Monday, November 19, 2007

Bacon aptly depicts that spongy indecisiveness of mind that can masquerade as "being critical"

Francis Bacon and the True Ends of Skepticism
Skeptical Inquirer
, Nov, 2000 by Barbara Friedberg Long ago, Bacon asserted that science must begin with doubts in order to end in certainties, a paradox that stills leads to misunderstandings about Bacon and about science.
Detractors of modern science sometimes refer to themselves as skeptics, because they dare to question long-accepted doctrine. But skepticism as a method is not just a resolve to disagree. It is the presumption of error and fallibility on which our science is based. This paradox was first put forth by Francis Bacon in The New Organon (1620), building on his previous Advancement of Learning (1605). He announced that great things were possible in science, provided that nearly all the old methods and beliefs were cast away. What struck him was the mixture of unproductive dogma and unresolved controversy over basic theory in science despite long centuries of data-collecting and thought. He had ideas about a remedy, yet he believed no remedy could be complete because the human mind itself had faults and limitations that made it almost incapable of seeing truly. Today, when people claim as a novel discovery that scientists are not godlike beings, that thought may be limited by emotions and culture, and that languag e is not the same as natural fact, they are merely reiterating Bacon's starting assumptions.
We think of the seventeenth century as a golden age of science. Yet when Bacon considered the matter, inquiry was busy but not very fruitful. Cosmology was up for grabs, the old Scholastic system of four elements offered no definite path to new discoveries, alchemists were at odds about basic laws of chemistry, and when an innovator such as William Gilbert (1540--1603) did achieve knowledge about magnetism, he then went overboard with mystical extensions of his discoveries. Whether stressing reason and logic, symbolic connections and intuition, or hands-on experiment, the active disciplines had yielded few outcomes solid enough to be built upon.
But there was practical progress in navigation, engineering, and astronomy. Empiricism was not lacking, but it did not underlie broad scientific theories. These tended to soar aloft, in obedience to what Bacon called "Idols of the mind" because they diverted men from examining divinely created nature. What was needed was "a closer and purer league between ... the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made)" (Bacon 1960, 95). [1]
Bacon's Paradox
Bacon saw that good thinking is a sort of paradox. The mind is all too effective, not only in feeling and imagining, but even in reasoning. Fastening on one idea, it traces implications, follows up parallels, leaps to conclusions, and creates a tight and persuasive system of beliefs. This power can be useful, if properly disciplined, but it tends to shrug aside direct observation of nature. Man, according to Bacon, does nor have a privileged intuition into the construction of the cosmos--a direct link to the Creator's intentions--as many then believed. He must let the actions of nature in the uncontrollable future be the arbiters of his theory's soundness. Initial speculations must issue in a well-formulated experiment, and that, in turn, must yield to a sensory judgment of the experiment's result. Though Bacon didn't think of double-blind testing, he saw that these stages must be made as distinct from each other as possible (1960; 2, 50).
Bacon called endemic human limitations "Idols of the Tribe." Even the cleverest minds leap to generalizations, notice striking events more than typical ones, and seek out supportive data more than counter examples. They fasten on apparent patterns too quickly and don't let go.
"Idols of the Cave" were the individual's limitations and enthusiasms. He may apply favorite ideas or remedies to every-thing, like a wonder drug.
"Idols of the Marketplace" were the limitations of common language, suitable for everyday life, but not to describe nature accurately. "Substance," "heavy," "moist," and "dense" were all vague terms. New words must refer to measurable physical phenomena (1960, 41--60).
In developing these ideas, Bacon outlined a devastating critique that might well doom any science.
When the human mind has once despaired of finding truth, its interest in all things grows fainter, and the result is that men turn aside to pleasant disputatious and discourses and roam as it were from object to object ... a wandering kind of inquiry that leads to nothing. (Bacon, 1874, III, 364; 1960, 88, 67.)
But he rejected the immobile skepticism, common at that time, which doubted whether any human theory about nature would ever be a clear advance. Some raise doubts, he said, as lawyers do, without any aim of settling a question. They may embrace a "deliberate and factitious despair" of learning anything new, for the sake of thinking their own thought perfect.
Here Bacon aptly depicts that spongy indecisiveness of mind that can masquerade as "being critical." Today many academics, having grown uneasy about the concept of seeking truth, deal mainly in ingenious detractions, aimed at proving that various forms of supposed excellence are really (but not "in truth") invidious shams (see Haack 1999). If public debate is mere entertainment and debunking is an automatic reflex with no drive to find central, usable insights, we are imitating the learned men whom Bacon criticized, whose scholarship sought just to get by according to some group's limited conventions. But Bacon wanted people to address great issues and strive to be adequate to their demands.

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