Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Empirical Experiment of the Phrozen Philosopher

                    It was snowing like billy-o here in Lancashire this morning and it’s snowing again at the moment, and so we are all being advised by the weather-Johnnies who are up to speed about this sort of thing that it’s probably not the best idea to bother going out unless it’s really necessary, which is all well and good by me as I’ve spotted a couple of bottles of Brown Ale lurking in my kitchen that I’m sure won’t be around anymore come bedtime. 

Sir Francis Bacon

All this snow put me in mind of Sir Francis Bacon - well, that and the stuff about J J Winckelmann I wrote earlier this week; I’ll come to the Bacon/snow thing a little later but to start with Winckelmann. Just as he is considered to be the first art historian and archaeologist so Bacon can be considered to be the first modern scientist. Bacon was a polymath, he simply did so much stuff it’s staggering to think it was the work of just one man. He was a precocious boy, but a sickly one who was educated at home prior to going up to Cambridge University at the age of twelve (not at all an unusual thing in the past, when a different system of education was the norm), and he also attended the University of Poitiers. 

Francis Bacon aged about eighteen

He trained for the law but family connections meant that he also gained some early experience of diplomacy although when his father died unexpectedly in 1579, the eighteen-year-old Bacon began training as a barrister in order to support himself. With the help of the patronage of his uncle, Lord Burghley, he rose rapidly at the Bar and two years later he was also elected as a Member of Parliament. His rise at the court of Elizabeth was slower, if not positively glacial, but when James I became King all this changed. Bacon himself acknowledged this in a later letter to the King, where he wrote that James “ … had raised and advanced him nine times; thrice in dignity, and six times in office.” 

Sir Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam and Viscount St Albans

He was knighted in 1603, became Attorney General in 1613 and Lord Chancellor in 1618, in which year he also became Baron Verulam of Verulam, being further raised to Viscount St Alban in 1621. And then, ruin! In that same year, Parliament charged him with twenty-three separate counts of corruption, for which he was fined £40,000 and sentenced to be held in the Tower of London awaiting the King’s pleasure (i.e. potentially indefinitely). In reality, he was only imprisoned for a few days, the King remitted the fine and Bacon narrowly escaped degradation (the removal of his titles), but he was barred from holding further offices of state or sitting in parliament. Instead, he withdrew from public life and devoted the rest of his life to study and writing. 

Sir Francis Bacon

This was the silver lining of the dark cloud that had descended over Bacon’s public life, as he spent the next five years of his life experimenting, writing and thinking, unencumbered by the distractions of court life, and up to this point what writing he had produced was done, in effect, in his spare time. With unlimited time on his hands, he was free to explore wherever his fancy took him, which was in some quite remarkable directions. As early at his time at Cambridge, Bacon had been opposed to Aristotelian methods of philosophy, which he regarded as ‘fruitless’, and although most thinking undergraduates will find fault with their textbooks, Bacon carried this dissatisfaction through to his adult life. 

Sir Francis Bacon - Advancement of Learning - 1605 (1674 ed)

In his Advancement of Learning (the full title is Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human) of 1605, Bacon identified three ‘distempers’ that were barriers to true learning. He calls them Fantastical Learning, Contentious Learning and Delicate Learning (or, vain imaginations, vain altercations, and vain affectation). 

The first, Fantastical Learning, is what today we might call pseudoscience, it is the nonsense peddled by charlatans and deceivers, who pretend to knowledge but theirs is knowledge without substance, often self-referential, and carefully shielded from external criticism. It is, as Bacon says, ‘the foulest’ as it seeks to destroy true knowledge. 

The second, Contentious Learning, is the scholasticism of the school of Aristotle, to which Bacon had been exposed as a student. It values traditionalism and debate for its own sake, it prefers quibbling and hair-splitting over the acquisition of true knowledge, it goes round in stagnant circles and so makes no forward progress. 

Thirdly, Delicate Learning, which Bacon saw as the mistaken reverence for the works of the Ancients for their own sake. Texts that had long ‘slept in libraries’ were being read again but instead of using the knowledge contained in those books, they were used as models for literary pretensions, to revive Ciceronian rhetorical embellishments and the prose styles of the Ancients. It is the triumph of style over content, not what you say but how you say it. For Bacon, knowledge was to be used for the benefit of mankind, to make progress, to learn and to discover new things. 

Sir Francis Bacon - Sylva Sylvarum - 1627

In his De Hæresibus (1597), Bacon wrote ‘Ipsa scientia potestas est’ – Knowledge is Power – and it was the acquisition of Knowledge that drove Bacon to develop his scientific methods, which valued empirical knowledge, knowledge gained from experiments and observations, knowledge gained from inductive reasoning. In this, Francis Bacon is the father of the modern scientific method, he was the first to say, in effect, don’t believe what you’re being told is the truth just because it is written in a book, get out there and look at it yourself, ask questions and do experiments and learn about it for yourself. 

Sir Francis Bacon

So, what was that thing about Bacon and snow at the beginning? Well, the story goes that Bacon was out in his coach on one snowy day and it occurred to him that the coldness of the snow might possibly be used as a preservative to keep meat fresh. He stopped the coach and bought a chicken from a woman at her stall at the bottom of Highgate Hill, then went out into the snow and stuffed some of it into the body cavity of the fowl. He was so engrossed in his experiment that he neglected to keep himself warm and was eventually overcome by the cold. Unable to go on, he struggled to the nearby house of the Earl of Arundell, where he was put into a damp, unaired bed. His cold developed into pneumonia and he died from ‘suffocation’ two days later, on April 9th 1626, aged 65.

Statue of Sir Francis Bacon

But the story of Sir Francis Bacon doesn’t stop there. Dearie me, no.

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