Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Francis Bacon Rebutted

Francis Bacon (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626)
Francis Bacon (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626) was a leading thinker of his day and pioneer of the scientific method. His essay "Of Atheism" is frequently cited, usually uncritically, by theologian and Christian apologists.

Let's examine it, especially to see how a leading thinker and advocate of scientific methodology, was none the less a child of the times, and was constrained by the limitations of knowledge and understanding of the times, not to mention the political realities within which he operated.
I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind. And therefore, God never wrought miracle, to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it.
Bacon might well have rather believed the the 'universal frame' has a mind but then he knew little or nothing of modern science especially cosmology, Relativity including gravity, or Quantum Theory. He knew little or nothing of the chaos which characterises the underlying structure of the cosmos nor of Chaos Theory which explains how structure and order is an emergent property of it, especially when given direction by gravity.

Instead, baffled by the apparent order and appearance of design, Bacon opted for the only theory which seemed to explain it - a god did it. As we shall see in a moment, Bacon's understanding of how the world was constructed was primitive, to say the least.

In reality, Bacon was opting for the God of the Gaps and the argument from ignorance: because he couldn't understand it he assumed it was not understandable and therefore needed something to fill that gap. And of course there was only one god allowed. The penalty for suggesting another one was death.
It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them, confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity.
So, the more you think about it the more ignorant you realise you are and so the bigger the gap you discover to fit your preferred god in. It's hard to believe it would not have occurred to Bacon that this same argument can be used for ANY god of your choice, but he would have been acutely aware of the dangers of saying so.
Nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion; that is, the school of Leucippus and Democritus and Epicurus. For it is a thousand times more credible, that four mutable elements, and one immutable fifth essence, duly and eternally placed, need no God, than that an army of infinite small portions, or seeds unplaced, should have produced this order and beauty, without a divine marshal.
Four mutable elements and one immutable fifth essence?

Bacon's false conclusions are probably best explained by this revelation of the limitations of scientific knowledge of the times. How on earth could he have understood the universe when viewing it through this inadequate telescope?

Personally, I would be acutely embarrassed if as a modern Christian apologist, I was reduced to relying on the thinking of someone with such limited understanding of reality, no matter how learned and brilliant he may have been, but considerations of this sort seem to matter not to the present generation of religious apologists.
The Scripture saith, The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God; it is not said, The fool hath thought in his heart; so as he rather saith it, by rote to himself, as that he would have, than that he can thoroughly believe it, or be persuaded of it. For none deny, there is a God, but those, for whom it maketh that there were no God.
It looks like Bacon is here giving his appreciative audience a simplistic slogan to use in lieu of thought. He knew the Bible as well as anyone and would have been fully aware of the dire risks of calling someone a fool given in Matthew 5:22 for those who chose to believe it, but he chose to ignore it.

And of course he was, or should have been, aware of the logical fallacy of the circular reasoning involved in quoting the Bible in support of the Bible, as well as the a priori assumption of the Biblical god's existence as an argument for it's existence.

One wonders if currying favour with the political establishment of the times was a factor in Bacon's apparent abandonment of reason here.
It appeareth in nothing more, that atheism is rather in the lip, than in the heart of man, than by this; that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it, within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened, by the consent of others. Nay more, you shall have atheists strive to get disciples, as it fareth with other sects. And, which is most of all, you shall have of them, that will suffer for atheism, and not recant; whereas if they did truly think, that there were no such thing as God, why should they trouble themselves?
Whereas Bacon, and religious clerics, who spend their time and earn their living by talking of their opinion and would be glad to be strengthened by the consent of others, have nothing to explain of course.

And why would an advocate of the scientific method object so strongly to people expressing opposing ideas? Is he betraying here a fear that Atheists may be right and might be raising objections to Christianity which are hard to counter?

Is Bacon here giving Christianity 'permission' to repress and persecute opposition because he can't counter them by honest discourse, facts and reason?
Epicurus is charged, that he did but dissemble for his credit’s sake, when he affirmed there were blessed natures, but such as enjoyed themselves, without having respect to the government of the world. Wherein they say he did temporize; though in secret, he thought there was no God. But certainly he is traduced; for his words are noble and divine: Non deos vulgi negare profanum; sed vulgi opiniones diis applicare profanum. [Not profane to deny the gods of the common people, but the gods of the common people to apply profane opinions.] Plato could have said no more. And although he had the confidence, to deny the administration, he had not the power, to deny the nature.
It's difficult to know what Bacon was driving at here other than that the Atheist views of ancient philosophers shouldn't be trusted because they spoke of gods. Of course, none of them spoke of the Christian god but Bacon seems to be clutching at straws here.

Of course, talking of gods is no more an acceptance of their existence than is a Christian talking of Greek or Roman gods an acceptance of their existence.

It's hard to believe Bacon was fooling himself with this 'logic', which begs the question of just whom he was seeking to fool..
The Indians of the West, have names for their particular gods, though they have no name for God: as if the heathens should have had the names Jupiter, Apollo, Mars, etc., but not the word Deus; which shows that even those barbarous people have the notion, though they have not the latitude and extent of it. So that against atheists, the very savages take part, with the very subtlest philosophers.
So believing in any god is the same as believing in the Christian one? And we can trust the ill-informed and ignorant opinions of 'barbarous savages' when it comes to matters of a god's existence?

More pandering to the political establishment? That is the more charitable view to the alternative of Bacon abandoning reason.
The contemplative atheist is rare: a Diagoras, a Bion, a Lucian perhaps, and some others; and yet they seem to be more than they are; for that all that impugn a received religion, or superstition, are by the adverse part branded with the name of atheists. But the great atheists, indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end.
Blimey! Almost the 'No True Scotsmen' fallacy! Bacon is now arguing that Atheists aren't really Atheists so they must be hypocrites. And so they deserve to be 'cauterized in the end', in other words, burned at the stake or at least thrown into Hellfire.

More permission for the authorities to repress and persecute those with opposing views?
The causes of atheism are: divisions in religion, if they be many; for any one main division, addeth zeal to both sides; but many divisions introduce atheism. Another is, scandal of priests; when it is come to that which St. Bernard saith, non est jam dicere, ut populus sic sacerdos; quia nec sic populus ut sacerdos.[now is not to say the people are as with priests; the priests are as with the people] A third is, custom of profane scoffing in holy matters; which doth, by little and little, deface the reverence of religion. And lastly, learned times, specially with peace and prosperity; for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion.
So Atheists are not genuine but they're up to something. They are trying to cause schisms, expose scandalous behaviour in priests and to 'deface the reverence of religion' by scoffing at it.

Bacon offers no reason why Atheists should be doing these things. Instead he is trying to raise people's suspicions and paranoias, as a propagandist would. And just who is he aiming his written propaganda at if they think exposing the scandalous behaviour of priests is a bad thing? Hmm... I wonder who was capable of reading in those days...
They that deny a God, destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts, by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God, by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature. It destroys likewise magnanimity, and the raising of human nature; for take an example of a dog, and mark what a generosity and courage he will put on, when he finds himself maintained by a man; who to him is instead of a God, or melior natura; which courage is manifestly such, as that creature, without that confidence of a better nature than his own, could never attain. So man, when he resteth and assureth himself, upon divine protection and favor, gathered a force and faith, which human nature in itself could not obtain.
Again the words of a propagandist, not those of a seeker after truth. Bacon has resorted the the God of Personal Necessity Fallacy which argues that there must be a god, and that god must be the locally popular one because otherwise I wouldn't be justified in my anthropocentric arrogance. In effect, he's arguing that a god is obliged to exists because he lives in a compliant, anthropocentric universe which exists solely for man to live in, and this universe requires a god.

This argument of course appealed to those at whom it was aimed in the 17th Century just as it appeals to those at whom it is aimed in the 21st.
Therefore, as atheism is in all respects hateful, so in this, that it depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself, above human frailty. As it is in particular persons, so it is in nations. Never was there such a state for magnanimity as Rome. Of this state hear what Cicero saith: Quam volumus licet, patres conscripti, nos amemus, tamen nec numero Hispanos, nec robore Gallos, nec calliditate Poenos, nec artibus Graecos, nec denique hoc ipso hujus gentis et terrae domestico nativoque sensu Italos ipsos et Latinos; sed pietate, ad religione, atque hac una sapientia, quod deorum immortalium numine omnia regi gubernarique perspeximus, omnes gentes nationesque superavimus.[Which roughly translates as: We know better that all those foreigners and even the locals. Our religion is right and bestest so there!]
This isn't the work of a brilliant philosopher using the scientific method to prove there must be a god and that the only possible god is the Christian one. This is the work of someone busking it as a political propagandist in early 17th Century England. Bacon knew which side his bread was buttered and was trying to curry favour with the establishment of the day and to avoid the pitfall of saying anything which could be considered blasphemous, so solving his domestic heating problem for life.

Bacon makes sense in the context of the political, scientific and religious history of the times; a context which renders it useless for the purpose which Christian apologist try to use it today, almost certainly without having read it.


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  1. "I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind. "

    This is the bias towards personification, or anthropomorphization. There should be a better name for it. It's a well-known cognitive bias: seeing humanlike intent everywhere, assuming that "someone did it" and that they did it for a reason. Perhaps it evolved due to humans being social animals.

    1. Agreed. It may make you feel good but it doesn't make it true.


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