Reflections on Biblical and
Christian Philosophy

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The Impact of Francis Bacon and Thomas Reid in History and on Christendom

 

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

 

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

 

René Descartes (1596-1650)

 

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

 

John Locke (1632-1704)

 

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) 

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

George Berkeley (1685-1753)

 

David Hume (1711-1776)

 

Thomas Reid (1710-1796)

 

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

 

The listed historical figures will give a perspective for the life and times of Francis Bacon.

 

Baconian Philosophy.  “The empiricist tradition dominating much of English thought was gripped by the hopes for dramatic advances in knowledge promised by the scientific method described by Francis Bacon.  Newton symbolized the spectacular fulfillments of such promises.  For a time this vision of reality was so compelling and the possibility of human advance so promising that few would challenge it.  In the early nineteenth century this vision persisted especially in America.  ‘The Baconian philosophy,’ said Edward Everett in 1823, ‘has become synonymous with the true philosophy.’[1]  So great was the reverence in America among scientists, theologians, and most academics for this ideal that a recent historian’s phrase, ‘the beatification of Bacon,’ seems aptly to describe it.

 

This blanket endorsement of the Baconian-Newtonian scientific assumptions and method, shared by Christians and non-Christians, had the important implication that, outside of theology, Christians did not consider themselves to belong to any special school of thought.”[2]

 

Evolution almost blindly accepted.  “Unfortunately, once again the Baconian view of science prevented many Christians from recognizing what was happening.  An example is the way some responded to the appearance of Darwinianism in 1859…. As good Baconians, evangelicals denied the role of philosophical assumptions in science—and thus they were powerless to critique and count the new assumptions when they appeared on the intellectual horizon.  A great many of them simply took the facts that Darwin presented and inserted them in to the older philosophy of nature as an open system—not realizing, apparently, that the older philosophy was precisely what was under attack.  In the late nineteenth century, explains Edward Purcell, the majority of thinkers failed to realize that Darwinianism implied (posited—Ed?) a ‘fully naturalistic worldview.’  They inserted Darwinianism into a religious and providential framework, trying to somehow fit it into a ‘belief in nature as part of a comprehensive divine order, and in science as part of a larger and morally oriented natural philosophy.’”[3]

 

The place of Special Revelation.  “The position of Francis Bacon is a clear illustration … (that the philosopher’s God was not the theologian’s God).  (Bacon) divided theology into the natural and the revealed.  Natural theology, he taught, is that knowledge of God which we can get from the study of nature and the creatures of God.  It gives convincing proof of the existence of God, but nothing more.  Anything else must come from revealed theology.  Here we must ‘quit the small vessel of human reason and put ourselves on board the ship of the church, which alone possesses the divine needle for justly shaping he course.  The stars of philosophy will be of no further service to us.  As we are obliged to obey the divine law, though our will murmurs against it, so we are obliged to believe in the word of god, though our reason is shocked by it.”[4]

 

Repairing the Fall in “some part.” “The early scientists regarded technology as a means of alleviating the destructive effects of the curse recorded in Genesis 3. As Francis Bacon  expressed it, man ‘fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation.” Yet, “both of these losses can, even in this life, be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences.’ As humans used the sciences to restore their dominion over creation, they could alleviate the suffering imposed by the Fall.”[5]

 

Unity of science.  “Separating history from the natural sciences required a fierce struggle. From the days of the scientific revolution, philosophers strove for a ‘unity of knowledge.’  They hoped that a single method would uncover truth in all fields of inquiry. Francis Bacon argued for the unity of subject areas based on the fact that a ‘common logic’ (the syllogism) applies to them all.  Descartes and Leibniz called for a universal method based on mathematics. After Isaac Newton’s impressive successes, many held up mathematical physics as the pattern for all knowledge.”[6]

 

“The emergence of a distinctive tradition of scientific thought addressed the question of unity through science's designation of a privileged method, set of concepts, and language. In the late 16th century Francis Bacon held that one (sic) unity of the sciences was the result of our organization of discovered material facts in the form of a pyramid with different levels of generalities; these would be classified in turn according to disciplines linked to human faculties. In accordance with at least three traditions, the Pythagorean tradition, the Bible's dictum in the Book of Wisdom, and the Italian commercial tradition of bookkeeping, Galileo proclaimed at the turn of the 17th century that the Book of Nature had been written by God in the language of mathematical symbols and geometrical truths; and that in it the story of Nature's laws was told in terms of a reduced set of objective, quantitative primary qualities: extension, quantity of matter and motion. In the 17th century, mechanical philosophy and Newton's systematization from basic concepts and first laws of mechanics became the most promising framework for the unification of natural philosophy. After the demise of Laplacian molecular physics in the first half of the 19th century, this role was taken over by ether mechanics and energy physics.”[7]

 

Freemasonry.  It has been asserted that Francis Bacon or his thinking was responsible for the origin of freemasonry, but this assertion seems to be in error.[8]

 

Unity with Scottish "Common Sense" Realism. [9]“Common Sense realism was crafted by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid in response to the radical skepticism of a fellow Scot, David Hume…. The way to avoid skepticism, Reid proposed, is to realize that some knowledge is ‘self-evident’—that is, it is forced upon us simply by the way human nature is constituted.  As a result, no one really doubts or denies it.  It is part of immediate, undeniable experience.  For example, no one really doubts that he or she exists (not in practice, at least).  No one doubts that the material world is real (we look both ways before crossing the street).  Nor do we doubt our inner experiences like memories or pain.  (If I say I have a headache, you don’t ask, How do you know?)  If someone does deny these basic facts, then we call him insane—or a philosopher….

 

Reid recommended the work of Francis Bacon…. The reason earlier ages got their science all wrong, Bacon had said, was that they deduced their ideas about nature from metaphysical speculations.  Genuine science must start not with philosophy but with facts, and then reason strictly by induction.  ‘Taught by Lord Bacon,’ Reid wrote, ‘people had at last been freed from the treadmill of medieval ‘deductivism,’ and set on ‘the road to the knowledge of nature’s works.’   

 

To a wide range of Americans, this linkage of Common Sense realism with Baconian induction seemed an unbeatable combination for countering the skepticism of Hume and other radical Enlightenment philosophers.  Soon it was to be applied to every field of thought: science, political philosophy, moral theory, and even biblical interpretation (hermeneutics—see below).  Its central concept was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’  Where did the idea of self-evident truths come from?  From common sense realism.”[10]

 

Baconian hermeneutics.  “Applied to biblical interpretation, the Baconian method stipulated that the first step is to free our minds from all historical theological formulation (Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican, or whatever).  With mind washed clean from merely human speculations, we confront the biblical text as a collection of ‘facts’ that speak for themselves—and then compile individual verses inductively into a theological system.  Statements in Scripture were treated as analogous to facts I nature, knowable in exactly the same way.  Among the most influential to embrace the Baconian method were the Old School Presbyterians at Princeton (Ed—because of their identity with Scottish realism?)…. Charles Hodge even compared the propositions in the Bible with the ‘oceans, continents, islands, mountains, and rivers’ studied by geography.  That’s why he could say, ‘The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science.  It is his store-house of facts.’’

 

** For a more thorough discussion of the errors, but powerful influence of Bacon and Reid on early America, see Chapter 11 of Nancy Pearcey’s book, Total Truth, cited several times herein.



[1] Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science, (Chapel Hill, 1977), page 3.

[2] Marsden, “’The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia,” in Nicholas Wolterstorff, Faith and Rationality,  page 231.

[3] Pearcey, Total Truth, page 309.

[4] S. E. Frost, Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers, page 214-215.

[7] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-unity/

[8] http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/texts/FrancisBacon.html

[9] Scottish realism differed from the Common Sense of Thomas Paine.  

[10] Pearcey, Total Truth, page 297-298.

 


 

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