The Four Idols of Sir Francis Bacon

by Ben Chambers and Zeb Dahl

Discuss how each of the following can distort what is real to the understanding: (with EXAMPLES!)

Idols of the Tribe

A person’s education:

Education falls into the “nurture” side of the “nature-nurture” equation, and is a large influence on an individual’s perception of the world around them. Unfortunately, the false realities of the educators, books, etc. can get passed on to the student, thus coloring their clear understanding. For example, if a particular history teacher had a dislike of, say, communism, the student might well get false impressions of how that system works and its implications for society.

The books a person reads:

Books work similarly to education, and perhaps are in fact a somewhat less intense version of education. Again, the points of view in books will tend to distort an understanding and thus a person can be greatly influenced by their reading material. For example, if a person were to read a book portraying a particular subject (say, religion in schools) in a negative manner, the person’s understanding and reaction to the issue could be completely clouded.

The people a person admires:

All people have their own idols and false understandings, and if a person holds another in too high esteem, there is the potential for them to pick up their “herd’s” false perceptions. (For example, you might admire someone for some reason, but find yourself picking up a bad habit of theirs.)

A person’s experiences:

A person’s experiences can also distort their understanding, especially if they attempt to draw too many conclusions from them. For example, if you were robbed by a certain race or type of person, you might (even subconsciously associate that type of person with the experience and come to the conclusion that that type of person is bad.

Our need to seek more and more regularity in the world than there really is:

This is a tendency people have which may well arise from convenience of thought: we tend to think that things ought to be simple. Science has been under this delusion for some time, assuming there was a simple explanation for most physical phenomena (such as weather). Relativity, QM, and Chaos theory are only recently changing this view. (It is know known that many such phenomena cannot be predicted.)
Our tendency to seek out evidence of that which we already believe to be true:

This arises perhaps from affection we begin to give to ideas we have found and carried with us for some time; we become attached to them and collect evidence that supports them while throwing out that which contradicts them. Of course, this will lead us to false conclusions if we have accidentally embraced a false “truth.” Science faces this problem all the time: in the attempts to find scientific evidence for, say, psychic phenomena, scientists often tend to find data that fits whatever conclusions they were expecting, whether or not it was the most accurate analysis of data. This is especially problematic in the analysis of “soft” data, such as the results of psychological experiments.

Our tendency to see personal truths as universal:

This boils down to opinion. Clearly, your opinion (just one of your little false realities) is far from universal, and yet most people consider them to be so and will often argue them vehemently with little thought to their real value. For example, in the area of personal taste around music, I hear it said often that “musical group X sucks” or “yeah, band y has two good songs.” Often, these opinions are treated as reality without any realization of their very personal, opinion-based nature.

Our belief in empirical data:

The problem with empirical data is it is reliant upon the senses. And the senses are inherently unreliable, being very much a relative measure of things. This can give impressions that are incorrect. In addition people believe that if they can’t sense something, it isn’t there. (“I’ll believe it when I see it.”) This has slowed the discovery over time of such things as germs, electromagnetic phenomena, etc. Clearly, initial absence of empirical data has no bearing on its existence.

Our tendency to let emotions rule reason:

Simply put, the human’s difficulty in separating emotions from observations and understanding can give us false impressions of the truth based on our feelings at the time. For example, the man who gets cut off by someone in traffic, loses it, chases after the offending driver and vehicle, cuts them off, stops his vehicle and yells at the person (I’m not making this up) clearly has let emotion cloud their better judgment and understanding.

Idols of the Cave

People see things in light of their own special knowledge and opinions:

People tend to look at things through the eyes of their favorite science or theology, and this can cause distortion of the truth. For example, a chemist who is asked about a certain phenomenon (say, the nature of electromagnetic radiation) might delve into a particle-based explanation of it while neglecting a more broad view, thus distorting the understanding of the both the person he is talking to, and himself as well, very likely.

Some of us are governed by similarities, others by differences:

Both of these extremes are easily mired in excess, tending to miss the other half. The tendency to classify things by their common features or their distinctions can cause the observer to miss all other aspects of the things he is studying, even though they might be more important. For example, an individual who meets someone they’ve never met before might notice that some mannerism of the person reminds them of their mother. They might be so distracted by this fact that they completely fail to get to know the other person.

Those who love the past and those who love the possibilities of the future obscure the knowledge of the present:

“The past is but a memory, the future is but a dream; the only truth is now, the moment.” Philosophers who concentrate too much on the past or the future miss the importance of the now, the present, the experience, which is the most important part. For example, those who attempt to know the “truth” by analyzing the past may understand much of what shaped where we are today, but they may well completely miss the thoughts of the day, the existence of reality as it is now, or even their own thoughts on things, thus obstructing their knowledge.

Some of us see only the details and others see only the global:

Failure to examine things on more than one level of “zoom” can cause serious gaps in our understanding of any subject of study. For instance, were mechanical physicists to ignore particle physics, they would have a thoroughly incomplete understanding of what’s going on.

Idols of the Marketplace

Words are misused or misunderstood:

This is a large problem in the communication of ideas, which is quite important. Two people having a conversation might be using the same word but thinking of different meanings, and would obviously not be getting the same meaning. Or, a person might use the wrong word, thinking one thing but saying another. For example, using the word “Sophistic” instead of “Sophisticated” will give the listener two very different impressions of whatever is being described.

Words have a true and a vulgar meaning:

In a word, slang. Same as above, more or less. Common meaning might differ from true meaning, and in fact common meaning can corrupt true meaning. For example, the word “duff” has a general meaning in common conversation, which has long obscured its true meaning, which is “decaying matter on the floor of a forest.” (Seriously.) In any case, confusion can ultimately arise from these differences.

Words cannot be defined because we need words to define them:

Definitely a circular reasoning problem. Many people come to use words simply by hearing them used, and fail to define them. Worse, any definitions must use more words, which in turn must be defined causing a complete lack of exact understanding of the meaning of the words.

For example, looking up the word “intelligent,” one gets the definition “having quick mental capabilities.” This requires looking up all of these words, which are in turn defined by more words, ad infinitum; one never gets to a non-word definition.

Names of things which do not exist confuse our understanding:

Things which are supposed to be true with no evidence, simply from speculation. Such an idea was that of ether, the medium that light was supposed to move in. However, no such medium seems to exist, and the idea threw scientists off for some time.

Names of things which exist but which are defined or have contradictory meanings: (don’t use “humid”)

Very simply, words which have more than one meaning, of which the English language is full. Even a simple word like “clever” can mean either “smart” or “tricky,” which have very different meanings.

Idols of the Theater

How do the following work well in demonstration but less well in reality separate from their control?



Religion is in a way domesticated philosophy, relying on scripture for its philosophical teachings. The idols of much religion is the reliance on these writings (too narrow a foundation) to the point that the philosophy is not itself examined very closely. For example, religion is supposed to espouse virtues such as forgiveness and not murdering, but on the other hand some of the worst atrocities of all time have been committed in the name of religion, with little thought to the moral issues of what is being done. (Holy wars are an especially good example of this.)

Political systems (democracy, communism, etc.):

Political systems are created on the assumption that people will act and work in certain ways (communism especially is prone to this). In actuality, however, idols of various kinds and limitations in the plans themselves may keep the political systems from functioning as they had been expected to in theory. For example, democracy is supposed to have the “people” making all the decisions, but in a large society, indirect representation is the only feasible route to go, distancing the people from the political processes and draining much power out of the premise of the system.


The basic idea here is that education, the transferal of knowledge, can too easily be corrupted by stagnant ideas, or by the prejudices (idols) of the teacher.

Political parties:

Political parties also base their “philosophies” on too narrow a base of knowledge and understanding, drawing on popular thought and opinion rather than true philosophy or science. For example, a certain political party (think elephants) tends to base much of its thought both on public opinion (which is a crock) and on religion (see “religion” above). Many of its more prominent members (think bananas and lizards) seem to base most of their viewpoints on the above stated reasons, leaving original thought out of the equation altogether. BOTH political parties are guilty of this (in different directions), and it drains much of the validity of the positions of both parties.