Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Quote of the Day: Whitehead on Baconian Empiricism

(((Alfred North Whitehead on radical empiricism; the naivete of Francis Bacon; how induction isn't always everything it's cracked up to be.)))

Francis Bacon and the modern scientific method. New Atlantis, you know, and the Novum Organum of induction. Among philosophers and historians of science, Bacon's thinking on induction is considered impossibly naive, but that naivete lives among those who think science is simply some Other Thing, divorced entirely from our, I don't know, normal?, ways of doing things. Simply, purely rational, grounded entirely in unbiased observation. Empirical. As opposed to, say, metaphysics.

[Already in metaphysics], the method of pinning down thought to the strict systematization of detailed discrimination, already effected by antecedent observation, breaks down. This collapse of the method of rigid empiricism is not confined to metaphysics. It occurs whenever we seek the larger generalities [i.e., when we do science]. In natural science this rigid method is the Baconian method of induction, a method which, if consistently pursued, would have left science where it found it. What Bacon omitted was the play of a free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic. (Process and Reality, 4-5).

In fact, science has advanced considerably since Bacon, but it is awfully hard to argue, it seems to me, that this advance has not been as much in spite as because of Bacon. Perhaps more, depending on how much actual influence one grants the Novum Organum. The truth is that science simply has not progressed by means of Bacon's purist empiricism, because that's not how science advances. I think most scientists know this. I think many lay admirers of science find it much easier to presume that science is somehow the "opposite" of religion, and so must therefore be purely rational and purely empirical (as if these also were the same thing). The truth, alas, is more complicated.

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Simon said...

You (nay, everyone) would do well to read John Gribbin's lucid and accessible book "The Fellowship" which, whilst being ostensibly about the founding of the Royal Society, has an extensive and valuable chapter on Bacon. Bacon at his most brilliant was at the same time his least Baconian, something to which he was curiously blind.

Jeffrey said...

well, and that's exactly the thing about it, isn't it?