Bacon’s natural philosophy is as puzzling as it is fascinating. The arrogance with which he starts his project and the disdain he shows toward the ancients give him a high hurdle to climb to show his method worthy of consideration. He makes a strong case for removing idols of the mind, for considering things themselves as marks of the Creator on his creation, correcting the weaknesses of the senses, and taking care to make intermediate conclusions and not drawing large principles too soon and without proper evidence. The Idols of the Theater, or received systems of philosophy, should be evaluated with care to the degree that they are idols, but a case has not been made for eliminating them completely as the philosophies of the ancients fill in gaps which remain in Bacon’s natural philosophy.
Two questions should be addressed. The first is whether the inductive method is all encompassing. Great discoveries have been made from observations which had to be made indirectly because of the extremely small size of the objects in question, in chemistry and quantum theory for example. Deduction is critical for advances in these fields as it was for William Harvey’s description of the circulation of the blood. Also, general relativity, which revolutionized physics, was at least in part derived from Albert Einstein’s thought experiment in which he rode on a beam of light. In Aphorism 122, Bacon wishes to level men’s wits, however Einstein’s discovery would have been hampered had he been held to a method which brought his wits to the level of other men. We can be thankful for his superior wits.
The second question is whether the very problems which Bacon lamented in Aphorism 87 are still with us today. We offer and announce “the prolongation of life, the retardation of age, the alleviation of pain, the repairing of natural defects,” and yet we live in a pill-dependent culture with rampant obesity and the diseases which result and widespread addiction to the very thing which is so effective at alleviating pain. Great progress has been made, to be sure, however in some ways we are no better off and are victims of our own successes despite the legacy of the method which was intended for “the benefit and use of life.”
Surely, his inductive method revolutionized natural philosophy. Unimaginable discoveries have been made using the careful consideration of things to determine how nature works and is configured, including advances in medicine for the health of man and extension of his lifespan and an explosion in understanding of the nature of the universe. He could never have anticipated spacetime or quantum theory. I think Bacon would be pleased with these advances. Unfortunately, it is not clear if he could have foreseen the separation of science and philosophy and its results or if this was his intention when he divided Physics and Metaphysics in Book II Aphorism 9.
It is nearly impossible to avoid the outgrowth of Bacon’s philosophy when evaluating it 400 years later. In his defense it must be stated that he did view his project as a philosophical one, there is allowance made for Metaphysics as an area of inquiry, and he makes it clear that