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The Christian Calling of Baconian Science: “Magnifie the Great and Wonderfull Workes of God” by Harrison Pitt

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The Christian Calling of Baconian Science: “Magnifie the Great and Wonderfull Workes of God”

Although he made no outstanding scientific discoveries in his day, Francis Bacon is still regarded as one of the earliest philosophical champions of the modern scientific method. Bacon questioned the idea of science (or “philosophy of nature”) that had long dominated the formal universities, which tended to seek truth in vast, generalising systems of knowledge based in Aristotelian metaphysics and logic and Thomistic theology. For Bacon, like scientists today, knowledge of the natural world could only reliably emerge over time through the patient study and observation of specific phenomena. It was for this reason that the Catholic priest and philosopher Frederick Copleston described Bacon as a “herald of the scientific age.” 

Indeed, Bacon’s promotion of science was far more a conscious rejection of Plato and Aristotle than an attack on Christian religion. Some have argued that Bacon was more of an atheist than his public writings could safely confess, but such readings tend to rely on ambiguities in his work rather than explicit statements against Christianity. Taking Bacon at his own word, the leading figure of Renaissance science viewed religious faith not only as compatible with scientific inquiry, but complementary in their shared sense of an orderly, designed universe. Bacon also believed religious assumptions were necessary to the larger coherence of science—a method which, without God, could not be trusted to establish foundations for building knowledge in the first place.

At the time of the Renaissance, philosophy within English universities was a highly conservative subject, concerned with passing on the received wisdom of Aristotelian logic. Bacon’s contribution was to challenge the prevailing status of such ancient systems of knowledge by formulating a new experimental empiricism. His magnum opus, The Advancement of Learning, expends most of its energy sustaining a critique of ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle and his idea of ‘final causation’—the notion that every object has an inherent end or purpose. If anything, he regarded science less as a challenge to traditional religion than an improvement on traditional philosophy. Hence Bacon underlines the distinction between physics and metaphysics: “Physics relate to the Investigation of Efficient Causes and Matter; Metaphysics to that of Final Causes and the Form.” “Efficient” and “final” are Aristotelian terms. An object’s efficient cause will explain how it comes to exist, while an object’s final cause, to reiterate, will explain the intrinsic purpose, or telos, which it performs by existing. Therefore, the efficient cause of a sword is its blacksmith, while the object’s final cause is to inflict injury on the battlefield. Bacon argues, then, that while science treats of physical causes, metaphysics pursues questions of meaning.

While Bacon used Aristotelian terms, he was critical of the way in which he believed Aristotle had elevated final causation above practical knowledge of physical matter. He believed this led to an atmosphere in which physical experiment went neglected in favour of what he thought of as ultimately metaphysical speculation. Wishing to set this right, Bacon counterposed Aristotle with a “new science” in which universal truths would not be argued for by syllogism, but gradually discovered through observation: “Physics… is vague and unstable as to causes, and treats movable bodies as its subjects, without discovering a constancy of causes in different subjects. Thus the same fire gives hardness to clay and softness to wax, though it be no constant cause either of hardness or softness.” This passage distinguishes the pursuit of natural knowledge from metaphysical speculation, clarifying how Bacon was more concerned with interrogating the maddening complexity of phenomena like heat and cold (the scientist is famously said to have died by catching pneumonia from his experiments with snow) than meditating on the “more abstract and fixed” quality of Aristotelian-derived metaphysics.

Much of this turns on the larger human purpose with which Bacon imbued his inductive method. His science was not a celebration of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. More profoundly, Bacon located the value and justification of scientific knowledge in real-life practicalities: its true function was to extend the practical dominion of the human race, the conquest of nature by mankind, and to extend human life. On the question of generating fruitful, power-enhancing knowledge, Bacon regarded Aristotelianism as a failure, using language that also is implicitly meant as an insult to Aristotelian philosophers of his time, most of whom were Catholic monks and priests bound by vows of chastity: Aristotelian philosophy is, in Bacon’s words, “a barren thing, or as a virgin consecrated to God.” Aristotle’s Physics is identified as a prime culprit, where causes are explained in the following manner: plants grow leaves “to provide shade for the fruit” and “clouds are designed for watering the earth.” Such an approach to nature, thought Bacon, overestimates the importance of in-dwelling purpose at the expense of discovering the mechanisms by which natural phenomena arise, as well as their physical properties and practical applications. But, as we shall see, this criticism of Aristotle’s focus on purpose did not, for Bacon, invalidate the status of religion as crucial to moral life. Bacon never scorned the human search for purpose as such, arguing only that its “excursion into the limits of physical causes”—of which, as a lawyer, Bacon pronounced Aristotle and his Renaissance admirers guilty—“hath made a great devastation in that province.”

Bacon argued that ancient and medieval physics, with its proofs for the existence of God and its use of final causality, was not purely physical, but instead allowed metaphysics to impact its investigations. While acknowledging his “sublime genius,” Bacon critiques Plato (as well as his pupil Aristotle) for “contemplating and grasping at forms totally abstracted from matter, and not as determined in it”—the actual key to useful human knowledge. Bacon anticipates the fruit that will grow from taking a new, scientific course: “if with diligence, seriousness, and sincerity, we turn our eyes to action and use, we may find, and become acquainted with those forms, the knowledge whereof will wonderfully enrich and prosper human affairs.” Subsequent events in human history, from the Industrial Revolution to the discovery of penicillin, surely demonstrate that Bacon was right to celebrate the civilising power of the scientific method, although the more destructive products of scientific innovators, not least the atomic bomb, have led many philosophers to re-evaluate Baconian optimism.

But in order to exercise a new dominion over nature, as Bacon hoped, it was essential that nature first be understood. This required first-hand, empirical engagement with phenomena, sophisticated by the methodical rigour of Bacon’s inductive reasoning method: observing patterns and discovering and testing physical laws based on data drawn from experiments.

Portrait of Francis Bacon (1617), a 91 x 74.5 cm oil on canvas by Paul van Somer (ca. 1577-1621).

But crucially, Bacon acknowledged no necessary contradiction between this new inductive science and religious faith. In fact, Bacon sought to resolve any potential conflict between scientific and religious modes of apprehending reality. As such, plenty of space is devoted to refuting apparently scriptural objections to science. In an early critique of religious fundamentalism, Bacon writes that ignorance can take “disguised” form in “the zeal of the divines.” He opposed his more literal-minded religious contemporaries, many of whom associated the pursuit of knowledge itself with the fall of man in Genesis, King Solomon’s grief, or the vanity described by St. Paul. Bacon argued that these Biblical sources should be interpreted only as qualifying the pursuit of modern scientific knowledge, not forbidding it outright. Three qualifications are offered: “first, that we should not place our felicity in knowledge, so as to forget morality; the second, that we use knowledge so as to give ourselves ease and content, not distaste and repining; and the third, that we presume not by the contemplation of nature, to attain to the mysteries of God.” But Bacon’s overarching belief in the unity of science and religious faith is clear beyond reasonable doubt: “Let no one weakly imagine that man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, and works, divinity, and philosophy; but rather let them endeavour an endless progression in both, only applying all to charity, and not to pride – to use, not ostentation, without confounding the two different streams of philosophy and revelation together.”

That said, some scholars have said that Bacon was more atheistic than his books explicitly indicate. Timothy Paterson, for example, believes Bacon’s “real attitude toward Christianity was a blend of scepticism, hostility, and indifference.” He draws this interpretation from Bacon’s “pattern of equivocation,” whereby “an orthodox statement is followed almost immediately by a much less orthodox statement on the same or a closely related subject.” Paterson identifies one such case. In the Advancement of Learning, Bacon recognises the blasphemy inherent in attempts to create purely rational value-structures independent of revelation: “It was the proud knowledge of good and evil, with an intent in man to give law unto himself, and to depend no more upon God’s commandments, which was the form of the temptation.” Paterson then highlights how, in Novum Organum, Bacon claims that a new “ethics, and politics” will arise from inductive science, contradicting his insistence in The Advancement of Learning that morality exists in a separate religious sphere. 

But such interpretations rely on ambiguity. It is even possible that Paterson identifies a “contradiction” that Bacon would not recognise as such. Indeed, the suggestion that science will give rise to new ethics does not necessarily mean the roots of those ethics are self-generated. It may as easily mean that traditional Christian morality will gradually begin to apply in the new situations to which scientific practice gives rise. Before modern computing was developed, for example, Artificial Intelligence (AI) was never discussed, let alone in ethical terms. But now the development of effective AI is a realistic venture, debates are occurring about moral conduct within that space. The ethical principles brought to bear upon such discussions are not necessarily novel; they are often old values simply applied to new circumstances. By “new ethics,” it is possible that Bacon meant something similar, perhaps anticipating the system of scientific etiquette which now exists around issues like fraud, plagiarism, and disinterested peer-reviewing. It is thus not transparently clear that Bacon espoused the sceptical “hostility” to Christianity which Paterson ascribes to him. 

Atheistic readings of Bacon are further undermined by the fact that Bacon was perfectly capable of subversive thinking, yet never wrote an explicitly anti-Christian sentence. In criticising astrology, for example, Bacon showcases a natural suspicion of attempts to seek anthropocentric patterns in the activity of natural matter. As with his critique of Plato and Aristotle, he also demonstrates a refusal to display reverence for established traditions of thought without sufficient reason. Concerning astrology, he writes, “if any one shall pretend that this science is founded, not in reason and physical contemplations, but in the direct experience and observation of past ages… he may at the same time bring back divination, auguries, soothsaying, and give in to all kinds of fables; for these also were said to descend from long experience.” This displays the radical potential of Bacon’s mind. His empirical posture made him sceptical of beliefs, whether in magic or soothsaying, held purely on the basis of traditional authority. He was not an instinctive conservative.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Bacon did not extend the logic of his critique of astrology to a larger attack on religion. He believed that there existed strong reasons to remain faithful to Christianity and even credited his scientific endeavours with enhancing his religious faith. Moreover, there is his discussion of the ancient atomists, Democritus and Epicurus, whose study of physical causes made them worthier in Bacon’s eyes than Plato and Aristotle. But Bacon then added that when these same philosophers asserted “the fabric of all things to be raised by a fortuitous concourse of these atoms, without the help of a mind, they became universally ridiculous.” According to Bacon, in other words, the wondrous intricacy of the natural world made notions of a spontaneous universe, sustained without a self-conscious creator, wholly ludicrous. Working to investigate this world, he believed, underscored its divine provenance, far from undermining, but in fact bolstering, the claims of Christian believers.

But there is finally a sense in which, for Bacon, the very practice of science is logically impossible without religious assumptions. Bacon’s science did more than confirm religious faith; it also required a measure of faith in the ultimate intelligibility of the universe—something which only gained validity, he thought, if one assumes a rational creator. This foundational argument, in which science and belief in God are held to be mutually supportive, is made towards the end of The Advancement of Learning: “So far are physical causes from drawing men off from God and Providence, that, on the contrary, the philosophers employed in discovering them can find no rest, but by flying to God or Providence at last.” Novum Organum also contains an aphorism in which the idea is expressed even more unequivocally. Again rejecting the apparent conflict between religion and science, Bacon writes: “the Ideas of the divine” are “the creator’s own stamp upon creation, impressed and defined in matter by true and exquisite lines.” Such geometric imagery, conjuring up solid visions of scale and measurement, conveys the idea that a universe which bears the divine “stamp” of its conscious creator is as a result discoverable by lower conscious minds such as our own. Not only did Bacon’s science claim to confirm God, but its validity arose from the belief that its object of study was a non-random, divinely created world. Science posits the intelligibility of natural phenomena, and Bacon located the discoverability of nature—its containment of matter that will answer to human analysis—in its being the unmistakable product of a conscious mind. Today, science remains effective whether or not its practitioners wish to accept this divine principle; but even Francis Bacon, one of the most iconoclastic figures of Renaissance philosophy, regarded it as the one sacred remnant of tradition in his otherwise revolutionary project.

Francis Bacon was the talisman of Renaissance science, producing an inductive philosophy which he advanced with all the zeal of a religious convert. But as far as he was concerned, promoting such methods required no actual conversion from the Christian beliefs which prevailed in his day. Bacon’s ideas were subversive to the reverence with which the English universities of that period regarded Aristotle, but not to the claims of the Christian faith. In fact, he proclaimed science as a magnifier of the “great and wonderfull workes of God,” even going so far as to argue that scientists had no choice but to confess faith in a designed cosmos if they wished to unlock its intelligible secrets. Bacon went after plenty of sacred cows in his time, from Aristotle’s popular acclaim to the indulgence of astrology. Modern atheists like Richard Dawkins essentially extend Bacon’s iconoclastic critique of human folly to a broader one in which religion is also cast aside as an outdated superstition. But taking him at face value, it is quite clear that Bacon, while a radical figure whose legacy is often invoked for atheist purposes, did not hold such anti-Christian convictions himself. He conceived the tension between religion and science in much the same way as the 20th century biologist Stephen Jay Gould did when he described the two as “non-overlapping magisteria.”

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.