Back From Chaos

Enlightenment thinkers knew a lot about everything, today's specialists know a lot about a little, and postmodernists doubt that we can know anything at all. One of the century's most important scientists argues, against fashion, that we can know what we need to know, and that we will discover underlying all forms of knowledge a fundamental unity.

SCIENCE was the engine of the Enlightenment. The more scientifically disposed Enlightenment authors agreed that the cosmos is an orderly material construct governed by exact laws. It can be broken down into entities that can be measured and arranged in hierarchies, such as societies, which are made up of persons, whose brains consist of nerves, which in turn are composed of atoms. In principle, at least, the atoms can be reassembled into nerves, the nerves into brains, and the persons into societies, with the whole understood as a system of mechanisms and forces. If one insists on a divine intervention, the Enlightenment philosophers maintained, one should think of the world as God's machine. The conceptual constraints that cloud our vision of the physical world can be eased for the betterment of humanity in every sphere. Thus Condorcet, in an era still unburdened by the ballast of complicating fact, called for the illumination of the moral and political sciences by the "torch of analysis."

The grand architect of this dream was not Condorcet, or any of the other philosophes who expressed it so well, but Francis Bacon. Among the Enlightenment founders, he is the one who most endures in spirit, informing us across four centuries that we must understand nature, both around us and within ourselves, in order to set humanity on the course of self-improvement. We must do it knowing that our destiny is in our own hands and that denial of the dream will lead back to barbarism. In his scholarship Bacon questioned the solidity of classical "delicate" learning -- those medieval forms based on ancient texts and logical expatiation. He spurned reliance on ordinary scholastic philosophy, calling for a study of nature and the human condition on their own terms and without artifice. He observed that because "the mind, hastily and without choice, imbibes and treasures up the first notices of things, from whence all the rest proceed, errors must forever prevail, and remain uncorrected." Thus knowledge is not well constructed but "resembles a magnificent structure that has no foundation."

By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, Bacon concluded that the best among them for accurate thought was induction -- the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions. Bacon proclaimed a pyramid of disciplines, with natural history forming the base, physics above and subsuming it, and metaphysics at the peak, explaining everything below -- though perhaps in powers and forms beyond the grasp of man.

He was neither a gifted scientist ("I can not thridd needles so well") nor trained in mathematics, but he was a brilliant thinker, who founded the philosophy of science. A Renaissance man, he took, in his famous phrase, all knowledge to be his province. Then he stepped forward into the Enlightenment as the first taxonomist and master purveyor of the scientific method.

Bacon defined science broadly to include a foreshadowing of the social sciences and parts of the humanities. The repeated testing of knowledge by experiment, he insisted, is the cutting edge of learning. But to him "experiment" meant more than controlled manipulations in the manner of modern science. It was all the ways in which humanity brings change into the world through information, agriculture, and industry. He believed the great branches of learning to be open-ended and constantly evolving, but he nonetheless wrote eloquently on his belief in the underlying unity of knowledge. He rejected the sharp divisions among the disciplines that had prevailed since Aristotle.

Bacon elaborated on but did not invent the method of induction as a counterpoint to classical and medieval deduction. Still, he deserves the title Father of Induction, on which much of his fame rested in later centuries. The procedure he favored was much more than merely making factual generalizations -- such as, to use a modern example, "Ninety percent of plant species have flowers that are yellow, red, or white, and are visited by insects." Rather, he said, start with such an unbiased description of phenomena. Collect their common traits into an intermediate level of generality. Then proceed to higher levels of generality -- such as, "Flowers have evolved colors and anatomy designed to attract certain kinds of insects, and these are the creatures that exclusively pollinate them." Bacon's reasoning was an improvement over the traditional methods of description and classification prevailing during the Renaissance, but it anticipated little of the methods of concept formation, competing hypotheses, and theory that form the core of modern science.

In psychology, and particularly in the nature of creativity, Bacon cast his vision furthest ahead. Although he did not use the word (it was not coined until 1653), he understood the critical importance of psychology in scientific research and all other forms of scholarship. He had a deep intuition for the mental processes of discovery. He understood the means by which those processes are best systematized and most persuasively transmitted. "The human understanding," he wrote, "is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called 'sciences as one would.'" He did not mean by this to distort perception of the real world by interposing a prism of emotion. Reality ought still to be embraced directly and reported without flinching. But it is also best delivered the same way it was discovered, retaining a comparable vividness and play of the emotions.

I do not wish, by ranking Francis Bacon so high, to portray him as a thoroughly modern man. He was far from that. His friend William Harvey, a physician and a real scientist who made a fundamental discovery, the circulation of the blood, noted drily that Bacon wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor. His phrases make splendid marble inscriptions and commencement flourishes. The unity of knowledge he conceived is remote from the present-day concept of consilience, far from the deliberate, systematic linkage of cause and effect across the disciplines. His stress lay instead on the common means of inductive inquiry that might optimally serve all the branches of learning. He searched for the techniques that best convey the knowledge gained, and to that end he argued for the full employment of the humanities, including art and fiction, as the best means for developing and expressing science. Science, as he broadly defined it, should be poetry, and poetry science. That, at least, has a pleasingly modern ring.

Bacon's philosophy raised the sights of a small but influential public. It helped to prime the Scientific Revolution, which was to blossom spectacularly in the decades ahead. To this day his vision remains at the heart of the scientific-technological ethic. He was a magnificent figure, standing alone by necessity of circumstance, who achieved that affecting combination of humility and innocent arrogance present only in the greatest scholars.

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