If Scientists Were Angels

From The New Atlantis:

Francis Bacon is known, above all, for conceiving of a great and terrible human project: the conquest of nature for “the relief of man’s estate.” This project, still ongoing, has its champions. “If the point of philosophy is to change the world,” Peter Thiel posits, “Sir Francis Bacon may be the most successful philosopher ever.” But critics abound. Bacon stands accused of alienating human beings from nature, abandoning the wisdom of the ancients, degrading a philosophy dedicated to the contemplation of truth, and replacing it with something cruder, a science of power.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis goes so far as to compare Bacon to Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus:

You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants … but gold and guns and girls. “All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command” and “a sound magician is a mighty god.” In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible.

Lewis draws the final phrase of this critique from Bacon’s New Atlantis, the 1627 utopian novella from which this journal takes its name. But why would a publication like The New Atlantis, dedicated to the persistent questioning of science and technology, name itself after a philosopher’s utopian dreams about magicians on the verge of becoming mighty gods?

According to the journal’s self-description on page 2 of every print issue, this is not the whole story. Bacon’s book raises questions about the moral and political difficulties that accompany the technological powerhouse it depicts, even if it “offers no obvious answers.”

Perhaps it seduces more than it warns. But the tale also hints at some of the dilemmas that arise with the ability to remake and reconfigure the natural world: governing science, so that it might flourish freely without destroying or dehumanizing us, and understanding the effect of technology on human life, human aspiration, and the human good. To a great extent, we live in the world Bacon imagined, and now we must find a way to live well with both its burdens and its blessings. This very challenge, which now confronts our own society most forcefully, is the focus of this journal.

The fact is, people have been puzzling over Bacon’s uncanny utopia for four hundred years without being able to pin it down. The reason for this is simple: We’ve been reading it wrong. Bacon’s New Atlantis is not an image of things hoped for or of things to come. It is an instructive fable about what happens when human beings stumble across the boundary between things human and things divine, a story about fear, intimidation, and desire.

Human beings have always lusted after knowledge, specifically that knowledge which promises to open our eyes so that we might become like gods. Bacon did not invent or ignite this desire, but he did understand it better than most.

In form, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis is modeled loosely on Thomas More’s Utopia. A ship full of European sailors lands on a previously unknown island in the Americas where they find a civilized society in many ways superior to their own. The narrator describes the customs and institutions of this society, which in Bacon is called “Bensalem,” Hebrew for “son of peace.” Sometimes Bacon echoes, sometimes improves upon, More’s earlier work. But at the end of the story, Bacon turns to focus solely on the most original feature of the island, an institution called Solomon’s House, or the College of the Six Days Works.

This secretive society of natural philosophers seeks nothing less than “the effecting of all things possible,” as C. S. Lewis duly notes. Bacon devotes a quarter of the total text of New Atlantis to an unadorned account of the powers and insights the philosophers in Solomon’s House have. Then the work ends abruptly with no account of the sailors’ trip home or the results of their discovery. The story ends mid-paragraph, with a final line tacked on at the end: “The rest was not perfected.”

What is the meaning of this tale? The first and simplest answer was given by William Rawley, Bacon’s chaplain, who was responsible for publishing New Atlantis after Bacon’s death. He wrote in his preface to the work: “This fable my Lord devised, to the end that he might exhibit therein a model or description of a college instituted for the interpreting of nature and the producing of great and marvellous works for the benefit of men….” The founders of the Royal Society, Great Britain’s famous scientific academy, seem to have had a similar idea a few decades later: Bacon “had the true Imagination of the whole Extent of this Enterprise, as it is now set on foot.”

Link to the rest at The New Atlantis