July 26, 2007


It's interesting that two thinkers widely recognized for launching modern scientific thought had opposite ideas on where to proceed.

I'm thinking about Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626). As Steven L. Goldman points out in his Teaching Company lecture series "Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It," the contrast could hardly be sharper.

For Bacon, the mind was the problem. We are all to eager to concoct theories and explanations of reality at the drop of a hat. He wrote some interesting essays on "the idols of the mind." These included

*the idols of the tribe, or common human fallacies;

*the idols of the cave, or our own private hobby-horses;

*the idols of the marketplace, or false conceptions derived from popular phrases and ideas (memes?); and

*the idols of the theatre, or prejudices derived from older philosopical systems and received wisdom.

He advocated instead a disciplined approach based on observation, experience and induction, a slow collection of facts that would lead to sure knowledge.

It sounded good at the time, and was probably a needed antidote to stale scholasticism, but science doesn't seem to work that way now, and didn't at the time, either.

Next time: Descartes and the Matrix.

SPEAKING OF SCIENCE, Pope Benedict XVI is talking sense. He called the creation/evolution clash "an absurdity,"

This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.

He also noted that evolution doesn't answer all questions: “Above all it does not answer the great philosophical question, ‘Where does everything come from?’”

And he once again drew attention to global climate change:

We all see that today man can destroy the foundation of his existence, his Earth... We cannot simply do what we want with this Earth of ours, with what has been entrusted to us.

TO YOUR HEALTH...AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE. These days stating the obvious is pretty important. Here's an item about what's missing in discussions of health:

The public generally believes that poor lifestyle choices, faulty genes and infectious agents are the major factors that give rise to illness. Here's the rest of the story.

Research now tells us that lower socio-economic status may be more harmful to health than risky personal habits...

The rest is worth a look.



Brecht said...

Hello, El Cabrero,
I've been off to see my family for a couple of weeks (and Seattle, Crater Lake, giant redwoods and San Francisco).

I've always liked Bacon for the lovely opening sentence: "What is Truth, said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer."

It looks like your Bacon/Descartes dichotomy is heading for Aristotle/Plato territory. Have you read Isaiah Berlin's 'The Hedgehog and the Fox'?

Nice to see the infallible pope making sense, for a change.

El Cabrero said...

I did, as a matter of fact. That's about as far as I've got through a big Berlin book.

Sounds like you were in some nice country! I'd like to head west at some point.

maplehouse said...

Fellow Teaching Company addicts can now view Yahoo groups and phpbb forums:

A forum on each individual lecture in all recent courses:

My posts in Robert Hazen's "Origins of Life" forum:

Some of my new Yahoo groups:

Doug van Orsow