Three hundred and eighty-five years ago, Francis Bacon published The New Organon, a system of knowing that launched the Scientific Revolution. This week in Kansas, they’re trying to turn back the clock, and repeal the Enlightenment.
Prior to Bacon, we approached knowledge deductively. We sought to know the world, not as it is – as it reveals itself to us through observation – but as it ought to be according to a preconceived set of assumptions. Data, facts and analyses were important only to the extent they could confirm a teleological world view in which God was in Heaven, Earth was in the center of the Universe, and man walked a predetermined path.
Bacon didn’t reject religion. He argued that his method of observation, hypotheses and testing of these hypotheses was the key to working with the natural world to improve the lot of humankind. For Bacon, good works for good ends were the surest way to honor God’s glory.
Throughout the Enlightenment and into modern times we proceeded from and built upon Bacon’s New Organon. We learned to accommodate religious beliefs with scientific insights. When Copernicus, Keppler and Newton took Tyco de Brae’s careful observations of celestial movement and constructed a sun-centered universe with elliptical orbits, governed by the laws and principles of an incorporeal force – gravity – we ultimately accepted the results, even though the religious world-view called for an earth-centered universe, with circular orbits held together by unseen physical stuff.
This New Organon was powerful, indeed. It launched the scientific revolution which fed the technical, agricultural and industrial revolutions that created a modern world more prosperous than any we could have imagined.
The United States represents the apogee of these revolutions. For good and ill, nowhere else on earth has science been harnessed to yield such wealth, such strength, such mastery over nature, humanity and even the very heavens.
Enter now the Fundamentalists, with their New, Old Organon.
The world they seek, metaphorically, is an earth-centered world. It is a more certain world. A world in which we know why we are here, who we are, and what we ought to believe. It’s all mapped out for us.
It is understandable that they seek such a world. There are byproduct to Bacon’s system. Rapid change, chaotic cultural shifts, materialism, uncertainty, and perhaps most of all, loss of control. Our children hop into cars and out of our lives. They log onto the web and get exposed to a universe of things that range from the divine to the heinous. Our families disintegrate as they chase jobs, and so too, do our communities. Transience replaces permanence in people, places and things. We get Relativity, but it comes with relativism.
Meanwhile, the universe of knowledge explodes in both breadth and complexity, and grows beyond the reach of any single individual. Few can even begin to understand most of modern physics in any but the most qualitative way. The workings of our computers, the difference between brain, mind, and consciousness – a million and one horizons are being pushed to their limits, and even the brightest among us can’t follow every advance. Today, we must accept a great deal of science on faith.
But if it all comes down to faith, then why not the old tried and true, fundamentalists of all stripes are asking. Why not the old pre-Baconian Organon? And so Muslims turn to Wahhabism, Christians embrace Creationism – each seeks the timeless certainty of the literal interpretation of the Koran or the Bible as an antidote to an uncertain, evanescent and often scary world.
So now, many embrace the Old Organon and ask us to march steadfastly back towards the 15th Century. For example, the US is losing ground in stem cell research because the old guard would rather flush unused embryos down the toilette than use them for lifesaving research. They’d rather see abortions increase by 52,000 a year while cutting birth control education in favor of abstinence-only programs. And in the signature issue for the old Organonists, nineteen states are considering proposals to limit the teaching of evolution in schools.
There’s way more at stake here than Red-state, Blue state bragging rights. Trying to live in a Ptolemaic universe in the 21st Century will impose a very high cost on the US.
If we adopt the old Organon in our school systems, then the we’ll soon be able to boast that we turn out the best 15th Century philosophers, theologians and pseudo-scientists in the world, and we’ll get the kind of economy that goes with it. At that point, all children will be left behind, and so will the rest of us.
With much of the rest of the world turning out more and better trained scientists than us already, we’ll wind up a second class country importing ideas, goods and services from those living in a Copernican universe still governed by Bacon’s New Organon.
John Atcheson has written extensively on politics and policy and his writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The San Jose Mercury News, The Memphis Commercial Appeal and several other papers, as well as various wonk journals.
He can be reached at email@example.com