Francis Bacon, Christian Transhumanist
In the 1600s, Francis Bacon, creator of the Scientific Method, was advocating Christian Transhumanism.
It’s common for people wrestling with the tension between science and religion to point out that many great scientific pioneers, such as Bacon, Newton, and Faraday, were Christians. Unfortunately, it’s less common for people to ask why these Christians were scientific pioneers, and how they understood the relationship between these two domains.
For Francis Bacon, science was no less than humanity’s religious mission. He believed you could read this right out of Genesis 1, where God laid out his own creative process, and then invited humanity to imitate it.
As Bacon saw it, God had ordained for humanity to rule over the world, and although humanity had corrupted its reign through wickedness, humanity’s reign could be restored through the ambitious, but disciplined, application of humility and love.
It’s important to understand how he saw this fitting together.
Humanity’s power, Bacon said, was knowledge. To know the world was to have power over it. So in order to exercise all the power that God had intended for us to have, we first had to understand everything we could about the world that God had made.
But humanity did not know much about the world God had made.
History had been the slow churning of human ideas and inventions, with accidental discoveries, small leaps forward, and plenty of time spent sliding back into darkness. After eons of learned discussion, most of the best ideas were the same ones people had been discussing thousands of years before.
The problem was that humanity was addicted to its own fantasies, and hadn’t bothered to systematically interrogate nature to see what it actually revealed. Instead of looking to see whether our ideas held up, we deferred to the ideas of people who seemed authoritative or impressive by our own superficial standards.
We had God’s truth written all around us, and had been too distracted by vanity to actually read it.
To change this would mean humbling ourselves, both individually and collectively. It would require laying down our most cherished ideas, in order to be open to God’s own revelation.
This meant intently observing nature, and then systematically devising experiments to unlock the true causes of things. It meant rigorously holding up our most cherished ideas to the bright light of critique—from both the natural world, and each other.
We could no longer assume that we, or the ancients, had gotten it right; we would have to have the humility to open our ideas to criticism from any direction, and any source.
Only then could we be certain that we were moving towards the truth.
This core idea—of systematically seeking to understand nature, and then subjecting our ideas to open, public, egalitarian critique—is the beating heart of what makes science what it is today.
But Bacon also believed that the scientific project had to be driven by love.
After all, the lust for power had been a source of deep corruption, and Bacon didn’t believe that any pursuit founded on that would last. According to Bacon, the pursuit of power alone, or even knowledge alone, led to natural limits.
So if humanity was to achieve unlimited power, it would have to have an unlimited goal.
Bacon thought that the only sure motivation—the only motivation that had infinite scale, and unlimited reach—was the ambition to do good on behalf of all life.
Thus, science could not be merely an academic or knowledge-oriented enterprise. It had to pursue knowledge for the sake of application, leading to the creation of new technologies, for the sake of cultivating a better world.
But if it did this, if humanity could adopt this altruistic motivation, and this stance of humility—then nature would reveal itself to us, and all the power of the universe would be ours.
In his fictional work, The New Atlantis, Bacon laid out his vision of what that might look like.
The story is about the discovery of an island nation that had been forgotten by the rest of the world. By various means, the nation had acquired knowledge of the scriptures, and upon contemplating the religious calling of Genesis 1, had set out to construct a scientific enterprise founded on that mission.
They had constructed observatories, workshops, and manufacturing facilities on high towers, and in deep caves of the earth. They had built instruments of all kinds, and collected detailed measurements of the heavens, the earth, the waves and the wind.
And they had developed all kinds of abilities.
They could create artificial metals, and new tastes and smells. They had new kinds of music, and sounds unknown to other humans. They could project light to form vast scenes and experiences that were indistinguishable from reality.
They could produce food that was bigger, sweeter, tastier; food that had medicinal qualities, or could change people in various ways; food that could make people stronger, or able to go without eating for long periods of time.
They could genetically engineer new species, mix characteristics of different species together into new forms, and provoke the evolution of primitive creatures into more complex ones.
They were able to heal all kinds of diseases, and had techniques for life extension and radical longevity. They had flying machines and submarines.
They could even control the wind and weather.
Francis Bacon was cut off before he could finish telling us where this might go. But this was his vision of science—a vision centered on deep humility, rooted in the audacious belief that humanity was given power over all things, and driven by the Christian mission to create on behalf of all life.
It was also a supremely technological vision, which explicitly rejected the idea of knowledge without application. The purpose of science, as Francis Bacon saw it, was to create new technologies to transform the world, as God had always intended humanity to do.
In every respect, this was a vision of Christian Transhumanism. Bacon didn’t use the term “transhuman”—this was left for Dante, Teilhard, and others—but his vision of humanity as a fundamentally transformational species, rooted in possibilities beyond the world we know, was transhuman to its core.
And in the early 1600s, this was the vision that drove him to articulate the scientific method, and entreat King James (yes, of the Bible) to establish a scientific enterprise at the center of society.
What’s unfortunate is that Christians have been quick to cite Bacon as an example of someone pairing faith with science—without ever stopping to consider why he paired them, or just how deeply that pairing might go.
Bacon believed that in his contemplation of scripture, he had discovered something monumental, and that if he could express this to the world, it would be the dawning of a new era in human history.
Given the impact he had, it’s intriguing to wonder what would happen if Christians were to take his vision more seriously.