Everybody Hates Francis Bacon, Part II

In the last post, I introduced Francis Bacon--chiefly via the New Atlantis--and described a very interesting, if ultimately perhaps too strong, feminist reaction. But it's as though some feminists are Bacon's only enemies.

Neoconservative bioethicists, for example, see Bacon as the place where it all started to go wrong. Leon Kass, the great granddaddy of this school, and first head of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, took Bacon to task in his 1985 book Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs, a polemic against many new reproductive and biomedical technologies. As Kass puts it:

...the ancients conceived of science as the understanding of nature, pursued for its own sake. We moderns view science as power, as control over nature; the conquest of nature "for the relief of man's estate" was the charge issued by Francis Bacon, one of the leading architects of the modern scientific project. (Leon Kass, Toward a More Natural Science, New York: Free Press, 1985, p. 27.)

And again, remarking upon our coming ability to alter the nature of human identity through genetic and biotechnological manipulation:

The advent of these new powers is not an accident; they have been pursued since the beginnings of modern science, when its great founders, Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, projected the vision of the mastery of nature. Indeed, such power over nature, including human nature, has been an explicit goal, perhaps the primary goal, of modern natural science for over three centuries, though the vision has materialized largely only in our own century. By all accounts, what we have seen thus far is only the beginning of the biological revolution. (Toward a More Natural Science, p. 2).

It's no coincidence, then, that a prominent conservative science and bioethics journal is ironically titled The New Atlantis. They wish we had never discovered this friggin' island.

We did discover it, though--and I'm of the opinion that blaming the founders of modern science for that fact is a bit pointless. We were always going to arrive here; and new technologies generally have both benefits as well as costs. Questioning four centuries of history is probably not the best way for weighing what those are.

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We did discover it, though--and I'm of the opinion that blaming the founders of modern science for that fact is a bit pointless. We were always going to arrive here; and new technologies generally have both benefits as well as costs. Questioning four centuries of history is probably not the best way for weighing what those are.

"We were always going to arrive here"

Really? You never struck me as *that* deterministic, Chris.

It wasn't a given that there would be a shift from trying to understand nature to trying to control it. The island that Bacon describes could well have been discovered by those seeking understanding, and choosing not to try and control or reshape things to their ends. Had this happened, the island would probably not look like what Bacon described.

Filter environmental perspectives through Bacon, how do they shake out? Would you still be as uncritical of Bacon's goals?

By David Bruggeman (not verified) on 10 Feb 2009 #permalink

Hi David,
Well, right, I imagine there are some writers on the environment who "hate Francis Bacon" too. I wonder who they are. That could be the third post in the series....

You could also take a look at Richard Rubenstein. He thinks that by attacking Aristotle, thinkers like Bacon "blanked out their medieval heritage," by which I think he means the medieval legacy of philosophical idealism that focused on characterological and ethical issues, which at one time were not as separate from "natural philosophy."

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 10 Feb 2009 #permalink

Regarding the assumptions of your last paragraph -
Mankind will not change our behavior in time without a dream as powerful as the technological enchantment which now afflicts us.

Thomas Berry: The Dream of the Earth. 1988

Very wide ranging. Read the review comments linked above for a limited sense of the book.