Sir Francis Bacon and the Scientific Method

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

On January 22, 1561, English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, essayist, and author Sir Francis Bacon was born. Bacon has been called the creator of empiricism. His works established and popularized inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry.

How did science work before Francis Bacon? Today, the scientific method of empiricism has become a common knowledge. We observe nature and based on our observation, we try to find out about underlying principles, laws, or systems. Vice versa, via logical conclusions we derive a theoretical system, which we try to validate via observations. Fair enough, but science did not work that way all the time throughout history. Just think about the middle ages. In the middle ages, science was dominated by the method of scholasticism. Scholasticism means that you always try to refer to authoritative sources, whenever you are in question. In the Christian middle ages of course ‘authoritative sources’ referred to the writings of Aristotle, the Fathers of the Church and finally the Holy Bible. Whenever you made a hypothesis, you tried to find a logical chain of consequences and inferences leading to one of the canonical sources. On the other hand, you can find contradictions in the same way. As an obvious fact, scholasticism means that the world as well as the view of the world is fixed by its canonical interpretations and cannot be changed. In consequence, this might easily become an obstacle for scientific progress.

Francis Bacon was born on 22 January 1561 at York House near the Strand in London, the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon by his second wife, Anne. Owing to his poor health, which would plague him throughout his life, Bacon was first educated at home. In 1573, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he followed the then usual medieval curriculum. Bacon’s studies brought him to the belief that the methods and results of science as practized following the principle of scholasticism were erroneous. His reverence for Aristotle conflicted with his loathing of Aristotelian philosophy, which seemed to him barren, disputatious, and wrong in its objectives.

During his following travels in France, Italy, and Spain as a part of the English ambassador’s suite, Bacon studied language, statecraft, and civil law while performing routine diplomatic tasks. In 1582, Bacon was entitled a barrister, but although his career at court was successful, he had other political and philosophical ambitions. In 1591 Bacon befriended the Earl of Essex to whom Bacon offered the friendly advice. Essex in turn recommended Bacon for several high offices without, however, attaining any position. The relationship ended tragically in a failure of an expedition by Essex and his later attempted coup d’etat, which cost the head of Bacon’s protector, Essex, in 1604. However, Bacon was then steadily promoted to a series of offices, including Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613), and eventually Lord Chancellor (1618).

But, Bacon’s real interests lay in science. Scholasticism was based on the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. While many Aristotelian ideas, such as the position of the earth at the centre of the universe, had been overturned, his methodology was still being used. This held that scientific truth could be reached by way of authoritative argument: if sufficiently clever men discussed a subject long enough, the truth would eventually be discovered. Bacon challenged this, arguing that truth required evidence from the real world. He published his ideas, initially in ‘Novum Organum‘ (1620), an account of the correct method of acquiring natural knowledge.

While serving as Chancellor, Bacon was indicted on charges of bribery and forced to leave public office. After pleading guilty, he was heavily fined and sentenced to a prison term in the Tower of London. He was a disgraced and fallen manHe then retired to his estate where he devoted himself full time to his continuing literary, scientific, and philosophical work. He died in 1626 of pneumonia contracted whilst testing his theory of the preservative and insulating properties of snow. The cultural legacy left behind by Francis Bacon includes most of the foundation for the modern world as we currently know it. To the mysteries surrounding Francis Bacon counts that he is also a noted contender in the William Shakespeare Identity debate. According to some scholars Bacon is believed to be the author of the plays accredited to William Shakespeare.

At yovisto you can learn more about the scientific method and the importance of proof in the lecture ‘The Importance of Proving Things‘ by Professor Mark Ronan from Gresham College.

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