Sylva sylvarum: experiments on transmutation of bodies (24.04.2012)

This meeting followed two important directions: 1) the relation between Bacon’s matter theory and Sylva Sylvarum Century I and 2) the particular discussion of experiments 25 to 30 and the way they connect to the other experiments of Century I. This post deals with the second one.

(25) Experiment solitary touching the making of artificial springs. Before touching the actual experiment, Bacon makes a series of observations about experiments in general that are worth being mentioned. First, we are told that although it may be unexpected, Bacon actually continually rejects experiments. Yet, he tells us that “if an experiment be probable in work and of great use, I receive it, but deliver it as doubtful”: a) How should we understand Bacon’s skeptical attitude towards experiments? b) Does he have a criterion (or criteria) for a trustworthy experiment? Bacon’s constant skeptical attitude towards experiment shows that he does not accept experiments at face value. He seems to believe that some experiments do not provide certain knowledge, and that one has to be constantly aware of the experiment’s limitations, and of its construction, and how this tool should be used for the study of nature. A good demonstration of Bacon’s constant preoccupations with the limits of experiments is the first set of experiments from Sylva, where he criticizes Della Porta’s experiment of filtration of seawater as a bad case of translation (from a natural fact to an artificial fact). Thus, Della Porta’s experiment is taken to be an unreliable experiment whose results are not trustworthy. Consequently, for Bacon, what is important is not whether indeed sand can filter the seawater and make it potable, but the fact that Della Porta’s experiment is not actually telling us anything about that particular phenomenon.

The experiment of an artificial spring goes as follows: On sloping land, a hole is dug, and in the hole a trough of stone is introduced. The hole is covered with brakes and sand. What it is observed, according to Bacon’s source (Bacon did not actually perform the experiment), is that even after the rain stops, a spring of water can be observed at the lower end of the trough. According to Bacon, if this is the case, then this phenomenon can be read as a case of transmutation of air into water because it is as if “the water did multiply itself upon the air, by the help of the coldness and condensation of the earth, and the consort of the first water.”

If this reading is correct, then this experiment should be correlated to experiment 27 which discusses the version and transmutation of air into water. This experiment is interesting in many respects. The experiment cites 4 processes through which air is transmuted to water, or in terms of matter theory, a more pneumatic body (the air) into a more tangible body (the water). Those 4 processes are: condensation (as the example of experiment 25), compression (e.g. distillation vapors, dews), the mingling of moist vapours with air (method suggested for testing via an experiment), and via the porosity of bodies. A few things need to be noted. Bacon grades those 4 processes differently: the first 2 are apparent and sure, the last 2 are considered probable, but not yet manifested. Bacon deals with study cases of these processes later on in Sylva, in an entry entitled Experiments in consort touching the version and transmutation of air into water, where the experiments from 76 to 82 deal precisely with how the ‘version’ is acquired via such processes. The immediate question raised is why Bacon chose to (or did he actually choose to?) separate experiment 27 from experiment 76–82. In fact, experiment 29, entitled Experiment solitary touching the condensing of air in such sort as it may put on weight and yield nourishment, seems to fit well with these experiments. This entry touches on also a process of transition of air, as a pneumatic body (the air) to a denser, tangible body. Bacon’s reasoning is the following: usually for sprouting, seeds/plants are buried in the ground and watered. Yet, some things sprout even if they are only left in the air. Bacon proposes to verify whether those things that sprout in the air increase in weight, thus gain some solid mass. If they don’t increase in weight, then the sprouting is just an inner transformation of the body. If they do increase in weight, then Bacon reasons that the only place where this new mass could come from is the air, which in return would mean that the pneumatic air has transformed into a denser, tangible body. Some things to be noted here: the conclusion Bacon reaches here is dependent on his matter theory. Moreover, we could see the experimental proposal that Bacon makes here as a case of a corroborative evidence for the problem of transforming air into a denser body. A second thing: this experiment could also be used to study the problem of whether air can nourish or not, which is nothing other than a case of translation, one of the methods of experientia literata.

Coming back to experiment 27, we observe that this experiment includes some methodological moves worth mentioning: One of the examples given as a case of transmutation of air into water via condensation is the following: “and the experiment of turning water into ice, by snow, nitre, and salt, would be transferred to the turning of air into water”. Provided the 8 rules of EL, this would be a case of production by extension, since as exp. 82 claims, it “is a greater alteration to turn (artificially) air into water, than water into ice”. The same experimental setup is used to study two different problems: whereas the transformation of water into ice is a case of induration of bodies (a process happening in the same body), the transformation of air into water is a case of transmutation (a case of transition from one species to another).

If a connection seemed apparent between these experiments, we couldn’t trace any ways to connect experiments 26 and 28.

Experiment 26 entitled Experiment solitary touching the venomous quality of man’s flesh. This ‘experiment’ establishes a correlation between cannibalism and its malignant effect for human bodies on the basis of a collection of reported instances of cannibalism. In this example, we could say, in modern terms, that instances are corroborated and that a fact (that syphilis/“the disease of Naples” was originally caused by cannibalism) is considered to be probable precisely because of its status as corroborated evidence. On the other hand, we failed to see how this experiment connects to previous ones or how this experiment could be suggested by any of the others that Bacon has presented so far. Even more, we failed to see what theoretical question underpins it. This also happened with experiment 28, entitled Experiment solitary touching the helps towards the beauty and good features of persons, where Bacon discusses how some of man’s features, while growing, can be moulded by pressure.

Proposals for connecting some experiments:

a. experiments 25, 27, 29, and 76 to 82 appear to study a similar problem—whether a pneumatic body can be transformed into a tangible one

b. experiments 17–23 and experiments 76, 77, 79, and 80 deal with  the problem of how pneumatic matter is “trapped” into bodies, e.g. in infusion, in the pores of bodies . We also alluded to a connection of these experiments with the experiments on percolation (in Sylva’s text, experiments 1 to 8. )

1 thought on “Sylva sylvarum: experiments on transmutation of bodies (24.04.2012)

  1. 1. One of the most interesting questions one has to think about when reading SS is that Bacon is clearly distinguishing between experiments, sometimes between classes of experiments. Some experiments are untrustworthy, some are ‘failed’ or badly designed (so badly that they are not even worth replicating), some are ‘impossible’ (120), some are to be provisionally accepted but have to be further tried and clarified, some are ‘probable in the work’ (25), some are ‘reported on good credit’ (35) etc. Moreover, he clearly has a notion of ‘failed’ and ‘successful’ experiment. What are the principles according to which he categorize experiments? What does it mean a ‘certain’ or an ‘impossible’, or a ‘probable’ or a ‘successful experiment’?

    2. Bacon also insists upon the importance of ‘particulars’ or ‘experiments untried’ (525) – for the ‘inventing of the causes and axioms’ (II. 508). They are said to be better than the tried experiments, which are to be accepted as such. Why it is so?

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