At a time when everyone wants to impose on us a truth with capital letters, categorical and unquestionable, it is worth looking back to rediscover the ideas of the philosopher Francis Bacon.
A staunch defender of empiricism and the inductive method, Bacon emphasized the role of experience and evidence in knowledge. However, he also realized the obstacles that prevent us from seeing reality as it is.
He identified the most common thinking biases 400 years before Modern Psychology recognized the existence of cognitive biases. A pioneer of modern scientific thought, Bacon believed that if we consider delving into reality and seeking our own truth, we need to get rid of our prejudices.
The first step is precisely to recognize that we are not objective. We all carry a backpack of experiences, expectations, feelings, prejudices, and concerns that influence our judgments. Furthermore, the culture in which we have grown up provides us with a lens through which we see the world.
Each of these variables is a kind of veil that, placed one after the other, distorts our view of the world. This does not mean that reality is unknowable and we cannot arrive at our own truth, it only implies that we must do more to remove the veils that obstruct our vision.
Francis Bacon made reference to four prejudices that can be considered as obstacles to the truth which he called “idols and false notions”. He described them in his “Novum organum scientiarum” and it is known as the “doctrine of idols.”
Francis Bacon’s four idols
1. Idòla tribus or idols of the tribe
It is a bias inherent to the human condition that leads us to project ourselves onto the world, distorting reality and drawing the wrong conclusions. Bacon explained: “The human understanding ends up being a mirror that unequally reflects the rays of nature, since it mixes its nature with the nature of things, distorting and covering the latter.”
“The human intellect, when it finds a notion that satisfies itself because it considers it to be true or because it is convincing and agreeable, takes everything else to legitimize and coincide with it. And even if the force or the number of the opposing instances is greater, they are belittled without taking them into account, or they are confused through intentions and rejected, with serious and harmful damage, to keep the authority of their first statements intact”.
Our expectations, desires, and emotions influence our judgments. “This happens because man believes that what he prefers is true and rejects difficult things due to his lack of patience to investigate; he avoids reality outright, because it depresses his hopes,” warned Bacon. Therefore, we must learn to identify the extent to which we are projecting our wishes onto reality, so that we are not capable of having an objective vision.
2. Idòla specus or idols of the cave
“Each one of us, in addition to the aberrations typical of the human race, has a particular cave or grotto, in which the light of nature is dispersed and corrupted; This happens because of the own and individual nature of each one; because of his upbringing and conversation with the others, or because of the books he reads or the authority of those he admires or honors; or because of the diversity of impressions, depending on whether they find that the mind is occupied by preconceptions, or it is idle and calm,” explained Bacon.
This bias refers to the preconceptions that have been formed due to the education we received, the theories we draw on to explain the world, or the relevant authority figures we identify with. All these preconceptions become limits to understand reality and arrive at a truth that is as objective as possible.
In fact, it is the mechanism on which social networks sustain themselves since they tend to show us content in tune with our beliefs, which ends up narrowing our perspective even more. When we adhere to certain closed systems of thought, we become stagnant and see everything through its prism, losing part of the richness and complexity of the world around us.
3. Idòla fori or idols of the marketplace
This bias arises from the agreement and the association of people, that is why it is called idols of the marketplace or the square. Bacon associates it with the word and the speech since language is not only the tool that allows us to understand ourselves, but also shapes our thinking.
Bacon affirmed that “The words exert an extraordinary violence on the understanding and disturb everything, leading men to innumerable and inane controversies and fictions”. Politicians, for example, are particularly adept at using rhetoric to persuade the masses, provoke certain responses or generate opinion trends. However, words are not reality but a misrepresentation of it.
Bacon alerted us to those words “Still confused and ill-defined […] that arise from a faulty and inadequate abstraction” but which have become deeply rooted in our minds and guide our reactions through emotions, without our knowing very well what they mean. Such is the case of concepts like democracy, freedom or rights that hide weak and disparate meanings, but generate intense emotions that save them from criticism and refutation or reformulation. For this reason, many times the words and the meaning that we attribute to them become a trap to understand reality.
4. Idòla theatri or idols of the theater
Also the current fashions or systems in vogue influence our way of seeing the world. Not even intellectuals escape fads, which can range from religious beliefs to certain social agendas, political movements or simply what is known as “the spirit of the age.”
Bacon himself affirmed that these fashions are not limited to “General philosophies, but also to many principles and axioms of science, which were imposed by tradition, credulity and negligence.” According to the philosopher, they are models that “Have been welcomed or elaborated like so many other fables suitable to be represented on stage and useful to build fictional and theater worlds”.
The idols of the theater are, therefore, narratives of an eminently social or cultural nature that are not entirely true but that, when embraced by many people, are imposed as absolute truths. However, according to Francis Bacon’s doctrine of idols, these narratives are just a shared script that prevents us from seeing further and will likely lose its validity over time.
Bacon, F. (1984) Novum organum: aforismos sobre la interpretación de la naturaleza y el reino del hombre. Ediciones Orbis: España.