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Philosophy is a game with objectives and no rules.
Mathematics is a game with rules and no objectives.
Theology is a game whose object is to bring rules into the subjective.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Idols

Bacon's doctrine of the idols not only represents a stage in the history of theories of error but also functions as an important theoretical element within the rise of modern empiricism. According to Bacon, the human mind is not a tabula rasa. Instead of an ideal plane for receiving an image of the world in toto, it is a crooked mirror, on account of implicit distortions. He does not sketch a basic epistemology but underlines that the images in our mind right from the beginning do not render an objective picture of the true objects. Consequently, we have to improve our mind, i.e., free it from the idols, before we start any knowledge acquisition.

As early as Temporis partus masculus, Bacon warns the student of empirical science not to tackle the complexities of his subject without purging the mind of its idols: “On waxen tablets you cannot write anything new until you rub out the old. With the mind it is not so; there you cannot rub out the old till you have written in the new”.

In Redargutio PhilosophiarumBacon reflects on his method, but he also criticizes prejudices and false opinions, especially the system of speculation established by theologians, as an obstacle to the progress of science, together with any authoritarian stance in scholarly matters.

Bacon deals with the idols in the Second Book of The Advancement of Learning, where he discusses Arts intellectual(Invention, Judgment, Memory, Tradition). In his paragraph on judgment he refers to proofs and demonstrations, especially to induction and invention. When he comes to Aristotle's treatment of the syllogism, he reflects on the relation between sophistical fallacies (Aristotle, De Sophisticis Elenchis) and the idols. Whereas induction, invention, and judgment presuppose “the same action of the mind”, this is not true for proof in the syllogism. Bacon, therefore, prefers his own interpretatio naturae, repudiating elenches as modes of sophistical “juggling” in order to persuade others in redargutions (“degenerate and corrupt use … for caption and contradiction”).There is no finding without proof and no proof without finding. But this is not true for the syllogism, in which proof (syllogism: judgment of the consequent) and invention (of the “mean” or middle term) are distinct. The caution he suggests in relation to the ambiguities in elenches is also recommended in face of the idols: “there is yet a much more important and profound kind of fallacies in the mind of man, which I find not observed or enquired at all, and think good to place here, as that which of all others appertaineth most to rectify judgment: the force whereof is such, as it doth not dazzle or snare the understanding in some particulars, but doth more generally and inwardly infect and corrupt the state thereof. For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence, nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced. For this purpose, let us consider the false appearances that are imposed upon us by the general nature of the mind …”.

Bacon still presents a similar line of argument to his reader in 1623, namely in De Augmentis. Judgment by syllogism presupposes – in a mode agreeable to the human mind – mediated proof, which, unlike in induction, does not start from sense in primary objects. In order to control the workings of the mind, syllogistic judgment refers to a fixed frame of reference or principle of knowledge as the basis for “all the variety of disputations”. The reduction of propositions to principles leads to the middle term. Bacon deals here with the art of judgment in order to assign a systematic position to the idols. Within this art he distinguishes the “Analytic” from the detection of fallacies (sophistical syllogisms). Analytic works with “true forms of consequences in argument”, which become faulty by variation and deflection. The complete doctrine of detection of fallacies, according to Bacon, contains three segments: 1. Sophistical fallacies, 2. Fallacies of interpretation, and 3. False appearances or Idols. Concerning (1) Bacon praises Aristotle for his excellent handling of the matter, but he also mentions Plato honorably. Fallacies of interpretation (2) refer to “Adventitious Conditions or Adjuncts of Essences”, similar to the predicaments, open to physical or logical inquiry. He focuses his attention on the logical handling when he relates the detection of fallacies of interpretation to the wrong use of common and general notions, which leads to sophisms. In the last section (3) Bacon finds a place for his idols, when he refers to the detection of false appearances as “the deepest fallacies of the human mind: For they do not deceive in particulars, as the others do, by clouding and snaring the judgment; but by a corrupt and ill-ordered predisposition of mind, which as it were perverts and infects all the anticipations of the intellect”. Idols are productions of the human imagination (caused by the crooked mirror of the human mind) and thus are nothing more than “untested generalities”.
In his Preface to the Novum Organum Bacon promises the introduction of a new method, which will restore the senses to their former rank, begin the whole labor of the mind again, and open two sources and two distributions of learning, consisting of a method of cultivating the sciences and another of discovering them. This new beginning presupposes the discovery of the natural obstacles to efficient scientific analysis, namely seeing through the idols, so that the mind's function as the subject of knowledge acquisition comes into focus.

According to Aphorism XXIII of the First Book, Bacon makes a distinction between the Idols of the human mind and the Ideas of the divine mind: whereas the former are for him nothing more than “certain empty dogmas”, the latter show “the true signatures and marks set upon the works of creation as they are found in nature”.

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