New Beginning (1)

Bacon and Descartes on a New Beginning

…if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties. – Francis Bacon

Despite the disparity of metaphor (Bacon speaks of “new beginnings” and Descartes of “secure foundations”) and the inequality of response (Bacon did nothing to compare with Descartes’ contributions to mathematics, although his accomplishment in creating a scientific community should not be underestimated), Bacon and Descartes were effectively consanguineous participants in a single broad project that defined the intellectual history of their time. Numerous individuals, most notably Galileo and Harvey, began to engage in investigations into the workings of nature such as, in Bacon’s words, lay practically dormant since the century before Plato. The need appeared consequent to create an explanatory and justificatory theory of the new sciences and also to speculate as to what new tools - intellectual tools in Descartes’ case and social institutions in Bacon’s - may best serve such research. Bacon's Novum Organum was intended to provide a new method and conceptual structure for scientific research, and at least one of Descartes' biographers views the Règles pour la direction de l'esprit as a sort of compeittive alternative to Bacon's approach (Clarke, p. 86). At the very least the Règles build upon the Novum Organum and provide much new content for the 17th century theory of the sciences. The parallelism between Descartes and Bacon deserves comment.

  1. It is at first blush striking (to say the least) that the model of the new scientific research given pride of place by both Descartes and Bacon is Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. Not Galileo. From a chronological standpoint Galileo was internationally celebrated by 1610 and Harvey’s research only came to fruition around 1616 or thereabouts. Over and above that, it was Galileo who first promulgated the idea of experimental verification of theories and used measurement as a critical tool in his gathering of observational data. In Bacon’s case the explanation for the lacuna most likely lies in his personal relation to Harvey and his general lack of appreciation for the importance of measurement and mathematics in scientific theory. Descartes states bluntly (Discours de la méthode, Part Six) that his reticence, in light of Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition in 1633, was due to his desire for peace and quiet.
  2. The empiricist/rationalist division makes a poor fit when one gets down to the actual details of Bacon and Descartes’ theories. Bacon, as much as Descartes, was concerned that research not be haphazard, that it proceed by “fixed rules” and a “sure method.” His own wording is that the empirical and the rational faculties must work together. He even has some kind words about metaphysics: “…knowledge is worthiest when it is charged with the least multiplicity; which appeareth to be Metaphysics; as that which considereth the Simple Forms or Differences of things, which are few in number, and the degrees and coordinations whereof make all this variety.” (p. 197 The Advancement of Learning)
  3. Neither attack actual inferences from syllogistic logic. Rather, both say that the schoolmen use obscure terms and words that have no meaning. Bacon provides the best description of this: The schoolmen go straight from individual instances to the broadest generalizations, skipping the intermediate steps. Another problem is that syllogistic logic had no mechanism for demonstrating the validity of major premises (unless a major was also the conclusion of another syllogism). Bacon speaks of an up and down movement where individual instances are generalized and truths about other individual instances are arrived at from the generalizations through deduction. Bacon (Novum Organum p. 2: “…the first notions of things which the mind accepts, keeps and accumulates…are faulty and confused and abstracted from things without care….” The reference to making the mind “compliant with nature” simply means that close observation and experiment should never be abandoned. Descartes observes, perhaps ironically, that there may be some pedagogic value to syllogism but that it should be set aside as soon as one leaves school (Règles pour la direction de l'esprit p. 40).
  4. Each man can lay claim to a singular (“singular” being very broadly defined in Descartes’ case) contribution to the basic theory and tool chest of science. Bacon’s contribution was induction as he exemplifies in his comments on the study of heat. But what Bacon calls induction does not consist in generalization from individual instances; his version was nothing at all like the positivist notion of induction, which is closer to the form Bacon attacks as mere enumeration. For example, Bacon, repeatedly insists that true induction seeks to “separate out a nature by appropriate rejections and exclusions. (NO p. 84)” In the same passage he cites Plato as the best example of the inductive method, which would be a remarkable thing were we to make unwarranted presuppositions about how Bacon used the term. His motive appears to lie in his argument that the faults of scholastic logic lay in lengthy disputes about meaningless terms. Therefore the first task of scientific reforms lay in defining terms that really meant something, that refer to really existing things in nature. So to speak about heat, for example, as a kind of generalized form, or even worse an occult quality, without engaging in first, a careful examination of particular instances of this or that hot thing and the exclusion of apparent but ultimately erroneous examples of hot things, and then a considered definition of what it means to be hot, would be just as bad as the wild scholastic debates about being, substance and passion. Induction is this exclusion. It is a way of clarifying scientific language. “It is this kind of induction whose help we must have not only to discover axioms but also to define concepts. (NO p. 84)” Descartes’ contributions to the tools of science were incalculably greater as is evident in Note 8 below.
  5. Bacon wrote before the combined effects of Galilean, Cartesian and Newtonian science would do away with the need to talk about forms and simplify the scientific universe of discourse to a few measurable entities. Thus, from an ontological point of view, the need for induction in the Baconian sense has been replaced by a kind of scientific liberalism where entities (individual forms or natures) are tolerated if they are measurable and required by the theory. Others are reduced to the basic entities of the theory. Baconian induction remains mainly of philosophical value. It serves as a worthwhile methodological caution for philosophers who wish to address issues of ontology outside the safe confines of natural science. Bacon also associates forms with the causes for lawlike behavior and what he calls latent structure; he distinguishes explanation based on a search for forms from an explanation that looks for final causes (NO pp. 102-103). This comes down to an essentialist view (NO p. 119) although Bacon avoids the term “essence.” The term “latent structure” sounds like, and probably is, the harbinger of the corpuscular theory and the mechanistic explanations of of natural and physiological phenomena that Descartes did more than anybody else to advance. Descartes simply drops any concern about essences in his physical theory. Instead of asking “What is it” with the attendant assumption that the answer to that question would reveal a “virtue”  that  explains, or rather names, an essence's interactions with other essences, Descartes began to ask a different question: “How does it work” The difference between these two questions and their corresponding influence on research is what constitutes the scientific revolution of the 17th century.
  6. Bacon simply eschewed first philosophy in favor of faith and revelation in theological matters, and an apparent agnosticism regarding the basic categories of the world and of knowledge. Descartes famously shared religious goals with the schoolmen, but instead of using their terminology he tries to stay with plain terms like “God” and the “soul.” He does make some use of the concept of substance, mostly in his metaphysics.
  7. Bacon observes that between Aristotle and his time there was really no science. Bacon and Descartes’ differences with the schoolmen lay not in disagreement or different answers to shared questions. Rather, as far as an understanding of the natural world was concerned, scholastic goals and objectives as well as methods were simply tossed overboard. If there are such things as paradigm shifts, this was one. (Cf. NO pp. 60 ff.) Note the rhetoric Bacon and Descartes use in describing their programs. Bacon’s concept of a new beginning is not really metaphorical or any kind of trope. Its meaning is literal. But Bacon uses the term in a lawyerly way with the aim of producing a sort of oratorical enthusiasm in his readers. Descartes does employ metaphor when he speaks of clear and solid truths (It is not insignificant that Descartes was simply the best writer of philosophy since Plato). Today this rhetoric has fallen on hard times, perhaps because it has served its purpose. In its place the epistemological Marxism of scientific revolutions has been imprinted on our brain cells.
  8. This is not foundationalism in the modern sense made familiar by Russell and Husserl. For Bacon especially, secure foundations meant simply doing things right: “… a general Renewal of the sciences and arts and all human learning, beginning from correct foundations. (p. 2)” Where he does speak of foundations such that “philosophy and the sciences may no longer float in the air…(p.5)” he clearly means adopting the method of experiment and observation and not some sort of hierarchical system where new propositions are derived from foundational propositions. An important notion in Bacon’s way of doing things is “degrees of certainty (p. 28)” in contrast to the absolute certainty required by Descartes (and Russell and Husserl).  The concept of foundationalism in Descartes is more complex. Descartes does have a concept of unassailable and certain truth. The foundational propositions on which all further knowledge is built, however, as he repeats over and over again, are (1) his own existence, (2) the existence of the soul, (3) the existence of God, (4) the assurance that God could not deceive him about the conclusions he draws (as e.g. the existence of material things) that are not already secured by the basic arguments that secured (1)-(3). Descartes does not say that more specific propositions (such as those concerning the circulation of blood) are not subject to revision based on further experiment. In fact, as summarized in Rule II (Règles, pp. 39 ff.), Descartes is, at least as of 1619, quite unequivocal that conclusions based on or essentially involving experience are only probable, that is subject to revision. The only certain and indubitable results are those of arithmetical and geometric deductions (Remember Descartes calls (1)-(4) geometric proofs). Nor does he give examples of other propositions that, like (1)-(3), are also unassailable without being based on (4). There is another element to Descartes’ new beginning which, in spirit at least, more closely approximates Bacon’s attitude. This is the streamlining and sophistication of mathematical techniques and the application of measurement to observation and the manipulation of the results of measurement. (Bacon did not appear to have sufficient appreciation of the importance of measurement. He may have also had an insufficient appreciation of mathematics. On p. 79 he says the proper role of mathematics is to limit natural philosophy, not to generate or beget it. His probable meaning is that mathematics alone without observation is useless. (Cf. also p. 225.) On mixing mathematics with metaphysics he says, “…it being the nature of the mind of man (to the extreme prejudice of knowledge) to delight in the spacious liberty of generalities, as in a champain region, and not in the inclosures of particularity….” (p. 200 The Advancement of Learning)) When Descartes talks about secure and unassailable methods he also means the methods of the geometricians, but his sense of the methods of geometricians is twofold. First, he simply means the sort of - sometimes lengthy - deductive chains used by geometricians in deriving theorems from their axioms, chains that could be constructed as algebraic computations using his newly devised symbolism. But for Descartes his Cogito and proof of the existence of God were also examples of geometrical reasoning although those proofs appear (somewhat incorrectly) to bear little or no relation to either the type of reasoning employed by Euclid or arithmetical reasoning. (This does raise the interesting question of what compels assent in a geometric demonstration. It is often pointed out in defense of the certainty or necessity of logical laws that we cannot know what someone who denies a logical law means. The nature of geometrical demonstrations as performed from Euclid through Fermat are more mysterious. Descartes’ Géométrie (Cf. his 1637 Géométrie and the Discours de la méthode pp. 246 ff.) swept away much of the mystery by reducing “compass and ruler” geometric proofs to symbolic deductions where the move from one step to the next – through substitution of terms – is in effect little more than the application of a logical law. It is important to note that when Descartes says that geometrical proofs are clear, distinct and unassailable he means the proofs of his own analytic geometry and not compass and ruler proofs.). Descartes (Règles pp. 39 ff.) rejects any conclusion involving experience as not living up to his criterion of certainty. He admits that the only sciences left worthy of the name are arithmetic and geometry. Presumably he would not deny that the results of the experiments concerning light and refraction that he outlines in the Discours could be revised in the light of new data. So perhaps Descartes would draw a line between geometrical proofs which are clear and certain in every way and the results of empirical science that are only certain to the degree that they are not subject to a sort of universal falsehood such as may be practiced upon us by a malin génie and not the benevolent God (Cf. Rule II p. 41 where Descartes asserts that experience can be deceptive while deduction is not deceptive. The reason arithmetic and geometry are more certain than experience is that their objects are “pure and simple.” They do not admit of the errors of experience.). Since the proof of the existence and benevolence of this God was arrived at by Descartes through means that he qualifies as geometrical, that proof is clear and certain in every way.                                         Descartes’ treatment of the natural sciences is less forthcoming about the strict distinction between probable and certain truths. The Discours de la Méthode was published in 1637 well after the unpublished Règles were written. The Discours summarizes the history of Descartes’ encounters with experimental science, particularly Harvey and Galileo and so it could be describing a time roughly posterior to the Règles but contemporaneous to the groundbreaking publication of the Géométrie. Two points are worth noting from the Discours. First, the results of the experimental sciences are not described as merely probable (or indubitable), but “très certains (p. 178),” make of that what you will. Secondly, the objections Descartes raises against experimentation are purely practical: the paucity of his own resources and the unreliability and non-disinterestedness of communications from other researchers. The Discourse should be understood as a description of his own intellectual journey, a memoir, so to speak, and not an actual argument against the sharing of experimental results. At the end of the day Descartes’ introduction of extension, figure and motion as the basic concepts of science fundamentally changes not only the Aristotelian substance/accident model as a basis for scientific research but also Bacon’s project of search for essences or simple natures through his exclusionist model of induction.
  1. Bacon provides the more thorough and detailed criticism of scholasticism (Again neither Bacon nor Descartes give sufficient – or any – credit to Galileo who began the fight against the Aristotelian syllogism and framed the terms of the attack): (1) Scholastics are not so much interested in the truth as having their school prevail over the others. Those who do advocate disinterested inquiry have no method and end up in aimless investigation. They are concerned only with what others have said; they do not pay attention to the things themselves. (2) The scholastics abstract too quickly from particular instances. They rely on syllogistic reasoning. There is nothing wrong with the conclusion of a well-formed syllogism. (“…no one could doubt that things which agree in a middle term, agree also with each other (which has a kind of mathematical certainty)….(NO p. 16)” (Cf. also Bk I, Aphorism XIX) The fraud in scholastic syllogistic disputes comes not from the form of reasoning but from the terms to which the reasoning is applied. These terms are “badly or carelessly abstracted from things…;” they are “vague and not defined with sufficiently clear outlines.” Scholastic terms are largely meaningless. The culprit is hasty abstraction. “For the way the thing has been normally done until now is to leap immediately from sense and particulars to the most general propositions...; then to derive everything else from them by means of intermediate propositions….” (By inclining to derive the certain propositions of science as a body from his four fundamental metaphysical propositions, there is a way that Descartes’ procedure is liable to the very same criticism, at least in the transition from metaphysical conclusions to natural philosophy.) Logic can fix errors in reasoning but it is positively harmful as a way of discovering truths. In today’s terminology we would say that logic by itself does not provide us with true simple propositions about nature. “It compels assent without reference to things (NO p.35)” (3) The concept of a final cause is a fanciful human invention and has nothing to do with nature. In The Advancement of Learning Bacon calls scholasticism “contentious learning” that leads to “vain altercations” (p. 138). In contrast, Bacon’s method elicits axioms gradually, step by step, so the broadest generalizations come at the end of the process and not at the beginning. It begins with an analysis of experience by means of “appropriate exclusions and rejections (p.17).”
  2. Bacon’s advocacy of a community of researchers such as came to be exemplified in the Royal Society is the third key element of the new instauration along with experimentation and induction. It is interesting to contrast this with Descartes’ apparently diffident attitude to sharing his research or benefiting from the findings of others, such that in the Discours he seems to be as much concerned with convincing himself that he should publish as with anything else. There is more to the contrast than a simple difference of temperament or the relative historical position of the two men vis à vis the condemnation of Galileo. Indeed Descartes lived a partially recluse life and placed great value on his own repos. Bacon was an active statesman and lawyer, whereas Descartes’ only profession, before he acquired sufficient resources to concentrate only on philosophy, was a sort of military tourism. Bacon the gregarious attacked scholasticism at length from an evident esprit de parti, while Descartes did not engage in polemic (notwithstanding his disputes with individual theologians) although he shared Bacon’s view on scholasticism and syllogism. The essence of the Royal Society was cooperation, while Descartes’ most frequent interaction with his peers came in the form of dispute as evidenced in the celebrated Objections and Replies to the Méditations. Bacon’s explicitly stated ends were also not entirely shared by Descartes. Bacon wanted to do good for mankind by increasing knowledge and creating technology that would improve life. Descartes was more concerned with a personal assurance for his beliefs, both theological and scientific. These contrasting personality types find echoes throughout the history of science. Generally the day to day work of experimentation and data collection falls to the Baconian personality. The great counter experiments that undermine prevailing theories come from a Baconian community. The breakthrough theories, however, that establish new paradigms and change science forever are often the work of isolated Cartesian souls. We need only think of the secretive Newton in his Cambridge rooms who didn’t even see the need to publish many of his most important discoveries. Even Einstein developed relativity largely outside the official scientific community. Experimental research is Baconian; mathematics is Cartesian.
  3. French has a single word, “expérience,” for both “observation” and “experiment.” And Descartes’ views on the value of experiment were not entirely consistent. In Latin experientia and experimentum can also both mean “experience,” i.e. observation, or “experiment” which leads to ambiguities in Bacon. But Bacon’s unequivocal passages where he says that the unaided senses are faulty and he talks about substitutions, corrections and instruments to aid the senses, show he was aiming at the essential in the distinction between experience and experiment or controlled observation. Incidentally the undergraduate truism that Descartes the rationalist abjured experiment and observation in favor of purely speculative theories about nature is not only false, it is absurd. It appears to have arisen from some sort of anglo-positivist jingoistic myth-making.
  4. It is interesting to note the terms that Bacon identifies as “abstracted from nature without care. (NO p. 35)” They are more or less the Aristotelian categories: substance, quality, action, passion, being. To these he adds a mixed bag of terms that retained importance as scientific concepts. Matter, element, attraction and repulsion became the basic concepts of physics (although we must not forget that the only thing that distinguishes gravitation, a concept that Newton was never entirely comfortable with, from scholastic occult qualities is that gravitational effects are measurable). Heavy, light, dense, rare, wet, dry are secondary qualities that could be rephrased using the basic concepts of physics. Bacon’s rejection of form is inconsistent since in Part II of The New Organon (p. 128 and passim) Bacon equates forms with simple natures. In contrast man, dog, dove and the immediate perceptions of hot, cold white and black should be the starting point of sciences, even though the observations of these things can also be misleading.
  5. Descartes’ discourse on rainbows (p. 230) is a genuine example of an experiment that he introduces by saying how it will show how his method leads to new discoveries and explanations. It is unclear from the text itself whether what Descartes writes about the senses and the refraction of light is based on actual experiments or thought experiments (pp. 180 ff.).  Note how Descartes seems to contradict what he says regarding the value of experiments in the Fifth Part of the Discours proper.