Thursday, November 3, 2016

Roger Bacon - Move Toward Empiricism

Roger Bacon represents a movement to change from the old philosophical rationalism to the empiricism that undergirds modern science. Empiricism involves trying to understand the world by going out and investigating how things work rather than trying to deduce them in the abstract, as the Greek philosophers tended to do. Bacon was a key advocate of the empirical method.

Behind this we see a conflict between two different views of the world. The Greeks felt the world should be deducible from basic premises. Their ideal was someone who sat in his armchair and proceeded to figure out what the world must be like. They tended to look down on those who worked with their hands, and saw the philosopher as being a person of leisure who could build up complicated mental systems. This is reflected in their theology. For example, Plato's God spends His time contemplating the good, and it is a lesser being, a demiurge, who creates the physical world.

Christianity, however, holds to a God who created the world. Also, when He became a man, He did not become an aristocrat but a carpenter. And Christian arguments have always been of a more empirical kind. (He has risen, as we have seen with our own eyes.) This fits with a God who created a world that is orderly but not deducible from simple premises. If we want to see what He has done, we need to go and look.

But rationalism and empiricism have not always been simple in how they fit together. Aristotle did involve himself in some empirical investigations. Many of the early scientists were still hoping to fit the universe into a system where everything was deducible from simple premises. But modern scientific advances have made this concept increasingly difficult to believe. When Christianity came along, the Greek way of thinking was already highly entrenched, especially when it came to understanding the natural world. After the political chaos of the early Middle Ages began to settle down, scholars like Albert Magnus began exploring the various fields of knowledge, including the natural world. But they were handicapped by the Greek approach. It took time for the more Christian approach to emerge. Roger Bacon was one who directed things along this path. He was condemned to house arrest the last years of his life. We do not know the charges or whether they had anything to do with his defense of empiricism. But this is frequently put forth as part of the conflict between science and religion. However, the real conflict has been between philosophical rationalism and scientific empiricism. With Christianity on the side of the latter.  


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