Recently, I was privileged enough to attend two lectures by the great Daniel C. Dennett. His two topics were “What should we be free to teach our children about religion” at UCT and “From animal to person” at Stellenbosch University. I had the pleasure of meeting his wonderful wife, Susan Dennett, who was the one who then introduced us. We chatted for an estimated 26 seconds before I wished him well for his lecture. As should be expected, both lectures were fantastic. But during these excursions into the outside world, I decided to investigate a nearby antique book store.
I discovered something quite extraordinary: a 1912 Sydney Edition of Francis Bacon’s Essays. There were only 30 copies ever made of this beautiful book: A blue-green cover, with a golden embossed Bacon coat of arms, stating: “Mediocria Firma”. The Bacon motto, “moderate things are surest”, can still be seen inside St. Mary’s Church, in Redbourn.
Many consider Bacon to be the earliest wielder of “Knowledge is power”, though in all likelihood a predecessor coined the term. Born in 1561, he was son to Sir Nicholas Bacon who was then Keeper of the Great Seal. Growing up in a fertile environment of political machinations, Francis entered Parliament at the age of 23.
Bertrand Russell, in his fiery discussion of Bacon in A History of Western Philosophy, says:
Although [Bacon’s] philosophy is in many ways unsatisfactory, [he] has permanent importance as the founder of modern inductive method and the pioneer in the attempt at logical systemization of scientific procedure.
We do not revere him for his ethical or moral life. Consider his admission to accepting bribes – though he stated they never influenced his decisions. It was not uncommon, at this time, for those in judicial positions of power to gladly accept gifts from those who sought to gain from forthcoming decisions. He was convicted not for the actual act itself – which was ubiquitous amongst his cohorts – but for shadowy party movements in politics. He also was not one to question decisions based on religious or dogmatic assertion. We are not dealing with a John Stuart Mill or a Tom Paine.
Bacon’s impact on the religious establishment is one more of a poisoner than of an axe-wielder. He was firmly resolved in separating theology from philosophy, since the former relies on revelation and the latter on reason. Specifically, we are indebted to him as Russell beautifully highlights:”The whole basis of his philosophy was practical: to give mankind mastery over the forces of nature by means of scientific discoveries and inventions.”
Primarily, this rested on severing the ties of theology to philosophy and scientific inquiry. One could not begin with ordained or divine knowledge then proceed to build hypotheses. As Bacon says: “If a man begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubt, he shall end in certainties.”
Though he claimed to see the hand of god in nature, he maintained an objection to inferring based on teleological notions. He was adamant in formulating a structure of induction. Indeed, AC Grayling highlights in Towards the Light:
[Bacon] was cited with admiration in the incorporating documents of the Royal Society in London, whose founders regarded him as their inspiration.
Darwin, referring to his own first notebook, said: “I worked on true Baconian principles, and without any [presupposed] theory collected facts on a large scale.”
There are excellent sources of Bacon’s work all over the internet, finding much fertility especially in quotation websites. But consider his bifocal shattering on reason and his poisoning the veins of faith. Bifocal because he viewed reason and faith as mutually distinct, in a looser way than Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA, and he goes one step further. Russell again explains it better than I ever could: “[Bacon] held that the triumph of faith is greatest when to the unaided reason a dogma appears most absurd.” This has an eerie echo of Tertullian’s “Certum est quia impossibile” or “It is certain because it is impossible.”
Bacon also famously said: “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” This is of course nothing but an assertion and, in my opinion, a false one. There is not a single good philosophical reason to believe any tenet of religion – which is different from maintaining an anthropological explanation for why people believe, even in the teeth of scientific explanation. That is, Bacon makes an “ought” assertion which is distinct from an “is” explanation. One may consider Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained which barely dwells in the in-depth microgarbage of theological nonsense, but seeks a cognitive reassessment of psychological models. Bacon, in fact, would be proud.
Bacon, then, maintains a horrid assertion of faith – no doubt viewing it as a virtue in the eyes of a celestial despot – whilst dwelling in a tributary of free-flowing scientific inquiry. This is not something new but it certainly is important to note this when we consider this powerful figure. He is a major idea-factory for both sides of the god-coin, whose thumbs are raw with the toss on deciding where exactly this great man stands. The similarly named and similarly strange Francis Collins, author or The Language of God, might be a modern case in point. Alister McGrath, John C. Lennox, Roger Scruton and others would also fill this boat of twisting, miasmatic faithful defenders who also maintain open inquiry and a free love of the scientific method.
He was important then for his defense of inquiry and the slow, gradual realisation that faith is not needed to explain the natural world. He was one of the few people in the world to help carry our progress, by being a stepping stone for our faltering knowledge. Yet no doubt to his contemporaries, he was viewed similarly as any politician. As Dostoevsky misanthropically says in The Idiot:
Lack of originality has always, everywhere, in the whole world, from time immemorial, been considered the primary quality and finest recommendation of the efficient, businesslike and practical man, and at least ninety-nine per cent of men (at the very least) have always shared this view, whilst only one per cent has viewed, and continues to view, the matter differently.
Now, we can look back and say thank goodness for Bacon. For his views on open inquiry, an eloquent dismissal of theology on the impact on worldly explanations, and a defense of doubt as a virtue, it is no wonder that he would not find favour with mullahs – it seems that if they banned him simply for his surname, we could also find a subtext.