Light Merchant Depredator Mystery-man Hyper Monkey Robot Empiricism Table Force Go!

by John Holbo on January 16, 2010

I’m still working on the follow-up to my Descartes post, to which comments have been good and useful. I’ll plug the gap with a passage from the Dan Garber book I mentioned before, Descartes Embodied (good book.) I’ve never read much Francis Bacon (I don’t teach him); and in particular I haven’t read New Atlantis, which I know is his science fiction utopia (you’d think I would have gotten around to reading such a thing). Garber summarizes the organizational structure for the House of Saloman, which is apparently New Atlantis’ League of Extraordinarily Scientific Gentlemen. The job titles are pretty much turned all the way up to Awesome.

At the bottom of the organization are those who form the tables of natural history, a total of twenty-four investigators. Twelve “Merchants of Light” “sail into foreign countries under the names of other nations … [and] bring us the books and abstracts, and patterns of experiments of all other parts.” Three “Depredators” collect experiments from books three “Mystery-men” collect experiments from mechanical arts and liberal sciences, and three “Pioneers or Miners” try new experiments of their own devising. They are joined by three “Compilers,” who arrange these observations and experiments into proper tables. Twelve workers are employed at the next stage of the enterprise. Three “dowry-men or Benefactors” examine the initial tables compiled by the Compilers and draw out both technological applications and the first theoretical conclusions that can be drawn from the tables, presumably what Bacon calls the first vintage in the Novum organum. Three “Lamps” as he calls them, then draw new experiments out of the work of the Compilers and Benefactors, which experiments are them performed by three “Inoculators.” And finally, “we have three that raise the form discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorisms. These we call Interpreters of Nature.”

I think someone really ought to write an SF thriller in which the science heroes of New Atlantis have to race against time to compile the proper Baconian tables that will allow them to understand and technologically defeat the invading Martians. Or something.

Perhaps Adam Roberts will consent to show up in comments and tell us whether New Atlantis is actually as fun to read as it sounds.



Adam Roberts 01.16.10 at 12:24 pm

It’s not.


John Holbo 01.16.10 at 2:54 pm



kid bitzer 01.16.10 at 3:33 pm

but this is no cause for disappointment. it merely confirms jh’s hunch in the original post: bacon has given us the raw ingredients for a brilliant sf thriller, even though bacon himself was not the man to pull it off.

true, he did show a flair for catchy names: “depredators” is cool.

but he had no sense of *drama*, no sense of how to structure a narrative arc. furthermore, his heroes had no faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities. in fact, if you search in the new atlantis for statesmanship, or even citizenship, or any sense of the commonwealth, material or spiritual, and you will not find the making of a decent vestryman or curate in the whole horde.

but think what george lucas could do with it all!


bianca steele 01.16.10 at 3:58 pm

1) Jerry Weinberger does have a nice introduction, which I take to have been Straussian, arguing that Bacon’s point is the immorality of the scheme and the preferability of Biblical morality.

2) Market oriented organization would be much more interesting and also more efficient.


bianca steele 01.16.10 at 5:04 pm

“Nice” as in clever, not as in “I agree with him or think he’s made a good case.”


mike shupp 01.16.10 at 6:37 pm

There is something fascinating about the notion that a nation’s R&D establishment — a leading, awe-inspiring nation’s R&D establishment — might consist of two or three dozen souls, most of whom are engaged in looking for other nation’s scientific developments. One might have thought that hundreds or even thousands of “Merchants of Light” were already present in Bacon’s day, in the form of ordinary, profit-seeking merchants looking for products to buy and sell, and that he would have observed this. But no.

Is the modern world so very very different? Or have our perceptions of what people do just altered considerably?


Matthias Wasser 01.17.10 at 2:02 am

but think what george lucas could do with it all!



Glen Tomkins 01.17.10 at 6:03 pm

Obviously Physics turned out quite a bit different than Bacon imagined it would, or, rather, should. The discipline as he imagined it would have evolved more like biology, in that it would start with the systematization of observations of the entire range of natural phenomenon. But only an ever-dwindling piece of the scientific endeavor actually has followed that model, and the “naturalists” only ended up doing biology and geology, then only biology.

What physics did, shortly after the time of Bacon, was to give up on explaining every little bit of the dross of the actual physical reality around us, and instead pay exclusive attention to those very narrow questions that responded to a mathematical approach. Now, obviously that narrowing of focus is an illegitimate move if you define natural science as the empirically derived knowledge of nature, because you need to have observed the entirety before you can start inducing general principles on up the ladder. To take the classic example, you have to have sent folks out to Australia to observe their waterfowl, or you’re going to mistakenly conclude that all swans are white.

We tend to not think of this narrowing of focus as a methodological error, though, because physics seems to have eventually regained the purview of the whole that it lost by initially narrowing the focus. By following what can be reduced to equations, and only what can be reduced to equations, physics eventually got to a point of being able to generate a Theory of the Whole at the level of fundamental particles. Or is that strings? Well, it’s at least within spitting distance of a Theory of the Whole.

The problem here is that the level of fundamental particles only provides a material explanation for everything at the higher levels where we live. It explains everything precisely because it explains nothing at all. The fundamental particles (or strings, or whatever) could support any inexhaustible number of forms, and doesn’t help us, at all, to understand why we have the set of forms we observe in the natural world, versus any other set. Bacon remembered his Aristotle, even if we don’t, and he was right. Well, he was right if you think of the project of natural science being the knowledge of nature, rather than enabling the discovery of some gadgets, both useful and deadly, which has been the byproduct of following the path that Physics took when it narrowed its focus.

If you want to flesh out Bacon’s idea of what natural science ought to be, what it would look like if we had followed that path, rather than the Great Narrowing that physics actually took, you just have to look at medicine. Physicians have to have some sort of answer for every problem that walks through the door. For some problems, we actually do have neat equations (Acid-Base problems are a great favorite among academic internists, because we actually get to use the Henderson-Hasselbach
Equation! Just like we were real scientists!), but those only cover a narrow aspect of even those few diseases to which they apply, and we have to have something for the whole spectrum, not just the few problems that can be approached with mathematical rigor. Most of what we do is quite woolly indeed. We work from a list of disease entities that is every bit as weird and woolly as the one Bacon draws up in the New Organon for what natural science is supposed to come up with some approach to. People whose idea of “science” is warped by the great successes of physics tend to explain the woolliness of medicine by saying that what we do is an art as well as a science. This is nonsense, as there isn’t the least bit of artistry in anything we do. Medicine is simply the only complete natural science currently being practiced.

What Bacon is describing as the scientific organization of his Atlantis is the high order collating, weeding and pruning that a complete natural science requires to keep the woolliness from getting out of hand. Physics comes by intellectual austerity naturally, by way of the Great Narrowing that it chose at its birth. A complete natural science, like medicine, needs something like the Cochrane Collaboration, which I think is a fair concrete example of what Bacon is getting at in this woolly organization he describes.

That said, my personal ambition is that some day the NIH will hire me as a Depredator. That role is currently filled by Big Pharma, but not as Bacon envisioned the job.


Adam Roberts 01.17.10 at 7:55 pm

” … he had no sense of drama, no sense of how to structure a narrative arc …

And yet he wrote all those Shakespeare plays! Funny old world.


Hidari 01.17.10 at 8:44 pm

‘And yet he wrote all those Shakespeare plays!’

Not to mention all those paintings he did. The Screaming Pope one is my favourite. Were there no limits to his genius?


kid bitzer 01.17.10 at 9:29 pm

“Were there no limits to his genius?”

severe limits. and little genius. the entire first folio is no great shakes. the guy was no bunyan.


ajay 01.18.10 at 9:32 am

There is something fascinating about the notion that a nation’s R&D establishment—a leading, awe-inspiring nation’s R&D establishment—might consist of two or three dozen souls, most of whom are engaged in looking for other nation’s scientific developments.

Well, how much time do real modern scientists spend reading about other scientists’ work, going to conferences, discussing things over coffee and so on?


praisegod barebones 01.18.10 at 8:07 pm

” … he had no sense of drama, no sense of how to structure a narrative arc …”

And yet he wrote all those Shakespeare plays! Funny old world.

So busy doing that that he ended up having to get the Earl of Oxford to ghost-write his philosophical works, I suspect.


Anderson 01.18.10 at 8:47 pm

John Aubrey’s life of Bacon should not be missed. England’s greatest gay philosopher.


Kenny Easwaran 01.19.10 at 5:01 am

Re 14 – I think Alan Turing and John Maynard Keynes might have something to dispute there! (True, maybe they’re not primarily counted as philosophers, but they certainly made very great philosophical contributions.)

I suppose Wittgenstein was only ambiguously gay and only ambiguously England’s. Otherwise he wins.


bad Jim 01.19.10 at 6:38 am

Back when I went to work for my Dad, who paid me about 25¢ more per hour than unemployment, a mathematician who used to work for him and later wound up heading his department in Alaska told me that, even in aerospace companies that hired hundreds of qualified people, it was only one or two people who actually got anything done.

Odder yet, when I had to rewrite his code, it was oddly like my own. Small minds think alike.

Back in Bacon’s time, the imperious Tycho leveraged his privileged status to create a catalog of precise observations, and found the one other person, Kepler, who could make better sense of them than he could. At the same time Galileo had his hands full. Not everything useful can be done by a team.

The books back then omnivorously swallowed nonsense as greedily as they did news, not entirely unlike the popular titles of our own age.

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