Sir Francis Bacon

1561 - 1626
by David F. Coppedge

Is Christian philosophy good for science? In this series we showcase many examples, but the case could hardly be made stronger than to point to Mr. Scientific Method himself, Sir Francis Bacon.

Although not a practicing scientist, Bacon is considered by many historians to be the “founder of modern science.” His philosophy and writings were largely responsible for igniting the scientific revolution in the 17th century. Numerous intellectuals like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton seized on the “new philosophy” of Bacon that emphasized empiricism and induction. Casting aside dependence on authorities like Aristotle, the new science exploded on the scene, yielding a wealth of discoveries and inventions that has continued unabated to this day. But this “new philosophy” was really nothing new; it was a return to the principles of the Bible. The “founder of modern science” was a Bible-believing Christian, and Christian doctrine was the foundation of his thinking.

Portrait of Sir Francis Bacon by Pourbus the Younger, 1617.

A 2002 book makes the connection between Bacon and the Bible clear. John Henry, a science history professor at Edinburgh University, wrote a biography of Bacon called Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science (2002). Henry claims that Sir Francis Bacon, who according to traditional wisdom “invented modern science,” was motivated by “magic” (read: Christian faith), government (read: knowledge for practical good of mankind) and “apocalyptic vision” (meaning, a literal belief in the prophecy of Daniel 12:4, “Many will go to and fro, and knowledge will be increased”). In a review of the book in the August 22, 2002 issue of Nature, Alan Stewart stated:

Bacon firmly believed that he was living in the era in which the scriptures predicted that knowledge would increase beyond all recognition. Had not the past decades seen crucial advances in learning, warfare and navigation, in the form (respectively) of the printing press, gunpowder and the magnetic compass, he asked? Part of his Instauratio Magna was entitled Parasceve, the Greek word for preparation, but particularly the day of preparation for the Sabbath, the ultimate Sabbath of the Day of Judgement. “What else can the prophet mean… in speaking about the last times?” Bacon asked rhetorically in his Refutation of Philosophies in 1608. “Does he not imply that the passing to and fro or perambulation of the round earth and the increase or multiplication of science were destined to the same age and century?”

Stewart continues, “Perhaps the most compelling section of the book deals with Bacon’s ‘magic’, by which Henry means religion. Here he makes a more convincing case than many for the profoundly religious underpinning of Bacon’s philosophical project.” Notice that neither Stewart nor Henry are Christian apologists, but both here recognize that the Bible had a direct impact on the scientific revolution. Like a spark to a fuse, the Bible ignited in Bacon’s mind a dream of a new instrument, a Novum Organum, that could lead to an increase of knowledge, just as the Bible predicted for the last days.

The essence of Baconian philosophy is induction: instead of deducing the nature of Nature from authorities like Aristotle and Galen, scientists should build from the ground up. Gather facts. Measure things. Collect and organize observational evidence, then build a hypothesis to explain them. Test all hypotheses against the facts. Bacon was convinced this method would provide a more certain path to truth than trust in fallible human reason, and would issue in a golden age of discovery. The scientific method we learn in school is largely Baconian: gather observations, make a hypothesis to explain them, test the hypothesis, and reject all causes inconsistent with the observations. Hypotheses that pass empirical tests can advance to theories and laws.

Philosophy of science has changed and matured quite a bit since Bacon, and philosophers continue to debate what constitutes science vs pseudoscience. The Baconian ideal seems a little simplistic and impractical; we now recognize the need for scientific theories to make predictions, and the requirement for falsifiability in hypotheses. Later philosophers from David Hume onward would question the reliability of induction. Those issues aside, the value of Bacon’s method was seen in its fruits: major new discoveries in chemistry, physics, biology and astronomy; the founding of new branches of science; the overturning of long-held false beliefs, and new institutions like the Royal Society. One of the ironies of history was that the other Bacon in our series (Roger Bacon), had promoted the same value of experimental science three and a half centuries earlier. It would make a good research project to look for any connections or influences of Roger on Sir Francis, other than that they were both Englishmen.

But doesn’t the rejection of authority shoot down Bacon’s own belief in the authority of the Bible? Skeptics sometimes portray early Christian founders of science as closet doubters who made a show of Christian piety to keep out of trouble. According to this view, Bacon sugar-coated his scientific philosophy with Biblical words to make it more palatable to the religious authorities. If that were so, Bacon would not have written elegant poetry, apparently from the depths of his soul, praising God and the Bible. John Henry makes no such intimation that Bacon was a hypocrite. From his research, the Biblical world view was the foundation of Bacon’s scientific philosophy, not its pretext. Interestingly, continental scholars like Descartes and some more skeptical of the Bible disagreed with Bacon’s advocacy of induction and empiricism, placing more value on human reason.

But again, what of Biblical authority? To Francis Bacon, the Bible provided a view of God, the world, and man that made science a noble duty. Nature was God’s finely crafted machine, and God had given man the aptitude and duty to discover its workings. Human reason alone was insufficient; it needed to be guided by Bible doctrine on the nature of God and the world, and by observation of the Creator’s laws. The very belief in natural laws was a legacy of the Scriptures. Sir Francis believed that, in fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy, man would increase in knowledge in the last days by casting off unbiblical authorities like Aristotle and investigating God’s natural revelation (creation) with minds that had been created in His image.*

*Unfortunately, Bacon’s trust in the Scriptures was not complete. When it came to Genesis accounts of a recent creation and global flood, he was prone to substitute his interpretations for the clear word of the text. Caution is advised when reading those parts of his writings.

Consider again the Biblical basis of the three foundations of Bacon’s philosophy described in the title of Henry’s biography: (1) “magic” (a poor choice of words), meaning religious belief, which Stewart calls a “profound underpinning” of Bacon’s philosophy; (2) “government,” underscoring the God-given responsibility of governments to work for the good of the people; (3) “apocalyptic vision,” the belief that Daniel’s prophecy should inspire us to advance knowledge for the good of mankind. While the Bible does not propose a scientific method, it provides the fundamental view of God, man, and the world that makes scientific progress both possible and desirable. “The works of the Lord are great,” writes the author of Psalm 111:2, “studied by all who delight in them.”

King Solomon, for example, was an early spare-time scientist. He busied himself with gaining knowledge about all kinds of animals, plants, birds, insects and fish (I Kings 4:33- 34). His Proverbs are filled with admonitions to gain knowledge and wisdom. Though in his old age Solomon considered the search for knowledge as one of the “vanity of vanities,” (Eccl 1:13-18), unattainable (8:16-17) and an endless drudgery (12:12), it was only so if pursued without thought of creation and final judgment (Eccl. 11:9-12:1). To one’s own heart, the reward of wisdom justified its pursuit (7:11, 12, 25). When the Creator is foremost in mind, observation of the wonders of creation springs out of worship — Psalms 104 and 148 are good examples. Solomon’s peacetime science was a natural outgrowth of the gift of wisdom and discernment God gave him (I Kings 3- 4). Bacon’s thinking during the Elizabethan golden age makes an interesting parallel.

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban, c. 1618 (artist unknown).

Francis Bacon was no closet skeptic; for him, the Bible was the key to liberating man from the fallible opinions of human authorities, and Genesis gave the impetus to take seriously our God-given role as stewards of creation. That included doing science. He viewed atheism as plebeian: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism,” he quipped, “but depth of philosophy bringeth a man’s mind about to religion.” (To an Elizabethan, religion was synonymous with Christianity.) Similarly, he said “Philosophy, when superficially studied, excites doubt; when thoroughly explored, it dispels it.” In a statement congruent with the modern Intelligent Design Movement, he declared, “I had rather believe all the fables in the legends and the Talmud and the Alcoran [Koran], than that this universal frame is without a mind.” For Francis Bacon, science was an act of worship as well as a shield against falsehood. He said, “There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error: first, the volume of the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.”

Sir Francis Bacon is more remembered for his ideas than his life. He was born in London in 1561 after the recent accession of Elizabeth I, when English society was taking a dramatic upturn. A contemporary of Galileo, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, Bacon worked not as a scientist, but as a lawyer and politician, becoming a barrister in 1582 and a member of the House of Commons in 1584. He was knighted in 1603 under the newly-crowned King James I, and advanced to Solicitor General, Attorney General, and by 1618, Lord Chancellor. Unfortunately, he sullied his reputation in 1621 by taking a litigant’s bribe. Though he had been entangled in a struggle between the King and Parliament, he admitted to the corruption and had to resign in disgrace. He entered the world without riches; his youth had been poor, penniless at 18 when his father died; his old age saw the loss of his fortune and reputation. He died in 1626, apparently doing experiments to illustrate his devotion to empirical science; he caught a chill collecting snow, in hopes of determining the preservation powers of cold on meat. In all, Bacon’s life and career were rather unremarkable; his personal character “was by no means admirable,” according to Frederic R. White. He made no significant scientific discoveries nor uncovered any scientific laws. But his ideas were profound, reflective of deep thought and genius.

Bacon was a philosopher of the first order, influencing Western civilization for centuries, even though in his day he was roundly criticized by other philosophers. He referred to his critics as “Men of sharp wits, shut up in their cells of a few authors, chiefly Aristotle, their Dictator.” Rather than rehashing old ideas with deductive reason, Bacon advocated “the fresh examination of particulars,” i.e., gathering evidence by experiment and then making interpretations, rather than deducing the nature of the particulars from universal forms and principles. Encyclopedia Britannica explains that he was no raw Empiricist; he believed in formulating laws and generalizations; “His enduring place in the history of philosophy lies, however, in his single-minded advocacy of experience as the only source of valid knowledge and in his profound enthusiasm for the perfection of natural science.” Most of Bacon’s philosophical writing was done late in life – his first work, The Advancement of Learning (1605) at age 44; his greatest work Novum Organum (part of a larger planned work) in 1620 (age 59), writing more till his death at age 65, with some additional works published posthumously.

Like Pascal, Bacon had a flair for the piquant proverb. His eponyms are words fitly spoken, like “apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Here are some examples to get a taste of his thinking:

  • Knowledge is power.
  • Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.
  • Money is like muck, not good except that it be spread.
  • Discretion in speech is more than eloquence.
  • Choose the life that is most useful, and habit will make it the most agreeable.
  • To choose time is to save time.
  • Books must follow sciences, and not sciences books.
  • God has placed no limits to the exercise of the intellect that he has given us, on this side of the grave.
  • Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.
  • The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits but not when it misses.
  • A prudent question is one-half wisdom.
  • Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.
  • To read without reflecting, is like eating without digesting.

More than entries for Reader’s Digest “Quotable Quotes,” however, Bacon’s words carried a vision of the New Atlantis, the new path to knowledge about the world. Loren Eiseley, in The Man Who Saw Through Time, said that Bacon “…more fully than any man of his time, entertained the idea of the universe as a problem to be solved, examined, meditated upon, rather than as an eternally fixed stage, upon which man walked.” (In a similar vein, current philosopher of science Paul Nelson has described science within an Intelligent Design framework as “an enormous puzzle-solving expedition, in which you expect to find order and rationality right at the root of things.”) The title page of The Advancement of Learning portrays this new science taking mankind beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the presumed limits of man’s explorations. The bottom contains the quote from Daniel 12:4, “many will pass through and knowledge will be increased.” He was strongly opposed to a priori assumptions. In that regard, a little neo-Baconian philosophy would be good in our day. Darwinists typically assume that evolution is true, and mold the observations to fit that assumption. A book by Cornelius Hunter, Darwin’s God, demonstrates how the alleged proofs of Darwinism are ultimately metaphysical and even religious. Whether Darwinians talk about homology or fossils or microevolution, their observations are incidental; the force of the arguments used by Darwinists against creation revolve around what a Creator would or would not do. When pressed to the wall for evidence to demonstrate evolution, what they supply cannot justify the claims made for major transformations. Francis Bacon would be appalled.

We stated early on that inclusion of a person in this series does not imply 100% endorsement. The theme is that Christian thought has been good for science. In some regards, Christians should be cautious of Baconian philosophy. He trusted human observation and reason more than the validity of the Genesis account of creation and the Flood, for instance. And though he was not Catholic or scholastic, Bacon apparently accepted the premise of Thomas Aquinas that the Fall left man’s reason unscathed. He also wrote, “Our humanity were a poor thing were it not for the divinity which stirs within us,” and we all know how that idea can be taken to the extreme. To the extent he meant we bear the image of God, that is acceptable; it is unlikely Bacon doubted that humans are sinners in need of a Savior. In addition, it might appear that Bacon’s advocacy of experience as the guide to truth would militate against trust in divine revelation. Indeed, David Hume took that idea to the limit. (The tides have turned against Hume in our time, as our “uniform experience” about information and codes is forcing scientists to confront the reality of intelligent design in DNA.) Bacon, however, was not schizophrenic about induction and authority. He saw no dichotomy in his religious faith and advocacy of the scientific method; like he said, depth of philosophy brings a man’s mind back to religion. With allusions to Genesis 1, he said, “The first creation of God in the works of the days was the light of the sense, the last was the light of the reason; and his Sabbath work ever since is the illumination of the spirit.” Illumination of the spirit is the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God (John 16:13).

Though best known as an advocate of fact, and a sometime critic of poetry, Sir Francis Bacon was an occasional poet himself (although it is highly unlikely he was the secret author of Shakespeare’s plays, as some have alleged). More than with prose or philosophy, poetry allows us to look into an author’s soul. Was Sir Francis Bacon a creationist? Was he a believer in the Bible, and a devout man of faith? Did he see man’s role as praising the Creator for His works? Did he himself trust in his heavenly King and look forward to Christ’s eternal victory? Here is his poem “Sing a New Song.” You read and decide:

by Sir Francis Bacon

O sing a new song, to our God above,
Avoid profane ones, ’tis for holy choir:
Let Israel sing song of holy love
To him that made them, with their hearts on fire:
Let Zion’s sons lift up their voice, and sing
Carols and anthems to their heavenly king.

Let not your voice alone his praise forth tell,
But move withal, and praise him in the dance;
Cymbals and harps, let them be tuned well,
’Tis he that doth the poor’s estate advance:
Do this not only on the solemn days,
But on your secret beds your spirits raise.

O let the saints bear in their mouth his praise,
And a two-edged sword drawn in their hand,
Therewith for to revenge the former days,
Upon all nations, that their zeal withstand;
To bind their kings in chains of iron strong,
And manacle their nobles for their wrong.

Expect the time, for ’tis decreed in heaven,
Such honor shall unto his saints be given.

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