Thursday, 2 April 2009

Bacon and the Novum Organum

Bacon and the Novum Organum

I was interested in Melvyn Bragg's program "In our Time" devoted to Francis Bacon (as I am to all his programs in that series), and I learnt much even though I have regarded myself as an ardent Baconian for over forty years. But I think something slipped through his fingers – namely the inductive method. It is not that the members of the discussion panel did not know the material, for Patricia Fara clearly had it at her finger tips and could have given an excellent exposition. Perhaps the focus of the program was elsewhere. Perhaps none of the panel were practising scientists.

I read the Novum Organum in the summer of 1965 at the end of my first year as a D.Phil student at Oxford. I had already some knowledge of the process of practical science in the twentieth century, of designing experiments, and collecting data. I had also been attending Rom Harré's lectures on the "Philosophy of Science" and AJ Ayer's on "Induction". In that context Bacon's modest little book came as a beacon of light in a dark seascape. "Induction is logically impossible", said Hume (and Ayer); "you cannot win a general truth from particular observations". "Induction is not necessary in Science", said Popper; "you merely make observations, and falsify hypotheses." But where, I wanted to know, do you get your hypotheses in the first place? No one could help me with that question. No one even attempted to help me. I decided that philosophy, while fun, was best relegated to after supper musings. So, in the summer of 1965, it was a big surprise to me to find that Bacon had answered the problem a hundred and fifty years before Hume had raised it. What chiefly fascinated me was that no one referred to Bacon; neither the philosophers nor the scientists. Of course, he was not wiped entirely from the pages of history; a sprinkling of people knew about Bacon 'catching his death' while trying to preserve a dead chicken with snow. Another smaller sprinkling knew of his impeachment for embezzlement. But my scientist colleagues did not know of his Novum Organum.

The New Organon is more than a pyramid, as explained by one of Melvyn Bragg's panellists; and though it is indeed a matter of drawing up lists, as explained by Patricia Fara, it is more than that also. Its power can be seen in its results; Bacon concluded that heat is motion some 200 years ahead of the field! But Ssh! I feel like a traveller about to let slip to the general public the whereabouts of a perfect picnic spot. There is no need for everyone to know everything, surely!

Ian West, Morpeth, 2 April 2009

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