Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Prerequisites for Understanding Bacon's Induction Part 1: Natural Magic


In 2006, John McCaskey stated in his dissertation that Bacon's view of induction could not be fully understood without acknowledging the Aristotelian background from which it arises. I'll discuss that in Part 2; for now, I want to discuss the natural magic tradition that Bacon uses for his own purposes. Since Bacon doesn't address any particular magicians in his criticism, neither will I, but I will discuss his general criticism of the practice of magic.

In short, Bacon agreed with the general aim or purpose of natural magic, while rejecting and criticizing its particular methods and the fields of practical magic themselves, such as astrology and alchemy.

(A note on references to Bacon's work, Novum Organum. Bacon used aphorisms instead of page numbers, so I'll do the same. If I quote Bacon from Book 1, Aphorism 12, then I'll put in parentheses (1.12))

Natural Magic in General

Natural magicians considered themselves students of the true natures and properties of things, which cannot be revealed in ordinary, everyday life. They studied the occult, or hidden wisdom, "Truth," something greater and deeper than the truth that people can grasp on the surface of things.

There are three worlds which influence things: the intellectual/spiritual world, which rules over the celestial world, which in turn rules over the terrestrial world. Through studying the occult, these magicians would penetrate through ordinary experience and understand the operations and causes contained in these worlds. They can then use this occult knowledge to naturally affect things in otherwise impossible ways.

To name a host of things they thought could be accomplished: the creation of a Philosopher's Stone; the subsequent transmutation of base metals into gold; the ability to know the secret conversations among men; the accruement of vast wealth; the besting of one's enemies; the approval of men; the Elixir of eternal Life and curing of all diseases or ill health; the Elixir of eternal Youth; the ability to truly predict the future, and knowledge of things happening many miles away without being there. With true knowledge came limitless practice, the ability to do anything. (For most of my examples here, see: Sublime Occult Philosophy)

Bacon on Magical Practice

Bacon's dismissal of magical practice, and of its practitioners, is unequivocal. He calls writers on natural magic and alchemists "suitors and lovers of fables," suggesting that they court and fall in love with the fictions they think to be the truth (2.29). He associates astrology with "dreams, omens, divine judgments," calling all of them "superstition" (1.46). Natural magicians most often fail in their goals or fabricate results, but ascribe to that no significance (ibid.) These people, in Bacon's view, have discovered little, and of those they have figured out, nothing of any grand importance; even their investigations appear to contain faked results (for instance, those who would write instructions for making a "Philosopher's Stone" or "Magic Mirror," through which one could reach an Astral plane) (1.73).

The only use that the actual practice of magic may have is this: that we should investigate a little into what students of magic were investigating, in order to determine if any hidden operations were really at work, such as the motions of celestial bodies that astrology purportedly studied (2.31).

Hopes of Magic, Aims of Bacon

Despite this harsh criticism, Bacon wasn't opposed to what natural magicians were doing in theory, but merely their methods in practice. As Dr. McCaskey points out, from the natural magic tradition Bacon "draws language about man being the interpreter of nature and the themes of effecting change by understanding the ways of nature" (Regula Socratis, p. 251-52).

Bacon's reason for connecting himself with the natural magic tradition is essentially due to the sort of abilities that magic is rumored to have. According to Sir Walter Raleigh (an advocate of natural magic), it can "bringeth to light the inmost virtues, and draweth them out of Nature's hidden bosome to humane use: ...Virtues hidden in the center of the center" (History of the World, book 1, ch. 11). Proponents of natural magic proposed that it would enable us to discover and manipulate the occult, hidden properties and qualities which belong to things, increasing both our knowledge and our power in the world. Ignoring the differing methods of Bacon and the magicians, this is precisely what Bacon wanted to accomplish with his theory of induction: its practice would lead to the true natures and workings of the universe at large, increasing our knowledge and allowing us to hold unlimited power and control over the world, and thus improve our material condition.

After discovering the true natures and forms of the world, it is the science of Magic that instructs us in how to give these forms and natures to bodies, changing them in any way which we choose (2.1, 2.9). To change a body into gold, for example, an alchemist would spend his resources and time towards the creation of a Philosopher's Stone, which would do the work for him. For Bacon, turning something into gold means knowing the forms and natures of gold, and thus being able to change a given body's qualities--its color, weight, underlying structure, hardness, and other qualities--into those of gold (2.5). The alchemists used Vulcan, the roman God of fire, as the representative of their philosophy, perhaps due to the alchemical practice of using fire in many of their experiments and distillations of metals, because fire could separate or combine bodies in solutions. Bacon believes along with the alchemists that there's a true method to separate and combine bodies, but,
...not by fire indeed, but rather by reasoning and true induction, with the assistance of experiment, and by a com­parison with other bodies, and a reduction to those simple natures and their forms which meet, and are combined in the compound; and we must assuredly pass from Vulcan to Minerva, if we wish to bring to light the real texture and conformation of bodies, upon which every occult and (as it is sometimes called) specific property and virtue of things depends, and whence also every rule of powerful change and transformation is deduced (2.7).
We must leave aside alchemy's obsession with fire--their allegiance with Vulcan; instead, we should ally ourselves with Minerva, the roman Goddess of wisdom, and start a new science and art of reasoning which will go beyond the practical intents of the alchemists.


The magicians were misguided in their methods, but not in their overarching goals. There's another group similar to this, in that Bacon agrees with their aims, but disagrees with their practical means of achieving them: the Scholastics. To understand Bacon's issues with the Scholastic school of philosophy, however, a reader would need to be a somewhat advanced student of Aristotle's works. This student would need to know technical terms in Aristotelian philosophy, like syllogism, demonstration, substance, formal cause, induction, middle term, matter, and redargutions (among other terms). The transmission of the Aristotelian background needed to understand these terms, and thus to understand Bacon's reasons for reacting against the Scholastics and writing his book, is the purpose for part 2.

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