Beyond Baconianism: In Contest of “The Scientific Method”

Suppose I fancy to draw a triangle but I insist that the sum of its inner angles won’t make 180°. It may be that I came from across the tracks where convention instilled in me this curious geometrical dogma and, loyal to my kind, remain unwilling to relinquish it. Or suppose I want to sail to the Bahamas without leaving the Mainland, or set my glass of beer on reflection of the bar in the mirror in front of me. In each of these cases, I preclude fruition because of faulty presumptions. Mistaken premises failed to support true conclusions & I forfeit a vacation or spilled my IPA if I trusted them. Conscientious inquiry would reveal to me the connection between these errant notions and their unintended consequences. Nevertheless, I could also insist that my beliefs were sound & simply shrug the latter off as random happenstance.“What,” one might wonder, “is the meaning of these ludicrous hypotheses?” They serve as parables to illustrate the difficulties of modern scientific inquiry. Science today, like so many other movements through history, has gradually ossified from a living method into an institution, and has given up its ghost in the transformation. What remains after such a process is a skeleton of letters with little spirit to animate them. What is this spirit that science has forgotten? An investigation of its etymology origins may offer some insight into this question.

For centuries after its incipience, people referred to that discipline we now call “science” as “natural philosophy”—“natura philosophia:” “love of natural wisdom.” “Science” finds its derivation in the Latin word sciere, “to know.” How does the scientist come “to know” according to this tradition? British bigot & aristocrat Francis Bacon, whom Voltaire already in hailed in 1733 as “the father of scientific method,” delineated the relevant method in his 1620 work Novum Organum Scientiarum. In it, he famously codified the procedure for scientific inquiry in the Empirical tradition. The former consists in (1) formulating an hypothesis, (2) verifying or falsifying the latter according to empirical observation and measurement, & finally (3) drawing conclusions according to the results by inductive reason—reasoning from particular to general. This may appear so straightforward as to be almost obvious. Indeed I remember myself as a somewhat disappointed seventh grader when the actual method failed to live up to the expectations in my mind that such a lofty name as “the scientific method” had kindled.

Nevertheless, that the scientific method as Bacon described it appears self-evident is only evidence that it confirms our intellectual prejudices, which are more congenial to us than is saltwater to the Atlantic herring. That it seems self-evident demonstrates that it is common, not necessarily that it is true. Indeed, familiarity dulls our perception—a fact proven by its obverse in the idiom “wide-eyed with wonderment.” We might indeed recall the exchange between the eponymous Dane & Horatio in the final act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.”

“‘Tis e’en so: the hand of little employment hath
the daintier sense.”

When we take something to be ordinary, we generally cease to notice it. The process of desensitisation cooks frogs in gradually-warming waters and has allowed error to masquerade as truth. In this manner, aberrant epistemological precepts have surreptitiously infiltrated our modern worldview & replaced true understanding, which has been boiled away like the poor amphibians exposed to the contingencies of global warming. The narcotic efficacy of convention has grandfathered-in a faulty metaphysics that we now employ as the foundation for our all of our physics & diversified sciences, not to mention our everyday relationship with the world. Woe unto us, who in our pitiable judgement “shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand.”

Let us again examine the Baconian method in an attempt to identify the hidden preconceptions that prowl the bowels of this intellectual edifice. We may trace backwards the thread of Bacon’s formulation in an attempt to slay this metaphysical Minotaur and deliver Ariadne (whose true name is the “Sophia,” “Wisdom”) from the former’s endemic epistemic tyranny. We begin with (3) the conclusions that the scientist draws by inductive reasoning. From what evidence, we may ask, does she induce these conclusions? From (2) those measurements which she gathered through empirical observation of the phenomenon in question. According to our conventional understanding, this is tantamount to a subject (i.e. Herr Doktor Wissenschaftsman—the scientist) performing measurements on an external object. In this way, the former ostensibly acquires knowledge about Nature, which we might also call “the physical universe” or “reality.” That this paradigm seems so self-evident is, in fact, the tragic irony of our age. We can begin to intuit both the fundamental error of this model, as well as its pernicious effects, when we consider this expression by the patriarch of our scientific tradition:

My only earthly wish is… to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds… [Nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets….

I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave… the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.

This is a nasty inheritance indeed. Though as native westerners and to this manner born, we at The Lizard-Press feel it to be “a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.” We feel indeed that it befalls us as moral obligation to decry this perverted Faustian impulse that Bacon so strikingly exemplifies; to denounce it as one of the great iniquities of Western civilisation. Furthermore, our naïve acceptance of this sentiment is responsible for the environmental degradation that has geometrically increased in the centuries since he penned those words. It furthermore falls upon us, as journalistic mandate, to expose the essential ignorance at the heart of Bacon’s insidious model.

Bacon’s declaration presents a sensationalised* expression of his essential method. The latter, to reiterate, consists in rending an object of inquiry from the womb of Nature, performing measurement upon it to accumulate data, & finally cooking the latter in the retort of inductive reason to extract an universal conclusion. The crucial error of this method is that it takes the metaphysical distinction between subject & object (or the epistemic difference between knower & known) to be more than a convention of thought. The crucial consequence of this method is that it engenders exploitation of the world around us.

Let us begin with a consideration of the first point. The spirit of science is a quest for knowledge. But this statement must be qualified, for the object of science is knowledge of a particular category: namely, knowledge about reality. Counterfactual truth we do not call “science” but rather “art.” To obtain knowledge of the relevant sort, the scientist, with fealty to the Baconian method, isolates a particular object from reality & then, as a separate subject, measures it. Both divisions, however, are illusory. I am the butterfly I have pinned to my slide & now observe from behind my microscope: we are both participants in the same momentaneously quivering cosmos. This sounds mystical but it is also factual; reality as reality is ultimately indivisible. Naturally we can make rough measurements when, by artifice of thought, instrument, & method, we quarantine one drop of this unity from the greater ocean. But this is a sort of empirical calculus that will approach truth as a limit but never achieve it. This is why the ultimate constituents of matter, for example, keep receding from our grasp in proportion to technological sharpening of our instruments—from atoms to electrons, to quarks & gluons; reality tantalisingly dances just beyond our grasp for the same reason a net cannot ensnare itself & a dog never catches its own tail even if it’s a greyhound and no matter how fast it runs. Reality eludes us because we are it. Subject & object—knower & known—are merely antipodes of a single sphere whose centre is everywhere. This supernal sphere has qualities, not quantities; the latter represent a mistaken reification of the former; matter itself is an abstraction from qualities in consciousness. It has been the cardinal error of science to reverse this relationship.

This epistemic error begets multitudinous moral ones. To metaphysically pit subject against object engenders physical consequences. To hold the latent conception of Man as subject as distinct from Nature as object is to acidify the world’s oceans, pollute her atmosphere, decimate her rainforests, frack her geologic husk, etc…. That they are inadvertent does not exculpate us of these malefices; our complacency is to be complicit in these evils. Furthermore, to conceive that the distinction between self & other is more than a conventional consensual delusion provides a basis for all other moral transgression under the sun. Even fiends & masochists perpetrate this error when they objectify and then transgress against their own persons. The whole affair is a catastrophe just under the hood of our social mechanism, barrelling down the tracks of history towards the cliffs of cataclysm with the inertia of an inanimate freight-train. A similar insight likely led William Blake to declare that:

Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death.

But the world includes both life & death. We must not, therefore, strive to suppress the latter in our philosophy. Sir Francis Bacon himself indicates, in aphorism 46 of the very work wherein he presents “the scientific method,” the difficulty of this enterprise when he describes the manner in which we cling to our petrified beliefs & the doggèd momentum which our thought-process obtain:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

But Bacon warns against such latent dogmatism in aphorism 70:

Demonstratio longe optima est experientia.

But the best demonstration by far is experience.

Here the spirit of science may expose the errors of Science as an institution and ultimately rise triumphant. In the final measure, though he obliquely suggests it, Francis Bacon is too analytic to offer a full, living alternative to the desiccate tradition that we have inherited. It is our good fortune, however, that another thinker has offered the West a true cure for this cancer. The former is a genius who intuits, as it were, that Blake’s two trees share a single taproot & form therefore, in subterranean confederacy, a common grove. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Romantic poet & polymath, describes a new method, a participatory science. We can allow his words to speak for themselves:

If we want to behold nature in a living way, we must follow her example and becomes as mobile and malleable as nature herself.

…my thinking is not separate from objects; that the elements of the object, the perceptions of the object, flow into my thinking and are fully permeated by it; that my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception.

There is a delicate empiricism that makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory

In contrast to Bacon’s chauvinistic appeal, Goethe’s “delicate empiricism” is a sunrise in the very winter of our discontent.

*In this regard, Sir Francis Bacon serves as a sacrificial scapegoat of sorts; a symbol of Western man’s iniquity against its primordial Mother. Here we must discriminate between the individuality called “Francis Bacon” and Francis Bacon as a figurehead of scientific chauvinism.

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