On Francis Bacon and the Origins of the Scientific Method

And How We’re Still Stuck in His 17th Century Mindset

At the close of Novum Organum, Francis Bacon’s book that lays the groundwork for the modern scientific method, he ties his new ideas of science to the Edenic narrative and the fall of man:

Man by the fall, fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses can in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, and the latter by arts and sciences.”

Thus, from the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, science was put forth as a way to reclaim man’s right to be the overseer of the natural world. According to Bacon, not only did we have the ability to use science to improve our understanding of the world around us, we had the moral and religious imperative to use that understanding to shape the world to our liking. To create a new Eden.

In her essay in Uncommon Ground, Carolyn Merchant places Bacon’s philosophy of science in a narrative of western culture as a quest to recover that lost Eden, primarily through masculine labors. This narrative of western culture extends to western science, which crystalized in Bacon’s time. Scientists, mostly white men, labored to seek insights that would allow us to “repair our dominion” over the world around us.

This attitude of dominion has become so baked into the world of science that despite the development of a separation of religion and scientific pursuits (likely an unthinkable development in Bacon’s time), the restoration of Eden is still omnipresent in western science. For example, Charles C. Mann, in his book The Wizard and the Prophet, lays out two approaches to solving food scarcity in a growing population. The wizard, Norman Borlaug, became the father of the “green revolution” by preaching that technology and innovation in agriculture – namely increasing crop yields through genetic modification, pesticides, and fertilizers – would save us. William Vogt, the prophet, was part of a new and burgeoning environmental movement in the mid-twentieth century and argued that only by conservation could we continue to feed the world’s humanity.

For the most part, I think, the wizards have won over science. The prophet mentality is relegated to activism and non-profit groups, while scientists continue wizarding away. I think this is to our detriment. The wizard mindset has led to some of the most dangerous human developments, including overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, fracking, the atomic bomb, while promising to give us further “dominion over creation” and assuring us that any problems will be fixed by some new technology that’s just around the corner (carbon capture, geoengineering, pesticides with less drift, etc.).

This results in us seeing ourselves as separate and above the natural world, and obscures our position as one small piece in the vast history of our planet. It hides a holistic view the earth system by promising individual fixes for individual problems. In fact, these problems were often previously the new miracle fix to something else. This creates a harmful and hard-to-escape wizardry treadmill. For example, pesticide use dramatically increased during Borlaug’s green revolution to help raise crop yields and solve the problem feeding the world; now the agrochemical industry promises to solve overuse by developing new pesticides that don’t drift into neighboring ecosystems and cause harm.

I argue that science should abandon the long-standing mindset, dating back to Francis Bacon, that its role is to give humans control over our surroundings. Instead, the focus should be gaining understanding of our world, so that we don’t keep creating problems that need to be solved by wizardry. We need to stop trying to recreate Eden, and instead realize that we already live there – if only we could stop getting in our own way and enjoy it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: