The Clue to the Labyrinth: Francis Bacon and the Decryption of Nature
by Peter Pesic
Originally published in Cryptologia, July 2000
As their ancestor Daedalus built the labyrinth, Bacon calls on the new breed of scientist to breach that inmost sanctuary. In complex images, he calls them to pierce the veil of the temple of nature through their penetrating interpretations, “preparing a way into her inner chambers” (4.124), into the very center of the labyrinth. In Mark’s gospel, the veil of the temple was rent by the death of the Savior; Bacon’s metaphor draws more on the solemn entrance of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. The select priesthood of Salomon’s House also is properly prepared so that it can penetrate the veil over nature through gaining a certain clue, a certain kind of interpretation. “We must use induction, true and legitimate induction, which is the very key of interpretation” (4.127). If these scientific priests can reach the center of the maze, they will find the “summary laws of nature” and can use them to grasp immense power for the benefit of humankind.
To find the guiding thread, Bacon envisaged a symbolic and schematic “alphabet of Nature” that would help flawed human understanding reach the “inner courts” of Nature.29 The key needed for interpretation is not a fixed structure like a skeleton key, but rather a “key” in the cryptographic sense: a flexible indicator that guides decryption by delineating the emergent structure of the cipher. The essential preparation for induction is the exhaustive preparation of “tables and arrangements of instances, in such a method and order that the understanding may be able to deal with them”; Bacon also organizes his “alphabet of Nature” in similar tables (5.210). He cannot give full examples without having essentially completed investigations to a degree he knows is far beyond his capacity, or perhaps beyond that of any solitary seeker; only the whole “machine” is adequate. However, in the Novum organism he does give an extended attempt at tables regarding the nature of heat, leading to results strikingly like the view of modern kinetic theory, in which heat is a form of atomic motion. What is important here are the tables themselves, manifold and detailed, going through many possible permutations of the instances in which are enumerated instances of “essence and presence” or “proximity where the nature of heat is absent” or “exclusion” or “degrees” of heat.
These tables resemble the tables used for encipherment and decipherment, though not for natural language but rather “things themselves.”30 A cryptanalyst examines the possible correlations between the appearances of certain letters in the cipher text, singly or by pairs or triplets, arranging the results in tabular form. Read negatively, this table also shows which ciphered letters are not correlated with which others. Other tables note the order in which letters are correlated, preceding or following others. Likewise, Bacon’s tables marshal parallel data for heat, citing all the known correlations, exclusions, and the degrees thereof (see Figure 4). The Latin word tabula was used extensively for tables of encipherment already in the first printed work on cryptography, Trithemius’ Polygraphia (1518). From the earliest sources on, cryptography had relied on such tabular arrays to give the visible key for the encipherment. The word “tabula” or the French “tableau” are already common usage in Porta and Vigenere. By the time of the great Antoine Rossignol (1599-1682) there are distinguished “tables a chiffrer” from “tables a dechiffrer,” indicating the greater systematization of deciphering as well as of enciphering. Given Bacon’s detailed knowledge, it seems very likely that either he himself tried cryptanalysis, saw work in progress, or heard accounts of it. His posing of a new, more secure cipher shows that he was fully aware of the powers of expert cryptanalysts and, quite likely, of their detailed methods. At the very least, he seems to know of the tables of earlier cryptographers, for he sets out his own biliteral cipher in tabular form (4.445-6; see Figure 3).
The cryptanalyst’s tables are a necessary starting point for systematic decryption. They permit certain deeply embedded linguistic features (such as the frequency of the letter “e” in English) to emerge and lead to solution. Bacon’s tables proceed by the same logical categories of inclusion and exclusion, of quantity and correlation, that give the cryptanalyst’s tables their revelatory power. Far from being undifferentiated lists of instances, his carefully structured tables are intended to be the key to full decryption. In the case of heat, Bacon tries a “First Vintage” or “Commencement of Interpretation.” He tries to gather together “all the instances in which the thing itself is to be found” to give a first working hypothesis which he can then test and vex further (4.149).31 He also notes “Striking or Shining Instances,” which give paradigmatic examples that are particularly forceful instances of the preliminary hypothesis. Such devices also are tools of the cryptanalyst, for whom the tables are only a beginning to the real work. The tables, after all, must be read, with all the interpretative acuity that word might invoke. Telling passages in the cipher text must be located and probed; hypotheses need to be formed and tested, even if finally discarded, in order that correct order emerge.
Bacon may well have noted the special acuity that marks out a gifted cryptanalyst from those who can only compile exhaustive tables. This important distinction certainly marks his vision of the social structure of science. Though he calls for a science which should be done “as if by machinery” (4.40), both cryptanalysis and the hunt for the inner forms of nature require art and imaginative leaps that go beyond merely pedestrian accumulation of correlations. In his scientific utopia, the New Atlantis, the master scientists are few, though they rely on many others for the immense work of collecting instances. However, only select minds can make the leap from the tables to the unifying insight that completes the work of discovery. Bacon gives images of these singular discoverers in his mythical tales, for the decipherers of the labyrinth and the solvers of the riddle are unique heroes, not to be confounded with their crews and companions, however invaluable. The key to the labyrinth is a clue ( filum), a delicate thread that must be handled with care, lest it break. The “machinery” of cryptology or of science must not obscure the central role of the exceptional talents on whom the whole enterprise depends. Otherwise, the truly new or unexpected will defeat a machine calibrated to past discoveries.
Accordingly, Bacon thought that true reading of the Book of Nature was reserved to those few who could follow the thread; the rest of humanity – including the wise king that rules his New Atlantis – must wait upon the disclosures of the scientists. Yet this implies a fateful removal of nature from common understanding. As Curtius observes, “The book of nature no longer legible? — a revolutionary change had occurred, which penetrated the consciousness of the humblest. “32. Moreover, even the scientists cannot anticipate what is to come; the great discoveries of the past had been quite unexpected. Genuinely new interpretations must “seem harsh and out of tune, much as the mysteries of faith do” (4.52). Bacon himself did not expect that mathematics would be so crucial; his ignorance of contemporary developments in mathematics limited his vision. When Galileo claimed the Book of Nature was written in “the language of mathematics” he was consciously correcting what he considered Bacon’s greatest mistake. The fragmentary indications of Bacon’s interest in symbolic language in his “alphabet of nature” make one suspect that, had he known of them, Bacon might have embraced the innovations of Viete and Descartes, which initiate mathematics as decryption. 33” Even more fundamentally, though, Bacon discerned the fundamentally new approach to the Book of Nature that transformed the character both of the Book and finally of Nature itself.