Science in Christian Perspective






Raymond J. Seeger

4507 Wetherill Road

Bethesda, MD 20816

From: PSCF 41 (June 1989): 107-108.

John Evelyn's frontispiece in the "History of the Royal Society" (1667) by Thomas Sprat, Bishop of Rochester, depicts a bust of Charles 11. Founder and Patron, on a pedestal: on the left is the figure of the first F.R.S., the Irish mathematician William Brouncker; on the right, that of Francis Bacon, Artium Instouratio (restorer of the arts). In the preface the poet Abraham Cowley F.R.S., in his "Ode to the Royal Society," wrote: "Bacon, like Moses, led us forth at last." Sprat confessed that he himself would have preferred "no other preface but some of Bacon's writings." Bacon was basically a contemplative philosopher, but he chose to be a man of affairs in the world-he had two conflicting ambitions, to hold books and to raise a gavel. Although he became successfully Sir Francis at 42, Baron Verulam of Verulam (after the capital of Roman Britain) at 57, and Viscount St. Albans at 60, he is represented more truthfully by his burial monument in St. Michael's Church, St. Albans, with the inscription: "sic sedebat" ("thus he used to sit").

He was born January 21, 1561 in York House, London. His father, Sir Nicholas, was Lord Keeper of the Seal. He was from landed gentry; his favorite abode was Gorhamsbury, 2 miles from St. Albans. At 13 Francis entered Trinity College, University of Cambridge; a stronghold of the English Protestant Reformation. A good, but not outstanding student, he left without a degree two years later. He was unreliable with his many benefactions to Trinity, but a statue of him stands in its ante-chapel. His Novum Organum was dedicated to the University. At 18, upon the decease of his father, who willed him little (thus causing him disastrous financial straits throughout his life), he occupied his father's chambers at Gray's Inn. At 23 he qualified as a barrister; he was a competent lawyer. He was, however, more interested in theory than his arch rival and enemy, the practical jurist, Sir Edward Coke.

Concerned primarily with worldly success, at 23 he became a member of Parliament. Never a great favorite of Queen Elizabeth 1, possibly owing to his ill-fated friendship with Robert Dererleue, Earl of Essex, and with Sir Walter Raleigh, he was appreciated more by the good natured, pious James 1, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. At 42 he was 'Knighted; two years later he was appointed Attorney/General. At that time he made a marriage of convenience with a 14-year old heiress, Alice Barnham-no children were born. (Bacon showed love only to his father and to his younger brother, Anthony.) Clever and crafty, restless and ambitious, at 59 he was charged with bribery by the House of Commons and impeached by the House of Lords; he was sentenced with a fine, confinement in the Tower, and disqualification for any public office. He did not contest the indictment; his crime consisted chiefly of a careless acceptance of gifts which had implications of expected favors. Despite his impeachment at 60, the King forgave the fine and had him released from jail within a few days. He died truly a Renaissance man at 65, after devoting his last years to writing.

"I have taken all knowledge to be my province," he had written at 31 to Lord William Cecil Burghley. At the same time he began a diary, which resulted in the publication of his Essays at 36. In general, he approached a subject simply and originally. His prose was rich, ornate, and supple. His life-time vision was the "Magna Instauratio" ("The Great Renewal"). This vision included, at age 59, the publication of Novum Organum (New Instrument) with aphorisms concerning the "Interpretation of Nature and the Kingdom of Man." At 62, he amplified The Advancement of Learning (published at 44) in Latin as "De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum" (about the worth and increase of knowledge).

Bacon had formed a distaste for Aristotle's Organon (Instrument) while at college. He became opposed to the use of the syllogism for deduction and the later vices of the scholastics. He was, however, attracted by Aristotle's inductive method of logic-formulated more completely by the English economist, John Stewart Mill in the 19th century.

Aphorism 95 of the Novum Organum told of three methods of handling knowledge: (1) that of experimentalists, like the ant which only collects and uses; (2) that of reasoners like the spider, which makes cobwebs out of its own substance; and (3) that of middle-way persons like the bee, which transforms material from flowers and digests it by self-power. It was said that Bacon "rang the bell which called the wits together." His influence extended even to the French 18th-century Encyclopedists.

Bacon himself was not a scientist. William Harvey (Bacon's physician) said: "He wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor." Bacon did not even recognize the great scientists of his own time: e.g., Harvey, Andreas Vesalius, Galileo Galilei. He rejected Copernicus and spoke insolently of the work of William Gilbert, which illustrated his own views.

Strictly speaking, there is no so-called scientific method, but rather a scientific attitude, which embodies observation of nature, analysis, and synthesis. Bacon's primary contribution was his emphasis upon a systematic collection of facts. In this connection he recommended observational checks. (The Latin word for such trials is "experimentum," from which we get "experiment." Our modern meaning, however, has little in common with the Roman use.) His own method is well exemplified in his analysis of heat. One makes a list of all hot bodies, another list of cold bodies, a third list of those that are uncertain. Each list is then perused for common factors, called a Form or Vintage. One forms new lists in search of general laws by a process of elimination. Unfortunately, judgement is requisite in the very arrangement and selection. What is lacking, indeed, is the necessary insight and imagination-not to mention quantitative aspects leading to the future potentiality of mathematics, as well as the doubt about the usefulness of instruments. It is not surprising that not a single discovery was ever attained by Bacon's method. His celebrated, "Heat is not a substance, in itself, but motion" was merely a happy surmise, as well as his conjecture about the finite velocity of light. His suggested "experiments" were usually absurd. His major scientific contribution was to "think things, not words." His chief objective was the adage, "Knowledge is power." He regarded "the true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers."

Bacon took as his own motto that which was inscribed above the Gorhamsburg fireplace: "Monita Meliora" ("Instruction Brings Improvement"). His New Atlantis (published unfinished a year after his death) is a remarkable vision of the modern research organization. His allegorical Salomon's House is "The College of the Six Days Works, dedicated to the study of the Works and Creatures of God." "The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes and secret motives of things, and the enlarging of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible." There were many specialized facilities: deep caves, high towers, parks and enclosures for beasts and birds, perspective-houses, sound-houses, perfume-houses, and even a mathematics house!-almost a description of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory at White Oak, Maryland, where I was once employed. The senior staff consisted of merchants of light, depredators, mystery-men, pioneers, compilers, Dowrey-men, Lamps, and Interpreters of Nature.

Bacon was not exceptionally moral or wicked. He was, at best, a nominal Anglican. In his 30's, his Puritan mother remonstrated her younger son to pray regularly twice a day-not like his negligent brother. (She herself had translated an ecclesiastical tract, published by the Bishops.) He did, however, have an interest in religion. When the Pope excommunicated the Queen in 1580, he advised her to proceed along a middle way between Anglicanism and Puritanism. He advocated so-called "double-truth"(cf. Averroes), i.e., reason and revelation. He kept philosophy separate from theology. He sought efficient rather than teleological causes. At 36, in the sixteenth of his Essays (3rd ed.), "Of Atheism," he wrote, "I had rather believe in all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud and the Alcoran than that this universal frame is without a mind." He believed religion can prove the existence of God. "God never wrought miracles to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it." The third Essay is "Of Unity in Religion."

The sincerity of his religion has been questioned. In his will, he did leave a bequest to each of the nine parishes where he had lived. There is, however, certainly a ring of truth in his confessional prayer at the lowest point of his fall: "My soul hath been a stranger in the course of my pilgrimage"-a regret for the mistaken use of talents for the things for which he was least qualified.