History Lecture for Unit 35: Francis Bacon and the idea of Nature
- Period: 1500-1700 ce
- Geographic Location: Western Europe and Mediterranean
- People to know: Francis Bacon
- See science topics: Inductive and Deductive Methods
Francis Bacon, His Life and Times
Scientists like Andreas Vesalius and Nicolai Copernicus changed the way people thought about nature and pursued scientific knowledge, but they were aided by philosophers like Francis Bacon. Unlike Vesalius, who discovered new information about the human body, or Kepler, who realized that planets move in elliptical orbits rather than circles, Bacon examined the methods of science itself and proposed new approaches to the study of Nature. He emphasized using instruments to make objective measurements, and encouraged the use of inductive reasoning to establish national law, which are fundamental to methods of modern science, but he also changed the view of nature.
The Idea of Nature before Bacon
In the ancient world and middle ages, Nature was something external to man. We've seen how the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians sought to explain natural events as directed by the whim of the gods. Although the Greeks used abstractions to explain nature, the natural world was what it was. In the middle ages, Western European and Arab philosophers saw nature as under the control of God (or Allah), but often mysterious and always uncontrollable.
This perception changed with the Renaissance and voyages of exploration to the new world. While the idea of nature as mysterious and even evil in its own way persisted in some groups (a perception that found its way into Puritan perceptions of New England, as evidenced in Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories), philosophers like Bacon began to view nature as something that coud be tamed and controlled, using machines and science.
Bacon's Ideas of Nature
Read about Francis Bacon's life and accomplishments in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy site.
- When and where did Bacon live? Who were the rulers of his country during his lifetime?
- How as Francis Bacon educated? Who were his teachers?
- What is a "utopian" society? What was the central goal of Bacon's New Atlantis story?
- What are the vanities or "distempers" of learning? What is the main problem with these types of learning?
- Bacon said "Knowledge is Power". What did he mean? How can information change cultures and living conditions?
- Why did Bacon want to "reclassify knowledge"? How does his classification system differ from Aristotle's system, which had been the bedrock of the medieval education he received?
- How does Bacon's process of induction function as a scientific method?
- The organic view of nature portrays the world as a living but perhaps non-sentient being, ordered and in balance. We've encountered this concept already in Aristotle's "Great Chain of Being", which not only organized matter and organisms into groups but also showed how they were related to each other. In the modern organic view of nature or vitalism, living matter has a character not found in non-living matter, properties that cannot necessarily be explained by the laws of chemistry and physics alone. Such matter has a mind and makes free choices that are not necessarily explained by forces and movement alone. The organic view emphasizes the interrelationships between components, and the idea that changes ripple out and can affect the whole in unpredictable ways. We see the influence of this kind of approach to nature in our modern science of ecology and the mathematics of chaos theory.
- The mechanical view of nature, in contrast, sees nature as a machine, whose parts have no intrinsic relationship with each other, which lacks feeling or consciousness, and can be investigated or exploited for human benefit. Bacon's expression of this view influenced and , whose mathematical system you may have encountered in algebra. To account for the fact that people think, Descartes proposed dualism, which explains that the non-material mind is the source of consciousness, while the material brain is the seat of intelligence. This separation of spirit from matter supports a mechanical view of matter.
Read through the brief descriptions of the Mechanical Philosophers.
- Where did each of the "mechanical philosophers" live?
- What were their religious backgrounds?
- Which of these men knew each other?
- Which of these philosophers also produced scientific theories or discoveries?
- How does the vision of nature as organic or mechanical change the way we study nature or use natural resources?
- How does the separation of the spiritual world from the natural world change the way we determine ethics?
Further Study/On Your Own
- The Gutenberg Project hosts internet accessible editions of both New Atlantis and collections of Bacon's Essays. You can read the works online (HTML format) or download them in a number of device and applicaiton readable forms (iBooks, ePUB).
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