Francis Bacon and the alleged conflict between science and the Bible
Published: 11 May 2021 (GMT+10)
As an academically precocious individual, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) attended Cambridge University at age 12 (1573). His father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth I. His mother, Anne Cooke Bacon, played an important role in his education, teaching him the classics (including Latin and Greek languages), Italian and French, as well as the Bible and Christian doctrine.
In 1575, at age 14, Bacon joined Gray’s Inn to train as a Lawyer. He then served as Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613), and Lord Chancellor of England (1618), during the reign of King James I.1
Bacon is best known today for having inaugurated a widely regarded form of the scientific method. That is, the laws of science are discovered by gathering and analyzing data from experiments and observations. Before this, in the Renaissance, there was widespread reliance on armchair arguments based on the beliefs of ancient Greek authorities such as Aristotle.2
Bacon was also responsible for promoting the division of knowledge into two branches, viz., ‘natural philosophy’ (as science was called back then), and the Bible. This ultimately contributed to the modern mindset that alleges there is a conflict between science and religion. To be fair, Bacon thought that these two branches affirmed rather than contradicted each other.
Bacon’s fascination with knowledge
Francis Bacon believed in God and the Bible. In particular, he taught that the creation as recorded in Genesis was a literal history of six days, the product of God’s works of power and wisdom.
Bacon’s fascination with knowledge is displayed in his book Valerius Terminus (1603) with his discussion of the Genesis account of Adam’s naming the animals (Genesis 2.19–20). He thought this biblical narrative provided evidence that Adam originally had perfect knowledge of the natural world surrounding him.
Bacon proposed that Adam had this perfect knowledge in his innocence, because God made him in His “image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26). And so Bacon believed that when God brought the animals to Adam “to see what he would call them” (Genesis 2:19), Adam gave the animals names that were in accordance with their essences or true natures.3
Bacon distinguished between Adam’s ‘pure knowledge of nature’, and moral knowledge. This distinction manifested when he ate the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:17), with the intent “to give law unto himself, and to depend no more on God.”4
The Great Instauration
He believed that Adam’s original knowledge of nature was lost but not obliterated by the Fall, and could be retrieved. So Bacon’s quest consisted of an attempt to recover this lost knowledge to its original perfection. He called this pursuit ‘the Great Instauration’, the title of his written work.
Bacon presented his case for this restoration in his Novum Organum (1620), the second part of The Great Instauration. He argued that in the investigation of nature one should avoid the human tendency to treat as truth our own preconceived ideas that are coloured by our own experiences and biases. Bacon regarded these subjective human biases to be such hindrances to scientific progress that he called them ‘idols’. He therefore urged his readers to purge them from their minds.
Bacon taught that the only legitimate method that can be used to study nature and how things work, and minimize bias, was the inductive method of scientific reasoning. This means arguing from specific instances to general principles. This involves making careful, systematic observations, asking questions, and conducting experiments to find answers, all of which are synthesized to reach a general conclusion. He explained this method in Book II of the Advancement of Learning (1623).5
However, induction is formally logically fallacious. For example, no matter how many white swans you observe, you can’t prove that no black swans exist. Modern theories of science thus include notions of falsification, not just repeated verifications. See this explanation of the verification fallacy.
One example of such inductive reasoning comes from the work of the 16th century anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564). He was the first person to perform dissections of the human body so that he could understand human anatomy and how the body works. Relying on observation rather than abstract theorizing was a great advance. Previously, too many used an ‘argument from authority’: whatever classical authorities such as Galen said must be right.
In 1624 Bacon wrote the sci-fi story The New Atlantis,6 a novel about a hypothetical land in which ancient wisdom has been lost. But now the scientific method is being used in a central role in the gathering of information, the structuring of society, and the practice of life. His island kingdom of Bensalem is basically a centrally organized research facility, where specially trained teams of scientists conduct experiments. Then they apply the knowledge they gain for the benefit of society.
The ‘Two Books’ idea
Bacon’s experimental method led him to treat nature as a separate and distinct entity from the Bible. This led to the concept of ‘two books’, the book of Scripture (God’s Words), and the ‘book of nature’ (God’s works). In Valerius Terminus he wrote:
Our Saviour says, ‘Ye err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God’; thus laying before us two books to study, if we will be secured from error; viz., the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God, and the creation, which expresses his power;7
In his Novum Organum, he deplored as folly the “corruption of philosophy by mixing it up with superstition and theology”, and stated:
Yet some of the moderns have indulged this folly with such consummate inconsiderateness, that they have endeavoured to build a system of natural philosophy on the first chapter of Genesis, the book of Job, and other parts of Scripture; seeking thus the dead amongst the living. And this folly is the more to be prevented and restrained, because not only fantastical philosophy, but heretical religion spring from the absurd mixture of matters divine and human.8
It is ironic that Bacon formulated his doctrine of ‘two books’ from the Bible. Sadly, this has led to the fallacious belief that the Bible is limited to matters of the spirit and the soul, and is utterly distinct from (and irrelevant to) the so-called ‘book of nature’. The latter has become a euphemism for the current atheistic evolutionary teaching about the physical world we live in today.
Bacon’s dichotomy between nature and the Bible helped pave the way for Charles Darwin’s erroneous evolutionary conjecture. That is, all life forms on Earth, including humans, supposedly evolved from ancestral species and had their origin from within nature itself. It has also contributed to science becoming divorced from any moral purpose. Some glaring examples have been the eugenics push in both Allied and Axis countries pre-WW2. And in the present day, we have controversies that have arisen about abortion, euthanasia, cloning, and stem-cell research.
The Baconian problem and how to solve it
Bacon professed faith in God and the Bible, and he fully accepted Genesis as real history. The late Henry M. Morris, who co-authored The Genesis Flood, regarded him as a “devout believer”. Nonetheless, Bacon may have been dismayed that his writings have also achieved much harm as well, with modern atheists going a lot further than Darwin did. The concept of Bacon’s ‘two books’ has been used by them to denigrate the Bible and fervently promote their anti-God agenda.
However, human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). Without the book of God’s Word, the Bible, scientists have no real foundation for science itself. Science cannot prove the basic reliability of the senses, the universality of the laws of logic, and the uniformity of nature. Rather, all these must be presupposed for the dependability of the scientific method. So it’s no accident that science grew out of a Christian worldview starting in medieval Europe, and was stillborn elsewhere.
The correct approach is not separate books, but recognizing that science should be used ministerially to aid understanding of Scripture. It should never be used magisterially, to overrule the propositions of Scripture.
References and notes
- In 1621, Bacon was accused by his enemies of “taking bribes in connection with his position as a judge. … He lost all his offices and his seat in Parliament, but retained his titles and his personal property. Bacon devoted the last five years of his life entirely to his philosophical work.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Francis Bacon. Return to text.
- In the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles pioneered the belief that all matter was composed of four elements: fire, air, water, and earth; to which Aristotle (384–322 BC) added a fifth element: aether. Return to text.
- Bacon, F., The Works of Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, in Vol. 3: Philosophical Works, Eds. Spedding, J., Ellis R.L., and Heath D.D., Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 297. Return to text.
- Bacon, F., Ref. 3, p. 265. Return to text.
- Bacon, F., The Great Instauration, SMK Books, pp.21, 35-36. Return to text.
- Available in Google as ‘The project Gutenberg E-text of The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon’. Return to text.
- Bacon, F., Valerius Terminus, in Ref. 3, p. 221. Return to text.
- Bacon, F., Novum Organum, Aphorism 65. Return to text.