Monday, February 28, 2011

Benjamin Franklin

Tis Joy to see the human Blossoms blow,
When infant Reason grows apace, and calls
For the kind Hand of an assiduous Care;
Delightful Task! to rear the tender Thought,
To teach the young Idea how to shoot,
To pour the fresh Instruction o'er the Mind,
To breathe th' enliv'ning Spirit, and to fix
The generous Purpose in the glowing Breast.


Benjamin Franklin: I try to express myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advance anything that may be disputed, the words “certainly, undoubtedly”, but rather, “….I should think it so or so”, or “it is so, if I am not mistaken.” This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions and persuade men.

John Jackson: And why may that be, Mister Franklin?

BF: In order that I may not sound a bigot or self satisfied, but for a far greater reason too.

JJ: What may that be?

BF: Because, Sir, I have found, in the course of my life, through my readings but also through my observation of events, that what at first might appear to be an obvious cause of a thing that happens later, that it may be something else quite different that is the real cause.

JJ: And how did you mistake that initial cause for the real one, if I may ask?

BF: By a deeper look at the phenomenon, and by a certain amount of what I might call introspection – thinking to you and me. What one observes at the surface of any event, at first sight, generally needs more attention and a deal more thought too.

We are generally all too quick to jump in with answers to questions that have either been poorly formulated in the first place, or else omit so much as to be wholly incomplete. It is in the forming of the question that we generally err, for in seeking to answer an incomplete question, we delude ourselves that we have advanced our knowledge of whatever it is being observed, when in actual fact, all we have really done is show ourselves the extent of our ignorance.

JJ: Would you say then, that in many cases, we allow ourselves to be tricked?

BF: I would indeed, sir, and I would add that the frequency with which we allow ourselves to be tricked, as you say, is generally underestimated – that taking place all too often.

JJ: And why do you think that may be so, Sir?

BF: Perhaps it is something in our disposition to think too well of ourselves; that in finding one simple and easily found answer, we call it something grander than it has any rightful claim to be called, to make ourselves look grandiose in the eyes of others. It is I fault with all men, I have found, unless I am very much mistaken.

JJ: Could you furnish us with an example, Sir?

BF: I will try. In my many practical experiments with electricity, for example, I have often confounded myself from any real progress for a while, by my propensity to address problems by recourse to my incomplete knowledge. However, I believe that is how science in general progresses; not by startling discoveries, though they do undoubtedly occur from time to time, but rather by some previously held theory of some sort, being apparently proved erroneous by some later part of an experiment with the same.

It is in that way that we forward our knowledge of science; by disproving and moving on with some higher inkling of how such and such may operate.

JJ: But you use the word ‘inkling’ which to my mind is something more akin to a guess than a fact.

BF: I used it on purpose, and advisedly. First, forgive me; to see if you would pick up on the word and dispute it, which you have; and secondly to instill in you some indication of the nature of our knowledge of all things scientific.

JJ: Why do you use inkling then?

BF: AS I have hinted at; because our grasp of a complete understanding of the laws that move our planet and everything in it are at best in their infancy; that by admitting the same, I may not cause myself the fallacious thoughts such men as I are all too often prone to; the self delusion mentioned earlier.

I always ask myself whether I want to learn something of real value, or whether I want to puff my notions of myself as a man of science. I hope I prefer to arrive at the former condition; of learning something of real value.

Don’t you see, that man must not put himself first, but must rather use what has been handed down to us from God and from other learned men of ancient times – the power to reason!
Robert L. Fielding

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