A theological blog 12 ii 19. Bacon and value-free science

In Catholic theology God is within the universe and matter is alive because it is deeply animated by the divine presence.  But the trial of Galileo killed Catholic science, with the consequence the science moved north and became a virtually wholly Protestant enterprise.  In this theology, God is outside the universe and matter coagulated lumps of dead and inert stuff – corpuscles in the language of seventeenth century science – mobilized by abstract laws of nature that God had imposed on the universe.  The methodology of science now became the Baconian method, first enunciated by Francis Bacon – value-free collection of data, hypothesis, experiment and peer review. The great virtue of this way of doing science was, supposedly, that it was value-free, allowing scientific facts to be true simply because they had been proved to be so.  That such discovered truths should support a Protestant view of nature, instead of the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of Medieval Catholicism, only went to show how right the Protestant view was.

In fact, Bacon’s supposedly value-free collection of data was anything but value-free, because it took it for granted that matter is only dead stuff in no way animated by mind. Any evidence otherwise was overlooked and not even seen, because scientists were thinking, as they generally do, within what Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,  has called  a paradigm, in this case that of Protestant theology.  On this view, there is a sharp distinction between matter and mind, nature exists simply for the glory of God and the service of man and has no rights or values of its own.  Bacon explains to us that one of the consequences of the Fall was that nature escaped from the dominion of man, roaming wild and untethered.  Now, with the rise of science, it is being brought back within the dominion and service of mankind, as God had originally intended. Thus far from being value free, science is a holy enterprise.  In Bacon’s view, it is recalcitrant and must be dominated, plundered and tortured like a witch to reveal its secrets.

“For like as a man’s disposition is never well known or proved till he be crossed, nor Proteus ever changed shape till he was straitened and held fast, so nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art than when left to herself”.  “…to bind her to your service and make her your slave”.   “By the hand of man nature can be squeezed and molded out of her natural state”.  For Bacon the laboratory is a torture chamber and his imagery often sexual.  Woman by her nature is froward and sinful and must be brought by discipline back into the orbit of male sexual power, and, like woman, nature must be tortured like a witch.  “Likewise for the further disclosure of the secrets of nature…neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object” (I have taken these quotations from Carolyn Marchant’s book The Death of Nature).

 Although in his book Kuhn was careful to point out that his thesis applied only to scientific ways of looking and thinking, the history of science tells us that scientists are also influenced in their choice and interpretation of data by more general cultural attitudes, perhaps unconsciously, and discard evidence not simply because it is irrelevant but because it does  not fit within those unquestioned values they take for granted.  If Galileo had been collecting data in the Baconian manner, any evidence that beauty is part of the truth of science,  that mathematics is not only a descriptive language but a causal force,  or that there are immaterial dimensions to reality of which material things are the imperfect expressions, as his beloved Plato taught, would have been keenly noted.  If he had been alive today, how contemporary physics would have kept his notebook busy.  But Bacon never even thought to look for such evidence.

Bacon’s attitude has come right down into contemporary science.  We still think of nature not as a beautiful companion with whom we have enquiring conversations, but an inert body of matter we force to give up its secrets through experiment and analysis.  But could nature be the loving mother of humankind and all other forms of life that have poured from her womb, to be known through poetry as much as revealed by science? It is a long time since we have been capable of even asking such a question.  We should at least ask it.  It is a blindness that lies behind our present environmental crisis.  Since we have tortured nature for so long, is nature now going to torture us?  The classical tragedians would certainly have gone along with that thought.







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