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Sir Francis Bacon, Understanding Human Thinking About Nature and How We Know Things

     In his seminal work, Novum Organum Scientiarum, published in Latin in 1620, the title being translated the New Instrument of Science, Sir Francis Bacon lays out an incredibly accurate map of human reasoning. By this I mean he understands and describes the way we think in a manner still very understandable and applicable in the twenty first century.

Think about when you were young, and your parents told you something and you didn't say anything but you thought differently and kept this to yourself. However, sometime later, at a family party of dinner you espoused the idea because this was the family dynamic. This happens in all social groups, political, religious, and secular, and I have noticed this in all of those settings. Sometimes this is called "group speak."

Bacon explains methods of holding ideas but calls them Idola, Latin for "idol." If you are, as I am, a person of faith, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, not to worry, these are mental categories, not actual idols. What he means is that these categories of thought hold a certain sacred class that is hard to change; this is not a religious discussion although he was deeply committed to Christianity.

Bacon groups these into Idols of the Tribe (Idola tribus), Idols of the Cave (Idola specus), Idols of the Market (Idola fori), and lastly, Idols of the Theatre (Idola theatri).

Think about each of these categories as we go through them and you will find they are remarkably common in today's world and in your life. Note that they at least partly prevent us from reconsidering our thinking; they are a kind of mental justification of thinking patterns and a protection against opposing views for that group or category. Just be aware of each type of thinking when you see it and then ask yourself if it is reasonable to continue thinking that way in each category.

If you are honest you will quickly realize this is true of your own thinking as well. Perhaps the conclusions you have come to need to be critically examined.

At times you will find it is simply too much work to convince others of their error, so the game continues to be played, other times, it may cause you to divorce yourself from the people thinking that way, and so forth.

Of the first category, Idols of the Tribe, Bacons says they "are rooted in human nature itself and in the very tribe or race of men. For people falsely claim that human sense is the measure of things, whereas in fact all perceptions of sense and mind are built to the scale of man and not the universe." He believes this includes the preference of the human imagination to presuppose regularities in nature where those may be shorter term patterns or cycles.

Frankly, we see this today in the Global Warming arguments where short and long cycles are misunderstood, the short cycle of dozens or of hundreds of years being seen as the correct cycle. In his day, one issue was the ancient Greek conception that planets moved in perfect circular orbits, which he pointed out.

Of the second category, Idola specus, Bacon states, "Idols of the Cave belong to the particular individual. For everyone has (besides vagaries of human nature in general) his own special cave or den which scatters and discolors the light of nature. Now this comes either of his own unique and singular nature; or his education and association with others, or the books he reads and the several authorities of those whom he cultivates and admires, or the different impressions as they meet in the soul, be the soul possessed and prejudiced, or steady and settled. . ." And so we see large variability in the thinking of each individual human because each has a particular set of circumstances, raised in a particular belief about God (this includes atheism), about culture, and in a particular educational system, and their own choices of what to read or listen to, all shape your thinking to some degree, and you can shape them.

His next category are Idols of the market (Idola fori), where we find ourselves in some group of people we at least partly agree with, and here is "group speak." Bacons states, "For men associate through conversation, but words are applied according to the capacity of ordinary people. Therefore shoddy and inept application of words lays siege to the intellect in wondrous ways."

You experience this in your church or in your atheist meeting, in your schools or with your friends, in your social groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving or in your favorite pub.

We associate with others who think kind of like us, but always hold back our Idols of the Cave, our personal judgments. In those settings, certain ways of expressing yourself are accepted and others are not. I have friends who lost a child to driving under the influence and have lost cars parked on the street to such but have never been a part of M.A.D.D., I really appreciate what they do, but assume if I went to a meeting and offered someone a glass of Port it would likely not be acceptable, at least is some of their groups, but the same person may accept it an hour later. I drink lightly, and have never been drunk, so this is merely an example.

Think about the "group speak" in any group you belong to and you will see it clearly. The most extreme is as faculty at any University especially in a College of Science, but the second most extreme is in any fundamentalist church and to both I speak from experience, and both because they hold a certain belief to be absolute and beyond question. If someone has a thought differing from the group the chance of honest examination of that though approaches zero, and so, if a teaching is false, it may change over generations, but not in one generation, and I see this in both settings mentioned.

Lastly Bacon deals with Idols of the Theatre (Idola theatri) where he states men are misled from the "dogmas of philosophers and misguided laws of demonstration" and where he claims "so many stories made up and acted out stories which have created sham worlds worthy of the stage." He names both Aristotle's natural philosophy and Plato's superstitious philosophy as examples.

Do not take from this that I am against science, philosophy or church, quite the contrary, rather that I am in favor of thinking about what you believe and why you believe it. What are the evidences for each and are they logically sufficient, or have you succumbed to one of Bacon's idols?

The scientific method produced relative truths, that is truths relative to specific facts, but most mistake the conclusion draw as if they were the facts derived from some combination of objective observation and artificial testing of a hypothesis whose purpose is to prove a hypothesis. Artificial here because humans designed the test, ergo they are artifacts produced by an artificer.

Philosophy is has largely lost its way and now finds itself attempting to prove an unprovable thesis. Specifically that all which exists is what can be discovered using our senses, a thought Bacon objected to, and which itself is not something discovered, and therefore falsifies itself and so should not be believed. If someone claims there is no absolute truth, ask them if they actually believe that is true and then, if it is true for everyone.

There really are many irrational ideas floating around that need to be purged from our market, theater, and cave.

Religious faiths, including atheism which is simply a belief about God, lock themselves into their own Idols of the Market thinking and they cannot, as a group, consider thinking outside of that Market Idol for fear of losing members or friends, and these are real threats, however, you don't come to know the truth by hiding from it, but by examining it, thinking deductively and inductively about it, then coming to a better understanding of the claims, specifically, are they true?

An issue Bacon realized was a problem is a priori beliefs, beliefs before examining the evidence, which every human brings to the table, and that is primarily what we need to examine, the reasonableness of that specific set of beliefs. Every human has them, they are needed for thinking, but they can also be identified, examined, and reconsidered to see if they are rationally held.

Almost as a post script, the term "faith" is used as a placeholder, metaphor, or word used for the set of things we believe are true. If you believe something is true, then you have a faith. Every person does, what do you have faith in?

Article Source:

Ronald A. Newcomb, Ph.D. is the Apologetics ministry leader at the Rock Church, San Diego, From 2005 to 2010 he was an Adjunct Professor at SDSU College of Sciences.

Posted on 2013-01-06, By: *

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Note: The content of this article solely conveys the opinion of its author.

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