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Scientific Inquiry of Bacon and Descartes

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During the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, both Francis Bacon and René Descartes established and promoted their own forms of scientific inquiry and natural philosophy. Francis Bacon promoted the use of inductive research with the goal of benefiting mankind, and René Descartes promoted the use of mathematics in scientific understanding. Both Bacon and Descartes challenged, and were radically different from, the traditional Aristotelian school of thought, and each believed that the old scientific processes were useless in proving beneficial theories. Both men used God to support and justify their systems of scientific inquiry. Although Bacon and Descartes disagreed in their use of mathematics, and inductive reasoning vs. practical analogies, both contributed to improving the scientific process.

Francis Bacon’s scientific inquiry was based on induction, which was very different from the traditional Aristotelian inquiry based on deduction. Aristotelian philosophers formed conclusions by going from the general to the specific, therefore using deduction to support their ideas and theories. For example, an Aristotelian deduction might be that all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, and therefore Socrates is mortal. Bacon rejected the use of deduction because he believed that you could arrive at a more correct assumption by using a few particulars to support a general statement . A simplistic example of inductive reasoning is, this ice is cold and therefore all ice is cold. Bacon proposed that the use of the deductive, or demonstrative, system was flawed because it only produced particular statements and not general ones . For these reasons, Bacon believed that the scientific system of the time was only good for scholastic debate on existing knowledge, and was completely useless in discovering important works, or new practical applications .

Bacon’s goal for scientific inquiry was to discover practical applications that benefited mankind, which was another difference from the Aristotelian philosophers. In New Atlantis Bacon says, “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bonds of Human Empire. ” Bacon believed that if knowledge did not help humanity, then it was not important or worthy of discovery . He wished to know how things worked in order to control them to the advantage of mankind. Examples of this type of inquiry in New Atlantis are Bacon’s description of the use of minerals in medicine and his discussion of the use of science in creating new plants which are used to feed the people . Bacon’s system of scientific inquiry was designed, by using inductive reasoning, solely to discover practical applications that would aid humanity. Whereas, the goal of Aristotelian philosophers was to deduce truths from the natural world that might, as an indirect result, produce practical applications.

RenĂ© Descartes promoted a system of scientific inquiry based on mathematics which completely rejected the philosophy of the ancients. Descartes believed that his system of inquiry was far more truthful because it was based on sciences which were founded in mathematical certainty, not opinion . Descartes adopted a mathematical system, pysico-mathematical, which described the motions of the universe and became his trademark and the basis of his method of scientific study . He developed this by using physical analogies and then applying the same mathematical principals to the universe . Descartes believed that all physical matter could be completely described using mathematics, and this led to his use of mathematical models. For example, in order to better understand the movement of planets, Descartes created a graphing system which used x,y,z coordinates. The addition of the “z” coordinate, adding a third dimension, was a lasting mathematical innovation. Descartes’ belief in mathematics as the best tool for scientific inquiry was so strong that it was important to him that his method should be taught in the various universities, replacing the fundamentally flawed Aristotelian system.

Bacon and Descartes both used God to support and justify their systems of scientific inquiry, which is another way they differed from the traditional Aristotelian school of thought. For example, in Bacon’s New Atlantis, the society of Bensalem is a utopian Christian society which is centered on knowledge and learning. This society represents Bacon’s ideal society. Also in New Atlantis, the people in the House of Solomon give daily prayers to God in thanks of the knowledge that they have learned and the hope that they can put that knowledge to good use . God plays an even bigger role in Descartes theories. He believes that God put the universe into motion and that, since God is a perfect being, He conserves all motion which He introduced into the universe . This conservation of energy is one of the most important principles of Descartes’ system, and lays the ground work for much of his mathematical inquiry.

One major difference in how Bacon and Descartes approached scientific inquiry is that Bacon was a major proponent of inductive reasoning while Descartes used practical analogies. Bacon supported the idea of taking a few specific experiments then applying them to a large broad theory . An example of this can be seen in Solomon’s House in New Atlantis. In it Bacon shows how people gather facts from observation and experimentation, others test the facts, then general truths would be drawn from these facts, and then finally these general truths would be put to practical applications . This was Bacons’ ideal model of learning, and he wanted institutions developed based on the model of the Solomon’s House, where discovery of knowledge is worked into practical applications that benefit society. Instead of solely using inductive or deductive reasoning, Descartes often used everyday practical experiments and analogies to explain his principals and laws. An example of this can be seen with Descartes’ analogy of the vat of wine grapes, which he used as a way to study how the pressure of light functions.

Another difference between Bacon and Descartes is that Bacon did not view mathematics as extremely important in scientific inquiry, whereas Descartes believed that mathematics was the only way to discover and learn. Bacon believed that mathematics could be used to help explain things, but the knowledge could only be discovered through inductive reasoning. He stated that mathematics, “should only give limits to natural philosophy not generate or beget it. ” This is very contradictory to Descartes’ view of mathematics. Descartes described everything physical in terms of mathematics, nothing else existed for him . Furthermore, Descartes believed that everything that existed could be explained in terms of mathematics.

Although they had their differences, both Francis Bacon and René Descartes established and promoted their own forms of scientific inquiry and natural philosophy which challenged the traditional Aristotelian school of thought. Both Bacon and Descartes believed that the old scientific processes were useless in proving beneficial theories, and that God was important to their systems of scientific inquiry. Bacon believed that Aristotelian methods were worthless without the goal of benefiting mankind, and due to the use of deductive reasoning. Descartes believed that science should be based on mathematics, rather than opinions, and described all things in mathematical terms. Because their ideas were radically different from Aristotelian theories, both Bacon and Descartes benefited the world by being major contributors to the Scientific Revolution.


Bacon, Francis New Atlantis (1626;1999)Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the Sciences. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Descartes, The World (1629-1633; 1998) 16-37

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