of sci­ence re­quires peo­ple to write their work down and share it. Per­haps this is ob­vi­ous now, but Ba­con was writ­ing be­fore the first sci­en­tific jour­nal, in­deed, he is cred­ited as a ma­jor in­spira­tion for the Royal So­ciety whose philo­soph­i­cal trans­ac­tions were the first sci­en­tific jour­nal.

Even af­ter we have ac­quired and have ready at hand a store of nat­u­ral his­tory and ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults such as is re­quired for the work of the in­tel­lect, or of philos­o­phy, still that is not enough. The in­tel­lect is far from be­ing able to re­tain all this ma­te­rial in mem­ory and re­call it at will, any more than a man could keep a di­ary all in his head. Yet un­til now there has been more think­ing than writ­ing about dis­cov­ery pro­ce­dures—ex­per­i­men­ta­tion hasn’t yet be­come liter­ate! But a dis­cov­ery isn’t worth much if it isn’t ·planned and re­ported· in writ­ing; and when this be­comes the stan­dard prac­tice, bet­ter things can be hoped for from ex­per­i­men­tal pro­ce­dures that have at last been made liter­ate. (101)

Yet an­other point, maybe, ob­vi­ous to us now: the work of sci­ence can be split up among peo­ple.

Un­like the work of sheerly think­ing up hy­pothe­ses, proper sci­en­tific work can be done col­lab­o­ra­tively; the best way is for men’s efforts (es­pe­cially in col­lect­ing ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults) to be ex­erted sep­a­rately and then brought to­gether. Men will be­gin to know their strength only when they go this way—with one tak­ing charge of one thing and an­other of an­other, in­stead of all do­ing all the same things. (113)

Though Ba­con’s great­est refer­ence to col­lab­o­rat­ing and in­sti­tu­tion for knowl­edge per­haps comes from his utopian novel, New At­lantis. One char­ac­ter de­scribes the fic­tional in­sti­tu­tion of Solomon’s House:

Ye shall un­der­stand (my dear friends) that amongst the ex­cel­lent acts of that king, one above all hath the pre-em­i­nence. It was the erec­tion and in­sti­tu­tion of an Order or So­ciety, which we call Salomon’s House; the no­blest foun­da­tion (as we think) that ever was upon the earth; and the lan­thorn of this king­dom. It is ded­i­cated to the study of the works and crea­tures of God. Some think it beareth the founder’s name a lit­tle cor­rupted, as if it should be So­la­mona’s House. But the records write it as it is spo­ken. So as I take it to be de­nom­i­nate of the king of the He­brews, which is fa­mous with you, and no stranger to us.

The novel goes into great depth about how the in­sti­tu­tion func­tions and all the roles differ­ent in­di­vi­d­u­als play in the sci­en­tific pro­cess. Ac­cord­ing to Wikipe­dia, it is this vi­sion which in­spired Sa­muel Hartlib and Robert Boyle to found the Royal So­ciety.

To con­clude this in­tro­duc­tion, I’ll men­tion that Novum Or­ganum is ac­tu­ally part two of six from Ba­con’s much larger, never-com­pleted work, In­stau­ra­tio Magna. The ti­tle is usu­ally trans­lated as The Great In­stau­ra­tion yet Ben­nett (whose trans­la­tion of Novum Or­ganum we are post­ing) trans­lates it as The Great Fresh Start. Seems fit­ting to Ba­con’s in­ten­tions.

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. (31)

Given the Scien­tific Revolu­tion got go­ing in earnest around his life­time, I dare say he got what we he asked for.


[1] Novum Or­ganum con­sists two books each con­tain­ing “apho­risms” which range in length from three lines to six­teen pages. A bold num­ber on its own refers to an apho­rism from Book 1 by de­fault or Book 2 where the con­text is very clear. When un­clear, apho­risms are refer­enced by a lead­ing 1- or 2- to dis­am­biguate, e.g 2-13 is the 13th apho­rism in Book 2.

[2] Usu­ally, we now call our­selves sim­ply “LessWrong” but it feels im­por­tant to dis­am­biguate here since I can­not make claims to the vi­sion for origi­nal LessWrong as founded in 2009 by Eliezer. It does seem clear that Eliezer was not in­fluenced by Ba­con in the same way that Habryka (LessWrong 2.0’s team lead and core founder) has been.

[3] By tech­nolog­i­cal I re­fer broadly to the cre­ation of knowl­edge and tools that can be used for a spe­cific pur­pose, in­clud­ing things like method­olo­gies and pro­ce­dures, not just phys­i­cal ar­ti­facts. I would call a set of tech­niques for de­bi­as­ing one’s think­ing and like­wise train­ing for how to mod­er­ate an on­line fo­rum as both ex­am­ples of tech­nolo­gies.