The 17th-Century Philosopher Whose Scientific Ideas Could Tackle Climate Change Today

The 17th-century Philosopher Whose Scientific Ideas Could Tackle Climate Change Today
'Portrait of Francis Bacon', Paul van Somer I (1617)

If we don’t make a fundamental change to the way we are living, the world faces the destruction of entire eco-systems, flooding of coastal areas, and ever more extreme weather. Such was the stark warning in a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The task is enormous.

One way to approach it is to look back to a time when scientific thinking did manage to initiate revolutionary changes in our outlook. In the 17th century, the philosopher Francis Bacon called for a “great fresh start” in our thinking about the natural world, and helped usher in the scientific revolution that replaced the staid thinking of the time. We could do worse than follow his example once again – this time in our social and political thinking – if we are to tackle the biggest challenge of our era.

In his key work Novum Organum, Bacon identified “four idols” of the mind – false notions, or “empty ideas” – that don’t just “occupy men’s minds so that truth can hardly get in, but also when a truth is allowed in they will push back against it”. A true science, he said, should “solemnly and firmly resolve to deny and reject them all, cleansing our intellect by freeing it from them”.

Bacon’s idols – listed below – are no longer part of standard scientific thinking, but they are still in place within our moral and political thought, and provide a useful model for understanding the challenges we face and how we might respond to them.

The idols of the tribe

For Bacon, these “have their foundation in human nature itself … in the tribe or race of men”. Human understanding, says Bacon, “is like a false mirror, which … distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it”.

Bacon was referring to our understanding of the world around us. But his point applies to our morality too. As the philosopher Dale Jamieson has argued, our natural moral understanding is too limited to grasp the moral consequences and responsibility that comes with a problem like climate change, in which diffuse groups of people cause a diffuse set of harms to another diffuse set of people, over a diffuse range of time and space.

Since the “idols of the tribe” are natural and innate, they are tricky to shift. As Jamieson argued, one way to combat them is for individuals to mindfully cultivate green virtues, such as rejecting materialism, humility about your own importance, and a broad empathy with your ecosystem.

The idols of the cave

“Everyone has a cave or den of his own,” Bacon wrote, “which refracts and discolours the light of nature.” The cave is the knowledge set, specific to each individual, as a result of their upbringing and learning.

This has become even more splintered in recent years, as people follow their own silos of information online. For instance, although most in the UK think that rising global temperatures are the result of man-made emissions, a sizeable minority (25%) do not. On the day of the recent IPCC report, much of the UK press ran as their main story a drunken kiss between two contestants on a reality TV show.

To combat the idols of the cave we must ensure that, through education, the media and culture, the scientific consensus behind climate change is well known.

The idols of the market place

For Bacon, these arose “from consort, intercourse, commerce”. Everyday language, he argued, diminishes our understanding of the world by promoting concepts “imposed by the apprehension of the vulgar” over those of “the learned”.

The language that dominates contemporary political and economic discourse similarly diminishes our relationship with the natural world. The emphasis is on profit, consumption and continuous growth, rather than well-being and sustainability. Consequently, our economic system is not well geared towards the environment.

The 17th-century Philosopher Whose Scientific Ideas Could Tackle Climate Change TodayTitle page of Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, 1674 edition. Francis Bacon / wiki

Donut Economics”, and the “post-growth” movement are useful proposals for reframing our economic systems and combating Bacon’s idols of the market. At a global political level, the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a basic political vocabulary for tackling climate change.

The idols of the theatre

These “are idols which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies[…]representing worlds of their own creation”. They are preconceived dogmas – of a religious, political or philosophical kind – that undermine clear, evidence-based thinking about the world.

In contemporary politics, preconceived dogma – often in the form of vested interests – continues to exert a hold on our response to climate change. For instance broadcasters routinely invite climate change deniers (often industry-funded) to debate points of scientific evidence, on the grounds of “balance”.

To combat the idols of the theatre, we need a recognised global hub where relevant information from expert bodies can be assessed and translated into actions. This would be the modern equivalent of the French mathematician Marin Mersenne in the 17th century, whose wide range of contacts (from Hobbes to Pascal to Descartes to Galileo), allowed to him act, as Peter Lynch puts it, like “a one-man internet hub” for the emerging scientific revolution.

To tackle climate change, we urgently need a far-reaching restorative project, of similar scale and scope to the scientific revolution. Such change can sometimes seem remote and difficult to conceive. Yet, as Bacon himself put it:

By far the greatest obstacle to the progress of science – to the launching of new projects and the opening up of new fields of inquiry – is that men despair and think things impossible.The Conversation

About The Author

Michael Wilby, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

List Price: $27.00
Sale Price: $27.00 $16.11 You save: $10.89


List Price: $23.00
Sale Price: $23.00 $18.75 You save: $4.25


List Price: $30.00
Sale Price: $30.00 $26.09 You save: $3.91


enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfrdehiiditjakomsfaptruesswsvthtrurvi

LATEST VIDEOS

Blue Ocean Event : Game Over?
by Just Have a Think
A Blue Ocean Event, or Ice-Free Arctic, is the source of almost fever pitch speculation in the climate science world.…
Climate Change - The Facts by Sir David Attenborough
by David Attenborough, BBC
After one of the hottest years on record, Sir David Attenborough looks at the science of climate change and potential…
Why it’s time to think about human extinction
by Kerwin Rae
After listening to this ep with Dr David Suzuki, you’ll never be the same again. The environmentalist, activist,…
Record Temperatures 20-25C Above Norm in far North
by Paul Beckwith
The Northwest Territories of Canada had March temperatures above 20C for the first time (hit 21.6C or 71F); breaking…
Why New CO₂ Capture Technology Is Not The Magic Bullet Against Climate Change
Why New CO₂ Capture Technology Is Not The Magic Bullet Against Climate Change
by Chris Hawes
According to a recent major UN report, if we are to limit temperature rise to 1.5 °C and prevent the most catastrophic…
Why Climate Change Will Dull Autumn Leaf Displays
Why Climate Change Will Dull Autumn Leaf Displays
by Matthew Brookhouse
Every autumn we are treated to one of nature’s finest seasonal annual transitions: leaf colour change and fall.
Climate denial isn’t stopping climate action.
by David Wallace-Wells
Climate change denial draws headlines. But is it actually an obstacle to climate action? A great majority of Americans…
Energy Storage: How to store renewable energy?
by Total
Under your bed, in the attic even on your mobile phone, it seems there's never enough storage. It turns out it's also…

LATEST ARTICLES

Misreading The Story Of Climate Change And The Maya
Misreading The Story Of Climate Change And The Maya
by Kenneth Seligson
Carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere have reached 415 parts per million – a level that last occurred…
File 20180122 182968 19hqzwv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Why Climate Change Is Worsening Public Health Problems
by Espinosa Chelsey Kivland and Anne Sosin, Dartmouth College
Around the world, the health care debate often revolves around access. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the…
Crops at risk from changing climate
Crops at risk from changing climate
by Tim Radford
Global warming could bring yet more challenges to a hungry world. New studies have identified precise ways in which a…
Seeing The Planet Break Down In Climate Crisis Is Depressing – How To Turn Your Pain Into Action
Seeing The Planet In Climate Crisis Is Depressing – Turn Your Pain Into Action
by Cameron Brick
Environmentalism can feel like a drag. People trying to reduce their environmental impact often feel stressed and…
Global Inequality Is 25% Higher Than It Would Have Been In A Climate-stable World
by Nicholas Beuret
Those least responsible for global warming will suffer the most. Poorer countries – those that have contributed far…
Jason Kenney's Victory Means We'll All Pay The Price For Fossil Fuel Emissions
Jason Kenney's Victory In Alberta Means We'll All Pay The Price For Fossil Fuel Emissions
by D.T. Cochrane
Jason Kenney has led the United Conservative Party to victory in Alberta. There were manyobjectionablecomponents to the…
How Can Trees Really Cool Our Cities Down?
How Can Trees Really Cool Our Cities Down?
by Roland Ennos, University of Hull
In cities around the world, trees are often planted to help control temperatures and mitigate the effects of the “urban…
Beto O’Rourke Releases $5 Trillion Climate Change Proposal
Beto O’Rourke Releases $5 Trillion Climate Change Proposal
by Global Warming & Climate Change
But Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activist group that has advocated for the…