Francis Bacon: History, Ideas and Legacy

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  • 0:06 Francis Bacon
  • 1:40 The Scientific Method
  • 3:44 Benefits of…
  • 6:44 Baconian Optimism
  • 9:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson examines the contributions of Sir Francis Bacon to science. We take a long hard look at the scientific method, with special emphasis on experimental science. Then we briefly examine how Bacon sold science to the world.

Francis Bacon: Prophet of Science

Every great shift in human thinking has its founding prophet: a man ahead of his time, a true visionary who imagined a different way of looking at the world. Buddhism has the Buddha. Christianity has Jesus. Islam has Muhammad. Science has Sir Francis Bacon.

When Francis Bacon was born in 1561, the Bible was considered the ultimate authority. People thought the Earth was at the center of the universe, and science was so intertwined with religion that the greatest minds of the time were arguing about how many angels could dance on a pin head.

By the time Bacon died in 1626, a new sort of authority had taken root in Europe: scientific proof. Galileo had established scientific proof that the Earth orbited the Sun, and the first divisions between religion and science had begun to appear, as the greatest minds of the time struggled to reconcile scientific proof with religious faith.

Bacon inspired the Scientific Revolution through his work
Sir Francis Bacon

Such sweeping changes in a single lifetime should give us some notion of how rapidly the world was transforming at the turn of the 17th century. To credit Bacon alone with these changes would be to overlook the efforts of his many contemporaries and successors. Bacon was not the cause of this transformation. In fact, Bacon made few scientific discoveries of any real note. Instead, Bacon was the prophet of this new age - he wrote its laws, and provided its inspiration.

The Scientific Method

Bacon's vision allowed him to see this new scientific way of looking at the world before it ever existed. Yet Bacon's true genius lies in the methods he provided to make this vision possible. Bacon realized that his fellow Europeans were never going to learn anything new so long as they kept looking for answers in the Bible or in the works of classical philosophers. No matter how deeply they thought about these concepts, no matter how many compelling arguments they might invent, the scholars of Europe essentially had been treading the same ground for centuries.

Bacon proposed a new way to unlock the secrets of nature: the scientific experiment.

Nature is chaotic, with many factors influencing everything we perceive. The simple fall of a leaf from a tree involves laws of gravity pulling the leaf down, laws of meteorology governing the wind, and laws of aerodynamics governing how the leaf responds to that wind. In nature, these laws are all mixed up, so we don't know which laws govern what. Moreover, the sheer irregularity of nature makes it almost impossible to measure. No two leaves are alike, and even if they were, they would not fall in the same way, due to the countless other factors influencing them - the wind, their position, their height - all of these things. How can we possibly hope to learn anything from nature when nature is so disorderly?

Bacon's solution was simple yet profound. ''To learn about Nature, we have to pull Nature out of her comfort zone. We need to put Nature in a place where we control as many of the factors as possible and make her perform the same activity again and again. Only then can we begin to eliminate the factors that confuse our attempts to understand nature.'' So what was Bacon talking about?

Prior to Bacon, scholars focused on the same biblical and classical philosophies for centuries
Bible Authority Wheel

The Benefits of Experimental Science

Let us return to our example of the falling leaf. Let us say we are trying to determine the laws that affect how leaves fall. As we saw above, a wide variety of factors influence how each leaf falls: wind, air resistance, and gravity. Moreover, since no two leaves are exactly the same and each leaf falls from a different point, we could watch a thousand leaves fall and be no closer to our answers.

Imagine trying to learn anything from this chaos. You'd have to weigh and measure each leaf. You'd have to run around with a tape measure, figuring out which twig each leaf fell from. You'd have to record where the wind was coming from and how fast, at every moment. You'd have to measure the density of the air beneath each individual leaf. In short, learning anything from the random falling of leaves from a tree is all but impossible.

So the first way we might apply Bacon's theory would be to drop the same leaf from the same height, over and over again, thereby controlling at least some of these factors. Now instead of worrying about how all leaves fall, we're just trying to discover how this leaf falls.

Yet we'd still keep getting a wide variety of behaviors from our dropped leaf, since the wind would sometimes be blowing and sometimes it wouldn't. If we moved our experiment indoors, we could eliminate another factor, the impact of the wind.

Yet even with this improvement, our leaf is still not always falling in exactly the same way, although we're getting closer. The simple laws of gravity are still confused by the resistance of the air. So let's remove the factor of the air. Let's put our leaf in a bell jar and remove the air.

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