“Proteus Rebound: Reconsidering the ‘Torture of Nature’”

Pesic, P. “Proteus Rebound: Reconsidering the ‘Torture of Nature.’” Isis 99 (2008): 304–17.

Abstract: “Though Carolyn Merchant has agreed that Francis Bacon did not advocate the “torture of nature,” she still maintains that “the very essence of the experimental method arose out of human torture transferred onto nature.” Her arguments do not address serious problems of logic, context, and contrary evidence. Her particular insistence on the influence of the torture of witches ignores Bacon’s skepticism about witchcraft as superstitious or imaginary. Nor do the writings of his successors sustain her claim that they carried forward his supposed program to abuse nature. We should be wary of metaphorical generalizations that ignore the context of the metaphor, the larger intent of the writers, and the fundamental limitations of such metaphors as descriptions of science. There are no scientific methods which alone lead to knowledge! We have to tackle things experimentally, now angry with them and now kind, and be successively just, passionate, and cold with them. One person addresses things as a policeman, a second as a father confessor, a third as an inquisitive wanderer. Something can be wrung from them now with sympathy, now with force; reverence for their secrets will take one person forwards, indiscretion and roguishness in revealing their secrets will do the same for another. We investigators are, like all conquerors, discoverers, seafarers, adventurers, of an audacious morality and must reconcile ourselves to being considered on the whole evil.”