Jan 222021

Today is the birthday (1561) of Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban, Kt PC QC, English philosopher and statesman who served as Attorney General and as Lord Chancellor of England. His works are credited with developing the scientific method and remained influential through the scientific revolution. Bacon was the first recipient of the Queen’s Counsel designation, which was conferred in 1597 when Elizabeth I of England reserved Bacon as her legal advisor. After the accession of James VI and I in 1603, Bacon was knighted. He was later created Baron Verulam in 1618 and Viscount St. Alban in 1621. Because he had no heirs, both titles became extinct upon his death in 1626, at 65 years. Bacon died of pneumonia, with one account by John Aubrey stating that he had contracted the condition while studying the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat. He is buried at St Michael’s Church, St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Bacon’s development of the scientific method and his analysis of the weakness of using sacred texts, specifically Biblical references, to buttress claims concerning the nature of the world initiated the science versus religion debate/controversy which I have discussed at length here and elsewhere.  The scientific method as elucidated by Bacon has great strengths.  The Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Industrial Revolution made great strides in technology and in our understanding of how the natural world functions.  No argument.  But when it comes to arguing that the scientific method is the only avenue to knowledge, there I disagree. As it happens, the vast majority of scientists also disagree, but their stance has not filtered down into popular consciousness.

Bacon’s seminal work Novum Organum was influential in the 1630s and 1650s among scholars. According to Bacon, learning and knowledge all derive from the basis of inductive reasoning (observing first and then drawing conclusions). Through his belief in experimental encounters, he theorized that all the knowledge that was necessary to fully understand a concept could be attainable through induction. In order to get to the point of an inductive conclusion, one must consider the importance of observing the particulars (specific parts of nature). “Once these particulars have been gathered together, the interpretation of Nature proceeds by sorting them into a formal arrangement so that they may be presented to the understanding.” Experimentation is thus essential to discovering the basics of nature. An experiment tests an hypothesis, resulting in data from which a conclusion may be articulated. Building conclusion upon conclusion expands the understanding of the natural world. Bacon states that when we come to understand parts of nature, we can eventually understand nature better as a whole because of induction. Because of this, Bacon concludes that all learning and knowledge must be drawn from inductive reasoning.

During the Restoration, Bacon was commonly invoked as a guiding spirit of the Royal Society founded under Charles II in 1660. During the 18th-century French Enlightenment, Bacon’s non-metaphysical approach to science became more influential than the dualism of his French contemporary Descartes, and was associated with criticism of the ancien régime. In 1733 Voltaire introduced him to a French audience as the “father” of the scientific method, an understanding which had become widespread by the 1750s. In the 19th century his emphasis on induction was revived and developed by William Whewell, among others. As such, he was called the “Father of Experimental Philosophy”.

One of his biographers, the historian William Hepworth Dixon, states: “Bacon’s influence in the modern world is so great that every man who rides in a train, sends a telegram, follows a steam plough, sits in an easy chair, crosses the channel or the Atlantic, eats a good dinner, enjoys a beautiful garden, or undergoes a painless surgical operation, owes him something.” In 1902 Hugo von Hofmannsthal published a fictional letter, known as “The Lord Chandos Letter,” addressed to Bacon and dated 1603, about a writer who is experiencing a crisis of language.

Although Bacon’s works have been extremely influential, his argument falls short because observation and the scientific method are not useful on their own for every inquiry. Bacon takes the inductive method too far, as seen through one of his aphorisms which says, “Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature: Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.” As humans, we are capable of more than pure observation and can use deduction to form theories. In fact, we must use deduction because Bacon’s pure inductive method is incomplete. Thus, it is not Bacon’s ideas alone that form the scientific method we use today. If that were the case, we would not be able to fully understand the observations we make and deduce new theories. Author Ernst Mayr states, “Inductivism had a great vogue in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but it is now clear that a purely inductive approach is quite sterile.” Mayr points out that an inductive approach on its own just does not work. One could observe an experiment multiple times, but still be unable to make generalizations and correctly understand the results. Bacon’s inductive method is beneficial, but incomplete and leaves gaps. The inductive method can be seen as a tool used alongside other ideas, such as deduction, which now creates a method which is most effective and used today: the modern scientific method.

The obvious choice of recipe for a man named Bacon is to make your own bacon at home.  The process is not especially complex, although it does take time, and the ingredients can sometimes be difficult to procure.  Belly pork is the main ingredient, and supermarkets in the US do not always stock large slabs.  I used to have to make a trip into Chinatown in New York, but now that I live in Asia I am spoiled for choice – belly pork is a big favorite.  Bacon can be made by salt curing or smoking or both.  Salt curing involves making a dry rub of kosher salt plus other ingredients of your choice, rubbing them well into the belly pork, bagging up the product, and leaving the whole to mature refrigerated for around a week.  The pork can subsequently be cooked as is, or smoked.  The following video provides greater detail, and you can find numerous others on YouTube.