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Cooking with Bacon and Descartes

The importance of the Scientific Revolution lay not just with the invention of the telescope, the advancements in medicine, the acceptance of the Copernican hypothesis, or the laws of motion. Arguably more important than the knowledge gained during the Scientific Revolution was the change in the methodology used to gain new knowledge: the development of the modern scientific method, the same method used today to test hypotheses and to gain new scientific knowledge.

No single thinker published a book or an essay outlining the new methodology. Rather, it was a fusion of the ideas of two of the great thinkers of the seventeenth century, Sir Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

Sir Francis Bacon and Inductive Reasoning

The Englishman Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) advocated the use of the experimental method for gaining knowledge, the same method used by Galileo. Often considered a philosopher, Bacon contributed profoundly to the Scientific Revolution. 

Would You Believe?

Francis Bacon desired to serve his country and he worked his way through many positions within the administrations of Elizabeth and James I. However, a black cloud followed him from office to office; he could not stay out of debt. Furthermore, his homosexual practices offended many around him. He finished his career in government service when he took bribes, almost certainly to pay debts.

Bacon believed true knowledge could be gained only through observation, specifically of experiments. Reasoning based on observation, called inductive reasoning, was a fundamental part of empiricism, the use of empirical evidence to gain knowledge. Bacon believed that the logic and reasoning used by Aristotle and other thinkers of old to develop scientific theories had serious flaws, because several factors could affect human reasoning and taint the resulting “knowledge.” Speculation, according to Bacon, usually did not produce accurate or useful knowledge. If a scientist wanted to gain knowledge of the planets, he should observe, record, and then analyze the data the way Brahe and Galileo had done. Rather than working backward from a generalization, Bacon recommended observing, then making a conclusion, then generalizing once the conclusion is proved. Bacon criticized those who relied on thinkers like Aristotle who didn’t use the empirical method but relied only on reasoning.

Continental Quotes

“Knowledge is power."

—Sir Francis Bacon

Bacon advocated government funding for science and argued that the scientific discoveries of the future could make the leading scientific nations rich and powerful; he hoped one such nation would be England. On a number of occasions Bacon found himself in a position to influence the government of King James I to patronize science, and served in several high-ranking positions. In a strange turn of events that really has had no bearing on his scientific legacy, the English government indicted Bacon on more than 20 counts of corruption and dismissed him from office.

René Descartes and Deductive Reasoning

Frenchman René Descartes (1596-1650) approached science from a different angle than Bacon. Like so many other figures of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes ranked among the great mathematicians of all time. In the middle of the Thirty Years’ War, Descartes realized the relationship between algebra and geometry; later he would invent analytical geometry.

Descartes disagreed with the dogma of the Church based on obsolete ways of thinking. Descartes believed that the universe was based on mathematical and logical relationships. In his famous Discourse on Methods in 1637, he proposed that the key to nature lay in mathematics, which could also be used to understand humans and human institutions, such as political units.

Because human senses, used in observation of experiments, can be deceived, observation is fallible. To prove his point, Descartes used what was known as the wax argument. He noted, with his senses, the size, shape, texture, and feel of a piece of wax. As he moved the wax toward a flame, the size, shape, and texture changed, but the wax remained wax. That simple experiment, for Descartes, proved that the best judgment was the one made by the mind and not by the senses.

Descartes believed in a good God who had no desire to deceive man and thus bestowed on man a keen mind capable of great things. Such was Descartes’ faith in the power of the human intellect that only logic, or deductive reasoning, can be trusted. Descartes’ approach to knowledge was nothing like Bacon’s. Descartes’ approach involved doubting everything that could be doubted and then making generalizations based on obvious truths. Descartes took his scientific approach, considered a philosophy by many, to the extreme and formed what has become known as Cartesian dualism. For Descartes, doubting everything and applying reason causes everything to fall either into the category of matter or of mind; in other words, everything is either physical or spiritual. He even used logic and reason to prove, at least to himself, not only his own existence but also the existence of God. His famous quote, “I think, therefore I am,” summarizes his proof of his own existence. Unfortunately for Descartes, he never really found great support from either the government or the Church. Descartes had always rejected the Aristotelian view of the universe, the view held by the Church throughout the Middle Ages, and he refused to allow religion to influence his philosophy. He based his philosophy on pure reason, even his philosophy dealing with God and truth, and as a result drew the ire of the Church.

His works were officially banned in 1663.

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