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EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCE THE BASIS OF
By Prof. WILLIAMSON, University College, London. The business of mental education is to prepare the young for using their powers to the utmost advantage in the search for truth. A real education would direct the thoughts and feelings into good and useful channels. It would teach every man enough of himself to make him modest, so that while acknowledging his incompetence to judge of most questions which come before him, he would decide truly and firmly upon some few.
If a general system of education had existed hitherto, the governing classes would indeed have been blameable for not extending its benefits to the whole juvenile population. But in truth they have not known that there are materials suited to form the basis of a general system of education.
My object is to draw attention to those materials, and to point out their intellectual nature.
If a man were entitled to a rich and glorious inheritance, of which the possession would open up to him an extensive sphere of usefulness and happiness, and if he did not claim his rights, one would naturally suspect that he was not aware of their existence, or that he had not been correctly informed of their value.
The English people is now in the position of such a man, for it is undisputed heir to the noblest estate in the world, and has never taken possession.
The estate is managed by trustees who reside upon it and honestly devote their whole energies to its improvement, while supplying the heir with rich and abundant produce.
From time to time the estate is visited by friends of the heirat-law, but a strange fascination prevents their ever returning to him. Once their feet have touched the soil, they are drawn onwards and upwards till they find themselves among the trustees, with wbom they set to work improving the estate. Meanwhile the heir is living in foreign parts, satisfied with the rich produce which reaches him. Messages are sent to him to come and take possession, and enjoy the estate himself, but he heeds them not, for travellers who pass by its outskirts tell him that they do not see much in it, and that the only good thing about it is the produce which he receives.
This unclaimed inheritance will no doubt be named when it
is sufficiently known. Meanwhile we may describe it as knowledge:
Knowledge of the most trustworthy and serviceable kind :
Knowledge of man's own powers and their limits, just sufficient for the purpose of obtaining more:
Knowledge of the order of nature and of the rudiments of her laws.
Experimental science, which is the embodiment of such knowledge, is usually associated in England with the name of Francis Bacon, who so emphatically proclaimed that its methods afford the only safe guide to the human reason in the search for truth.
The trustees whose labours develope it in all directions are those who question nature by rational experiment, and record her answers, arranging them in intelligible order like letters into words, and learning from these words the laws of nature. These experimentalists supply man with numberless useful and agreeable products. Their numbers are constantly increased by new members, who enter upon science with the desire of seeing what it is, and are drawn on by an admiration of its beauty and harmony to become themselves workers in its domain.
Popular writers who hover upon its outskirts describe to the world what they have seen, and the world judges science to be mainly destined as a handmaid to the industrial arts, and claims that as her highest use.
Take as an illustration the report of the great Macaulay ; he says, that “ Bacon's philosophy aimed at things altogether different from those which his predecessors had proposed to themselves;" that its object was “to increase human comforts, to relieve more effectually the inconveniences of human life, to endow human life with new inventions and forces;" that it began in observations and ended in arts.”
Again: he says that a follower of Bacon if asked what the new philosophy has effected for mankind, would name the prominent material results which have followed from it. “It has lengthened life, it has mitigated pain, it has extinguished diseases, it has increased the fertility of the soil, it has given new securities to the mariner,” and so forth; but not one word of teaching a better use of human reason, or of showing the true helps to the human understanding.
So truly does this represent the commonly prevailing opinion of this country, that experimental science is almost exclusively studied by those who wish to apply it to some technical purpose; and most persons would be surprised to hear that the most important of all the applications of science is to the business of general education.
A brewer wishes his son to learn chemistry, because he knows that the quality of beer depends upon chemical processes which can be regulated by one who understands them. A dyer values the science upon similar practical grounds. But a schoolmaster, who has to watch and direct the growth of young minds, and to supply each with the food best calculated for its development, is satisfied that the knowledge of a couple of dead languages and of mathematics fully qualifies him for the work; and while admitting the utility for technical purposes of scientific studies, he usually ignores their educational value.
In the public discussions about Education, we hear so-called “Technical Education” recommended as the proper use of Science. We are supposed to be falling behind other nations in
our manufacturing skill, and we are told that the remedy lies in founding special schools, in which the various manufacturing arts may be taught upon scientific principles, together with a modicum of science.
Yet Bacon said that the object of his method was "to teach a more perfect use of reason;" “ to shew the true helps of the intellectual faculties, so as to raise and enlarge the powers of the mind;” “ to find principles ;” and “to afford light to the discovery of causes ;" " to bring to the test those things which common logic has taken upon trust.”
It is of course open to anybody to form his own opinion of the relative importance of two objects : “Raising and enlarging the human mind," or "Increasing the material wealth of mankind.” Some may look chiefly to material results of human activity, and noticing the benefits which they confer upon man, may consider that progress consists mainly in the development of industrial operations, and that to supply mankind with new comforts is the chief aim of all improvements. Others, on the contrary, may be specially desirous of seeing men better able to acquire information from the recorded experience of other men, or from Nature herself by experiment; and better able to distinguish truth from falsehood in matters of fact, of duty, and of interest; and may think it the highest object of ambition to make man a more noble and more intelligent being The former would no doubt wish Experimental Science (the embodiment of the Baconian Philosophy) to be taught, in so far as it might conduce to a “ Technical Education,' destined to make men as efficient as possible in the business of money-making. The latter would wish Experimental Science to form the basis of a General Education, because it has been proved to promote the development of those habits of mind which are most generally wanted, to make man better and happier.
Bacon proclaimed the importance of interpreting Nature and of finding her Laws. Each idea thus obtained is an instrument of power to the mind, and he showed how to make such instruments. According to him, man cannot be more than the minister and interpreter of Nature; and the philosopher's great object was to show the way to become really the Interpreter of Nature. In spite of his assertion, that Bacon's chief object was to increase the material wealth of mankind, Macaulay admitted that: “with great minuteness of observation he combined an amplitude of comprehension such as has never yet been vouchsafed to any other human being," and that "he was the most devoted worshipper of Speculative Truth.” Is it, then, true that an intellect so penetrating and comprehensive mistook the object for which it was working, and really laboured to make men rich, while believing that it laboured to teach a more perfect use of reason ? Or is it that men are practically deaf to statements which they do not understand, so that those who only know the material fruits of philosophy, and have not penetrated into the subject itself, really do not receive from Bacon's emphatic words the impression which they were intended to convey ?
Important evidence upon this question may be gathered from a study of the ideas and objects of those who have most actively and successfully promoted the development of experimental science. Men like Dalton, Berzelius, Priestley, Cavendish, Lavoisier, or Faraday, those heroes whose every conquest was for the good of all men, and whose triumphs over ignorance and darkness are among the noblest and most imperishable monuments of human glory,--did these men think that the object of science is to increase the ease and comforts of human life? Or did they work from a love of discovering the truths of Nature, and find their highest reward in a more perfect perception of her harmony and beauty ?
No doubt immense material benefits are conferred upon mankind by the application to the arts of the discoveries made in Experimental Science, but those applications are only one class of fruits produced by the method which Bacon proclaimed, and by no means the best fruits. If we could add together all the material advantages which have been obtained by applications of the results of Experimental Enquiry, and weigh them against the one grand result to the mind that it has learnt to discover truth, who can doubt the balance ? ducts of human skill and industry be destroyed, and the knowledge of them lost to man, only leave him the plan of thinking truly and justly, and he will find it all again. No doubt a great number of individuals whose delicate organization requires the protection which it now receives from cold and hunger, &c.,
Let all the pro
would be killed off by such a change of circumstances, and the human species would be represented only by individuals combining great bodily with mental vigour ; but such men beginning the world anew would doubtless form a community far exceeding in vitality any nation now in existence, and in the end the human race might be the gainer by the change.
On the other hand, take away man's power of collecting information from observation of external things, and from experiment, leaving his mind to work upon itself, it would not be long before the material results now existing of well-directed labour would be lost, men would rapidly sink lower and lower even in material well-being, and the species would probably perish away
The great lesson taught by Bacon, is not to rely exclusively on the powers of the mind for the discovery of truth, nor upon the empirical results of observations, but rather to look for good from a close union of experimental and rational operations. Working and thinking, then working again, and testing the truth of every anticipation by experiment or observation, so as to arrive by a number of slow and secure steps at trustworthy general principles.
How far Bacon was a mere exponent of a change of method which he saw to be taking place with advantage to the human mind,-how far he was instrumental in promoting the change, are questions well worthy of a careful investigation, but foreign to our present purpose.
The revival of learning in Western Europe had served to awaken habits of criticism and argumentation, and the discussions which it engendered served to sharpen the human intellect for dissecting verbal formulæ, for creating doubts of systems founded on personal authority, and a craving for some solid and trustworthy method for the discovery of truth.
An analysis of the old systems laid bare their deficiencies and weaknesses, but the analytical faculty could do no more; and experimental philosophy teaches how to discover new truths with the utmost attainable certainty. The discovery of its method will probable be judged in future ages as the most important step hitherto made by the human mind in the development of its consciousness. He who said “Know thyself," pointed out the want which Bacon has in one essential particular supplied. Although nearly two hundred and fifty years have passed since Bacon's great work appeared, and although the mere material applications of the results of experimental science have completely changed the face of the world, it is nevertheless true that while considering education, people are at a stand-still, and are asking one another, “What is to be