Michael Brannick, Sean McCloat
History of Physical Science
Francis Bacon: The Father of Empiricism
In his Novum Organum, Francis Bacon outlines a method of inquiry and reasoning which
is often regarded as the antecedent of the modern scientific method. Bacon’s method stressed the
use of accumulated data and inductive reasoning as the basis of a new natural philosophy with
which natural phenomena could be investigated. We investigate what influences events
contemporary to Bacon could have had on the development of his method. In particular, we
examine his interest in law and the similarities the legal system has with his empirical method,
along with legal reforms he proposed. We also examine what role Bacon had in the development
in the modern scientific method. Finally, we provide two simple experiments outlined in
Bacon’s Novum Organum as ways of demonstrating the Baconian method in a class setting.
These experiments, used by Bacon to show how useful his method could be, focused on
deciphering the true nature of heat.
During the years when Bacon was developing his method, he was involved in the legal
system of England as a statesman. Bacon was interested in the philosophy of law, rather than
practicing it as a lawyer. Many of Bacon’s thoughts on natural philosophy can be related to
concepts he formulated on legal philosophy. His opinions on the basic structure of the two
philosophies are extremely similar. Bacon’s whole inductive method is based on the idea of
rationality. Posthumously published papers he wrote during his time working in legal affairs
propose law reforms stressing laws which are rational and just. He argued that every law should
have some amount of reason behind it, just as he believed there must be reasonable evidence for
every natural phenomenon he observed. Furthermore, he believed that reason and rationality
should be the only authority a law needed; in the event that authorities differed on a law, the
rationality behind it would become the true authority required to enforce it. This again reflects
his method of induction which established natural laws based on reasonable inference rather than
religious, mythical, or historical authority.
Where Bacon’s law background had the most obvious influence on his inductive
method is in language used with his method. Most outstanding was Bacon’s application of the
word “fact” to situations of natural philosophy. Before Bacon, the phrase “matter of fact” was
used to refer to an event or situation which was not necessarily believed, but was capable of
being proven true through eyewitness testimonies in court. He applied this to his new natural
philosophy in which eyewitness observations from controlled experiments would establish true
facts about natural phenomena. In this way, facts of nature would be defined as natural events or
circumstances which could be corroborated by a first-hand testimony, just as facts of law or
history were determined by eyewitness testimony. Bacon is directly attributed with appropriating
the word fact from the fields of law and history and bringing it into the English scientific
revolution which occurred after his death.
The occult sciences were a great driving force behind Bacon developing his method.
Bacon was a firm believer in natural philosophy being able to benefit the public practically. This
viewpoint was similar to the ideas of contemporary occultists, who wanted to use nature for
practical ends. Bacon was interested in natural magic, which intended to manipulate nature in
order to reap practical benefits. This type of magic was not considered evil like black magic,
which depended on evoking demons and what-not. Bacon believed nature could only be
manipulated once its secrets were discovered and in order to do that, the true forms of nature
must be understood. This idea ties directly into Bacon’s natural philosophy which sought to
understand the true forms of nature.
Bacon, likely read the works of Giambattista Della Porta, a widely published
contemporary natural magician whose work was concerned with understanding phenomena.
More specifically, Della Porta performed experiments in which he imitated or replicated natural
phenomena in order to explain the specific qualities of those phenomena. These methods are
clearly very similar to Bacon’s experimental methods; it is possible that Bacon was greatly
influenced by Della Porta or other similar natural magicians.
While almost undoubtedly influenced by natural magic, Bacon was openly critical
of natural magic in his writings. He believed that many of the ideas of natural magic were more
based in human imagination rather than reason and logic. He especially denounced astrology and
alchemy for he believed them to have little to no understanding of the true forms of nature. In his
Advancement of Learning, Bacon states that understanding the true forms of nature is the true
goal of discovery. While he agreed with what the natural magicians sought to accomplish, he
could not comply with a system which was non-empirical.
Bacon’s goal in the Novum Organum was twofold: to point out the shortcomings of the
contemporary method of discovery and propose an alternative. Bacon’s criticism attacked three
kinds of “false philosophies”: the Sophistical, the Empirical, and the Superstitious. Aristotle
embodied the Sophistical: “For he had come to his conclusion before; he did not consult
experience, as he should have done, for the purpose of framing his decisions and axioms, but
having first determined the question according to his will, he then resorts to experience, and
bending her into conformity with his placets”. In contrast, Bacon praised the Pre-Socratic
philosophers over Aristotle because they conducted their speculations only after making (often
limited) observations of nature. Bacon criticized the Empirical philosopher who, although
willing to amass information through observation and experimentation, made the mistake of
“having bestowed much diligent and careful labor on a few experiments, have thence made bold
to educe and construct systems, wresting all other facts in a strange fashion to conformity
therewith.” By the Superstitious, Bacon meant the mixing of divine and supernatural causes with
the predictable processes of nature. This created an “unwholesome mixture of things human and
divine” which led to “a fantastic philosophy [and] also a heretical religion.” These errors of
contemporary philosophy were a species of Idols of the Theater: “And in the plays of this
philosophical theater you may observe the same thing which is found in the theater of the poets,
that stories invented for the stage are more compact and elegant, and more as one would wish
them to be, than true stories out of history.”
Francis Bacon sought to correct for the errors of his time by proposing a new systematic
method, consisting of regular processes and steps. In the Novum Organum, Bacon uses the
example of heat. The first step begins with the simple observation of natural phenomena, which
provides a foundation of facts and specific phenomena to investigate. The second step proceeds
with a reclassification of given instances of a phenomenon into three progressive lists, or
“Tables”. The initial table is called a “Table of Presence”, a broad, general list of “all known
instances which agree in the same nature, though in substances the most unlike”. For example,
heat is known to occur with the rays of the Sun, in lightning, in lava, and in all flame. The
secondary table is called the “Table of Absence”, a more detailed list of situations where similar
objects are involved, but the phenomenon does not occur. For example, while an open flame
generates heat and light, there are instances of light generation similar to flames which do NOT
produce heat, such as scraping sugar crystals and St. Elmo’s Fire.
The tertiary and final table is the “Table of Degrees”, a further developed list of where
the phenomenon occurs in a greater or lesser manner. For example, heat comes from the Sun,
but more heat is produced when the Sun is at the zenith. The third step in Bacon’s revised
method is then the exclusion or rejection of natures which are found not to belong to the form
under investigation. By nature, Bacon means qualities, like heat, brightness, weight. By form,
Bacon means “nothing more than those laws”… “which govern and constitute any simple
nature”. For example, because iron can get red hot without visibly expanding, we are to reject
expansion as the mechanism which generates heat.
In order to try and discover the true nature of heat, Bacon proposed an experiment based
on observations of sunlight through glass. He points to the difference in the temperature of more
equatorial regions, where sunlight is hitting the Earth at a nearly perpendicular angle, and more
northern regions, where the sunlight is hitting the Earth at less perpendicular angles. He proposes
that heat as carried by sunlight is more powerful when multiplied and combined. An experiment
that Bacon suggests, which could be easily replicated, is to use different shaped glasses and
examine their effects on the strength of the heat of sunlight. A convex lens could be used to
focus sunlight on to the hand of the user and then the strength of the heat could be heat could be
compared to the heat from sunlight as it is normally felt and also to sunlight being scattered by a
concave lens. People performing this experiment would be encouraged to look through the lenses
at a group of objects and make observations on whether the objects seem farther or closer apart
depending on the lens. Based on these observations, students would be encouraged to inductively
reason that since one lens makes objects appear closer, then that lens must also combine sunlight
and therefore heat (inversely for the other lens).
Another possible experiment that could be done in conjunction with the first would be to
compare heat from a flame and heat from boiling water. A flame could be lit and students could
observe the heat emanating from it by putting their hands near it. Students could be encouraged
to observe other properties of the flame, most importantly the light it gives off. Then a beaker of
water could be put over the flame and allowed to boil. Once the water was boiling, it could be
removed from the flame and the flame would be extinguished. Then students would make
observations on the boiling water. What they should notice is that the boiling water gives off heat
but no observable light. Based on their observations, and Bacon’s inductive reasoning model, the
conclusion should be that heat’s true form is not light. This experiment could be used as an
example of how Bacon’s methods could be misleading.
Francis Bacon wanted Man’s power to rise through the attainment and accumulation of
knowledge. He saw the future of man being a utopia of technology and practical invention, all
working to improve us as we improved them. While the Baconian method is not used today, his
mark upon how we conduct science today is unmistakable. His emphasis on the authority of
experience and observation of nature in order to discover laws – essentially empiricism – has
lasted through the centuries. Indeed, Bacon’s criticisms and admonitions of his contemporaries
are as timeless as they are timely in modern science – to beware of the Idols and biases we may
project into nature, and to remain objective in our pursuit of truth.
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