Preceptorial Spotlight: The Project of Modern Science

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[If you’re wondering what a “preceptorial” is, please visit this post first.]

Mightier than hordes of swords, the pen of Francis Bacon slashed through centuries of scholia. His New Organon, published in 1620, was a master stroke of the Scientific Revolution, an epoch of discovery that bridged the Renaissance with the Enlightenment. Since his inauguration of a new way of conducting science, mankind has, year by year, progressed toward perfection.

Or have we? You may think you were quick to doubt the correlation between scientific knowledge and human happiness or virtue, but Jonathan Swift was quicker on the draw. The Irishman saw the modern “improvement” of ancient knowledge as hardly faultless. His humorous hesitation to support Bacon’s project resulted in the epitomes of satire in the English language.

Tutor Steven Forde, who will be guiding his students through the optimistic revolt of the moderns to the sarcastic derision of their critics, had this to say:

“Bacon’s title, New Organon, signaled his intention to overthrow the old Aristotelian “Organon,” Aristotle’s six foundational books on logic, inquiry, and “the nature of nature.” Bacon and the other founders of modern science knew that their new science could not succeed unless Aristotle (and his Medieval Scholastic followers) was vanquished.

Aristotle held that science must culminate in an intellectual grasp of the non-material template of reality and that the human mind is by nature adapted to this task. In addition to arguing that there is no such template, Bacon claimed that the human mind is ill-adapted to grasping such truth as we can gain about nature. The scientific method, as it has since become known, was designed by Bacon in part to compensate for these defects.

The science that Bacon and others launched in this way produced immense advances in the knowledge of, and mastery over, material nature — but criticisms of this science were launched since the beginning. Coming only a century after Bacon, Jonathan Swift gave masterful voice to some of those criticisms in two works, Gulliver’s Travels and Battle of the Books. Our preceptorial will focus on both of these men’s works, assessing whether ancient or modern, Bacon or Swift, has the advantage.”

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