The 4 obstacles that prevent us from thinking freely, according to Francis Bacon

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Louise Hay
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At a time when everyone wants to impose on us an absolute, categorical and indisputable truth, it is worth looking back to rediscover the ideas of the philosopher Francis Bacon.

A staunch defender of empiricism and the inductive method Francis Bacon, also known as Bacon, emphasized the role of experience and evidence in knowledge. But he also realized the obstacles that prevent us from seeing reality as it is.

He identified the most common thought biases 400 years before modern psychology recognized the existence of cognitive biases. A pioneer of modern scientific thought, Bacon believed that if we decide to delve into reality and seek our truth, we must get rid of our prejudices.



The first step is to recognize that we are not objective. We are all conditioned by a set of experiences, expectations, feelings, prejudices and concerns that influence our judgments. Furthermore, the culture we grew up in gives us the lens through which we look at the world.

Each of these variables is a kind of veil that, placed one after the other, distort our view of the world. This does not mean that reality is unknowable and that we cannot get to our truth, it just implies that we have to work harder to remove the veils that obstruct our vision.

Francis Bacon mentioned four prejudices which can be considered obstacles to the truth which he called "idols and false notions". He described them in the "Novum organum scientiarum" and is known as the "theory of idols" (idols).

Francis Bacon's theory of idols

1. Idòla tribus or idols of the tribe

It is a prejudice inherent in the human condition that leads us to project ourselves onto the world, distorting reality and drawing wrong conclusions. Bacon said: "the human intellect ends up being a mirror that unequally reflects the rays of nature, since it mixes its nature with the nature of things, distorting and covering the latter".



“The human intellect, when it finds a notion that satisfies it because it believes it to be true or because it is convincing and pleasant, it uses everything else to legitimize it and coincide with it. And even if the strength or quantity of the opposing demands is greater, they are diminished without taking them into account, or they are intentionally confused and rejected, with grave prejudice and damage, to keep the authority of the first statements intact ”.

Our expectations, desires and emotions influence our judgments. “This happens because man believes that what he prefers is true and rejects difficult things due to his lack of patience to investigate; he completely avoids reality, because it depresses his hopes “, Bacon said. Therefore, we must learn to understand to what extent we are projecting our desires onto reality, so as not to have an objective vision.

2. The idol of the cave o the idol of the cave

“Each of us, in addition to the aberrations typical of mankind, has a particular cavern or cave, in which the light of nature is dispersed and corrupted; this happens because of each one's own and individual nature; because of his education and conversation with others, or because of the books he reads or because of the authority of those he admires or honors; or because of the diversity of impressions, according to whether they discover that the mind is occupied by preconceptions, or it is idle and calm ”, Bacon explained.

This bias refers to the preconceptions formed as a result of the education received, the theories we draw on to explain the world, or the authority figures we identify with. All these preconceptions become limits to understand reality and arrive at a truth that is as objective as possible.


In fact, it is the mechanism on which social networks are supported because they tend to show us contents in harmony with our beliefs, which end up restricting our perspective even more. When we adhere to certain closed thought systems, we close ourselves off and see everything through their lenses, thus losing some of the richness and complexity of the world around us.


3. Idòla forums or idols of the square

This prejudice arises from the agreement and association of people, which is why it is called idols of the square or the market. Francis Bacon associates it with speech and speech because language is not only the tool that allows us to understand ourselves, but also shapes our thinking.

Bacon said that "words exert extraordinary violence on the intellect and disturb everything, leading men to innumerable and senseless controversies and fictions". Politicians, for example, are particularly adept at using rhetoric to persuade the masses, provoke certain responses or generate tendencies of opinion. But words are not reality, they are a misrepresentation of it.

Bacon warned us about the words "confused and ill-defined [...] which arise from a fallacious and inadequate abstraction" but which are deeply rooted in our mind and guide our reactions through emotions, without us really knowing what they mean. This is the case of concepts such as democracy, freedom or rights that hide weak and conflicting meanings, but generate intense emotions that save them from criticism and refutations or reformulations. This is why words, and the meaning we attribute to them, often become a trap to understand reality.


4. The idol of the theater o the idol of the theater

The current fashions and systems in vogue also influence the way we see the world. Even intellectuals do not escape fads, which can range from religious beliefs to certain social agendas, political movements or simply what is known as "the spirit of the age".

Bacon himself said that these fashions are not limited to "general philosophies, but also to many principles and axioms of the sciences, which have been imposed by tradition, credulity and neglect". According to the philosopher, these are models that “have been accepted or elaborated like so many other fables suitable for being represented on stage and useful for building fictitious and theatrical worlds”.


The idols of the theater are, therefore, narratives of an eminently social or cultural nature which are not entirely true but which, when embraced by many people, impose themselves as absolute truths. However, according to Francis Bacon's theory of idols, these narratives are just a shared script that prevents us from seeing beyond and that will likely lose its validity over time.

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