Saturday, July 4, 2015

Is There a Baconian Great Filter?

In keeping with the previous blog post on Great Filters, saying that anthropology and history might lead to more well-defined candidates for a Great Filter, this post will provide one example, that of a genius whose insights transformed society. Can one person be a Great Filter? In other words, does the appearance of the right intellectual or other leader at an opportune time and place change society so much that without him, the planet would fall off the track forever? We are talking about the gradual progress from a planet being a lifeless sphere of rock, gas and water and turning into the original home of a space-traveling species. That’s a lot to demand of a single person and equivalently, a great weight to put on the accomplishments of that person.

Great Filters depend on something being very unlikely to occur, and on not having happened on all the other planets where the predecessor circumstances were right. In other words, if a society on Planet Blutz develops agriculture and a feudal system, nobody like Earth’s Bacon stands up and figures out how science should be done and starts something like the Royal Academy of Science, which on Earth served as a catalyst for Bacon’s scientific methodology to be propagated far and wide. Whether there are any planets with these predecessor circumstances is not known, as we do not have the astronomy instrumentation capable of detecting any signature the aliens might give off. We will not know until we develop these instruments or actually go out traveling and notice what happened on other worlds. So the Baconian Great Filter is only a concept, not a candidate. But so are almost all other ideas for Great Filters. At least we know the details of how the Baconian Great Filter was passed here on Earth, which is more than we know about some other Great Filter hypotheses which have been discussed. Our ignorance of such details is not an indication of a Great Filter, only of our own delays in doing the proper research and exploration to find out what the processes are. When you don’t know how something happened, it might be easier to guess that it was hard, rather than it being something which happened a million times and then a million minus one times another event happened which negated the progress that step provided.

Who was Sir Francis Bacon? If you haven’t read the wiki on him, here is a summary. He was born on the 22nd of January, 1561 in London, England, the second son of Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife, Anne Bacon, who also came from a notable family. He was a sickly child, and was apparently home schooled by his mother and tutors. As was the custom of the day, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge University at the age of 12, and studied there three years, in Latin. The education of the day followed the medieval curriculum, based largely on Aristotle, and Bacon committed educational heresy by concluding that Aristotle’s methods of science were erroneous. This was almost equivalent among the educated classes of rejecting established religion. Aristotle had been resurrected with the rest of the Greek classics, and there was simply nothing else to successfully contradict his insights during the centuries that had passed, neither from Roman thinkers nor from European thinkers during the medieval period.

Bacon was successful to a degree in English society and the English court, but did not seek great wealth or power in the mercantile area. He instead became a Member of Parliament, which he maintained on and off for various districts for over thirty years. His fortunes fluctuated, ranging from being arrested for debt to becoming the Attorney General for England. In England at that time, the favor of those in power made all the difference in someone’s financial and political successes, and Bacon did impress people with his intellect, but at times that was not enough to garner some political prizes which he sought.

He became a friend of King James I, but his enemies in Parliament continued to undermine his career and he was charged with corruption, in matters related to his long-term debts. He was for a few days imprisoned in the Tower of London, and then confessed to the charges, receiving a large fine which the king had removed. He had admitted taking money from those he prosecuted, but declared that he had never let these gifts influence his decisions. In the end, he was stripped of all political office and any opportunity to continue in Parliament. It is not known whether he confessed because of threats of much worse punishment, the ‘plea bargaining’ of the day, or if it was all or partially valid.

After his disgrace, Bacon retired and devoted his time to writing, and some of it related to the views he adopted as a youth of how science should be conducted. Before Bacon, two people with different views would attempt to resolve them by citing ancient Greek authorities or if appropriate, some other learned writing, perhaps from Church sources or from classical sources. After Bacon, they would do experiments and resolve their differences. There is no way to exaggerate the difference in how the world of science proceeded before and after Bacon. Obviously such a tremendous change of methodology and criteria for belief would take long to permeate society, but now we never would dispute what the preferred method would be.

He is known for being the guiding light for the Royal Academy of Science, but after having written plans for how it should be organized and conducted, he died in 1626 before it could be started. His inspiration was followed by others who put his plan into effect, and the RAS began to revolutionize how science was done. Science underwent a transition from being a disorganized collection of interesting scientific ideas on how things worked, with no reliable way for verification, to being restricted to the scientific method of reproducible results, tabulated and measured appropriately. That was the mountainous changed accomplished by Sir Francis Bacon. Non-scientists may not appreciate what this means, but some biographers have credited our technological world to what Bacon invented, the scientific method.

The scientific method seems so obvious and intuitive now, with its ideas of checking the prediction of a theory against a credible mass of empirical observation, but that is because the concept has so permeated our thinking that is part of the culture. At Bacon’s time, it was not. Bacon was not the only person to have been thinking along these lines, and the scientific method did not spring out of his head entirely, but the texts he authored were perhaps the clearest description of how scientific learning needed to be done. Before the Baconian transition, knowledge was anecdotal; after the Baconian transition, knowledge could be based on reproducible experiments. Bacon wrote about the sources of the errors in common knowledge, and how mistaken generalization often misled. Thus, the Baconian transition is a time when chaotic thinking was replaced at least in a few arenas by deductive reasoning.

This had not happened in other cultures, such as the Egyptian, the Mayan, the Greek, the Roman, the Aztec, the Persian or anywhere else. In Europe at that time the intelligentsia in different countries and city-states were in written communication, which while slow and laborious, was effective in spreading ideas. Although Bacon lived in England, other scholars elsewhere in Europe interacted with him, and may have provided some inspiration. But the point of the Baconian transition does not depend on which of the details making up the process of scientific thinking came from which person. The point is that at that time, one man pulled it all together and true science emerged, and it did so at no other place and time.

It is possible to imagine an alien civilization that climbs to the technology level of the Romans or the Mayans or the Egyptians, and then falls back because no intellectual in that civilization had the revolutionary insights which Bacon did. What leads a person, even an extremely intelligent person, to a discovery of that magnitude? Did it depend on his age and temperament when he was a teen-aged student at Trinity? Did some friends inspire him to reject the learning of the last millennia and seek to replace it all with something he himself dreamed up? Perhaps further investigation of his life will lead us to know this, but for now, it seems reasonable to assume that the Baconian transition might be the Great Filter that blocked alien civilizations which existed throughout the galaxy for the last billion years from getting to technology even at the level we have today. We may be the winners of a 1 in 100,000,000 lottery.

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