A Brief Summary
The Bad-Asses Of The Scientific Revolution
Bacon, Descartes, and Locke’s Philosophies Rocked Europe
At the tail end of the Baroque period in Europe, scientists and philosophers developed new ideas which challenged the conventional religious teachings of their time.
As Fiero points out (112), “The Scientific Revolution was not entirely sudden, nor were its foundations exclusively European.” In fact, the Scientific Revolution stretches amongst many generations, and deals not only in the academia of Science, but also shaped, and continues to shape, government policy.
Just as Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism had governed European people for hundreds of years prior, the Scientific Revolution introduces a “new form” of “religion” to dictate the actions of policymakers to come. This religion, what they claim to be secularism.
In secularism, men now saw their ability to shape their futures. They didn’t have to die of sickness, so long as created the right medicines. Quarrels didn’t have to escalate if they created the right policies (absent of moral/religious code, if need be). The character of men did not have to be tainted, so long as they were put ample surroundings.
Individualism skyrocketed and additional members of society now had a say. In this way, the themes of the Protestant Reformation continued to escalate.
In the arts, more women artists were successfully painting. In music, more secular ‘pleasurable’ music was being produced. Power in Europe was shifting westward with countries such as England, France and the Netherlands gaining influence over their religiously rooted Italian counterparts.
Likewise, new voices of reason arose in Western Europe. Most notable were Francis Bacon (1561–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650) and John Locke (1632–1704). Their writings addressed key questions on the nature of God, how truthful information is to be gathered, and the role of traditional practices relating to religion in their new society. The fundamental writings of these three men have continued to shape not only science but politics to this day.
As both a politician and scientist, Englishman Francis Bacon who lived from 1561 to 1626 had a knack for inciting controversy.
Unlike his predecessors who based much of their beliefs of nature exclusively through religious texts or from the works of classical thinkers such as Aristotle, Bacon advocated objectivity and the use of inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning takes concrete information, to create broad generalizations, through sensory experience.
In his publication Novum Organum (translates to “New Method”), Bacon described man as, “…being the servant and interpreter of Nature…”. This contradicted the commonly held religious belief that man is born subduing the Earth. Rather, Bacon suggests that human beings can eventually become masters of Nature, so long as they analyze it through inductive reasoning.
As if this wasn’t radical enough, Bacon also goes on to declare that humans are controlled by 4 ‘idols’ which, as Fiero puts it on page 115, “…hinder[s] clear and objective thinking.” These 4 ‘idols’ are Idols of the Tribe (human nature), Idols of the Cave (education and background), Idols of the Marketplace (association) and Idols of the Theatre (social, political and religious philosophies).
Bacon, in turn, challenges the principal beliefs of not only people but communities and governments. In his works, he actively encourages his readers to not blindly follow the teachings of others but to form their own conclusions and challenge conventional thought. In these radical statements, it is manifest that Bacon was not just any scientist, but too, a politician.
This is all not entirely in the name to completely destroy the religious institution in England. Bacon considered himself an Anglican. Rather, he was ‘preaching’ the ideals of what makes an individualized, wise and well-rounded man (similar to Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics).
To reach this point, he encouraged men to observe carefully and read diligently. In Of Studies from Bacon’s Essays, he writes to this point,
“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”
In this essay, Bacon describes some of the key steps in becoming this ‘ideal man’. While reading had become a symbol of leisure and pleasure in this time period, Bacon changes the narrative by describing books, too, as a form of, “…practical knowledge and power.” (Fiero 116)
Bacon’s efforts in advocating objectivity and unhindered individualism helped shape the Scientific Revolution in profound, lasting ways. His works heavily have influenced the methods used by scientists today, and shape everyday decision-making for much of the Western world.
Within Bacon’s lifespan, there lived a Jesuit-raised man named René Descartes (1596–1650) in France, who is widely regarded as the founder of modern Western philosophy (Fiero 117).
Unlike Bacon, Descartes embraced the Greek “quest” (as Fiero puts it) to discover how one knows what one knows. He championed a procedure called deductive reasoning which compliments Bacon’s inductive reasoning.
Descartes describes this process in his writing Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences. This advocated that truth can only be found by funneling broad, doubtful ideas into smaller, perfected truths. Descartes thereby questioned every fact he knew, and began at the top of this ‘funnel’.
This quest included calling into question many of the ‘idols’ Bacon addresses in his Novum Organum referencing community and religion. The first undeniable truth he concluded was in his ‘existence as a thinking individual’ (Fiero 117).
Descartes is credited for the quote, “I think, therefore I am” which comes from his Discourse on Method (Part IV). In his Discourse on Method (Part IV) he explores how the truths he had deduced, fit into a larger, existential paradigm. Descartes writes,
“…I must assume as a general rule, that the things which we conceive very clearly and distinctly are all true…I resolved to inquire whence I had learnt to think of anything more perfect than I myself was; and I recognized very clearly that this conception must proceed from some nature which was really more perfect.”
This nature that was more perfect is a reference to God’s perfection which had created a world traced with perfectionism. Descartes is hesitant to identify God as the one found in the Bible, but rather agnostically identified that there must be something more that had created all truth and all forms of perfection.
Fiero writes, “…he shared with many seventeenth-century intellectuals the view that God was neither Caretaker nor personal Redeemer. Instead, Descartes identified God with ‘the mathematical order of nature.’”.
As a philosopher, Descartes channeled his efforts into discovering the truths that could not be ‘proved’ through experiments (like Bacon attempted) but rather confirmed in “self-evident” propositions and a rationalism that echos the works of Plato (Fiero 118).
Descartes’ writing on the idea of ‘mathematical order’ and perfection continue in much of his works. Overarching, his branch of philosophy states that if a form of perfectionism exists in this world, a truly perfect being or force must exist (Fiero 118).
About 70 years after Bacon is born, John Locke (also from England) is born (1632–1704). Locke is heavily influenced by Bacon’s belief that everything one knows derives from sensory experience. Locke defines experience as a two-part process: first, the experience sensation, and second, the reflection (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690). In this essay, he writes,
“Let us then suppose that the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished?”
He can only find one word to explain this phenomenon: experience — the type of multi-step experience described above. Much like a modern computer, the brain is described as constantly compiling information and readjusting actions based on such data. Knowledge is continuously being absorbed.
In Locke’s view, knowledge does not associate with morality and therefore religion and fact can contradict themselves. Religion, in fact, can taint the knowledge written on our ‘blank paper’. Since we are born with a ‘blank slate’ Locke suggests that man, “…has not an idea in his mind…” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding) and cannot conceive original thoughts.
In a way, this statement echoes the works of Descartes. Both believe the good in themselves do not come from within themselves, but rather from an outside force.
Locke, unlike Descartes, advocates that improving the social climate of a space, can directly perfect the human condition. Locke, therefore, views perfectionism as achievable through the advancement of human institutions and policy — not through Godly understanding.
As a philosopher, Locke’s ideals contributed heavily to the forming of government ideals across the Western world (most notably, the United States). Not surprisingly, this made Locke the father of eighteenth-century liberalism (Fiero 119).
This view also happens to contradict the philosophies of Descartes, who viewed perfectionism as a static state — a being in the form of God. Liberalism, therefore, becomes a form of secularism, viewing religion as another outside force that attempts to shape men, and thereby attempts to weed out the religious tones that had much influence on politics before.
The works of Francis Bacon, René Descartes and John Locke produce very different questions and very starkly different answers.
While Bacon and Locke share an advocacy for sensory experience, Descartes finds this practice useless. While Bacon and Descartes explore the research of nature, whether that be natural or divine, Locke rejects these dependent forces of their power and preaches candid individualism. Bacon, Descartes, and Locke successfully blur the lines between secularism, religion and science in a period of time where such questions were scarcely asked.
Since the Protestant Reformation in Europe, human forces had considered humanity as wicked and unredeemable without God’s grace. With the advancement of scientific reasoning and the widespread publication of ideas thanks to the printing press, human progressiveness exponentially sped up.
Instead of letting ‘things’, in all forms, happen to humanity, revolutionary thinkers proposed ways to advance humanity — in essence becoming more like gods themselves.
Bacon suggested the observation of the natural world in order to subdue it. Descartes suggested understanding the nature of perfection in order to become more like it. Locke suggests creating a utopian environment, to create perfect people. These suggestions only produced more questions and for some, confusion.
Scientific questions became philosophical questions. Philosophical questions became social questions. And social questions became religious questions. These three voices developed answers for the future that still impact policy in the Western world today.
Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanist Tradition: The European Renaissance, the Reformation, and Global Encounter. Book 3. 7th edition, Seminole State College, Renaissance/Baroque Humanities, McGraw Hill, 2015.