The Idols of the Mind, developed by philosopher Francis Bacon, can help us understand better how to avoid thinking errors.
Most of understand hypothetically that we can commit thinking errors. We usually imagine that these errors proceed from common causes like the following:
One: Not paying careful attention to what we are thinking about.
Two: Operating with false information.
Three: Not double-checking the sources of our information to see if they are reliable.
And these are indeed a common source of thinking errors.
However, there are often deeper forces at work in our thinking that cause us to fall into error, even when we focus carefully and check our sources. In fact, these are unconscious errors that shape the very way we approach thinking.
Another Kind of Thinking Error
Francis Bacon, an Englishman who lived in 16th and 17th century England, was very interested in these unconscious forces. He referred to such thinking errors as the Idols of the Mind. 
Francis Bacon, Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The idols are habitual thinking errors any person, no matter how smart, moral, or educated they are, can fall into. And because they tend to be unconscious thinking errors, becoming aware of them can help people learn to detect them in their own thinking.
The Idol of the Tribe
The first idol is the Idol of the Tribe, and it is a thinking error embedded in human nature. This idol represents the human tendency to think that our understanding of the world is accurate.
However, Bacon argues that our understanding of the world operates more like a distorted mirror that unconsciously mixes our prejudices and false perceptions with what we see in the world.
“All perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe.”
In this way, often what we see in the world and understand about it reflects our own thinking, both good and bad, as much as it does the actual world. However, we often fail to realize that our thinking, and its limitations, distorts our perception of the world.
“Saj and Mirror 2016”, picture by Ram Tareef, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
If you are anything like me, you can spot this idol in your own life. Think back to something you believed ten or fifteen years ago that you now know is wrong. However, at that time, you believe it with unwavering certainty. And you couldn’t believe that it could be wrong, in any way.
We all have experiences like this because we tend to think that our understanding of the world represents it completely and accurately. That, however, is rarely true.
And if you wonder how we develop distorted understanding of the world, the Idol of the Cave (Bacon’s second idol) helps us better understand this.
The Idol of the Cave
The second idol Bacon describes is the Idol of the Cave. Bacon argues that all human beings live in a metaphorical cave represented by their unique personality, books they read, and people they listen to.
If Bacon was alive today, he would certainly note that the media we consume constructs part of our cave, as does the neighborhood or country we grow up in, to name a few more influences that construct our cave.
Our caves aren’t bad per se. In fact, every human lives in a cave because no human being can have total knowledge of everything in the world. As such, they have limited knowledge informed by the cave in which they grew up or which they constructed.
However, people also often fail to realize that they live in a cave. As such, Bacon notes, when they search for knowledge, they often look for it
“in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.”
This quote just means that we tend to search for knowledge within our cave, rather than recognizing there is a world beyond our cave. But when we do this, we reinforce the limits of our cave, and the limits of our current thinking.
To grow in knowledge and wisdom, we all must move beyond our cave, which often feels scary. Accordingly, many of us choose to stay in our cave. (You can read more about this here: Are You in Plato’s Cave?)
“Cave in Ha Long”, picture by Syced, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Idol of the Marketplace
The third idol Bacon describes is the Idol of the Marketplace. This idol represents the careless and inaccurate way we learn to speak about the world because of our association with other people who speak carelessly and inaccurately about the world.
It can be difficult to understand what Bacon means by this idol. However, it may help us if we realize that for us to live and work together in the world, we must share a common language about our world.
After all, if we cannot discuss the world together and form a common understanding about it, it’s hard to work together to, for example, educate people, provide defense, grow food, or develop communities of worship. Imagine how hard it would be, for example, to grow food if we had no words for soil, water, seeds, and plants.
So, we must develop language to work together. However, we can only work well if we develop accurate words to describe things. And sometimes we use careless and inaccurate language to describe the world and people in things in it. And our careless and inaccurate language has negative real-world consequences.
A clear example of this is when we use derogatory racial labels to describe people from other countries. Using such language builds barriers, increases hostility, and makes the world more dangerous rather than making it safer.
As a more mundane example of this, you may know that in 2006, a group of scientists decided that Pluto did not meet the criteria for being a planet. So they demoted its status to a dwarf planet. However, other scientists disagree and believe Pluto will eventually gain full planetary status again.
This controversy arose because scientists disagree about what exactly a planet is.
“Pluto”, picture by NASA Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, courtesy of Unsplash.
On the one hand, it may seem like the definition of the word planet is not that important. On the other hand, careless language about bodies in the solar system could have negative, real-world consequences for further space exploration and research.
Bacon would say that our language affects our thinking. Therefore careless, inaccurate language leads to careless, inaccurate thinking. Or in Bacon’s own words,
“Ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding.”
The Idol of the Theatre
The last idol Bacon writes about is the Idol of the Theatre. Bacon explains that these idols are those
“which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration.”
In describing this idol, Bacon points out that all of us live in a society governed by certain theories, norms, and beliefs. Some of these are certainly correct, but some are not. I will call the incorrect ones dogmas collectively.
We often assume that the word dogma has purely a religious connotation. However, a dogma is any belief that a person clings to stubbornly and unquestioningly in the face of counter-evidence. And dogma is also any belief that someone believes without questioning the evidence to support it.
As such, dogmas exist in all areas of society, in all disciplines. For example, for years, European society clung stubbornly to a geocentric view of the universe, even though folks like Copernicus and Galileo presented clear evidence supporting a heliocentric view of the universe.
And for years, society accepted the dogma that women were intellectually inferior to men. And, therefore, they believed women could not pursue advanced degrees in fields like medicine or philosophy.
As another example, for years, doctors accepted dogmas that disease spread primarily through bad air. People like Florence Nightingale presented compelling evidence that basic hygiene was crucial for reducing patient mortality rate.
Medical professionals resisted her arguments at first, although she eventually helped to change the medical field.
“Florence Nightingale”, photo by H. Lenthall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
These examples underscore Bacon’s point that most of us learn a variety of dogmas from the society in which we live. And while it is easy to spot the dogmas of history, we are usually unable to spot the dogmas of our own societies. And all societies, Bacon suggests, possess them.
And in fact, we often think the particular dogmas of our society are good common sense or based on solid research. When we think this, we end up passing along inaccurate and often harmful theories. Or as Bacon would say, we keep enacting these dogmas on society’s stage in a silly sort of theatre.
The Idols Represent Deeper Thinking Problems
As you can see, Francis Bacon’s idols help us understand that thinking well is not merely a matter of thinking about facts carefully. Thinking well also takes humility, courage, self-reflection, and grace. That’s because Bacon’s idols remind us of the following:
One: We tend to think our understanding of the world is clear and accurate. However, limitations in understanding always distort our perception of the world.
Two: We tend to think that our worldview is accurate. However, our worldview is always a product of our cave and, therefore, is limited and incomplete.
Three: We tend to believe our way of speaking about the world is the right way. However, we often speak about the world and the people and things in it using inaccurate and careless language.
Four: We often look scornfully at the dogmas of history. However, we have problems recognizing that the society we live in teaches us dogmas, too.
Most of us, including you and me, currently believe some kind of dogma. We just haven’t realized it yet.