Friday, September 9, 2016

"To generate and superinduce a new nature or new natures, upon a given body, is the labor and aim of human power."

"Super datum corpus novam naturam sive novas naturas generare et superinducere, opus et intentio est humanae potentiae."

     Francis Bacon, Novum organum II.1, trans. William Wood.  I was put onto this by Michael Hanby, "A more perfect absolutism," First things no. 166 (October 2016):  28 (25-31):
If nature is essentially a machine or, in contemporary nomenclature, a system, then the knowledge of nature is essentially engineering.  The task of science, as Bacon put it, is 'to generate or superinduce on a given body a new nature or natures.'  And if knowledge of nature is really engineering, then the truth of this knowledge is essentially whatever is technically possible.  But since the ultimate limits of possibility can only be discovered by perpetually transgressing the present limits of possibility, a technological view of nature and truth commences an interminable revolution against every antecedent order or given limit.  A thoroughgoing technological society will therefore establish revolution as a permanent principle, paradoxically giving it the stability of an institutional form.
Hanby quotes Bacon more accurately in "The gospel of creation and the technocratic paradigm:  reflections on a central teaching of Laudato Si," Communio:  international Catholic review 42 (Winter 2015):  724-747.
     Latin from Bacon's Novum organum, ed. Thomas Fowler, 2nd ed., corr. & rev. (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1889), 343.
     By "natures" (naturae), Bacon seems to have meant something like the simple and (in combination) complex properties that bodies (corpora) canin keeping with "laws of matter" (legibus materiae, II.4) that, if exceptionless, constitute what Bacon calls "form" (forma (II.2, 4))be induced to exhibit or bear.  These (e.g. "whiteness", "heat" (II.3), "color", "weight", "transparency", "tenacity", "vegetation" (II.4), "malleability", "ductility", non-volatility, flammability, meltability, separability, solubility, "stability", "deliquescence" (II.5), etc.) we might call qualities, characteristics, or even accidents, rather than natures in some more deeply metaphysical sense.  They can be "superinduced . . . upon a given body" in combination in such a way as to transform, say, silver into gold, but each is conceptually simple.
     But all of that within the context of the claim that whatever can be accomplished in practice "is most correct in theory" (quod in operando utilissimum, id in sciendo verissimum (II.4)).
     It is the latter point that has to be the main one here.  What we suffer from, according to Hanby, are the implications of this Baconian "pragmatism" as they have worked themselves out downstream:  this identification of the true with what can be physically "superinduced", this reduction of "metaphysics" to "physics" (II.9).
     For this reason, the fact that Bacon wasn't actually talking about "nature" in some more deeply metaphysical sense (e.g. what it means to be human, or a human male on the one hand and a human female on the other) is of less importance than this mentalité that he insinuated in germ, this idea that the truth about me can be discovered or confirmed by physical manipulation experimentally.  And that it can therefore be anything allowed for by the laws of "physics" (as, for example, a "reality" "superinduced" or confirmed by surgery).

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