Science vs God – not a fair fight.

My goal for this post is to contrast Francis Bacon’s thoughts about science and religion to those of scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. We’ll start with Bacon.

Londoner, philosopher, and statesman, Sir Francis Bacon published a well known (and notorious) statement in 1625: ‘It is true that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion’. It’s part of the document Of Atheisme shown below. Quote Investigator, which has a detailed history of Bacon’s text, has put it into easier-to-read script: “I had rather believe all the Fables in the Legend [Popular claims?], and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than [believe] that this universal Frame [general order of the universe?] is without a Mind. And therefore, God never wrought Miracle, to convince Atheism, because his Ordinary Works [everyday wonders?] convince it. It is true that a little Philosophy inclineth Mans Minde to Atheism; But depth in Philosophy, bringeth Mens Mindes about to Religion. For while the Minde of Man, looketh upon Second Causes Scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and goe no further [My interpretations in square brackets]”.

The First Cause would be God, but that’s not knowable by rational science. We’ll return to that idea later. The document quoted here is a tiny piece of the long development of Bacon’s thought. Though himself a believer, he was skeptical about efforts to prove God exists by traditional religious arguments. He was especially doubtful of using The Bible to learn about earthly or heavenly matters, since he (correctly) judged it to be a book of contradictions. [Exactly that point was made around 1130 A.D. in the work Sic Et Non (Yes and No) by French scholastic Peter Abelard (1979 – 1142) – a teacher at Paris University. He was immediately condemned by Pope Innocent II, and banned from teaching. He had also fallen in love with his student – Heloise – who bore him a son. In revenge, her family castrated him. So he stopped teaching and sought solace and safety in a monastery. He also insisted (against her will) that Heloise do the same. From there, they exchanged their famous love letters. However, I doubt that Bacon knew of Abelard; he wasn’t an historian.]

The practical effect of Bacon’s ideas was support for secular thinking, as this Libertarianianism article claims – even though he was a believer – because arguments from  effects to causes can’t prove a religious conclusion. Such arguments are flawed by the assumption that nothing natural could explain the wonders we observe. That assumption was rejected over 2 centuries later in Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which introduced a revolutionary – entirely unreligious – viewpoint. Darwin’s thinking has all but eclipsed religious ‘reasoning’ to explain the observable world.

Why call Bacon’s aphorism notorious? Two reasons. The author Bacon is often criticized for being pompous, exaggerated or dogmatic, and in modern times much ridiculed for making nonsense claims. And the person Bacon was removed from office on claims of corruption (which he denied) and the threat of prosecution for sodomy (which he openly admitted.). He titled his general work (including this document) the Novum Organon. It was very influential, especially for supporting a Renaissance mindset, and for rejecting Aristotle’s Organon . That’s why he called it Novum (Latin for ‘New’). Wikipedia explains that Organon (Ancient Greek Ὄργανον, meaning ‘instrument, tool, organ’) is the standard collection of Aristotle’s six works on logical analysis and dialectic. It’s primarily about logic and language.

Aristotle observed nature too (or accepted reports) – e.g. male fetuses gestate longer than female fetuses do (true). But he concluded this showed that females are imperfect (false). Unlike Bacon, Aristotle’s method of argument is deductive, consisting of necessary logical conclusions from 3 types of ‘syllogism’.

The scientific approach Bacon encouraged (though he wasn’t himself a scientist) is inductive, moving from observation of many particulars to generalizations, which ideally can be tested and improved upon endlessly. Not surprisingly, this shift to Renaissance thinking in matters of science was very complex, as this long Stanford Philosophy discussion shows. [Author Eva Del Soldato; editor Edward N. Zalta] Much of it involved the shift from religious dogma about the world to scientific research. Before the Renaissance, Plato, who was ‘other worldly’, was favored over Aristotle who was ‘this worldly’. And good schools today still teach that early revolutionary scientists – like Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo – had to tread softly to keep from being executed for heresies.

The next two paragraphs from the Stanford article helped me follow Bacon’s thinking: “Form is for Bacon a structural constituent of a natural entity or a key to its truth and operation, so that it comes near to natural law, without being reducible to causality. This appears all the more important, since Bacon—who seeks out exclusively causes which are necessary and sufficient for their effects—rejects Aristotle’s four causes (his four types of explanation for a complete understanding of a phenomenon) on the grounds that the distribution into material, formal, efficient, and final causes does not work well and that they fail to advance the sciences (especially the final, efficient, and material causes). Consider again the passage quoted in Section 3.3:

“There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms at last. This is the true way, but as yet untried. (Bacon IV [1901], 50: Novum Organum, I, Aphorism XIX).”

Bacon finds two general failings in both his predecessors and contemporaries, regarding scientific thinking. First is a failure to distinguish general truths (‘Forms’) which hold for all time, from those which deal with an ever-changing world (‘Facts’). We might call these Metaphysics and Research questions. ‘Facts’ are especially problematic, because they don’t come through direct perception, as most people believe. Perceptions are distorted by four prejudices about what we expect or want to perceive which he calls “Idols” – of the Tribe, the Cave, the Marketplace, and the Theatre. The source Sir Bacon. org explains these. I think this critique is completely confirmed in today’s opinionated, polarized and manipulated society.

Just for interest’s sake, I went  to Quora, to see how Bacon is received today. Some comments were thoughtful; others ignorant. But of the hundreds I skimmed through, almost all denied that God is any more than a simpleton’s effort to find someone in the heavens to help in times of trouble, instead of ‘being responsible for ourselves’ and finding worldly help. One commenter posted this clever conundrum by Epicurus – an atheist with no need to think about afterlife.

The title of this post is intentionally ambiguous. What’s a fair fight? The ‘fairness’ of the fight depends on which side is stronger, of course. That’s not a question of evidence, statistics or logic; it’s a matter of belief. ‘God is on our side’ vs ‘God is a myth invented by the weak’. As  readers may know, my religious ideas come from the work of Swedish 18th C. scientist and philosopher – Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) – a few years younger than Bacon. During his last 27 years he wrote an explanation of the symbolic innermost meaning of Judeo-Christian scripture. Because he claimed this explanation was revealed to him from above, he is popularly considered a mystic. A brilliant, creative scientist – called by D. T. Suzuki the Buddha of the North – he maintained a lifelong responsible position in Swedish government. He was never strange or extravagant in speech or behavior. And at his  death, which he predicted to the day, he reconfirmed that everything he said or wrote regarding biblical scripture was done in his accepted role as ‘servant of the Lord’.

Swedenborg discusses all the typical atheist arguments against the belief that religion is either a source of truth, or a guide to goodness. He predicted what was coming. Here’s a good example, from the work titled Divine Providence, #310 ff, published in 1764. He summarizes what people are like who trust their own prudence, falsely believing themselves to be the source of their thoughts (but not their sensations), and how they can rationalize whatever they want. Here is his argument, my emphasis added:

“On the basis of our own prudence, we adopt and justify the conviction that we are the source and the locus of everything that is good and true as well as of everything that is evil and false. Let us try an argument by analogy, an analogy between what is good and true on the physical level and what is good and true on the spiritual level. We begin by asking what is true and good to our eyesight. To our eyes, is not something true when we call it beautiful, and good when we call it pleasing? We do feel pleasure at beautiful sights. What is true and good to our hearing? Is not something true when we call it harmonious and good when we call it sweet? We feel soothed by harmonious sounds; and it is much the same with our other senses. This shows what truth and goodness are on the physical level.”

“Now think about what is true and good on the spiritual level. Is spiritual truth anything but what is beautiful and harmonious in spiritual events and objects? Is spiritual good anything but what is pleasing and sweet in our sense of that beauty and harmony?”

“[2] Let us see, then, whether we can say anything about one that we cannot say about the other, anything about the spiritual that we cannot say about the physical. We say of what is physical that the beauty and pleasure in the eye are flowing in from the objects of vision, and that the harmony and sweetness in the ear are flowing in from the instruments. … but if we ask, “Why are we saying that things are flowing in?” the only answer is that there seems to be a distance involved. Then if we ask, “Why are we saying that things are happening inside?” the only answer is that there is no perceptible distance involved. That is, it is the appearance of distance that inclines us to believe one thing about what we think and feel, and something else about what we see and hear.”

“All this collapses, though, when we realize that spirit is not involved in distance the way the material world is. Think of the sun and the moon or of Rome and Constantinople. Is there any distance between them in your thought? There is none as long as the thought is not tied to the experiences we have through sight and hearing. Then why do you convince yourself that what is good and true and what is evil and false are within you, not flowing in, simply because there is no perceptible distance involved in your thinking?” [My summary: ALL our thoughts and feelings have a ‘spiritual origin’. So we should take neither credit nor blame for them, but try to reject the false and bad, and accept the true and good. That is where our spiritual freedom lies.]

Swedenborg’s approach is akin to those we referred to earlier as logicians, like Aristotle. Their conclusions rested on first principles – axioms – that were accepted as true. Bacon said this doesn’t work for religious arguments from observing nature or reading scripture. What Swedenborg adds is the idea that first principles have a spiritual source; ultimately they come from God. On the surface the literal scriptures are contradictory. But the deeper, innermost meaning is true, if we can take the spiritual approach. They can be known by anyone with a genuine desire for enlightenment. This desire is not natural (inborn) to humans, nor a part of our conscious mind which begins with sensual experience – i.e. at first breath.

There are many who will dismiss all this, as they dismiss Swedenborg and other spiritualists. But those who believe there is a ‘god’s truth’, and seek it, must first rid themselves of the natural tendency to prefer and believe what the senses tell them. It’s what we love (the heart) that counts most, while reason will help us bring about our neighbor’s wellbeing. If we try to know and want to do what helps our neighbor, enlightenment will eventually come, but often with much struggle.

Not surprisingly, Darwinian atheism hasn’t stopped people from believing. That’s also providential, since people need freedom or Free Will (Liberum Arbitrium) to choose their explanations of the natural world (and especially when considering any spiritual existence or an eternal life. This world will end, and others will form, ad infinitum, but true humanity will continue IF Providence exists. You decide!