Thursday, May 28, 2009

In defense of artifice -- Part 2

And where, pray, did the West go wrong?

Jay Griffiths has the answer: "...about four hundred years ago, in the West, a new era began, heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, promoting the age of human supremacy, arguing for artifice and a politics of cruelty against nature." She adds: "Francis Bacon was a nasty piece of work."

There you have it. A fork in the road. The West turned the wrong way. Away from sweet indigenous thought, with its balance of all things human and natural, toward the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. And all the fault of Francis Bacon.

More, Griffiths associates Bacon's experimental method with the torturing of witches. In this telling of the story -- which is not original to Griffiths; one wishes, for example, that she had referenced Carolyn Merchant in particular -- in this telling of the story, science is male, nature is female, and science puts nature on the rack to make her yield her secrets. The Enlightenment is founded on misogyny.

Bacon did say somewhere, as I recall, that nature must be "put to the torture" to yield her hidden patterns of order. I do not recall him advocating the torture of witches. The evidence Griffiths cites in this regard has been challenged by Alan Soble and others.

Bacon, of course, was a man of his time, and a rather enlightened one at that, although by no means without his faults. Let us not forget that the experimental method he espoused was already being used to great effect by Galileo and others. Let us also not forget that the persecution of witches in the West ceased as the Scientific Revolution was consolidated.

And where today are witches still prosecuted? Well, precisely in those parts of the world least affected by the Western Enlightenment. So if you are against the persecution of witches, then by all means drag Francis Bacon into the light. It was the empirical way of knowing he espoused that caused the West to question the superstition and religious fanaticism than still afflicts women (mostly) in places like the Congo and the wilds of Pakistan.

Griffiths' anti-science screed is in the tradition of radical feminists such as Carolyn Merchant, Sandra Harding and Evelyn Fox Keller. More power to them, I say; science is surely not immune to sexism, and, as a hedge on hubris, scientists can usefully be reminded of Wordsworth's chastisement:
Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things;
-- We murder to dissect.
It may well be that we are murdering nature, but it is consumerist greed and overpopulation, not intellectual curiosity or the experimental method that is doing the dastardly deed. Those who reject the gifts of the Enlightenment can always find some dark little corner of the planet where they can live in pre-Baconian bliss, leaving human artifice behind.

Meanwhile, scientists will follow their Baconian muse, exposing with their "torture" the secrets of the universe, and you and I will add our dollop of Wordsworthean balance, bringing to the universe revealed by science what the poet called "a heart that watches and receives."