Writing in The New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor at Princeton, traces out some of the intellectual origins of the Industrial Revolution, thereby reminding us how we, today, could reboot scientific innovation and medical progress--if we wanted to.
Dyson's essay comes as a review of The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, published by the Oxford physicist-philosopher David Deutsch. Dyson praises the book, declaring that Deutsch "writes clearly and thinks wisely" about topics ranging from Socrates to the multiverse. Yet as Dyson notes, at the core of Deutsch's work is the historical influence of the English prophet of science Francis Bacon (1561-1626). If Bacon is obscure now--perhaps sometimes confused with the 20th century painter--his obscurity is both undeserved and undesirable. No less than Thomas Jefferson described Bacon, along with Isaac Newton and John Locke, as "my trinity of the three greatest men the world has ever produced."
Jefferson admired Bacon for articulating the scientific method, also for beginning to sketch out a national plan for secular scientific and economic progress. As Dyson puts it, "According to Deutsch, Francis Bacon transformed the world when he took the long view, foreseeing an infinite process of problem solving guided by unpredictable successes or failures."
And it's exactly that long view--coupled with patience and, at the same time, dogged determination--that is missing from our current politics, including our medical politics. Does anybody really think, for example, that TV ads urging viewers to call 1-800-BAD-DRUG to see if they can get tort-liability money is part of a "long view" strategy for developing cures? Of course not. Yet politicians who should know better have held "other priorities," allowing our healthcare system to degenerate into a wasteful spending machine; today, we spends trillions on futile care, in part because we haven't been wise enough to invest mere billions on drugs--such as an effective treatment for Alzheimer's--that could actually help people live healthier and work longer.
Perversely, only now, as millions of people are losing the fight with Alzheimer's-related dementia, Washington DC budget mavens are saying instead that we need to chop away at the entitlement programs that allow them to live out their invalided lives in some modicum of dignity. In other words, by neglecting preemptive curative science, we are now faced with a painful choice between spending vast amounts on longterm care or else making politically suicidal cuts in popular programs. (Note to Washington politicians: Nobody is camping out in public parks in support of deficit reduction.)
Such are the high costs of implacable ideology. As the geriatric health and entitlement crisis has worsened, politicians have chosen other fights, most obviously, Verdun-like battles over ideological--some might say theological--economic disputes that only a fraction of the voting population truly believes in. There's nothing wrong with lawmakers fighting for what they believe in, but it's apparent that the ideas put forth by the various combatants--a flat tax, for example, as favored by the right, or a soak-the-rich tax plan, as favored by the left--are simply not going to happen in our closely divided polity. And yet the record of futility in enacting treasured goals does not seem to have dissuaded either side from launching yet one more ideological charge across the partisan no-man's land.
Bacon's approach, four centuries ago, was different. He thought in terms of cumulative learning, not static belief systems. Bacon was not the first empiricist, but he was the empiricist who most ably described the positive benefits of empiricism in aphoristic books of scientific philosophy and even imaginative flights of fiction.
Yet it could be said that Bacon was more intellectually modest than the ideology warriors of today; yet in the long run, he was much more ambitious. As Bacon observed, "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties." That is, scientific curiosity can produce useful answers that settle questions, while rigid dogma produces mostly pushback and another round of fighting.
Okay, but in our time, are we doomed to endless partisanship and polarization over no-win issues, while the overall economic and political system around us continues to deteriorate? Perhaps, but the historical period in which Bacon lived suggests that there's always hope.
In the late 16th and early 17th century, Bacon was surrounded by certainties--zealous, even murderous, certainties. The newly established Church of England squared off against Catholics as well as Protestant Dissenters, in a cascade of events that led to decades of war with Spain and then, ultimately, to a much bloodier civil war in the 1640s. Yet despite all that strife and conflict, in 1660, less than four decades after Bacon's death, English leaders--most obviously, Charles II, a man not burdened by dogma--came together to establish the Royal Society. The Society was an early think tank, created to institutionalize Baconian ideas about the systematic encouragement of scientific progress, and thereby, too, economic progress. That much, at least, virtually the whole of English society could agree upon.
The Royal Society flourishes to this day, even as the Baconian vision has spread out to other institutions. In 1988, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke to the Society, asserting, "A nation which does not value trained intelligence is doomed . . . experience has taught us that knowledge and its effective use are vital to national prosperity and international standing."
Here in America, we might ask ourselves: Are any of our leaders thinking in Baconian--or Thatcherian--terms? Thinking that there might be something more important, say, than tax cuts that are proposed, but not enacted? Thinking that there's something more important than tax increases that are proposed, but not enacted? Thinking that scientific problem-solving--a cure for Alzheimer's again leaps to mind as an obvious project--is better than positional point-scoring? Thinking that America will have to invent its way out of its economic crisis--and that such invention should include the medical sector? If such visionary figures seem scarce today, we can at least hope that the Baconian agenda of scientific progress is so obviously a winner that some politician will grasp it and seek to revive it.
As Dyson observers about Bacon, "He told us to ask questions instead of proclaiming answers, to collect evidence instead of rushing to judgment, to listen to the voice of nature rather than to the voice of ancient wisdom. Bacon predicted accurately the growth of modern science. In the centuries since he wrote, modern science transformed the problem of human destiny. Destiny is now no longer an unalterable fate, irreversibly good or evil. Destiny has become a continuing experiment in which we are free to learn from our mistakes."
Yes, destiny is something we can alter, or maybe even reverse, if we have to. But first, before we can do anything, we need to be reminded of a grim lesson of history: As Thatcher said, a nation that "does not value trained intelligence is doomed." With that sobering realization in mind, enlightened Americans can then go about shaping a better national destiny.