Tuesday 10 May 2011

What "knowledge is power" really means

Francis Bacon Greys Inn
Here's an interesting extract from the book "A Little Knowledge - What Archimedes really meant, and 80 other key ideas explained" by Michael Macrone.

The topic is the saying "Knowledge is Power", and the extract suggests that originally this did not refer to personal power, but to "control of nature". So the original saying is closer to the definition of knowledge as "the ability to take effective action".

"Knowledge Itself Is Power"

This little aphorism appears in Meditationes Sacrae (1597). an obscure work by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), lawyer, politician essayist, and co-inventor of the scientific method. On the surface, the saying is obvious, especially in this age of information. But we're apt to misunderstand what Bacon means by "power", it is not "personal or political advantage", but "control of nature."

Bacon was campaigning against the sterile science and philosophy of his day. Scientific debate, chained to Aristotelian metaphysics and plagued by hair-splitting and sophistry, produced little save grounds for further debate. Meanwhile, the mechanic arts, which the theoreticians considered ignoble, had been making steady and swift advances; gunpowder, Gutenberg's printing press, and the mariner's compass were unmatched by progress in loftier realms.

Sizing up the situation, Bacon concluded that knowledge could be fruitful only if technology and philosophy were united. Instead of debating the fine points of matter and form, scientists directly observe nature, draw conclusions, and employ practical tools to test them. In other words, science ought to be based on induction and experiment, not metaphysics and speculation.

Bacon was hardly the first to suggest the experimental or scientific method. And despite all his talk about it, he performed very few significant experiments of his own. Nonetheless, his contemporaries were impressed, and most great scientific m of the seventeenth century, including Newton, cited his work as a direct inspiration. Furthermore, the collaborative character of scientific research from the 16oos to the present owes much to his repeated insistence that communities, rather than isolated geniuses, are responsible for true scientific progress, and thus "power" over nature.

On the other hand, beyond his own practical shortcomings Bacon's theories do leave something to be desired. He tossed the baby out with the bathwater of speculative science, slighting the role of hypothesis, which he viewed as groundless and thus sterile. All true knowledge, he asserted, derives from observation and experiment, and any sort of prior assumption is only likely to dis­tort perception and interpretation. But without hypotheses, there can be no controlled experiments, which are the essence of the modern scientific method.

Bacon thought the world was essen­tially chaotic, and that therefore it was a mistake to approach nature assuming regular laws. But science has advanced principally by assuming the world is lawful, that there are regular and simple patterns underlying nature.

So Bacon got some things right and some things wrong, and on the whole he was much better at criticizing the old than at fore­casting the new. As a result, his reputation has had its ups and downs. Current opinion is mixed; some celebrate his pioneering work in scientific philosophy, while others blame his doctrine of "knowledge is power" for skewing science towards the exploita­tion of nature. Power, in the view of these critics, has become an end in itself, resulting in materialism and alienation. Bacon him­self thought that social values and morality would always direct and constrain technological advances. It is in this regard that he was most wrong.

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