Our Very Own Francis Bacon

Francis BaconFew individuals have done as much to chart the course of science and technology in the modern world as the the Elizabethan statesmen and intellectual, Francis Bacon. But Bacon’s defining achievement was not, strictly speaking, scientific or technological. Rather, Bacon’s achievement lay in the realm of human affairs we would today refer to as “public relations.” Bacon’s genius was Draper-esque: he wove together a compelling story about the place of techno-science in human affairs from the loose threads of post-Reformation religious and political culture and the scientific breakthroughs we loosely group together as the Scientific Revolution.

In story he told, knowledge mattered only insofar as it yielded power (the well-known formulation, “knowledge is power,” is Bacon’s), and that power mattered only insofar as it was directed toward “the relief of man’s estate.” To put that less archaically, we might say “the improvement of our quality of life.” But putting it that way obscures the theological overtones of Bacon’s formulation and its allusion to the curse under which humanity labored as a consequence of the Fall in the Christian understanding of the human condition. Our problem was both spiritual and material, and Bacon believed that in his day both facets of that problem were being solved. The improvement of humanity’s physical condition went hand in hand with the restoration of true religion occasioned by the English Reformation, and together they would lead straight to the full restoration of creation.

Bacon’s significance, then, lay in merging science and technology into one techno-scientific project and synthesizing this emerging project with the dominant world picture, thus charting it’s course and securing its prestige. It is just this sort of expansive vision driving technological development that I’ve had in mind in my recent posts (here and here) regarding culture, technology, and innovation.

My recent posts have also mentioned the entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who is increasingly assuming the role of Silicon Valley’s leading public intellectual–the Sage of Silicon Valley, if you will. This morning, I was re-affirmed in that evaluation of Thiel’s position by a pair of posts by political philosopher, Peter Lawler. In the first of these posts, Lawler comments on Thiel’s seeming ubiquity in certain circles, and he rehearses some of the by-now familiar aspects of Thiel’s intellectual affinities, notably for the sociologist cum philosopher Rene Girard and the political theorist Leo Strauss. Chiefly, Lawler discusses Thiel’s flirtations with transhumanism, particularly in his recently released Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, a distilled version of Thiel’s 2012 lecture course on start-ups at Stanford University.

(The book was prepared with Blake Masters, who had previously made available detailed notes on Thiel’s course. I’ll mention in passing that that tag line on Masters’ website runs as follows: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”)

As it turns out, Francis Bacon makes a notable appearance in Thiel’s work. Here is Lawler summarizing that portion of the book:

“In the chapter entitled ‘You Are Not a Lottery Ticket,’ Thiel writes of Francis Bacon’s modern project, which places “prolongation of life” as the noblest branch of medicine, as well the main point of the techno-development of science. That prolongation is at the core of the definite optimism that should drive ‘the intelligent design’ at the foundation of technological development. We (especially we founders) should do everything we can “to prioritize design over chance.” We should do everything we can to remove contingency from existence, especially, of course, each of our personal existences.”

The “intelligent deign” in view has nothing to do, so far as I can tell, with the theory of human origins that is the most common referent for that phrase. Rather, it is Thiel’s way of labeling the forces of consciously deployed thought and work striving to bring order out of the chaos of contingency. Intelligent design is how human beings assert control and achieve mastery over their world and their lives, and that is an explicitly Baconian chord to strike.

Thiel, worried by the technological stagnation he believes has set in over the last forty or so years, is seeking to reanimate the technological project by once again infusing it with an expansive, dare we say mythic, vision of its place in human affairs. It may not be too much of a stretch to say that he is seeking to play the role of Francis Bacon for our age.

Like Bacon, Thiel is attempting to fuse the disparate strands of emerging technologies together into a coherent narrative of grandiose scale. And his story, like Bacon’s, features distinctly theological undertones. The chief difference may be this: whereas the defining institution of the early modern period was the nation-state, itself a powerful innovation of the period, the defining institution in Thiel’s vision is the start-up. As Lawler puts it, “the startup has replaced the country as the object of the highest human ambition. And that’s the foundation of the future that comes from being ruled by the intelligent designers who are Silicon Valley founders.”

Lawler is right to conclude that “Peter Thiel has emerged as the most resolute and most imaginative defender of the distinctively modern part of Western civilization.” Bacon was, after all, one of the intellectual founders of modernity, on par, I would say, with the likes of Descartes and Locke. But, Lawler adds,

“that doesn’t mean that, when it comes to the libertarian displacement of the nation by the startup and the abolition of all contingency from particular personal lives, his imagination and his self-importance don’t trump his astuteness. They do. His theology of liberation is that we, made in the image of God, can do for ourselves what the Biblical Creator promised—free ourselves from the misery of being self-conscious mortals dependent on forces beyond our control.”

And that is, as Lawler notes in his follow-up post, a rather ancient aspiration. Indeed, Thiel, who professes an admittedly heterodox variety of Christianity, may do well to remember that to say we are made in the image of God is one way of saying we are not, the Whole Earth Catalog notwithstanding, gods ourselves. This, it would seem, is a hard lesson to learn.


Update: On Twitter, I was made aware of a talk by Thiel at SXSW in 2013 on the topic of the chapter discussed above. Here it is (via @carlamomo).

16 thoughts on “Our Very Own Francis Bacon

  1. Hi Michael, I don’t know if you read these comments or whether they disappear into some hard drive…. I like to think you do.

    The articles you write are thoughtful and seem to delve deep into a crisis that we face, therefore I am encouraged to respond.

    Didn’t Descartes say “I think therefore I am”. Is that true?

    Surely that depends what “I” he means.

    The thinker… hmmm, I wonder what takes place in meditation when thought comes to an end, when there is no thinker. Who is the “I” then? Thought ends at death, because the brain, being the storehouse of memory and knowledge, dies.

    So if he is thought, then he is dead :)

    Bacon’s art I do not find uplifting or inspiring, it’s ugly. I assume its an expression of what he see’s in himself and others. I don’t know much about this man, but the words “knowledge and power” have something to do with secrets. The thinker being the thinker does what it usually does with knowledge and power. One has to look into luciferian energies in regards to that area.

    I know this is probably a simplistic way to look at him, but I was once told “You can always tell a tree by its fruit”, I am looking at his art :)

    It is a dangerous idea for the thinker to get a hold of the idea that they are gods (whole earth catalog). One of the problems that we human beings have is this massive accumulation of knowledge without creating strong spiritual foundations. What protects a human being if we do not know what we are. The further we progress the closer we come to the understanding that we have infinite potential. But what is your foundation. Who has infinite potential? Can you see how we are getting ourselves into trouble.

    The thinker cannot handle that, it starts to create an identity where it is not answerable to its Creator and instead takes on the role of the Creator but that’s an illusion of thought, thought being the accumulation of the past, the dead, that which resists death. The Universe being a big school of sorts, has a way of dealing with such entities and that’s to kill them.

    The one way those entities can escape that for a certain amount of time is in spaceships, life extension and a 4d existence. But the darkness is always waiting for them… it’s a horror beyond our comprehension and humanity is not to flirt with those ideas, for, we are mostly good and even though things are very difficult and contradictory in the world, we are to struggle with our spirituality.

    Therefore it is my opinion that the thinker needs to come to an end before we can be “a wave on the ocean”. You see everything points to the reality that there are many levels above us and below us. Things that we cannot see or conceive of, we try to imagine but that is just thought.

    So sometimes we need to go back into nature, investigate our old beautiful traditions and culture, reconnect with our families and be a good, inspiring, creative example for the people who are following us. So that we do not lead them into darkness.

    Without meaning to sound authoritative, we need to be very careful especially at this moment, who we follow.

    Above everything, keep a strong core, fight to know and feel your Spiritual Father, sometimes we need to take a step back and realise that we don’t “know” shit, even if we think we do. Knowledge is not intelligence.

    There’s something about what you have written, it concerns me. It is essential that mankind reconnects with their spirituality. Their are intelligent forces that are beyond the comprehension of memory, thought and knowledge. This area, which is totally invisible, supports us in our day to day activities, but it is our responsibility to make that connection.

    There is a crisis, it’s a trap, that play’s itself out in the secret world, to do with the third eye, freemasonry, knowledge and what we can comprehend. Once the seat of consciousness is opened before the heart has gathered all it needs, we comprehend but without the fire to proceed! So take a step back and work on your spirituality.

    I have written a lot and said a lot. You cannot say those things if you are part of the secret, to come out of it you have to cut your ties and bow your knee to the right God. It is not separate what you say and what I write, even though it may appear to be.

    Take care

    1. I definitely read the comments. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the opportunity to respond to each one of them. This blog is mostly an avocational pursuit, one that I enjoy very much, but I do have a limited amount of time to devote to it. I am grateful to all who find the time to read and comment.

      I appreciate your comment and perspective. Just one quick note, the Francis Bacon I referenced above is not the 20th century painter. On his art, of which I’m only faintly familiar, I have no opinion.

  2. The book is all over the place, and thus not very good. That could be a sign of the type of nonspecialized intellectualism from a bygone era… but I suspect that is an overly kind perspective. He certainly does have influence, and that makes him worth talking about. I just don’t think most of his SV faithful have the critical faculties for a proper assessment.

    (Here is my short review https://chadkohalyk.com/blog/2014/09/28/zero-to-one/)

  3. I’m not an expert on Francis Bacon, but I understand that in addition to being a statesman and story teller for the integration of techno-science and society as you emphasize, he was also an originator of the scientific method with emphasis on empiricism and experimentation. I believe he played an important role in the development of the scientific method of experimentation followed by induction.

    To me, this is what keeps science honest, and I’m afraid we are somehow leaving this legacy behind with this sense that we can create any world we want without even looking very hard at the world we actually have. Looking briefly at Thiel, I see this latter tendency, though maybe I’m wrong.

    It was with respect to the scientific method and empiricism that I referred in my comment on your previous post that I believe has been one of the major drivers of technological development.

    1. Boaz,

      I’m not entirely clear on this, but my understanding is that while Bacon’s name is often associated with the scientific method, he was more of a popularizer than an originator. Again, I might be wrong about that. In any case, he was a hugely important figure.

      Again, speaking as an outsider, it seems that scientific innovation depends on both on the looking hard at the world we have and imagining one we don’t. It’s the shape of that imagining that I tend to find particularly interesting. But that imagining certainly ought to be anchored to the world, both in the inductive sense you mention above and also in the sense that it should anchored in our real world needs.

      Working my way back to last week’s comment now!

      1. Whether he was an innovator or popularizer of the scientific method, I think we can agree that Bacon was a supporter of the scientific method.

        I like your formulation of science as having both a technical part and an imaginative part. I think that’s really true. But the technical part involving experiment is really crucial. The goal is to understand something concrete in a repeatable way. A starting point of wonder and mystery is very important for this.

        Thiel’s graph with 0-1 on one axis representing creation of new stuff and 0-N on the other representing spreading that new stuff around the world looks to me like a plan for colonization more than a plan for understanding and problem solving flowing from there.

        In any case, I don’t see Thiel as embodying the approach or values of a scientist, though I could be wrong. And it was this comparison to Bacon that I reacted against.

        1. Right. If the concern is that unlike Bacon, Thiel is not a scientist, then, yes, that is correct. My comparison would only extend to Bacon’s role as an advocate for a particular vision of what science could be.

          1. Ok, but without a grounding in the empirical, this is not something that is recognizable as science to me. As long as there are huge amounts of the world that remain not understood, one cannot simply do away with the empirical part of science. Maybe one could call it a political agenda?

          2. Thinking about it a bit more, I should probably read more about Thiel before having such strong opinions. I tend to be against private enterprise and science in big companies, but I suppose that has its role in the scheme of things…

          3. I don’t think Thiel makes any claims to being a scientist. He is speaking as an entrepreneur interested in technological innovation. Obviously he has somethings to say about science insofar as it is related innovation, but he does so as an outsider. Certainly there is an agenda, political in part perhaps, economic and social as well. Basically, he has a point of view about tech innovation and he is trying to get others to see things as he does.

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