Michael Faraday.

Experimental researches in chemistry and physics online

. (page 46 of 49)
Online LibraryMichael FaradayExperimental researches in chemistry and physics → online text (page 46 of 49)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of the conservation of force, and to stop the inquiry which it
suggests : whereas to admit the proper logical force of the
principle in our hypotheses and considerations, and to permit
its guidance in a cautious yet courageous course of investi-
gation, may give us power to enlarge the generalities we already
possess in respect of heat, motion, electricity, magnetism, &c. ;

1855.] On Mental Education. 463

to associate gravity with them ; and perhaps enable us to know
whether the essential force of gravitation (and other attractions)
is internal or external as respects the attracted bodies *.

Returning once more to the definition of the gravitating
power as " a simple attractive force exerted between any two or
all the particles or masses of matter at every sensible distance,
but ivith a STRENGTH VARYING inversely as the square of the
distance" I ought perhaps to suppose there ave many who
accept this as a true and sufficient description of the force, and
who therefore, in relation to it, deny the principle of conserva-
tion. If both are accepted and are thought to be consistent
with each other, it cannot be difficult to add words which shall
make " varying strength " and " conservation " agree together.
It cannot be said that the definition merely applies to the effects
of gravitation as far as we know them. So understood, it
would form no barrier to progress ; for, that particles at dif-
ferent distances are urged towards each other with a power
varying inversely as the square of the distance, is a truth ; but
the definition has not that meaning ; and what I object to is the
pretence of knowledge which the definition sets up, when it
assumes to describe, not the partial effects of the force, but
the nature of the force as a whole.

June, 1858. M. F.

Observations on Mental Education f.

? [These observations were delivered as a lecture before His Royal Highness
The Prince Consort and the Members of the Royal Institution on the 6th of
May, 1854. They are so immediately connected in their nature and origin
with my own experimental life, considered either as cause or consequence, that
I have thought the close of this volume not an unfit place for their reproduction.]
I TAKE courage, Sir, from your presence here this day, to
speak boldly that which is upon my mind. I feared that it

* Dr. Winslow, of West Newton (Mass.), U.S., states, that from the
examination of a record of 850 earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, it appears
that the greater number occur in the winter months, when the sun is nearest
to the earth, and the attraction of gravity greatest. Their occurrence is more
rare as the distance is greater, the number being for December 102, which
in the intervening months gradually decreases to and increases from 44 for
June. Hence he draws conclusions regarding other exhibitions of the gravi-
tating force than mere attraction, when that attraction is varied by change of
distance. Annual of Scientific Discovery.

t Lectures on Education, 1855. Parker and Son.

464 ; On Mental Education. [1 855.

might be unpleasant to some of my audience, but as I know
that your Royal Highness is a champion for and desires the
truth, I will believe that all here are united in the same cause,
and therefore will give utterance, without hesitation, to what I
have to say regarding the present condition of Mental Edu-

If the term education may be understood in so large a sense
as to include all that belongs to the improvement of the mind,
either by the acquisition of the knowledge of others, or by
increase of it through its own exertions, then I may hope to
be justified for bringing forward a few desultory observations
respecting the exercise of the mental powers in a particular
direction, which otherwise might seem out of place. The
points I have in view are general, but they are manifest in a
striking manner, among the physical matters which have oc-
cupied my life ; and as the latter afford a field for exercise in
which cogitations and conclusions can be subjected to the rigid
tests of fact and experiment as all classes employ themselves
more or less in the consideration of physical matters, and may
do so with great advantage, if inclined in the least degree to
profit by educational practices so I hope that what I may say
will find its application in every condition of life.

Before entering upon the subject, I must take one distinction
which, however it may appear to others, is to me of the utmost
importance. High as man is placed above the creatures around
him, there is a higher and far more exalted position within his
view ; and the ways are infinite in which he occupies his
thoughts about the fears, or hopes, or expectations of a future
life . I believe that the truth of that future cannot be brought
to his knowledge by any exertion of his mental powers, how-
ever exalted they may be ; that it is made known to him by
other teaching than his own, and is received through simple
belief of the testimony given. Let no one suppose for a
moment that the self-education I am about to commend in
respect of the things of this life, extends to any considerations
of the hope set before us, as if man by reasoning could find
out God. It would be improper here to enter upon this subject
further than to claim an absolute distinction between religious
and ordinary belief. I shall be reproached with the weakness
of refusing to apply those mental operations which I think

1855.] On Mental Education. 4-65

good in respect of high things to the very highest. I am con-
tent to bear the reproach. Yet, even in earthly matters, I
believe that the invisible things of HIM from the creation of
the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things
that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead ; and I
have never seen anything incompatible between those things
of man which can be known by the spirit of man which is
within him, and those higher things concerning his future,
which he cannot know by that spirit.

Claiming, then, the use of the ordinary faculties of the mind
in ordinary things, let me next endeavour to point out what
appears to me to be a great deficiency in the exercise of the
mental powers in every direction ; three words will express
this great want, deficiency of judgment. I do not wish to
make any startling assertion, but I know that in physical
matters multitudes are ready to draw conclusions who have
little or no power of judgment in the cases ; that the same is
true of other departments of knowledge ; and that, generally,
mankind is willing to leave the faculties which relate to judg-
ment almost entirely uneducated, and their decisions at the
mercy of ignorance, prepossessions, the passions, or even

Do not suppose, because I stand here and speak thus,
making no exceptions, that I except myself. I have learned
to know that I fall infinitely short of that efficacious exercise
of the judgment which may be attained. There are exceptions
to my general conclusion, numerous and high ; but if we desire
to know how far education is required, we do not consider the
few who need it not, but the many who have it not ; and in
respect of judgment, the number of the latter is almost infinite.
I am moreover persuaded, that the clear and powerful minds
which have realized in some'degree the intellectual preparation
I am about to refer to, will admit its importance, and indeed
its necessity ; and that they will not except themselves, nor
think that I have made my statement too extensive.

As I believe that a very large proportion of the errors we
make in judgment is a simple and direct result of our perfectly
unconscious state, and think that a demonstration of the
liabilities we are subject to would aid greatly in providing a
remedy, I will proceed first to a few illustrations of a physical

466 On Mental Education. [1855.

nature. Nothing can better supply them than the intimations
we derive from our senses ; to them we trust directly ; by them
we become acquainted with external things, and gain the power
of increasing and varying facts, upon which we entirely depend.
Our sense-perceptions are wonderful. Even in the observant,
but unreflective infant, they soon produce a result which looks
like intuition, because of its perfection. Coming to the mind
as so many data, they are stored up, and without our being
conscious, are ever after used in like circumstances in forming
our judgment; and it is not wonderful that man should be
accustomed to trust them without examination. Nevertheless,
the result is the effect of education : the mind has to be
instructed with regard to the senses and their intimations
through every step of life ; and where the instruction is im-
perfect, it is astonishing how soon and how much their evidence
fails us. Yet, in the latter years of life, we do not consider
this matter, but, having obtained the ordinary teaching sufficient
for ordinary purposes, we venture to judge of things which are
extraordinary for the time, and almost always with the more
assurance as our powers of observation are less educated.
Consider the following case of a physical impression, derived
from the sense of touch, which can be examined and verified
at pleasure : If the hands be brought towards each other so
that the tips of the corresponding fingers touch, the end of
any finger may be considered as an object to be felt by the
opposed finger ; thus the two middle fingers may for the
present be so viewed. If the attention be directed to them,
no difficulty will be experienced in moving each lightly in a
circle round the tip of the other, so that they shall each feel
the opposite, and the motion may be either in one direction or
the other looking at the fingers, or with eyes employed else-
where or with the remaining fingers touching quiescently, or
moving in a like direction ; all is easy, because each finger is
employed in the ordinary or educated manner whilst obeying
the will, and whilst communicating through the sentient organ
with the brain. But turn the hands half-way round, so that
their backs shall be towards each other, and then, crossing
them at the wrists, again bring the like fingers into contact at
the tips. If it be now desired to move the extremities of the
middle fingers round each other, or to follow the contour of

1855.] On Mental Education. 467

one finger by the tip of the opposed one, all sorts of confusion
in the motion will ensue ; and as the finger of one hand tries,
under the instruction of the will, to move in one course, the
touched finger will convey an intimation that it is moving in
another. If all the fingers move at once, all will be in con-
fusion, the ease and simplicity of the first case having entirely
disappeared. If, after some considerable trial, familiarity
with the new circumstances have removed part of the un-
certainty, then, crossing the hands at the opposite sides of the
wrists will renew it. These contrary results are dependent
not on any change in the nature of the sentient indication, or
of the surfaces or substances which the sense has to deal with ;
but upon the trifling circumstance of a little variation from the
direction in which the sentient organs of these parts are usually
exerted ; and they show to what an extraordinary extent our
interpretations of the sense impressions depend upon the
experience, i. e. the education which they have previously
received, and their great inability to aid us at once in circum-
stances which are entirely new.

At other times they fail us because we cannot keep a true
remembrance of former impressions. Thus, on the evening of
the llth of March last, I and many others were persuaded
that at one period the moon had a real green colour, and
though I knew that the prevailing red tints of the general sky
were competent to produce an effect of such a kind, yet there
was so little of that in the neighbourhood of the planet, that I
was doubtful whether the green tint was not produced on the
moon by some aerial medium spread before it ; until by holding
up white cards in a proper position, and comparing them with
our satellite, I had determined experimentally that the effect
was only one of contrast. In the midst of the surrounding
tints, my memory could not recall the true sentient impression
which the white of the moon most surely had before made
upon the eye.

At other times the failure is because one impression is over-
powered by another ; for as the morning star disappears when
the sun is risen, though still above the horizon and shining
brightly as ever, so do stronger phenomena obscure weaker,
even when both are of the same kind ; till an uninstructed
person is apt to pass the weaker unobserved, and even deny
their existence.

2 H 2

468 On Mental Education. [1855.

So, error results occasionally from believing our senses : it
ought to be considered, rather, as an error of the judgment
than of the sense, for the latter has performed its duty ; the
indication is always correct, and in harmony with the great
truth of nature. Where, then, is the mistake? almost entirely
with our judgment. We have not had that sufficient instruc-
tion by the senses which would justify our making a conclusion ;
we have to contrive extra and special means, by which their
first impressions shall be corrected, or rather enlarged ; and it
is because our procedure was hasty, our data too few, and our
judgment untaught, that we fell into mistake ; not because
the data were wrong. How frequently may each one of us
perceive, in our neighbours, at least, that a result like this,
derived from the observation of physical things, happens in
the ordinary affairs of common life !

When I become convicted of such haste, which is not
unfrequently the case, I look back upon the error as one of
' presumptuous judgment.' Under that form it is easily pre-
sentable to the mind, and has a useful corrective action. I do
not think the expression too strong ; for if we are led, either
by simplicity or vanity, to give an opinion upon matters
respecting which we are not instructed, either by the know-
ledge of others, or our own intimate observation ; if we are
induced to ascribe an effect to one force, or deny its relation
to another, knowing little or nothing of the laws of the forces,
or the necessary conditions of the effect to be considered ;
surely our judgment must be qualified as ' presumptuous.'

There are multitudes who think themselves competent to
decide, after the most cursory observation, upon the cause of
this or that event (and they may be really very acute and
correct in things familiar to them) : a not unusual phrase
with them is, that * it stands to reason' that the effect they
expect should result from the cause they assign to it, and yet
it is very difficult, in numerous cases that appear plain, to
show this reason, or to deduce the true and only rational
relation of cause and effect. In matters connected with natural
philosophy, we have wonderful aid in the progress and assurance
in the character, of our final judgment, afforded us by the facts
which supply our data, and the experience which multiplies
their number and varies their testimony. A fundamental fact,
like an elementary principle, never fails us, its evidence is

1855.] On Mental Education. 469

always true ; but, on the other hand, we frequently have to
ask what is the fact ? often fail in distinguishing it, often fail
in the very statement of it, and mostly overpass or come short
of its true recognition.

If we are subject to mistake in the interpretation of our
mere sense impressions, we are much more liable to error
when we proceed to deduce from these impressions (as supplied
to us by our ordinary experience) the relation of cause and
effect ; and the accuracy of our judgment, consequently, is
more endangered. Then our dependence should be upon
carefully observed facts, and the laws of nature ; and I shall
proceed to a further illustration of the mental deficiency I
speak of, by a brief reference to one of these.

The laws of nature^ as we understand them, are the foun-
dation of our knowledge in natural things. So much as we
know of them has been developed by the successive energies
of the highest intellects, exerted through many ages. After a
most rigid and scrutinizing examination upon principle and
trial, a definite expression has been given to them ; they have
become, as it were, our belief or trust. From day to day we
still examine and test our expressions of them. We have no
interest in their retention if erroneous ; on the contrary, the
greatest discovery a man could make would be to prove that
one of these accepted laws was erroneous, and his greatest
honour would be the discovery. Neither should there be any
desire to retain the former expression : for we know that the
new or the amended law would, be far more productive in results,
would greatly increase our intellectual acquisitions, and would
prove an abundant source of fresh delight to the mind.

These laws are numerous, and are more or less comprehen-
sive. They are also precise ; for a law may present an apparent
exception, and yet not be less a law to us, when the exception
is included in the expression. Thus, that elevation of tem-
perature expands all bodies is a well-defined law, though there
be an exception in water for a limited temperature ; because
we are careful, whilst stating the law, to state the exception
and its limits. Pre-eminent among these laws, because of its
simplicity, its universality, and its undeviating truth, stands
that enunciated by Newton (commonly called the law of gra-
vitation] , that matter attracts matter with a force inversely as

470 On Mental Education. [1855.

the square of the distance. Newton showed, that by this law,
the general condition of things on the surface of the earth is
governed ; and the globe itself, with all upon it, kept together
as a whole. He demonstrated that the motions of the planets
round the sun, and of the satellites about the planets, were
subject to it. During and since his time, certain variations in
the movements of the planets, which were called irregularities,
and might, for aught that was then known, be due to some cause
other than the attraction of gravitation, were found to be its
necessary consequences. By the close and scrutinizing atten-
tion of minds the most persevering and careful, it was ascer-
tained that even the distant stars were subject to this law ;
and at last, to place as it were the seal of assurance to its
never-failing truth, it became, in the minds of Leverrier and
Adams (1845), the foreteller and the discoverer of an orb
rolling in the depths of space, so large as to equal nearly sixty
earths, yet so far away as to be invisible to the unassisted eye.
What truth, beneath that of revelation, can have an assurance
stronger than this ?

Yet this law is often cast aside as of no value or authority,
because of the unconscious ignorance amidst which we dwell.
You hear at the present day, that some persons can place their
fingers on a table, and then elevating their hands, the table
will rise up and follow them ; that the piece of furniture, though
heavy, will ascend, and that their hands bear no weight, or are
not drawn down to the wood ; you do not hear of this as a con-
juring manoeuvre, to be shown for your amusement ; but are ex-
pected seriously to believe it, and are told that it is an import-
ant fact, a great discovery amongst the truths of nature. Your
neighbour, a well-meaning, conscientious person, believes it ;
and the assertion finds acceptance in every rank of society,
and amongst classes which are esteemed to be educated. Now,
what can this imply but that society, speaking generally, is not
only ignorant as respects education of the judgment, but is also
ignorant of its ignorance. The parties who are thus persuaded,
and those who are inclined to think and to hope that they are
right, throw up Newton's law at once, and that in a case which
of all others is fitted to be tested by it ; or if the law be erro-
neous, to test the law. I will not say they oppose the law, though
I have heard the supposed fact quoted triumphantly against

1855.] On Mental Education. 471

it ; but as far as my observation has gone, they will not apply
it. The law affords the simplest means of testing the fact ; and
if there be, indeed, anything in the latter new to our knowledge
(and who shall say that new matter is not presented to us daily,
passing away unrecognized?), it also affords the means of placing
that before us separately in its simplicity and truth. Then
why not consent to apply the knowledge we have to that which
is under development ? Shall we educate ourselves in what is
known, and then casting away all we have acquired, turn to our
ignorance for aid to guide us among the unknown? If so, in-
struct a man to write, but employ one who is unacquainted
with letters to read that which is written ; the end will be just
as unsatisfactory, though not so injurious; for the book of nature,
which we have to read, is written by the finger of God. Why
should not one who can thus lift a table, proceed to verify and
simplify his fact, and bring it into relation with the law of
Newton? Why should he not take the top of his table (it may
be a small one), and placing it in a balance, or on a lever, pro-
ceed to ascertain how much weight he can raise by the draught
of his fingers upwards ; and of this weight, so ascertained, how
much is unrepresented by any pull upon the fingers downward?
He will then be able to investigate the further question, whether
electricity, or any new force of matter, is made manifest in his
operations ; or whether action and reaction being unequal, he
has at his command the source of a perpetual motion. Such a
man, furnished with a nicely constructed carriage on a railway,
ought to travel by the mere draught of his own fingers. A
far less prize than this would gain him the attention of the
whole scientific and commercial world ; and he may rest assured,
that if he can make the most delicate balance incline or decline
by attraction, though it be only with the fourth of an ounce,
or even a grain, he will not fail to gain universal respect and
most honourable reward.

When we think of the laws of nature (which by continued
observation have become known to us) as the proper tests to
which any new fact or our theoretical representation of it should
in the first place be subjected, let us contemplate their assured
and large character. Let us go out into the field and look at
the heavens with their solar, starry, and planetary glories ; the
sky with its clouds ; the waters descending from above or

472 On Mental Education. [1855.

wandering at our feet ; the animals, the trees, the plants ; and
consider the permanency of their actions and conditions under
the government of these laws. The most delicate flower, the
tenderest insect, continues in its species through countless
years ; always varying, yet ever the same. When we think we
have discovered a departure, as in the Aphides, Medusa, Di-
stomae, &c.*, the law concerned is itself the best means of in-
stituting an investigation, and hitherto we have always found
the witness to return to its original testimony. These frail
things are never-ceasing, never-changing, evidence of the law's
immutability. It would be well for a man who has an anomalous
case before him, to contemplate a blade of grass, and when he
has considered the numerous ceaseless, yet certain actions
there located, and his inability to change the character of the
least among them, to recur to his new subject ; and, in place
of accepting unwatched and unchecked results, to search for a
like certainty and recurrence in the appearances and actions
which belong to it.

Perhaps it may be said, the delusion of table-moving is past,
and'need not be recalled before an audience like the presentf ;
even granting this, let us endeavour to make the subject
leave one useful result ; let it serve for an example, not to pass
into forgetfulness. It is so recent, and was received by the
public in a manner so strange, as to justify a reference to it, in
proof of the uneducated condition of the general mind. I do
not object to table-moving, for itself '; for being once stated, it
becomes a fit, though a very unpromising subject for experi-
ment ; but I am opposed to the unwillingness of its advocates
to investigate ; their boldness to assert ; the credulity of the

* See Claparede's Account of Alternating Generation and the Metamor-

Online LibraryMichael FaradayExperimental researches in chemistry and physics → online text (page 46 of 49)