One can easily say that Roger Bacon is considered as the father of modern science and as a rebel against medieval scholasticism by many people for a long time. However names such as Peter Forshaw, who has done extensive research on Bacon recently, has stated that this is not exactly the case. Nevertheless, even though he did not leave a mark on the history of science in the way he intended, he had come up with an equally important thing as a result of his infinite curiosity: a premature kind of a modern scientific methodology. In his most significant book Opus Maius, he devoted a chapter about this methodology which means the correct way of doing science for him. In the terms of Roger Bacon, this is called ”experimental science.” It is clear that there are some major contradictions in Bacon’s philosophy because of incompatibility of his desires with the time he lived. It looks like he had a dilemma between scientific method as we know today and occult arts such as magic, alchemy and astrology. However, the cause of this dilemma should not be as simple as that it can be explainable only by the understanding of science in Middle Ages, the scholastic thought and the effects of these on Bacon’s philosophy. Besides of these, there must be an origin for his contradictory attitude in his primary conceptions of science and experience. So, the meanings of these concepts for him must be analysed in order to understand Bacon’s proposition of experimental science and to investigate the causes of the contradictions in his philosophy. In addition, the reasons why Bacon is so interested in occult arts and sciences should also be investigated. Only then, the validity of his experimental science as a method can be discussed and the connection between it and the development of science after him can be found if there is.
The influence of Saint Augustine can be easily observed on Bacon’s thoughts about experience and knowledge. He believed that experience has a two layered structure with external and inner aspects and because of this there are two kinds of knowledge and two ways to reach them. It can be obviously said that this approach of Bacon is based on St. Augustine’s epistemological views and especially on his doctrine of divine illumination. So, these roots of Bacon’s thoughts about experience, knowledge and science can be regarded as one of the major reasons of his contradictory conceptualisation of experimental science as well as the others which are mentioned previously. In this article, all of these reasons will be investigated to explore the implications of them on Bacon’s experimental science method which he proposed to discover what is hidden in nature.
The Definition and Origins of the Concept of Hidden
First of all, it should be remarked that the words ‘hidden’ and ‘occult’ will be used as synonyms for the rest of this article. According to Peter Forshaw, occult can defined as that which is hidden, secret or concealed but it is also can be understand as a thing that insensible, not directly perceptible and sometimes even incomprehensible by the human intellect. The word also contains the concept of occult qualities in nature which are the qualities in an object which can not explicable by the knowledge that one can receive from physical attributes of that object such as taste, colour, shape and so on.* These qualities are beyond perception of human being and they can not be discovered through external senses. As Lynn Thorndike has stated, this theory was really popular in Middle Ages, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Common view about it was the things in the nature have these occult qualities or virtues which can not be understand by reasoning or logic but must be learned by experiments. The action of the magnet can be given as an example for one of this kind of qualities or virtues.* So, various kinds of sciences have bursted out on the perspective of this theory which are called occult arts or sciences nowadays. Even if they can be diversified by many categories, mainly there were three of them: astrology, alchemy and magic. Many scholars of that era believed that people who are successfully practicing these occult sciences, can be capable of exposing the secrets of nature and even controlling the nature by these secrets. According to Forshaw, medieval philosophy indirectly received all these occult material from Ancient Greek philosophy. Many Arabic texts, which are the translations of Ancient Greek texts, translated into Latin starting from ninth century to thirteenth. There were lots of conceptions related to occult sciences in those texts and scholars in Middle Ages had seen these material as the source of new knowledge.* So, they changed their perspectives and considerations and started to practicing them. Roger Bacon’s interest in these occult sciences was inevitable because he was one of the members of that scholar circle at that time. Therefore, it can be said that his proposition about the method of experimental science is intended for uncovering these occult qualities of things in the nature. It is necessary to examine his concept of experience in order to find a valid proof for this claim.
The Concept of Experience in Bacon’s Philosophy
As can be understood from the explanations under the previous subtitle, Roger Bacon’s conceptions of experience and experiment are a bit different from the modern perspective about them. He divides experience into two kinds as external and inner. In his words, the first one is gained through external senses, and it is for sensory experiences which are coming from the things on the earth, in the nature.* He calls this as experientia and signifies its reception as a common ability between human beings and animals. For him, external experience can be both human and philosophical but it is not sufficient for wholly understanding of the qualities of things. It is not even enough for the full attestation of the qualities of material things and of course it is not possible to get any knowledge on spiritual things with using it. He says there must be an other kind of experience which is inner because of the inability of the experience which is gained through external senses. He defines this kind of experience as a spiritual experience of divine inspiration and describes it as an aid received by illumination. In his terms, this can be referred as experientium. He says the first people such as holy patriarchs and prophets who gave sciences to the world, received that scientific knowledge within an illumination and they did not dependent on sense alone.* At this point, St. Augustine’s influence on Bacon can be clearly seen. Bacon considers experientia that means external experience through the senses which is needed for philosophical knowledge, alongside with experimentium that means inner experience through internal illumination which is needed for divine knowledge. In his conception of experimental science, these two aspects of experience must be together with each other.
Uncovering the Hidden with Experimental Science
Roger Bacon describes experimental science as the only way for testing perfectly what can be done by the effort of art in nature. He sees it almost like a sort of litmus paper to classify what the incantations, conjurations, invocations, deprecations and sacrifices which are belong to magic. For him, it is the accurate instrument for defining the meaning of magic and the things that can be dreamt by this practice. He claims that there can be a scientific truth in the applications of occult arts such as magic, astrology and alchemy. Experimental science as a method can be used for separating this truth of nature from all the other falsities of these occult arts for him. He believes that people can uncover the hidden aspects of nature with this method just as the way that logic does within the sophistical reasoning.* As can be seen obviously, although Bacon’s experimental science claims to be a scientific method, it also has a strong relationship with the pseudo-sciences which are occult arts of his own time. Definitely, there are some reasons in the background of this relation such as his conception of experience similar to St. Augustine’s and the influence of the popular theory of his era which is about the occult qualities of things. If an explanation to be needed, he believed that there are some other qualities or virtues that the objects in the nature hide and experimental science is the best way to discover them because of his perception of an other kind of experience which can be reached by divine illuminations. However, this still does not change the desire of him. It seems like Bacon wanted to make a division between occult arts and science itself. Even so, as Thorndike has stated in an article, Bacon admits that many people confuse experimental science with magic because of the marvels that come out with it when it works.* Besides, he himself associates it with the occult arts of magic, alchemy and astrology. He argues that gold can be made with experimental science better than the practices of alchemy and even better than the production of nature itself. Additionally, in this argument, he is not just talking about the making process of gold, he refers to the quality of it too.* The same goes for astrology and magic. He says that experimental science predict the future better than astrology and human will and acts can be manipulated by using it.* In his starting point, Bacon’s proposition of a new method for science was sounding like a tool for separating the false contents from real science but now, it seems as an effort to make a better version of occult arts of his era when it comes to its applications. He appears as a medieval scholar who condemns the occult arts such as magic but at the same time tries to practicing them. This is a perfect example for our claim at the starting of this article that is about the contradictions in the philosophy of Bacon. In addition to all of these, he offers his experimental science that is a kind of interpretation of occult arts which will be condemned by church later, to the church in order to used against the enemies of the faith such as unbelievers, rebels and even against the forthcoming Antichrist.* This whole story appears such as a massive paradox with a sophisticated humour in it. However, before making irreversible comments, the other aspects of this inconsistency of Bacon’s philosophy must be examined. As in A.G. Molland’s explanation, this paradox can be seen as an evidence of an acute personal dilemma because of Bacon’s natural curiosity.*
Roger Bacon’s Enormous Curiosity: His Interests, Experiments and Mistakes
As repeatedly emphasized earlier in this article, Roger Bacon’s interest in magic, alchemy, and astrology is pretty obvious. So, it is not a surprise that he took lots of advices and hints from witches, enchanters, magicians and jugglers for developing his method of experimental science and practicing some of his experiments.* Related to this, Molland reports one of the famous interests of Bacon as optical illusions and gives a couple of instances about this interest of him. Bacon considers mirrors as really efficient tools because of their ability of reflection. He believes broken mirrors are more powerful because they can be used for multiplying objects and even armies. Molland argues that Bacon had experimented with mirrors to creates illusions of this kind and even he may have got some help from the jugglers of that time who were performing similar tricks.* This is just an assumption but there is a certain proof about his interest in mirrors. It is known that he made two mirrors in University of Oxford and used them for his experiments with the students. One of them was for lighting candles and the other was for spying people in distant lands.* (Amanda) Molland also mentions the legendary ‘brazen head’ which is often attributed to Roger Bacon. It is a device like an automaton which is considered as a bronze head statue that can speak and answer the questions. It is considered as a legend but it can be a mechanical machine that works with water, air or steam. As indicated by Molland, there is no definite evidence for associating this device with Bacon himself, but it is certain that he would be fascinated by such a machine. He might have designed one and showed it to his colleagues.* Bacon himself, also speaks about dragons. There is a passage in his book Opus Maius which he claims that there were some Aethiopians who have came to Europe and domesticated dragons by some kind of occult art for taking advantage of them. He asserts that they rode on these dragons and drove them in the air at high speed.* Thorndike explains this with Bacon’s attitude of copying the works of other experimenters in his time and in the past. According to him, Bacon mentioned many inventions and dreamed of future marvels of science but he did not work any of them in detail.* However, it is true that he went out to explore the world and observed things and events. As Thorndike has stated, Bacon himself experimented undoubtedly but he had not the proper circumstances for experimenting because of his lack of appropriate scientific tools, equipments or exact measurements. So, in Thorndike’s view, he did not have the quality to stand out from his colleagues of his time, with the modern scientific perspective of course. Thorndike also explains the reason for this with Bacon’s credulity which is competing with his enormous curiosity.*
Bacon’s tendency to believe whatever people tell, is of course coherent with his curiosity towards occult arts and his desire for uncovering the hidden secrets of nature. However, there are also some counter examples against this naive attitude of him such as his perspective on prolongation of life. He believes it can be realised successfully but only under the circumstances of a historical approach to this subject. For him, there is a specific regimen for prolonging the duration of life related to health which can be arranged by selected foods, drinks and way of sleeping. However, he claims that this regimen generally is not applied by people when they are young. People only think about their health when they are old and when death is approaching. At that time, they can not apply this regimen because of their weakened powers, senses and their lack of experiences. Thus, the continuation of this situation from fathers to sons, is the reason for a shortened life compared to the beginning of the world. According to him, the change in this cycle can be seen as a solution regarding to prolongation of life at least until the limit which is set by nature. This whole story can be considered as a useful way of application of his experimental science method. However, because of his inevitable tendencies, he mentions another reason for shortened duration of life at the same time and he determines this as the weakening of the soul’s powers because of the sins.* So, the contradiction that is rooted in Bacon’s philosophy is arising once again.
Occult Arts as Sciences in Middle Ages
At this point, it is really important to represent what magic and the other occult arts signify in Middle Ages. The theory related to the hidden qualities of things in nature is already mentioned but there is a necessity for showing the influences of this theory on the perception of occult arts of that time. It is clear that the purpose behind the practices and experiments of these occult arts is to reveal these hidden virtues of nature. Therefore, it can be easily said that how wrong it would be to consider scholars of that period as magicians or charlatans. However, it is also equally possible to divide a medieval science into two aspects through its different approaches towards its superstitiously or naturally applications. For example, superstitious astrology used horoscopes for predicting the character and the future of an individual. On the other hand, the applications of natural astrology were directed to meteorological predictions to prevent disasters such as drought or floods. The astrological practices in the second perspective, drew a lot of attention from the effective scholars and astrology as a scientific domain got into philosophical curriculum of medieval universities.* Today, it can be said that the foundations of the science of astronomy are strongly related to astrology, which is regarded as science in the Middle Ages. The relations between alchemy and chemistry or magic and the other sciences are showing great similarities with the relation between astrology and astronomy.
As Thorndike argues, it is possible to say that magicians were the first ones who experiment and at least speculative science took over this experimental method from magic.* It is known that magic was generally condemned by religious and academic authorities in Middle Ages but after the rise of occult arts and the theory of hidden qualities in nature, a distinction has been made between the types of magic. It was condemned because of the belief which the applications of magic are performed with the assistance of demons. However, after the new translations of Arabic texts, a new perception of magic emerged. In this perception, it was decided that there are two types of magic as natural magic in a licit form and demonic magic in an illicit form. It was thought that people could benefit from the first type of magic to learn and use the hidden qualities of nature such as the characteristics of metals, plants or animals.* As a part of the scientific environment of that era, Roger Bacon’s opinions about magic was substantially similar. He condemned the wrong type of magic which is demonic but tried to practice the useful type of it which is natural. He was trying to stick to the intellectual rules of his time. So, he developed a criterion for magic on account of his own researches for separating the magic from science. It was the legitimacy. For him, if a practice was licit then it was not magic. However, if it was illicit and related to any kind of misuse of knowledge then it was magic and it must be condemned.* It can be said that the boundary between these two areas is rather unclear and Roger Bacon may have crossed that boundary from time to time because of his unlimited curiosity. Nevertheless, this distinction determined in Bacon’s philosophy is still important in terms of its parallelism with the applications and proposals of the experimental science as a method.
The importance of Roger Bacon for history of science and philosophy is indisputable. However, it must be admitted that his scientific contributions such as inventions or discoveries to humanity is a little bit overrated. Even so, his proposition of experimental science is worthy for paying attention from a methodological point of view. On the other hand, in the context of Bacon’s perception of experience and experiment, it should be noted that his suggestion does not have the same qualities as the modern experimental scientific approach. As Thorndike has argued, Bacon’s discussion of experimental science must be accepted as an excellent representation of both the good and bad points of an important movement of the time in the direction of experimental method, instead of being a miraculous original contribution to science and knowledge.* From a modern point of view, although it seems that he suggest a highly rational and totally experiment-based understanding of science, this is not the case at all. He never practically applied the experimental method of science which is supposed that he proposed because of the intellectual conditions of the period, his conception of experience which he inherited from his predecessors, his limitless curiosity and uncanny credulity. Yet, even his idea which there can be a universal scientific method, makes him a very important name for the history of science and philosophy.