'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.
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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.
“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.
About The Author
Michael Wilby, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Anglia Ruskin University