During the 16th and 17th centuries science received renewed attention and scrutiny from wealthy patrons and their respective scholars. It was the scientific revolution, and old-world views were quickly being displaced by more reasoned and experimentally tested principles. Francis Bacon wholeheartedly embraced this revolution and added his own ideas to the growing body of experimental knowledge.
Francis Bacon, as did many of his contemporary scholars and philosophers, chose to share his thoughts through novels and essays. His ideas were in many ways an evolutionary step in the study of the natural philosophies. To fully understand this concept, it is important that we understand the origins of the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution was a result of the Renaissance and the cultural revival that it brought. Ancient texts by Greek philosophers, as well as Islamic medical and scientific texts, were rediscovered and translated (A History Of Modern Society, 520-521). Out of this environment was born the experimental method. This method of inquiry set standards for ways to measure and observe the natural world through testing and experimentation rather than speculation. Great scientists, such as Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler began to show Europe how the world was rather than how they thought it should be (A History of Modern Society, 524-525).
This then leads us back to Francis Bacon. An English politician and writer, he did much to promote the scientific method that is still the cornerstone of modern scientific inquiry. Specifically, Bacon advocated for direct experimental evidence to support (or refute) hypotheses and rejected the ancient views of Aristotle that favored conjecture and speculation. This was a viewpoint that, while not new, was not wholly accepted in England until after his death. Bacon believed that if a principle was not testable or observable, then the concept couldn’t hold water. Experimentation and cold, hard facts were what defined science for Francis Bacon; speculative reasoning from the time of Aristotle was not concrete or observable, and any ancient axioms should be reexamined and put to the rigors of his “experimental philosophy.” (A History of Western Society, 526-527)
Not all his contemporaries agreed with his ideas. Rene Descartes was a contemporary mathematician of Bacon’s, but he operated almost entirely in the realm of the unobservable. Descartes preferred to take what was naturally obvious and deduce mathematical principles from there. Using this method, he developed the field of analytical geometry, or the application of algebra to shapes (A History of Western Civilization, 526). Rather than being purely observable and testable, his theories were very much deduced through thought and speculation. Neither idea is, by itself, sufficient to meet the modern rigors of the scientific method. However, when combined they are an almost perfect model for the modern scientific community. Bacon’s reliance on concrete observable phenomenon had to be tempered with Descartes’ use of deductive reasoning before the modern experimental method was born.
To learn his ideas of what science should be, one need only turn to Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis.” It describes what Bacon might have considered to be a model society, a Utopia. In this story, Bacon goes to great lengths to describe the scientific community in Bensalem (this is the name Bacon chooses to give his ‘New Atlantis’). During the course of their stay the Narrator, possibly the Captain, is permitted an audience with the Father of Salomon’s House. In his own words, the goal of Salomon’s House is the “…knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things…” (Bacon, 71). Here, straight away, it is clear that this Foundation is, above all else, interested in the inner workings of all things. In other words, they are interested in science. This strikes a strong chord, considering that fact that this is Bacon’s idea of Utopia. Clearly, in his Utopia, the governing body is ultimately concerned with the way the world works.
This Father of Salomon’s House goes to great lengths to describe the ways and means of their scientific inquiry. For example, he states “We have also parks and inclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds…for dissection and trials; and thereby we may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man” (Bacon, 74). Here we can glean insight into why Bacon believes science is so crucial. The House of Salomon conducts these scientific trials on animals in order to learn more about how the human body functions. This, in turn, leads to a higher quality of life: “We have also certain chambers, which we call Chambers of Health, where we qualify the air as we think good…for the cure of divers diseases…We have also fair and large baths, of several mixtures, for the cure of disease, and the restoring of man’s body for arefaction…” (Bacon, 73). Through these trials, the citizens of Bensalem are able to stay vital and healthy far longer. Bacon was attempting to show his readers what they might gain from a rigorous study of science and nature.
From here, the Father continues to elaborate on all manner of their scientific inquiries and their final results. There are “ordinary” achievements, such as “…divers means, yet unknown to you, of producing of light originally from divers bodies …” (Bacon, 79) or “Imitat[ing] the flight of birds; we have some degrees of flying in the air” (Bacon, 80). “Ordinary” by our standards, yet in 1600 electricity and the light bulb had yet to be discovered, and the first manned flight wasn’t destined to occur for another three centuries. For Bacon, these things were the ultimate scientific goals that he could envision. Now, lest you think that all Bacon’s ideas were practically feasible (after all, birds can fly), let us review some of the more outlandish and perhaps magical achievements of the House Of Salomon. Examples such as “…means to make divers plants rise by mixtures of earths without seeds…” (Bacon 74) and making “…a number of kinds of serpents, worms, flies, fishes, of putrefaction, wherof some are…advanced (in effect) to be perfect creatures” (Bacon, 75). Yes, Bacon is speaking of spontaneous generation, the ancient theory that organisms can arise form nothing. Indeed, he seemed to envision that these scholars had achieved the animation of perfect life from death! Bacon shows us that for him, all things are possible under science.
Finally, the Father of Salomon’s House explains how they strive to incorporate not only what the House of Salomon discovers, but also all new inventions and ideas from around the globe. To that end, they have”…twelve that sail into foreign countries…who bring us the books, and abstracts, and patterns of experiments of all other parts” (Bacon, 81). It is clear that these men will go to any length to further their understanding of the way the world and the Universe work; they bear no prejudice against any people or any idea and simply strive to incorporate it into their own worldview. Striving for knowledge, for the sake of knowledge.
So, what does all this scientific progress mean for the rest of Bensalem? First off, there are limits to what ordinary citizens are allowed to know: “…we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not: and take all an oath of secrecy, for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret…” (Bacon, 82). Clearly, this is not a wholly free and open society. There is no free exchange of ideas between any who wish to contribute, nor are the people free to access all available knowledge and form their own opinions. It is clear that these members of the House of Salomon are the elite. No one is as revered as the Father, not even the Governor. The select number of people belonging to the House of Salomon are the privileged few who decide what people are told; they thereby gain a great deal of control over their people.
Aside from their studies into nature and the world, the House of Salomon is also very interested in destruction. “…to make them stronger, and more violent than yours are; exceeding your greatest cannons and basilisks. We represent also ordnance and instruments of war, and engines of all kinds: and likewise new mixtures of gun-powder…” (Bacon, 79-80). Clearly, this is not a peaceful society. Bacon seems to imply that the war machine and research into newer and deadlier weapons was necessary and good. This is, after all, his Utopia.
Bacon’s views on science are still very much relevant today, though they may perhaps be a tad quaint. Observation and experimentation are still very much at the heart of modern science. However, as scientific knowledge has advanced so has the complexity of the questions we are now trying to answer. Some natural phenomena are simply not easily observable. Consider Quantum Mechanics: the idea that particles behave differently when they are observed; the theory that electrons do not ‘orbit’ the nucleus of an atom, rather they teleport from one are of space to another area without any motion between. It takes more than a keen eye and careful study to know this. How would one know that the particle behaves differently when not being observed if under Bacon’s methods observation is crucial? As much as Bacon took us out of the box of ancient Greek thinking, he also put himself in another box, limited by the human powers of observation.
Perhaps one of the most crucial parts of science is the exchange of ideas. Rigorous scientific discourse and the free flow of knowledge, techniques, and ideas ensure that theories are put to the test until a general consensus is reached. Even religious ‘scientists’ who promote Intelligent Design as a scientific alternative to Evolution serve their purpose. It gives real scientists impetus to again and again find new evidence to support Evolution. In Bensalem, the House of Salomon restricts knowledge to a select few, and only these people are even qualified to discuss it. This is not how science is supposed to be conducted.
While there are several aspects of Bacon’s society that seem idyllic (ie health, peace, tolerance), I have several problems with it. I can only speak for myself, yet I envision a Utopian society that is not concerned with weapons and killing. I envision a society where a few old men don’t control what I am allowed to know, for knowledge is power. When a government restricts what its people can and cannot know, and by extension ensures that they and their policies remain in place through the ignorance of the people, then that regime has descended into Fascism. Now, for Francis Bacon this type of ignorance was in no way uncommon. Peasants were not educated and so (more or less) blindly followed the edicts and policies of their ‘betters.’ To me, this type of ignorance has no place in a Utopian Society. Indeed, it should have no place in a modern society, and most definitely is not appropriate for the proper advancement of scientific knowledge. I believe that most will agree that one of the basic principles that must govern a Utopia is the freedom of its citizens.
Finally, I find it curious that Bensalem should need any type of military or weaponry at all. Insofar as is related by the narrator, Bensalem is completely unknown to the rest of the world. It is clear that the inhabitants of Bensalem are very content to stay isolated, and seem to harbor no ill will to the new-comers and, by extension, the rest of the world. So I find myself asking once again, what need is there for such advanced and sophisticated weaponry? Why bother? I can only speculate that since this was “A Work Unfinished,” there may have been other details, which we will never know. Perhaps, past the three-mile limit the strangers are kept to, Bensalem is not the idyllic paradise we would like to believe it is.
Bacon, Francis, and Jerry Weinberger. New Atlantis and the Great Instauration. Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1989. Print.
Mckay, John P. History of Western Society. Boston: Bedford St Martin’s, 2011. Print.