Novum Organum Summary

Francis Bacon

Novum Organum

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Novum Organum Summary

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English philosopher, scientist, and “Father of Empiricism,” Francis Bacon published Novum Organum Scientiarum in 1620. It is the second part of Bacon’s larger and mostly unfinished work, The Great Instauration, published in the same year. (Instauration is a synonym for restoration). Unfortunately, Bacon only finished Novum Organum, so many refer to the entire body of texts as Novum Organum.

The classic text was written in Latin and translates to English as “New Instrument of Science.” Bacon advocates for a reasoning process that relies on reduction and inductive reasoning, i.e., the verification of small facts before making larger, more abstract claims. This method of reasoning is the basis for the scientific method.

The themes of Novum Organum include the search for truth, the necessity of exploring the natural world, and the rejection of faulty mental reasoning. There are two books in Novum Organum; Bacon writes in hundreds of aphorisms – truthful observations—that build off of each other to defend his prime assertion. Also, by working from small-claiming to large-claiming observations, Bacon shows how inductive reasoning works.

Novum Organum opens with a preface from Bacon. He subtitles this work “true suggestions for the interpretation of nature.” Bacon intends this work to break up the rigid approach to science; too often academics rely on syllabi and curricula rather than truthfully following new knowledge.

The Ancient Greeks, for example, were willing to abandon their set of assumptions if they discovered new evidence that contradicted or expanded their previously believed theories. Bacon, who lived at the beginning of The Enlightenment, was living during a time when new technology provided new information that was necessarily going to rewrite old observations.

Bacon notes that his contemporary scientists often stop their own experiments if they sense that the new information might counteract the conclusions of ancient thinkers; Bacon counters this by saying the Greeks would be overjoyed to know their successors expanded their knowledge and proved them wrong!

In fact, the title of this work is meant to revise the thinking of the renowned Greek philosopher, Aristotle, whose followers collected his six treatises on logic under the title Organon, which means tool (presumably for thinking). Bacon, like renowned Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, believed that Aristotle’s methods were more concerned with proving one’s intellect than uncovering the truth about nature. Aristotle relied on deductive thinking too much, according to Bacon, and Bacon is determined to demonstrate why an inductive approach is superior to a deductive approach in this new age of scientific inquiry.

Much of book 1 deals with the removal of what Bacon calls “Idols.” Idols are assumptions about the truth of the world. This received knowledge is often from renowned sources, such as Aristotle and Plato. Bacon warns against the following Idols: the tribe (groupthink); the cave (personal biases); the market (an overreliance on words); the theater (received knowledge from famous sources). Unchecked, these Idols impede scientific progress.

In book one, “On the Interpretation of Nature, or the Reign of Man,” Bacon hopes to find a balance between trusting the senses and overreliance on mental processes that can be flawed. Nowadays, natural philosophy (the seventeenth century’s version of “science”) was overwhelmed by syllogisms.

Syllogism, which has had negative connotations since Bacon’s writing, is a form of deductive reasoning where several general statements are applied to a specific scenario to prove that that scenario is true. In Bacon’s opinion, it is a sloppy form of reasoning that allows for the acceptance of far too many erroneous proofs. People are less likely to have the same idea of a general concept, so conclusions based off of them are bound to be too various and subjective to be useful.

In book 2, “On the Interpretation of Nature and the Empire of Man,” Bacon opines that scientists adopt “true induction” (i.e. the scientific method) when studying nature. They can verify small assertions with experiments, before moving on to test future hypotheses. With inductive reasoning, scientists tend to deal with concrete phenomena. With deductive reasoning, scientists rely on words too much, which often have several connotations.

Bacon offers a detailed example of “true induction” by attempting to ascertain the form of heat. He begins by recording all instances of heat in the known world. He notes them in a table he calls “Table of Essence and Presence.” He also, unlike most scientists of his day, records the scenarios in which heat does not occur. This table he calls the “Table of Absence in Proximity.” Finally, he includes a “Table of Degrees.” By comparing all of this data, Bacon isolates the most relevant cases in which heat is present. This methodical and thorough approach then can be an accurate guide for scientists; it also encourages experiments that anyone can follow and replicate.

Bacon also criticizes his contemporary natural philosophers for relying on thought experiments rather than physical experiments. As Bacon has shown in his previous examples, man’s thinking process is often flawed, and he can be surprised by the ways of the world while working in a laboratory. Thus, it is vital for scientists to base their knowledge on real-world observations. Bacon shares the insight gleaned from his own experiments with the microscope; the information he found through the new tool could never be found in a thought experiment.

Bacon suggests that the knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology cannot be ascertained through rhetoric. Instead, direct experience is required for modern science to advance.