Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Francis Bacon, Idols of the Mind

Idols Which Beset Man's Mind
by Francis Bacon

Man, being the servant and interpreter of nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature: beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.
Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.
There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms! And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.

The understanding left to itself takes the same course (namely, the former) which it takes in accordance with logical order. For the mind longs to spring up to positions of higher generality, that it may find rest there; and so after a little while wearies of experiment. But this evil is increased by logic, because of the order and solemnity of its disputations.

The understanding left to itself, in a sober, patient, and grave mind, especially if it be not hindered by received doctrines, tries a little that other way, which is the right one, but with little progress; since the understanding, unless directed and assisted, is a thing unequal, and quite unfit to contend with the obscurity of things.

Both ways set out from the senses and particulars, and rest in the highest generalities; but the difference between them is infinite. For the one just glances at experiment and particulars in passing, the other dwells duly and orderly among them. The one, again, begins at once by establishing certain abstract and useless generalities, the other rises by gradual steps to that which is prior and better known in the order of nature.
The axioms now in use, having been suggested by a scanty and manipular experience and a few particulars of most general occurrence, are made for the most part just large enough to fit and take these in: and therefore it is no wonder if they do not lead to new particulars. And if some opposite instance, not observed or not known before, chance to come in the way, the axiom is rescued and preserved by some frivolous distinction; whereas the truer course would be to correct the axiom itself.

The conclusions of human reason as ordinarily applied in matter of nature, I call for the sake of distinction Anticipations of Nature (as a thing rash or premature). That reason which is elicited from facts by a just and methodical process, I call Interpretation of Nature.

Anticipations are a ground sufficiently firm for consent; for even if men went mad all after the same fashion, they might agree one with another well enough.

For the winning of assent, indeed, anticipations are far more powerful than interpretations; because being collected from a few instances, and those for the most part of familiar occurrence, they straightway touch the understanding and fill the imagination; whereas interpretations on the other hand, being gathered here and there from very various and widely dispersed facts, cannot suddenly strike the understanding; and therefore they must needs, in respect of the opinions of the time, seem harsh and out of tune; much as the mysteries of faith do.

In sciences founded on opinions and dogmas, the use of anticipations and logic is good; for in them the object is to command assent to the proposition, not to master the thing.

Though all the wits of all the ages should meet together and combine and transmit their labours, yet will no great progress ever be made in science by means of anticipations; because radical errors in the first concoction of the mind are not to be cured by the excellence of functions and remedies subsequent.

It is idle to expect any great advancement in science from the superinducing and engrafting of new things upon old. We must begin anew from the very foundations, unless we would revolve forever in a circle with mean and contemptible progress.

The honour of the ancient authors, and indeed of all, remains untouched; since the comparison I challenge is not of wits or faculties, but of ways and methods, and the part I take upon myself is not that of a judge, but of a guide.

This must be plainly avowed: no judgment can be rightly formed either of my method or of the discoveries to which it leads, by means of anticipations (that is to say, of the reasoning which is now in use); since I cannot be called on to abide by the sentence of a tribunal which is itself on its trial.

Even to deliver and explain what I bring forward is no easy matter; for things in themselves new will yet be apprehended with reference to what is old.

It was said by Borgia of the expedition of the French into Italy, that they came with chalk in their hands to mark out their lodgings, not with arms to force their way in. I in like manner would have my doctrine 'enter quietly into the minds that are fit and capable of receiving it; for confutations cannot be employed, when the difference is upon first principles and very notions and even upon forms of demonstration.

One method of delivery alone remains to us; which is simply this: we must lead men to the particulars themselves, and their series and order; while men on their side must force themselves for awhile to lay their notions by and begin to familiarise themselves with facts.
The doctrine of those who have denied that certainty could be attained at all, has some agreement with my way of proceeding at the first setting out; but they end in being infinitely separated and opposed. For the holders of that doctrine assert simply that nothing can be known; I also assert that not much can be known in nature by the way which is now in use. But then they go on to destroy the authority of the senses and understanding; whereas I proceed to devise and supply helps for the same.

The idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding, and have taken deep root therein, not only so beset men's minds that truth can hardly find entrance, but even after entrance obtained, they will again in the very instauration of the sciences meet and trouble us, unless men being forewarned of the danger fortify themselves as far as may be against their assaults.

There are four classes of Idols which beset men's minds. To these for distinction's sake I have assigned names, -- calling the first class Idols of the Tribe; the second, Idols of the Cave; the third, Idols of the Market-place; the fourth, Idols of the Theatre.

The formation of ideas and axioms by true induction is no doubt the proper remedy to be applied for the keeping off and clearing away of idols. To point them out, however, is of great use; for the doctrine of Idols is to the Interpretation of Nature what the doctrine of the refutation of Sophisms is to common Logic.

The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For every one (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolours the light of nature; owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.

There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market-place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate; and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theatre; because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received.


Blogger FriendofAll said...

This was a pretty cool essay I thought. The four idols were a nice way to readily organize the ways that people fool themselves and contribute to herd behavior that ultimately leads to untruths being absorbed into social/intellectual dogma. Bacon also brings to bear the question of relative perception and the unique perspective each individual possesses which don't necessarily reflect the universe perfectly. What your senses tell you may not be true, so you should take that into account when using the senses to form a logical foundation for ideas. The basic tenants may be troublesome for people of faith since they in no part mention God or a deity, but are a justifiable beginning to a rational curiosity about the world around us. I'll leave a final thought that summed up the introduction of scientific thought and reason from Bacon's writing, "Human knowledge and human nature meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."

6:16 PM  
Blogger Esrever said...

What I find most interesting is that both Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes lived around the same time and had some concepts within their philosophies that were very similar, yet I’ve never heard the two mentioned in the same breath. Much like Hobbes believed human judgments to be based solely on the senses of the individual, Bacon viewed human judgments as “a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.” The difference, however, is that Hobbes utilized individuality as a justification for absolute rule by a sovereign, while Bacon’s intentions were to inform society of how our senses cloud our judgments, thus causing our perceptions to become “facts.” In other words, Hobbes used individuality to stress the importance of absolute rule, while Bacon explained individuality in order to allow humankind to “familiarise themselves with facts.” I find myself favoring Bacon, but this is likely due to the fact that I’ve read and discussed Hobbes much more extensively than Bacon, providing me with the opportunity to dissect Hobbes’ beliefs and discover points that I find disagreeable. Rather than seeing our thoughts and perceptions as physical burdens as does Hobbes, I tend to agree with Bacon’s belief that our perceptions are typically mental burdens that must be overcome in order to obtain knowledge and fact. I too believe fact is obtainable, and that it takes much more work to discover reality than it does to go along with “the obscurity of things.”

5:41 PM  
Blogger elle_ecrit87 said...

It took me a little while to get into this essay and understand where this guy was going, but I thought the last part where he talked about the four idols was very interesting and a neat "Enlightenment" way of thinking. I think our interpretations of the world around us can get very skewed by the people around us, the scenes we observe through life, and the way our own minds naturally work. I think that most people are shaped into a way of thinking partly by upbringing and society, and also mostly by their own experiences. This essay led me to ask myself if I can ever really understand the world because even if I think I understand it, I understand in the way the society I was born into has shaped me to understand it. So, maybe, no one will ever understand, because human beings' minds and understanding will always be tainted by some outside society and way of thinking. If we want to understand the world, I think we would first have to work at stepping away from the way our minds were trained to look at it throught schooling, our peers, and our individual experiences.

8:44 AM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

I rather like how he classifies everything. Bacon realizes that people can be led, and often by some very bad arguments. That alone I hold as a good example of how well thought out all of this is.

Or should be. Bacon doesn't seem to realize that his *own* viewpoint is being distorted by his own Idols of the Cave, namely, a sincere distaste for everything that is not science. And remember, science back then wasn't the science we have now- it was still rough, fundamental. I am leery of men like Bacon, because they presume to judge the world based on their own ideas. I, at least, judge the world based on principles that are beyond me- regardless of my own actions or thoughts, there is a Judge who is monitoring what I do according to other rules. Bacon is judging according to himself.

Likewise, Bacon, despite doing a wonderful job setting up a "world-system" of various idols, doesn't do much beyond describe them as "the other", something to be fought against and conquered. A more intelligent and reasonable debate would have explained why these things came into being, and what possible reasons the people could have for believing in them; the blanket statement he makes for the Idols as the enemies of Science (aka Bacon's viewpoint) does nothing for his side of the argument, but rather hurts it. Bacon is attempting to develop "devils" for his new god. Unfortunately, such a childish, amateur attempt really shouldn't have been tried.

If Bacon had been serious about being a man of science, he'd have realized biases within himself, and that he could be wrong; all the evidence in the world doesn't prove a thing if the thing itself is not true. Bacon's beliefs are strong, and I applaud him for it. But to release such condemning material to all other belief systems...

Well, if the Catholic Church just up and said that all Buddhists were believing made-up stories, they'd get angry, wouldn't they? But it's science, and we've been trained to accept everything scientists say as true. Despite the fact that they are human, and makes mistakes sometimes.

(Does anyone else know that Lucy, the "missing link" skeleton, turned out to be a chimpanzee? Or that the old image of cavemen as bowed-over gorrilla types was wrong- because scientists have now discovered that the skeleton had rheumatoid arthritis, a disfiguring disease? Didn't think so.)

Scientists go back and correct their mistakes. But the joke is, scientists do it *very* quietly. They don't announce when they discover they were wrong, most of the time, and especially on issues conflicting with evolution. I'm outside the debate- I couldn't care less who's arguing what. But for scientists, the drive isn't to see if evolution is correct, but rather to make sure nothing proves it wrong. They themselves are guilty of Bacon's accusation of deciding principles before observing them!

So, in short, I find Bacon's paper slightly ridiculous. He had me until he started setting up the Idols that Stood Against Science (capitalism intended), because he needs devils for his new "god". Not the smartest way to go about it.

Course, he does have an excellent few paragraphs before all that starts, but it ain't much.

3:49 PM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

To FriendofAll:

I personally espouse rationality- after all, if I and my faith are correct, God actually exists. Henceforth, you can prove it through rationality.

(Common sense argument).

Looking over my problems with Bacon, it isn't so much his basic ideas as the way he presents them. He's far too dogmatic; fanatics of *anything* are a bad thing. He has found these Idols to, in short, save us from ourselves. The tenants are not what I have trouble with; it is his conclusions that scare me. There is no need of a justifiable beginning for rationality- only " I live! Now let's find out about the world around us." That's all you need, and high-flown philosophies like Bacon's should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Just because somebody says you should "think rationally" doesn't mean that person should be listened to.

Although I do admit that the "nature" command/obey line is one of the best I've ever read. I guess even broken clocks have to be right twice a day.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Krangor said...

I really liked this. It's almost like an expansion on Plato's Allegory of the cave.

Gf, I don't think you exactly get the point. Bacon isn't making a direct attack on your belief system that you need to defend against. He is simply pointing out that we all (and I feel he is completely aware that these idols apply to him as well) prone to hide in our shadows and illusions rather than to take a good hard look at what we believe and why we believe it. If you feel that you have fully investigated your faith and have not just accepted it because it is the easy way to go or because someone told you it is the truth, then Bacon has no qualms with you. This paper is basically a long winded version of "watch out for mental laziness; make sure you think it through."

I think your leeriness to men who judge the world themselves is a prime example of what Bacon is getting at. Why do you think appealing to a higher power is a better way of judging the world? Did you hear that was the better way to do things, or did you reason it out yourself somehow? If you have reasoned it out, fine. But if not, and you believe it is true, believing that you should rely on a higher judgment because that higher power says you should rely on it is kind of circular logic. I'm not attacking your beliefs here, I'm saying Bacon would say you need to check your beliefs and ensure they are not setup behind one of his "idols" (this goes back to my post in another thread about philosophers pour choice in words, I'm pretty sure he means nothing along the line a golden calf or anything.)

I do agree with you that fanatics of *anything* are a bad thing. We all just need to watch our idols, shadows, and illusions to ensure we don't end up in that category.

12:23 AM  
Blogger Larogoth said...

I find myself being in a similar boat as elle_ecrit87 in a sense that it also took me a while to actually get into the article. As I began reading this article I found that the article was fairly difficult for to follow at the beginning, however, once it progressed toward the end and began talking about the four idols it became easier to follow and I began to get into it more. I really liked how the author addressed each of the four idols, explaining what each was, and summarizing each of them in a way that they could be understood. I was able to gain a better understanding of the four idols of Francis Bacon after reading this article.

11:25 PM  
Blogger wishlahaylagon said...

In response to GF for just a moment: Why shouldn't someone who says that you should think rationally not be listened to? To me I don't know how else someone could think. Whether it's in accordance with what others believe is rational is another story, but it would seem that everythin that a person thinks (from his/her perspective) is quite rational. So, really how else could you form any coherent thought or decide anything for yourself without it?
I also like the way perspective is thrown in here. To me (and it seems everyone with at least half a brain) this has such a huge influence on everything that I don't see how it could be ignored. I also wonder how any concrete rules or laws are set for this reason as well, but I suppose that is where bodies like the courts, etc. step in and interpret the law.

5:39 AM  
Blogger wishlahaylagon said...

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5:39 AM  

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