Francis Bacon on the Certainty and Deceptiveness of Sense-Perception

Daniel Schwartz

UC San Diego

Abstract: 
There is an important tension within Francis Bacon’s discussions of sense-perception. On the one hand, he is clear that sense-perception plays a fundamental role in the construction of a “sacred shrine to the pattern of the world,” in that “all Interpretation of Nature starts from sense, and leads from perception of the senses by a proper, straight and secure route to the perceptions of the intellect,” and he even goes so far as to call himself a “high priest of the sense.” He is also critical of skeptics for undermining the certainty of sense-perception, and his criticisms make little sense unless he regards sense-perception as certain. On the other hand, he refers to errors, faults, desertions, and deceptions of the senses. My contention in this paper is that it is by adhering to an Epicurean account of the senses that Bacon can recognize these faults while still justifiably regarding sense-perception as a reliable foundation for natural history. More specifically, Bacon follows in the footsteps of the Epicureans in his answers to four crucial questions about sense-perception: 1. What are the immediate objects of sense-perception? Bacon holds that they are mind-independent, thereby avoiding the problematic inference from sense data to the world that is required by representationalists. 2. What is the relationship between reason (logos) and sense-perception? Bacon holds that the reports of sense-perception are alogos, or non-notional and non-propositional. This is important because it means that the so-called faults of the senses are merely necessary conditions of intellectual errors. Properly speaking, then, the mind is responsible for the errors in question. Sense-perception itself, since it is alogos, does not make errors and is neither true nor false in the propositional sense. 3. What is the epistemological status of the reports of sense-perception about the world? Here Bacon accepts the controversial Epicurean thesis that all sense-perceptions are true. By this he means that they register mind-independent objects or qualities—that is, whenever sense-perceptions vary or change, there is some corresponding variation or change in the world. The so-called faults and deceptions of sense-perception are not exceptions to the thesis that all sense-perceptions are true, when “truth” is thus defined. 4. What are the consequences of withholding assent to the reports of sense-perception about the world? Bacon believes that withholding assent would render scientia impossible. Bacon’s answers to these questions, since they depend on what must for Bacon be an a posteriori account of sense-perception (or on pragmatic considerations in the case of the fourth question), should not be construed as a refutation of the skeptic about sense-perception. Indeed, Bacon never says that he can refute the skeptic. I characterize them instead as a way of defusing skeptical arguments or, in other words, of showing that their doubts about sense-perception are unreasonable. So when Bacon implies that sense-perception is certain, it is most charitable to take him to mean that all sense-perceptions are true beyond a reasonable doubt and, in particular, that they are not vulnerable to the arguments offered by skeptics.