The Life and Times of Roger Bacon
Since the name of the blog is a play on his name, I kind of have start with a post on Roger Bacon I guess. I recently stumbled on to his Wikipedia and found it absurd and fascinating for a variety of reasons which I will highlight below.
Roger Bacon (c. 1219/20 – c. 1292), also known by the scholastic accolade Doctor Mirabilis, was a medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empiricism. In the early modern era, he was regarded as a wizard and particularly famed for the story of his mechanical or necromantic brazen head. He is sometimes credited (mainly since the 19th century) as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method. Bacon applied the empirical method of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) to observations in texts attributed to Aristotle. Bacon discovered the importance of empirical testing when the results he obtained were different than those that would have been predicted by Aristotle.
The first thing we should acknowledge is that he has a cool name. Believe or not (don’t), Kevin Bacon is a direct descendant of Roger Bacon. I looked up the etymology, there seems to be a lot of theories, but it’s likely that the surname Bacon is of Norman-French origin and might have someone thing to do with the Germanic word Bach for a creek or Bag for fight, meanwhile the old high Germanic word Bahho (meaning back) came to be used for the food bacon, as in the yummy meat on the back of a pig. He has also the sweet honorific name of Doctor Mirabilis.
The second thing we should acknowledge is that for hundreds of years (the early modern era, ~1400-1800) he was regarded as a wizard. You can’t really do much better than that in terms of legacy; you have to some pretty epic shit in your life to be remembered as a wizard for centuries after your death. I had to look up what the hell a necromantic brazen head is, but apparently Roger was famous for possessing a mechanical (or magical) bronze statue of a human head that could not speak on its own, but would answer any question yes or no. Again, a really cool thing to be known for
A picture based on a 1905 re-telling of a fictional story about Roger Bacon
The idea of mythical head that could answer yes or no questions goes back to at least the 11th century, but likely has deeper roots in Nose mythology (Odin’s head of Mirmir). I might have to write two posts about this - one about the history of the concept of Brazen head and one about the prospect of a machine (an AI) that can answer questions. Interestingly, this concept - a super-intelligent system which can only answer questions and has no ability to act in the world, referred to as an Oracle AI by Nick Bostrom - has already been discussed extensively as a possible solution to the problem of developing a Friendly AI.
The question of whether Oracles – or just keeping an AGI forcibly confined - are safer than fully free AGIs has been the subject of debate for a long time. Armstrong, Sandberg and Bostrom discuss Oracle safety at length in their paper Thinking inside the box: using and controlling an Oracle AI. In the paper, the authors review various methods which might be used to measure an Oracle's accuracy. They also try to shed some light on some weaknesses and dangers that can emerge on the human side, such as psychological vulnerabilities which can be exploited by the Oracle through social engineering. The paper discusses ideas for physical security (“boxing”), as well as problems involved with trying to program the AI to only answer questions. In the end, the paper reaches the cautious conclusion of Oracle AIs probably being safer than free AGIs.
A 19th-century engraving of Bacon observing the stars at Oxford. Cool robe, bro.
His biography is fascinating and I recommended reading about it on the Wikipedia page but I’ll provide an abridged version with commentary. He became a master at Oxford around 1230, lectured on Latin, Aristotelian logic, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy at the University of Paris for a while, became a friar at one point, wanted to be left alone and do scholarly work but annoying shit kept happening, eventually his homie became Pope and he got patronage ($$$), then the Pope died and he was maybe thrown in jail for a few years (there are conflicting reports), then he got out and went back to Oxford where he died in 1292. What a life.
So what kind of annoying shit happened to him that kept him from working?
Simon de Montfort led a force, enlarged due to recent crop failures, that prosecuted the Second Barons' War. Bacon's own family were considered royal partisans: De Montfort's men seized their property and drove several members into exile.
After 1260, Bacon's activities were restricted by a statute prohibiting the friars of his order from publishing books or pamphlets without prior approval. He was likely kept at constant menial tasks to limit his time for contemplation and came to view his treatment as an enforced absence from scholarly life.
I hate menial tasks too, I feel your pain Roger.
In 1263 or 1264, a message garbled by Bacon's messenger, Raymond of Laon, led Guy to believe that Bacon had already completed a summary of the sciences. In fact, he had no money to research, let alone copy, such a work and attempts to secure financing from his family were thwarted by the Second Barons' War. However, in 1265, Guy was summoned to a conclave at Perugia that elected him Pope Clement IV. William Benecor, who had previously been the courier between Henry III and the pope, now carried the correspondence between Bacon and Clement.Clement's reply of 22 June 1266 commissioned "writings and remedies for current conditions", instructing Bacon not to violate any standing "prohibitions" of his order but to carry out his task in utmost secrecy.
Thank god we don’t have messengers anymore, man what a colossal fuck-up by Raymond of Laon. Also what a great turn of fortune for Roger that his friend Guy became Pope.
“Clement's patronage permitted Bacon to engage in a wide-ranging consideration of the state of knowledge in his era. In 1267 or '68, Bacon sent the Pope his Opus Majus, which presented his views on how to incorporate Aristotelian logic and science into a new theology, supporting Grosseteste's text-based approach against the "sentence method" then fashionable.
Bacon also sent his Opus Minus, De Multiplicatione Specierum, De Speculis Comburentibus, an optical lens, and possibly other works on alchemy and astrology. The entire process has been called "one of the most remarkable single efforts of literary productivity", with Bacon composing referenced works of around a million words in about a year.”
Say what you want about his ideas, but you can’t deny the productivity. I will be happy to achieve a fraction of that output.
Bacon's 1267 Greater Work, the Opus Majus, contains treatments of mathematics, optics, alchemy, and astronomy, including theories on the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies.
It was not intended as a complete work but as a "persuasive preamble" (persuasio praeambula), an enormous proposal for a reform of the medieval university curriculum and the establishment of a kind of library or encyclopedia, bringing in experts to compose a collection of definitive texts on these subjects. The new subjects were to be "perspective" (i.e., optics), "astronomy" (inclusive of astronomy proper, astrology, and the geography necessary in order to use them), "weights" (likely some treatment of mechanics but this section of the Opus Majus has been lost), alchemy, agriculture (inclusive of botany and zoology), medicine, and "experimental science", a philosophy of science that would guide the others.
I find this very inspiring for a variety of reasons. Bacon seemed to regard his greatest work as only a preamble to something even greater. His ultimate goal was to reform the state of knowledge, to change how it was compiled, taught, and produced. The breadth of his work is incredible too – physics, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, alchemy (proto-chemistry), and philosophy.
In the broadest sense, I would say I basically have the same goal as Bacon – I would like to improve the way knowledge is produced, disseminated, and taught. Bacon didn’t seem to worry about the modesty of his goals, so why should I?
A few more funny tidbits
In this work Bacon criticises his contemporaries Alexander of Hales and Albertus Magnus, who were held in high repute despite having only acquired their knowledge of Aristotle at second hand during their preaching careers. Albert was received at Paris as an authority equal to Aristotle, Avicenna and Averroes, a situation Bacon decried: "never in the world [had] such monstrosity occurred before."
Fake philosophers get no love.
In Part I of the Opus Majus Bacon recognises some philosophers as the Sapientes, or gifted few, and saw their knowledge in philosophy and theology as superior to the vulgus philosophantium, or common herd of philosophers. He held Islamic thinkers between 1210 and 1265 in especially high regard calling them "both philosophers and sacred writers" and defended the integration of Islamic philosophy into Christian learning.”
In Part IV of the Opus Majus, Bacon proposed a calendrical reform similar to the later system introduced in 1582 under Pope Gregory XIII. Drawing on ancient Greek and medieval Islamic astronomy recently introduced to western Europe via Spain, Bacon continued the work of Robert Grosseteste and criticised the then-current Julian calendar as "intolerable, horrible, and laughable"
A passage in the Opus Majus and another in the Opus Tertium are usually taken as the first European descriptions of a mixture containing the essential ingredients of gunpowder. Partington and others have come to the conclusion that Bacon most likely witnessed at least one demonstration of Chinese firecrackers, possibly obtained by Franciscans—including Bacon's friend William of Rubruck—who visited the Mongol Empire during this period. The most telling passage reads:
“We have an example of these things (that act on the senses) in [the sound and fire of] that children's toy which is made in many [diverse] parts of the world; i.e. a device no bigger than one's thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre [together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder] so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment [containing it], that we find [the ear assaulted by a noise] exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning.”
The Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature and on the Vanity of Magic (Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae et de Nullitate Magiae), also known as On the Wonderful Powers of Art and Nature (De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae), a likely-forged letter to an unknown "William of Paris," dismisses practices such as necromancy, but contains most of the alchemical formulae attributed to Bacon, including one for a philosopher's stone and another possibly for gunpowder. It also includes several passages about hypothetical flying machines and submarines, attributing their first use to Alexander the Great. On the Vanity of Magic or The Nullity of Magic is a debunking of esoteric claims in Bacon's time, showing that they could be explained by natural phenomena.
To recap: He was not afraid to call out frauds or idiotic calendar systems and could be kind of a dick about it, he was the first European to record the recipe for gunpowder, he was down with Islamic philosophy unlike many of his contemporaries, he apparently had a recipe for the philosopher’s stone, and wrote a book calling bullshit on magical practices of the day.
He was also partially responsible for the addition of optics (perspectiva) to the medieval university curriculum.
By the early modern period, the English considered him the epitome of a wise and subtle possessor of forbidden knowledge, a Faust-like magician who had tricked the devil and so was able to go to heaven. Of these legends, one of the most prominent was that he created a talking brazen head which could answer any question. The story appears in the anonymous 16th-century account of The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon, in which Bacon speaks with a demon but causes the head to speak by "the continuall fume of the six hottest Simples", testing his theory that speech is caused by "an effusion of vapors"
Around 1589, Robert Greene adapted the story for the stage as The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay,one of the most successful Elizabethan comedies. As late as the 1640s, Thomas Browne was still complaining that "Every ear is filled with the story of Frier Bacon, that made a brazen head to speak these words, Time is". Greene's Bacon spent seven years creating a brass head that would speak "strange and uncouth aphorisms" to enable him to encircle Britain with a wall of brass that would make it impossible to conquer.
Hold up. So the story is that he made a bronze head that spoke “strange and uncouth aphorisms” and was somehow going to use it to encircle Britain with a wall of brass that would make it impossible to conquer? Okay, got it. Time is.