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phoses of Inferior Animals. Bibl. Univ. Mar. 1854, : p. 229.

f As an illustration of the present state of the subject, I will quote one
letter from among many like it which I have received.

" April 5, 1854.

" SIR, I am one of the clergymen of this parish,, and have had the subject
of table-turning brought under my notice by some of my young parishioners ;
I gave your solution of it as a sufficient answer to the mystery. The reply
was made, that you had since seen reason to alter 3 7 our opinion. Would you
have the politeness to inform me if you have done so ? With many apologies
for troubling you,

" I am, your obedient servant,

1855.] On Mental Ediication. 473

lookers-on ; their desire that the reserved and cautious objector
should be in error ; and I wish, by calling attention to these
things, to make the general want of mental discipline and
education manifest.

Having endeavoured to point out this great deficiency in
the exercise of the intellect, I will offer a few remarks upon the
means of subjecting it to the improving processes of instruction.
Perhaps many who watch over the interests of the community,
and are anxious for its welfare, will conclude that the deve-
lopment of the judgment cannot properly be included in the
general idea of education ; that as the education proposed must,
to a very large degree, be of self, it is so far incommunicable ;
that the master and the scholar merge into one, and both dis-
appear ; that the instructor is no wiser than the one to be
instructed, and thus the usual relations of the two lose their
power. Still, I believe that the judgment may be educated
to a very large extent, and might refer to the fine arts, as
giving proof in the affirmative ; and though, as repects the
community and its improvement in relation to common things,
any useful education must be of self, I think that society, as a
body, may act powerfully in the cause. Or it may still be
objected that my experience is imperfect, is chiefly derived
from exercise of the mind within the precincts of natural
philosophy, and has not that generality of application which
can make it of any value to society at large. I can only repeat
my conviction, that society occupies itself now-a-days about
physical matters and judges them as common things. Failing
in relation to them, it is equally liable to carry such failures
into other matters of life. The proof of deficient judgment
in one department shows the habit of mind, and the general
want, in relation to others. I am persuaded that all persons
may find in natural things an admirable school for self-instruc-
tion, and a field for the necessary mental exercise ; that they
may easily apply their habits of thought, thus formed, to a
social use ; and that they ought to do this, as a duty to them-
selves and their generation.

Let me try to illustrate the former part of the case, and at
the same time state what I think a man may and ought to do
for himself.

474 On Mental Education. [1855.

The self-education to which he should be stimulated by the
desire to improve his judgment, requires no blind dependence
upon the dogmas of others, but is commended to him by the
suggestions and dictates of his own common sense. The first
part of it is founded in mental discipline : happily it requires
no unpleasant avowals ; appearances are preserved, and vanity
remains unhurt ; but it is necessary that a man examine him-
self, and that not carelessly. On the contrary, as he advances,
he should become more and more strict, till he ultimately
prove a sharper critic to himself than any one else can be ;
and he ought to intend this, for, so far as he consciously falls
short of it, he acknowledges that others may have reason on
their side when they criticise him. A first result of this habit
of mind will be an internal conviction of ignorance in many
things respecting which his neighbours are taught, and that
his opinions and conclusions on such matters ought to be
advanced with reservation. A mind so disciplined will be
open to correction upon good grounds in all things t e\en in those
it is best acquainted with, and should familiarize itself with
the idea of such being the case ; for though it sees no reason
to suppose itself in error, yet the possibility exists. The mind
is not enfeebled by this internal admission, but strengthened ;
for if it cannot distinguish proportionately between the pro-
bable right and wrong of things known imperfectly, it will tend
either to be rash or to hesitate ; whilst that which admits the
due amount of probability is likely to be justified in the end.
It is right that we should stand by and act on our principles ;
but not right to hold them in obstinate blindness, or retain
them when proved to be erroneous. I remember the time
when I believed a spark was produced between voltaic metals
as they approached to contact (and the reasons why it might be
possible yet remain) ; but others doubted the fact and denied
the proofs, and on re-examination I found reason to admit
their corrections were well-founded. Years ago I believed


that electrolytes could conduct electricity by a conduction
proper; that has also been denied by many through long
time : though I believed myself right, yet circumstances have
induced me to pay that respect to criticism as to reinvestigate
the subject, and I have the pleasure of thinking that nature
confirms my original conclusions. So though evidence may

1855.] On Mental Education. 475

appear to preponderate extremely in favour of a certain decision,
it is wise and proper to hear a counter-statement. You can
have no idea how often and how much, under such an impres-
sion, I have desired that the marvellous descriptions which
have reached me might prove, in some points, correct ; and
how frequently I have submitted myself to hot fires, to friction
with magnets, to the passes of hands, &c. 5 lest I should be
shutting out discovery; encouraging the strong desire that
something might be true, and that I might aid in the develop-
ment of a new force of nature.

Among those points of self-education which take up the
form of mental discipline) there is one of great importance,
and, moreover, difficult to deal with, because it involves an
internal conflict, and equally touches our vanity and our ease.
It consists in the tendency to deceive ourselves regarding all
we wish for, and the necessity of resistance to these desires.
It is impossible for any one who has not been constrained, by
the course of his occupation and thoughts, to a habit of con-
tinual self-correction, to be aware of the amount of error in
relation to judgment arising from this tendency. The force
of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence
and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to dis-
regard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great. In
this respect we are all, more or less, active promoters of error.
In place of practising wholesome self-abnegation, we ever
make the wish the father to the thought : we receive as
friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that
which opposes us ; whereas the very reverse is required by
every dictate of common sense. Let me illustrate my meaning
by a case where the proof being easy, the rejection of it under
the temptation is the more striking. In old times, a ring or a
button would be tied by a boy to one end of a long piece of
thread, which he would then hold at the other end, letting the
button hang within a glass, or over a piece of slate-pencil, or
sealing-wax, or a nail; he would wait and observe whether
the button swung, and whether, in swinging, it tapped the
glass as many times as the clock struck last, or moved along
or across the slate-pencil, or in a circle or oval. In late times,
parties in all ranks of life have renewed and repeated the boy's
experiment. They have sought to ascertain a very simple

476 On Mental Education. [1855.

fact, namely, whether the effect was as reported ; but how
many were unable to do this? They were sure they could
keep their hands immoveable, were sure they could do so
whilst watching the result, were sure that accordance of
swing with an expected direction was not the result of their
desires or involuntary motions. How easily all these points
could be put to the proof by not looking at the objects, yet
how difficult for the experimenter to deny himself that pri-
vilege ! I have rarely found one who would freely permit the
substance experimented with to be screened from his sight,
and then have its position changed.

"When engaged in the investigation of table-turning, I con-
structed a very simple apparatus*, serving as an index, to
show the unconscious motions of the hands upon the table.
The results were either that the index moved before the
table, or that neither index nor table moved ; and in numerous
cases all moving power was annihilated. A universal objection
was made to it by the table-turners ; it was said to paralyse
the powers of the mind. But the experimenters need not see
the index; they may leave their friends to watch that, and
their minds may revel in any power that their expectation
or their imagination can confer. So restrained, however, a
dislike to the trial arises ; but what is that except a proof, that
whilst they trust themselves they doubt themselves, and are
not willing to proceed to the decision, lest the trust which they
like should fail them, and the doubt which they dislike rise to
the authority of truth ?

Again, in respect of the action of magnets on the body, it is
almost impossible for an uninstructed person to enter profitably
upon such an inquiry. He may observe any symptom which
his expectation has been accidentally directed to : yet be un-
conscious of any, if unaware of his subjection to the magnetic
force, or of the conditions and manner of its application.

As a proof of the extent of this influence, even on the minds
of those well-aware of its power, and desirous under every
circumstance to escape from it, I will mention the practice of
the chemist; who, dealing with the balance, that impartial
decider which never fails in its indication, but offers its evi-
dence with all simplicity, durability, and truth, still remembers
* P. 387, or Athenaeum, July 2, 1853.

1855.] On Mental Education. 477

he should doubt himself; and, with the desire of rendering
himself inaccessible to temptation, takes a counterpoised but
unknown quantity of the substance for analysis, that he may
remain ignorant of the proportions which he ought to obtain,
and only at last compares the sum of his products with his

The inclination we exhibit in respect of any report or
opinion that harmonizes with our preconceived notions, can
only be compared in degree with the incredulity we entertain
towards everything that opposes them ; and these opposite
and apparently incompatible, or at least inconsistent conditions,
are accepted simultaneously in the most extraordinary manner.
At one moment a departure from the laws of nature is admitted
without the pretence of a careful examination of the proof; and
at the next, the whole force of these laws, acting undeviatingly
through all time, is denied, because the testimony they give is

It is my firm persuasion that no man can examine himself in
the most common things, having any reference to him personally,
or to any person, thought or matter related to him, without
being soon made aware of the temptation and the difficulty of
opposing it. I could give you many illustrations personal to
myself, about atmospheric magnetism, lines of force, attraction,
repulsion, unity of power, nature of matter, &c. ; or in things
more general to our common nature, about likes and dislikes,
wishes, hopes, and fears ; but it would be unsuitable and also
unnecessary, for each must be conscious of a large field sadly
uncultivated in this respect. I will simply express my strong
belief, that that point of self -education which consists in
teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until
they are proved to be right, is the most important of all, not
only in things of natural philosophy, but in every department
of daily life.

There are numerous precepts resulting more or less from
the principles of mental discipline already insisted on as
essential, which are very useful in forming a judgment about
matters of fact, whether among natural things or between man
and man. Such a precept, and one that should recur to the
mind early in every new case, is, to know the conditions of the
matter respecting which we are called upon to make a judge-

478 On Mental Education. [1855.

ment. To suppose that any would judge before they professed
to know the conditions would seem to be absurd ; on the other
hand, to assume that the community does wait to know the
conditions before it judges, is an assumption so large that I
cannot accept it. Very few search out the conditions ; most
are anxious to sink those which oppose their preconceptions ;
yet none can be left out if a right judgment is to be formed.
It is true, that many conditions must ever remain unknown to
us, even in regard to the simplest things in nature : thus as to
the wonderful action of gravity, whose law never fails us, we
cannot say whether the bodies are acting truly at a distance,
or by a physical line of force as a connecting link between
them*. The great majority think the former is the case ;
Newton's judgment is for the latter f. But of the conditions
which are within our reach, we should search out all ; for in
relation to those which remain unknown or unsuspected, we
are in that very ignorance (regarding judgment) which it is
our present object, first to make manifest, and then to remove.

One exercise of the mind, which largely influences the power
and character of the judgment, is the habit of forming clear
and precise ideas. If, after considering a subject in our
ordinary manner, we return upon it with the special purpose
of noticing the condition of our thoughts, we shall be astonished
to find how little precise they remain. On recalling the phe-
nomena relating to a matter of fact, the circumstances modi-
fying them, the kind and amount of action presented, the real
or probable result, we shall find that the first impressions are
scarcely fit for the foundation of a judgment, and that the
second thoughts will be best. For the acquirement of a good
condition of mind in this respect, the thoughts should be
trained to a habit of clear and precise formation, so that vivid
and distinct impressions of the matter in hand, its circumstances
and consequences, may remain.

Before we 'proceed to consider any question involving phy-
sical principles, we should set out with clear ideas of the
naturally possible and impossible. There are many subjects
uniting more or less of the most sure and valuable investiga-

* See pp. 446, 460.

f Newton's Works. Horsley's Edition, 1783, iv. p. 438 ; or the Third
Letter to Bentley.

1855.] On Mental Education. 479

tions of science with the most imaginary and unprofitable
speculation, that are continually passing through their various
phases of intellectual, experimental, or commercial develop-
ment : some to he established, some to disappear, and some
to recur again and again, like ill weeds that cannot be extir-
pated, yet can be cultivated to no result as wholesome food for
the mind. Such, for instance, in different degrees, are the
caloric engine, the electric light, the Pasilalinic sympathetic
compass*, mesmerism, homoeopathy, odylism, the magneto-
electric engine, the perpetual motion, &c. : all hear and talk
of these things ; all use their judgment more or less upon
them, and all might do that effectively, if they were to instruct
themselves to the extent which is within their reach. I am
persuaded that natural things offer an admirable school for
self-instruction, a most varied field for the necessary mental
practice, and that those who exercise themselves therein may
easily apply the habits of thought thus formed to a social use :
but as a first step in such practice, clear ideas should be ob-
tained of what is possible and what is impossible. Thus, it is
impossible to create force. We may employ it ; we may evoke
it in one form by its consumption in another; we may hide it
for a period ; but we can neither create nor destroy it. We
may cast it away ; but where we dismiss it, there it will do its
work. If, therefore, we desire to consider a proposition re-
specting the employment or evolution of power, let us carry
our judgment, educated on this point, with us. If the pro-
posal include the double use of a force with only one excite-
ment, it implies a creation of power, and that cannot be, If
we could by the fingers draw a heavy piece of wood or stone
upward without effort, and then, letting it sink, could produce
by its gravity an effort equal to its weight, that would be a
creation of power, and cannot be.

So, again, we cannot annihilate matter, nor can we create it.
But if we are satisfied to rest upon that dogma, what are we
to think of table-lifting ? If we could make the table to cease
from acting by gravity upon the earth beneath 'it, or by reac-
tion upon the hand supposed to draw it upwards, we should
annihilate it in respect of that very property which charac-
terizes it as matter.

* See Chamber's Journal, 1851, Feb. 15, p, 105.

480 On Mental Education. [1855.

Considerations of this nature are very important aids to the
judgment ; and when a statement is made claiming our assent,
we should endeavour to reduce it to some consequence which
can be immediately compared with, and tried by, these or like
compact and never-failing truths. If incompatibility appears,
then we have reason to suspend our conclusion, however
attractive to the imagination the proposition may be, and pur-
sue the inquiry further, until accordance is obtained ; it must
be a most uneducated and presumptuous mind that can at
once consent to cast off the tried truth and accept in its place
the mere loud assertion. We should endeavour to separate
the points before us, and concentrate each, so as to evolve a
clear type idea of the ruling fact and its consequences ; looking
at the matter on every side, with the great purpose of di-
stinguishing the constituent reality, and recognizing it under
every variety of aspect.

In like manner we should accustom ourselves to clear and
definite language, especially in physical matters ; giving to a
word its true and full, but measured meaning, that we may be
able to convey our ideas clearly to the minds of others. Two
persons cannot mutually impart their knowledge, or compare
and rectify their conclusions, unless both attend to the true
intent and force of language. If by such words as attraction,
electricity, polarity, atom, they imply different things, they
may discuss facts, deny results, and doubt consequences for
an indefinite time without any advantageous progress. I hold
it as a great point in self-education that the student should
be continually engaged in forming exact ideas, and in expressing
them clearly by language. Such practice insensibly opposes
any tendency to exaggeration or mistake, and increases the
sense and love of truth in every part of life.

I should be sorry, however, if what I have said were under-
stood as meaning that education for the improvement and
strengthening of the judgment is to be altogether repressive
of the imagination, or confine the exercise of the mind to pro-
cesses of a mathematical or mechanical character. I believe
that, in the pursuit of physical science, the imagination should
be taught to present the subject investigated in all possible,
and even in impossible views ; to search for analogies of like-
ness and (if I may say so) of opposition inverse or contrasted

1855.] On Mental Education. 481

analogies ; to present the fundamental idea in every form, pro-
portion, and condition ; to clothe it with suppositions and pro-
babilities, that all cases may pass in review, and be touched,
if needful, by the Ithuriel spear of experiment. But all this
must be under government, and the result must not be given to
society until the judgment, educated by the process itself, has
been exercised upon it. Let us construct our hypotheses for
an hour, or a day, or for years ; they are of the utmost value
in the elimination of truth, f which is evolved more freely from
error than from confusion;' but, above all things, let us not
cease to be aware of the temptation they offer ; or, because
they gradually become familiar to us, accept them as established.
We could not reason about electricity without thinking of it as
a fluid, or a vibration, or some other existent state or form.
We should give up half our advantage in the consideration of
heat if we refused to consider it as a principle, or a state of
motion. We could scarcely touch such subjects by experiment,
and we should make no progress in their practical application
without hypothesis ; still it is absolutely necessary that we
should learn to doubt the conditions we assume, and acknow-
ledge we are uncertain, whether heat and electricity are vibra-
tions or substances, or either.

When the different data required are in our possession, and
we have succeeded in forming a clear idea of each, the mind
should be instructed to balance them one against another, and
not suffered carelessly to hasten to a conclusion. This reserve
is most essential ; and it is especially needful that the reasons
which are adverse to our expectations or our desires should be
carefully attended to. We often receive truth from unpleasant
sources ; we often have reason to accept unpalatable truths.
We are never freely willing to admit information having this
unpleasant character, and it requires much self-control in this
respect, to preserve us even in a moderate degree from errors.
I suppose there is scarcely one investigator in original research
who has not felt the temptation to disregard the reasons and
results which are against his views. I acknowledge that I have
experienced it very often, and will not pretend to say that I
have yet learned on all occasions to avoid the error. When a
bar of bismuth or phosphorus is placed between the poles of a
powerful magnet, it is drawn into a position across the line

482 On Mental Education. [1855.

joining the poles ; when only one pole is near the bar, the latter
recedes ; this and the former effect are due to repulsion, and are
strikingly in contrast with the attraction shown by iron. To
account for it, I at one time suggested the idea that a polarity
was induced in the phosphorus or bismuth the reverse of the
polarity induced in iron, and that opinion is still sustained by
eminent philosophers. But observe a necessary result of such
a supposition, which appears to follow when the phenomena
are referred to elementary principles. Time is shown, by every
result bearing on the subject, to be concerned in the coming on
and passing away of the inductive condition produced by mag-
netic force, and the consequence, as Thomson pointed out, is,
that if a ball of bismuth could be suspended between the poles
of a magnet, so as to encounter no resistance from the surround-
ing medium, or from friction or torsion, and were once put in
motion round a vertical axis, it would, because of the assumed
polar state, go on for ever revolving, the parts which at any
moment are axial moving like the bar, so as to become the next
moment equatorial. Now, as we believe the mechanical forces
of nature tend to bring things into a stable, and not into an
unstable condition ; as we believe that a perpetual motion is
impossible ; so because both those points are involved in the
notion of the reverse polarity, which itself is not supposed to
be dependent on any consumption of power, I feel bound to
hold the judgment balanced, and therefore hesitate to accept
a conclusion founded on such a notion of the physical action ;
the more especially as the peculiar test facts* which prove the
polarity of iron are not reproduced in the case of diamagnetic

As a result of this wholesome mental condition, we should
be able to form a proportionate judgment. The mind naturally
desires to settle upon one thing or another; to rest upon an
affirmative or a negative ; and that with a degree of absolutism
which is irrational and improper. In drawing a conclusion, it
is very difficult, but not the less necessary, to make it propor-
tionate to the evidence : except where certainty exists (a case

Online LibraryMichael FaradayExperimental researches in chemistry and physics → online text (page 47 of 49)