English philosopher of science, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the forerunner of the famed British school of philosophers that include John Locke, David Hume, George Berkeley, J. S. Mill and Bertrand Russell. Bacon’s important works include The Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis and the Novum Organum. Bacon was also an essayist and enjoyed a successful legal and political career, in particular after James I’s succession of Elizabeth, whereupon he was made Lord Chancellor until being found guilty of corruption.
Attributed as the originator of the saying “knowledge is power,” his importance as a philosopher is most notable with regard to his concern for scientific method. Bacon was troubled by the two schools of thought that had come out of Platonism and Aristotelianism respectively. Firstly, the rationalist view that knowledge could be gained by examining the content and meanings of works – a view Bacon dismissed as like spinning a web from the inside of one’s own head. Secondly, the Aristotelians, intent on collecting masses of empirical data, where equally useless at helping a man arrive at any scientific hypotheses. What was needed, insisted Bacon, was a new way of collecting and organising data that would help generate inductive hypotheses.
Bacon, like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, had been concerned with the problem of induction, a problem that would later receive an astonishingly sceptical response from David Hume. The problem of induction, as Bacon’s contemporaries saw it, was that the mere repetitive occurrence of an incident does not guarantee that the same thing will happen again. To give a simple example, suppose a man draws nine blue marbles out of a bag of ten (9/10). It is no more likely that the tenth marble will be blue than it is that it will be red. The previous instances do not guarantee anything about the following instance.
Bacon saw that the answer to this problem lay in placing the emphasis of investigation on looking for negative instances to disconfirm hypotheses, rather than finding ways of confirming them. This is striking precursor to Karl Popper’s twentieth century falsificationist scientific methodology and his much vaunted claim of ‘solving the problem of induction.’ As Popper readily admits, he owes much to Francis Bacon.
However, unlike others of his time and later David Hume, Bacon was less interested in the problem of justifying inductive generalisations, than in how to generate good inductive hypotheses out of the masses of data collected by observation. Bacon revised a new method. To illustrate it, Bacon shows how one might generate a hypothesis on the nature of heat. One should, Bacon tells us, list all those things in which the property under investigation, in this case heat, is present, then all those things in which the property is absent and finally all those cases which admit of varying degrees of the property in question. From such list, Bacon believes the natural hypothesis will present itself, which in this case, as he well knew at the time, is that heat is produced according to the movement or excitation of molecules within a body.
Although Bacon’s method is undoubtedly one way of applying order to a body of data, and even perhaps a useful way in some cases, it nevertheless seems unlikely to fulfil his ambition, which was to find a systematic way of deriving scientific hypotheses from the arrangement of data. It is unlikely that there ever could be such a system. Bacon failed to take into account the creativity and imaginative aspect of scientific theory building. No matter how systematically one organises data, inductive hypotheses cannot be guaranteed to appear out of them. One may find that some facts deductively follow from a certain ordering of data, but that is not what Bacon was after.
Despite his failure in this regard, Bacon nevertheless made some important contribution to the philosophy of science and the problem of induction, not least, as we have seen, in being the first to stress the importance of negative instances.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube 60 Second Philosophy: Francis Bacon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsScx7oeHOs]
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