At the most basic level, what did the Enlightenment thinkers mean by reason and the sciences? In practice, what is rationality, critical thinking, and experimentation? What does it mean to seek truth, knowledge, and understanding? What changes in thought were happening that led up to the American Revolution?
“Franklin also learned as a youth that minds untrained in science could also experiment. He later recalled for Swedish botanist Peter Kalm an experiment done by his father, Josiah: noticing that herring would spawn in one particular stream that led to Massachusetts Bay but not in another , Josiah had guessed that the activity had to do with the geographic location where the fish had been hatched. To test the theory, one year at spawning time he transported fish to the second stream, where they spawned and died; the following year, as Josiah had predicted, their offspring returned to the second stream.”
~ Tom Shachtman *
That offers an insight into the early scientific mind. That is the scientific method in essence. Josiah Franklin made some observations, analyzed those observations, formulated a falsifiable hypothesis, and then tested it with an experiment. He even used controls with the same species of spawning fish in two separate streams.
What is the ability demonstrated with that simple hands-on experiment? Is it reason? Is it science? What processes of cognition and perception were involved? What conditions and factors of influence make that possible?
This was not anything new. I’m sure people were doing all kinds of basic experiments long before the Enlightenment Age. This is an inherent human capacity, involving curiosity and problem-solving. Many other species especially higher primates similarly experiment, although less systematically. Such behaviors obviously have practical advantages for species survival. The Enlightenment Age just gave new emphasis, incentives, and articulation to this kind of activity. Science then formalized and regimented it.
But what is reason, whether pure or applied? Are humans ever fully rational and genuinely free of cognitive biases? Is the human intellect more than being a clever monkey pushed to the extreme?
Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
by Tom Shachtman
Chapter 2: “Variola” in Boston, 1721-1722
Kindle Locations 598-602