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EDITOR'S CORNER: Descartes, Bacon, Locke and Newton: The Journey of Scientific Inquiry to Truth

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Vincent Valentine, MD
ISHLT Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

In the Editor's Corner for Volume 6 of the ISHLT Links we have immersed ourselves into 18th Century France and specifically, Voltaire. In the previous issues, we reviewed the influence his Jesuit education and the Lady Newton (the Divine Émilie) had on shaping Voltaire into what he would become; the Patriarch of the French Enlightenment. Here we examine one of his most influential works, Letters on the English (or Lettres Philosophiques in France), a series of essays drawn from his experience in England which served to define his intellectual life and attract the Divine Émilie.

While in England, Voltaire learned that the world worked according to one set of laws of physics in France, and by another set in England. He believed the events of the 17th Century philosophical and scientific English revolutions were more important not only for French readers, but for all of mankind. France had recognized the importance of these revolutions but not for their merit. Voltaire argued that France favored Descartes and his philosophy simply because he was French, and that French readers favored French authors. This was not the way of philosophy. Through his philosophical letters, Voltaire proclaimed the obvious superiority of English over French natural philosophy, and above all the French achievements of the 17th Century. The aim of his philosophical letters was to popularize and glorify English thought with open-minded critical inquiry and without prejudice. Most importantly, he sought to emphasize that human thought or philosophy knows no national boundaries and that philosophers are more important to society than political or military heroes, without discriminating against one particular culture or society.

In Letter XII, he started his discussion of philosophy with a tale about discussants debating who was the greatest of all human heroes. Was it Caesar, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane (who conquered much of the world) or Oliver Cromwell, who brought down the 17th Century monarchy and established the British Puritan Commonwealth? Voltaire's answer to this question was Sir Isaac Newton, simply because, while others conquered by force, violence and slavery, Newton enlightened the world. But it was not only Newton; other philosophers had changed the world by the force of truth and thus deserved to be ranked amongst the world's greatest. He asserted that these philosophers, unlike religious enthusiasts, posed no danger to society. Voltaire further posited that philosophers worked peaceably and enriched mankind by voluntary enlightenment, using Michel de Montaigne, Pierre Bayle, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton as examples. And yet, he asserted, France celebrated the 17th Century revolutions of Science and Philosophy on the basis of chauvinism, confining themselves within their national boundaries for the sake of national pride. Their hero, and appropriately so, was Rene Descartes, who brought down Aristotle and promoted the revolution in physics.

Voltaire did give Descartes much credit, for he had freed the human mind from the past by teaching that all things were open to doubt and re-examination; to skepticism. Mankind must pursue knowledge from the beginning by taking nothing for granted from their upbringing and education. Mankind must think clearly and analytically. As a brilliant mathematician and the founder of analytical geometry, Descartes' advances in logic also immortalized him in the history of human thought. However, his error was thinking one could do science in the manner of geometry and, by finding the axioms that were true, one could deduce all other forms of knowledge from the known axioms. The genius of Descartes that glorified France was his logic, his mathematics and freedom of the human mind. "I think, therefore I am."

Voltaire, on the other hand, took France outside the box, from the top down under the inductive reasoning of Sir Francis Bacon, or by the deductive reasoning of Descartes, to the bottom up. Both provided the seeds for the modern scientific method. Voltaire elevated Bacon's status to that of a great theoretician of the new inductive experimental science. Unlike Descartes, he was not a mathematician; he was a lawyer, and promoted an "eye witness" account of empirical observations, as he would if he were accumulating evidence required in building a case in a court of law. Both Descartes and Bacon believed in reducing problems to their smallest constituent parts, but Descartes began with intuition while Bacon began with empirical observations. Like Descartes, Bacon's method emphasized the importance of taking nothing for granted from past knowledge. However, he assumed error is more likely to survive the test of time than truth. He recognized the need to harness the human mind to the facts of this world and to experimentation rather than abstract reasoning. He further emphasized an avoidance of abstract philosophy and beginning with patient observations of nature to construct a hypothesis that is testable. Voltaire concluded that Bacon provided the scaffolding of the new philosophy. He was not a scientist; he did not discover any laws or operations. Instead, what he provided was a method of securing knowledge by seeking knowledge. In Bacon's metaphor, method is the proper path to take one from where one is to where one wants to be. Bacon defines genius as fleetness of foot; the fastest person on the wrong path gets farther and farther away more quickly from where he desires to finish, a warning against action before thought. On the other hand, the one who thinks before he acts, the tortoise, or the plodder on the proper path, ultimately arrives at the truth. Bacon gave us the method of philosophy. For Voltaire, Bacon represented the pinnacle of the new philosophy, whose superiority to Descartes needed to be known.

Next, Voltaire turned to John Locke's empirical sensationalism, the gathering of knowledge by the experience of our senses, which began with a blank slate on which experience prints ideas. Voltaire took us away from the doctrine of innate ideas, as suggested by Descartes. From the influence of religion and innate ideas, it was believed that the principles of thought were placed there by God and, thus, inquiry ends. Locke studied how the mind actually behaves, instead of theorizing about the nature of it. Descartes believed the mind was immaterial substance. According to Descartes, the mind was not body, and it could not be an act of the body because matter was lifeless and without thought. Only soul could think. Locke's counter argument came under theological attack, for in professing to believe as Descartes believed, the mind could not be material; it would be the same as saying the Almighty God in his omnipotence was incapable of creating matter that could think; that God was impotent in creating matter capable of thought. "How could any human being, limited to the knowledge we gathered from the difficulty of the senses, prescribe to God what the world must be or what it must be made of based upon human philosophical ideals?" Locke's argument was honest skepticism and his only conclusion on metaphysical matter was to admit ignorance when human knowledge does not allow us, on the basis of experience, to note something about the world. In Voltaire's famous phrase, "I'm proud to be as ignorant as Locke on this matter," he described his pride in his ability to admit what he did not know, and what human beings could not know, thereby accepting, with appropriate humility, the limits of human knowledge. Voltaire concludes that Locke taught us to avoid unresolvable metaphysical problems but instead, to study the world and its behaviors through the limited natural faculties God provided us.

With Bacon's inductive methodology and Locke's empirical sensationalism, Newton was able to accomplish what Voltaire explained and popularized as proof of his superiority. With Bacon's scaffolding and Locke's approach, Newton discovered the nature of light and its separation into primary colors, and derived his laws of motion. He also had inferred, from the data of nature, one simple law—a sensational law: of any two masses in the world with mass M0M1, there is a force which increases according to the sizes of the masses and decreases according to the square of the distance between the two masses. This was Newton's Law of Gravity. Descartes' could not grasp this universal law of gravitation. His physics assumed that everything occurred by matter touching matter in the manner of the world as one vast fluid in which everything effects everything else by motions; a "butterfly effect." Nevertheless, Descartes did get us on the road to truth, but it was Newton who took us to the end of that journey. Newtonian science redefined what knowledge of nature was all about by removing it from abstract speculation. This Newtonian achievement, in the opinion of Voltaire, was a result of the application of the genius of Newton, Lockean empiricism and Baconian methodology to the study of nature, which altered the human relationship to natural knowledge into one that knew no national boundaries and not unlike the ISHLT. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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