10:45 AMRoger Bacon, Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes on Learning
1. On Learning from Experiments
Both outstanding minds and common people learn. Outstanding minds, having mastered all the learning of their times (for example, Faust of Goethe), continue to learn from careful observation of experience and experiments. An experiment is also a kind of experience, in which, however, the conditions are controlled, and there is an interaction between the experimenter (“the subject”) and the object of experiment. Everyday experience and social cataclysms may be viewed as a kind of experiment, in which, however, the conditions are not well controlled, or not controlled at all. However, there is an interaction between “the subject” and the object, and there is an analysis following this interaction, with conclusions – right or wrong – drawn.
Socrates said that unexamined life is not worth living. He may have been getting closer to experimental mode of knowing. Goals of experiments may be to establish a cause and effect relationship. A collection of these “cause-and-effect” links may provide us with a logical chain of the phenomenon we’re examining.
Social experience and cataclysms, such as social revolutions, are not properly repeatable. For example, it is not possible to repeat World War I, and the social revolutions that followed it. However, social experience has the nature of being not a singular phenomenon, but repeatable many times over. The same phenomenon repeats itself in different countries, as for example the socialist revolution in XX century. This repetition must be studied, variations in the experience, and results following the cataclysms, must be carefully analyzed. Repetition and comparison of experience is what gives these phenomena the nature of experiment.
If Socrates said that unexamined life is not worth living, then certainly the unexamined social experiments, that are the socialist revolutions, are not worth repeating.
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Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes were masters of learning. Both of them protested against the instruction that they received in schools. They both looked for "a more powerful instrument of knowledge", in the words of Descartes. And they were both antecedents of the social revolutions which broke out in their respective countries. Bacon was an early bird of the English revolution. Descartes was an early bird of the French revolution. Properly speaking, both of these men were part of the vortex that was sweeping the world in that era, gathering the forces for the overthrow of the feudal order. We can formulate a generalization: whenever a mind is searching for "a more powerful instrument of knowledge" than that which is obtained in common schools, we're dealing with the gathering of forces of the global vortex that is destined to sweep away the old world order. In the present moment we're living in one such epoch.
2. Roger Bacon (c.1214-1292)
Optic studies by Roger Bacon
On the place of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, a new form of knowledge appears. Its first messenger was Roger Bacon, a monk in XIII century. Formation of this monk was different in that his father did not pay for his education, and hence he had to make money by himself, for example working with other craftsmen building a church, or working as an apprentice in a smith shop. Hence, he thinks that experience is the primary source of knowledge. Roger Bacon writes that there are three sources of knowledge: authority, rational thinking and experience. By "authority" he means dogmas of the Church. By "rational thinking" he means philosophy of Aristotle, as interpreted by scholastics. Experience, says Bacon, allows us to distinguish the true from the false in all sciences. Bacon practiced experiments and observations in various spheres of knowledge, while seeing this as a more profound knowledge of god. However, being a rebel in his nature, he was not able to hold his position at Oxford University, and the last years of his life he spent in prison (which reminds us of Faustus).
3. Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
«Scientia et potentia humana in idem coincidunt»
(Knowledge and human power coincide)
1. Bacon was writing in aphorisms. It should be understood that aphorisms were a step towards an independent thinking and a systematic presentation of material.
knowledge = experience + thinking
7. Knowledge starts with experience, with a number of particular instances of “X”. The road of learning leads upward, into the airy regions of thinking. There, we discover the basic axioms and laws upon which our experience is based. Then, we go back to practice, deducing from these axioms and laws what our possible new experience should be. This can be represented by the following picture:
8. Bacon, writing against the medieval style of thinking, writes that it is necessary to ascend slowly from most concrete experiences and perceptions to larger and larger generalizations, and not "jump to conclusions", as they do in his time. For example, people point to complexity of the Universe, and from this they deduce the existence of God.
Bacon's method consists in ascending from particular instances 1, 2, and 3 of phenomenon “X” to what may be called “low-level axioms”, which are almost the same thing as the experience of 1,2 and 3. From these low-level axioms we ascend towards more general principles, until we reach the highest generalizations. From the highest generalizations, we can go back to particular principles, and then further down to particular instances of “X”. Such gradual ascent, and then descent, makes knowledge possible.
Some additional remarks on Francis Bacon
Bacon’s “New Organon” belongs to those books that should be read and re-read. Hence, I add the following remarks, after a new listening to Book I of “New Organon”.
4. Descartes (1596-1650)
For an introduction to the life of Descartes, I recommend listening to Bertrand Russell’s “Descartes”, from his “A History of Western Philosophy”.
1. The basic purpose of all economy is to win time, and hence to use this to elevate both individual and society to a higher level of culture. It is important not to be distracted by trivialities. Descartes says: "although it is true that every man is obliged to promote the good of others, as far as it is in him to do so, and that to be no use to anyone is really to be worthless, it is none the less true also that our solicitude ought to extend beyond the present time, and that it is good to omit doing things which might perhaps bring some profit to those who are living, when one aims to do other things which will be of greater benefit to posterity." Hence: "I shall always hold myself to be more indebted to those by whose favor I may enjoy my leisure w/out hindrance, than I shall be to any who may offer me the most honorable position in all the world." That person is the "richest" who has the most free time, which he uses to realize his creative plans. This is the meaning of the word "richness" different from feudal point of view (in the sense of ownership of land and peasants), different from capitalist point of view (in the sense of ownership of capital), different from bureaucratic point of view (in the sense of position in the hierarchy).
5. Descartes advocated both reading books and studying things from nature. About reading books, he advocated 3 kinds of approaches: some books are to be read carefully, examined again and again, i.e. re-read. Other books are to be skimmed. And still others are not to be touched at all. Now, since Descartes advocates studying many different areas of knowledge, we should remember that in each area there are few original and fundamental works. All others are derived from these. Hence, in each area which you undertake to master, you want to isolate these few fundamental works, read and master them, even if they take a long time.
6. On the usage of books, Descartes points out, "that the memorable actions of history elevate the mind and that, if read with moderation and discernment, they help to form one’s judgment; that to read good books is like holding a conversation with the most eminent minds of the past centuries and, moreover, a studied conversation in which these authors reveal to us only the best of their thoughts". This passage reminds me of one girl from California who investigated the French revolution. She said that her passion is the company of dead men. These men stand so far above people of our epoch that it is far more interesting to converse with them than with the people surrounding us.
8. Descartes writes: "I noticed, concerning experiments, that they are all the more necessary the more one is advanced in knowledge". This coincides with what we have learned about the road of knowledge from Bacon. The further I go, the less I see that books, TV and even Internet satisfy me as sources of information, for they're either too old, or distort information, or too far removed from the events. The more one is advanced on the road of knowledge, the more it is necessary to make personal inquiry into the nature of things, in the sense of personally going and interacting with things. It is necessary to make "field trips", rather than being an outside observer.
12. The fourth rule: "everywhere to make complete enumerations and such general reviews that I would be sure to have omitted nothing". The key word is "review". It is necessary to go over one's notes and "final" compositions to remember what one have thought before and, in the process, to rework one's thoughts. In my own case, it is done when I redesign my Internet site, and so I attempt to improve not only the form of presentation, but also the ideas and concepts presented.
5. Some Additional Points About Descartes
1. Descartes represents quest for knowledge in the transitional period from the Middle Ages to the Industrial revolution, and hence the epoch of the Dutch revolution (against the Spanish rule), the English revolution (against the rule of Stuarts), and the French revolution (against the monarchy of Bourbons).
2. The most important in the inheritance that is left to us by Descartes is not his scientific research, or his mathematical studies, but his inquiries into the method of properly learning about things.
3. Knowledge starts through the 5 empirical senses. Then our minds gets to work, analyzing information thus received.
4. The mind grasps the regularities that are present in things. These regularities have a statistical character and can be found in all objects of the same type.
5. Knowledge starts with books. Reading is a type of conversation with an author. Just like with people, some books are to be read very carefully, and re-read again and again, some books are to be skimmed, and some are not to be touched at all.
6. After reading, knowledge turns to the primary sources. This can be only experience. Knowledge should learn to conduct experiments.
7. When you approach knowledge, a certain type of mentality is needed. It is necessary to distance yourself from immediate cares.
8. The Universe is one united system. Hence, knowledge about it should also be one united system.
9. There are several methods of knowledge. 1) Go from what is simple to what is complex, following the logic of the subject. 2) Divide and conquer the complex problems. 3) Make frequent enumerations and reviews of the ground covered. 4) Doubt and criticize all that is “well-known” and accepted as generally true.
10. There are two main logical operations: 1) deduction, i.e. a general premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. 2) Induction, i.e. a movement from plurality of concrete cases to a generalization. These two operations form one whole, as it is induction, and the resulting generalization, that make the deduction possible.
11. One field of knowledge logically follows from a previous field of knowledge. Logic is present within each field of knowledge, and in transition from one to another fields of knowledge.
12. Descartes understood the task before him as to learn to think correctly about all problems of life. We understand our task in a more complex manner: we should not only learn to think about all problems, but learn to do things, to change the reality in a desired fashion.
13. If a person goes deeply into one sphere of knowledge, losing at the same time the concept of the general relationship of things, then this person does not approach knowledge correctly. A holistic, systematic approach to knowledge is needed. “Not seeing the forest for the trees” is the mistake science guilty of.
14. Methodology of knowledge should not be developed separately from actual knowledge itself. The method of knowledge and the actual process of knowledge pre-suppose each other, are two sides of one process.
15. A theory of something should be studied in relation to practical problems. For example, the theory of revolution is developed because the problem of a global revolution is upon us.
16. A reward for our labors will be a kind of omnipotence and immortality. Thus, humanity approaches closer to the qualities that it prescribed to gods.
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