For nearly a year’s time, I have mulled over the prospect of starting a blog. My delay had been primarily a matter of being uncertain of what to write about – my professional background is in data analytics and programming, but my primary interest is (and has been for several years) in philosophy and religion.
Then in August 2017, after some years of studying the philosophy of the medieval scholastics, I made the decision to seek full communion with the Catholic Church, and was received and confirmed at the beginning of Epiphanytide, on January 7th, 2018.
Something that is as inextricable from my daily life as the Catholic Faith is something I could hardly avoid writing about, yet there are already many fine and not-so-fine blogs that cover nearly every aspect of Catholicism itself: church history, apologetics, scholastic philosophy, the “culture wars,” internecine disputes over the liturgy, criticisms of Vatican II and criticisms of those criticisms (and criticisms of those criticisms, nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum) . All of these things are important in varying degrees, yet it seems to me that there is a quite a wide conceptual space open in the blogosphere for writing that comes from a Catholic perspective, but is not about Catholicism specifically.
This brings me to the subject matter of Bacon’s Bridge, and an explanation of the name. The 17th and 18th centuries experienced a profound revolution in the Western philosophical tradition, the likes of which had not been seen since the 12th century introduction of Aristotle into the West via Arabic scholars and commentators. The old Aristotelian system was cast off as a ridiculous and outmoded relic, the product of a priori hairsplitting and blind reliance on human authority. In its place a new philosophy of human knowledge of the world developed, with an emphasis on empirical foundation and the close understanding and manipulation of nature. While the medieval scholastics had been content to say, in Moliere’s old joke, that opium causes sleep because of its dormitive power – an “explanation” that seemed empty – the new empirical method sought for the details of the chemical explanation of opium’s ability to cause sleep, and in so doing, cast aside the whole notion of causal powers altogether, along with the Aristotelian and scholastic edifice into which it had been built.
Paralleling this revolution in scientific thought was an equally significant and closely-related upheaval in political life. A person born in England in 1640 who lived until the close of the century would have seen the hands of government change four times in military conflicts born out of the country’s religious crises. Someone born in the same country 70 years later and living 60 years until 1810 would have heard of the American Revolution during childhood and the French Revolution in young adulthood, and by her death would have seen classical liberalism go from the pen of John Locke to the politics of Europe at large and America – from which it would go on to become the governing standard for much of the world.
Fast-forwarding a few more centuries from the scientific revolution to the present day, the modern effects of this profound shift are all around us; indeed, it is nearly impossible for even the most devoted technophobes to avoid seeing the artifacts of the revolution, as airplanes pass overhead in wilderness areas and even the very clothes we wear are mass-produced in factories. Yet the philosophical problems raised in the scientific revolution have not faded away, as scientists and philosophers of science have had to grapple with such difficulties as the mind-body problem, the question of whether scientific explanations refer to genuine entities (realism) or are merely useful heuristics whose entities may or may not exist as hypothesized (instrumentalism), why the universe obeys mathematical laws with such consistency, and whether commonsense notions of causality are undermined by the strange sub-atomic world of quantum physics.
More than this, the 21st century has raised new and pressing problems in both science and politics. The specter (or delivering angel, depending on the orientation of one’s Weltanschauung) of transhumanism and strong AI raise deep-seated questions about what human beings – and biological life in general – are, and whether or to what extent they can be replaced or upgraded. And in less grand but hardly quotidian matters, the current and accelerating trend of automation of jobs with weak AI and widespread skepticism and disenchantment with liberal democracy across a world it seemed a mere 20 years ago that the ideology had conquered, to name only a few, society is being compelled to grapple not merely with the application of its ideals to concrete situations, but with its first principles – and all of these ultimately trace back to philosophy.
I contend that none of these disputes can be solved adequately without a proper understanding of two of the most basic philosophical questions, centering around the nature of human beings: what is the human person – both in himself and in society with others – and to what extent is he capable of understanding the universe as it is in itself (versus merely how it appears to him)?
Needless to say, these are very difficult questions; centuries of work have gone into arguing about their answers. I cannot profess any personal authority in treating of them, other than a long-standing interest in philosophy and professional training in computer science. They are, however, of great interest to me, and my intention in writing at Bacon’s Bridge is to attempt to illuminate some of these questions via an interaction between the Catholic philosophical tradition and modern thought.
And finally, a word on the blog’s name. “Bacon’s Bridge” in fact refers to two Englishmen born about 350 years apart: Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon. Roger was a medieval scholastic and Franciscan friar traditionally seen as a sort of morning star of the empirical method in the Middle Ages, while Francis Bacon was one of the chief architects, in his Novum Organum, of the intellectual movement away from Aristotelian scholasticism and towards empiricism.
My intention in writing this blog is to attempt to make clearer the intellectual bridge between classical philosophy that is open to the modern world, as exemplified by Roger, and modern philosophy as exemplified by Francis, that has judged metaphysics as so much word-juggling while producing scientific wonders that demand to have those nagging philosophical questions readdressed.