We examine the ideas developed by scientific philosophers, and the questions they asked, including:

  • What are the characteristics of a good scientific method?
  • How do we know if knowledge is supported by data?
  • What is a “cause”?
  • What role does observation and reason play in science and in everyday life?
  • Is science purely rational and logical, or does it reflect the society in which is operates?
  • How does science progress?
  • What advantage does science have over other types of knowledge?
Francis Bacon

His major book, The New Method, described how scientists should “interrogate nature,” by using observation and experiment, to determine when a condition or a circumstance is present or absent.  Bacon believed that such observations would allow researchers to draw careful conclusions.

Bacon warned of complacency. We accept many ideas as truth that have little or no sound basis. He called these false beliefs “intellectual idols,” which he describes as follows:

Idols of the tribe are illusions that stem from the manner in which human beings perceive the world. We tend to look only at the superficial appearance of objects, and therefore mistake our sensory impressions for the true underlying nature of things. An oar in water appears bent when observed from above the water’s surface even though it is not (sound familiar?). Bacon thought that we need to get beyond the superficial appearance and nature, not only of things but of ideas as well. We must seek to understand what lies beneath to see the real nature of any thing or idea.

Idols of the cave addresses the issue of how we allow private concerns and wishes to distort our perceptions. We see what we want to see rather than what really is. Focussing on our own needs and desires, we relate other events to ourselves, missing the truth in the process. Hundreds of years later, psychologists such as Sigmund Freud would elaborate on this idea, with the added perception that we may often not even be aware of those concerns and wishes. Buddhist philosophers, before and after, have also argued that in our false belief in our own permanence we connect all events to ourselves, and fail to understand the world around us correctly.

Idols of the marketplace are the beliefs of society. The customs of culture can often lead us to think and believe things which may not be true. All of us have points of view which are ingrained in us from childhood; we view our world through prejudices and stereotypes which we often fail to question or analyze. Assuming a stance in opposition to the ideas and beliefs of those around us often leads to friction and problems.

Idols of the theatre describes the false beliefs of traditional philosophy. Sometimes we pay too much respect and reverence to old schools of thought. Bacon made particular reference in this critique to the philosophies of the schools of his time, especially the “scholastic school.” Bacon was a leading crusader in the movement to observe and draw individual and personal conclusions, ones that did not necessarily accept the ideas of traditional philosophers.

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