On Reasoning: Science and Experimentation

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?


* Source:
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

8 thoughts on “On Reasoning: Science and Experimentation

  1. Hi. On pages 28-30 in the book the Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell makes a distinction between ‘reason’ and ‘thinking’. He is discussing the difference with Bill Moyers. I am short on time but a brief quote from page 29: “… But that’s not reason. Reason has to do with finding the ground of being and the fundamental structuring of order of the universe.” Thanks. Eric B.

    • I do like Joseph Campbell. He has many interesting ideas. I don’t recall having read about his views on reason and thinking, but maybe I have. It has been so long since I’ve read him.

      From the snippet you offered, I can’t be entirely sure what he is getting at. I maybe get the gist of it. There is a lot there to unpack. I’ll read that section of the book sometime. I might have a copy of the book at home.

  2. I want to promote reason and truth-seeking. What I was pondering in this post is what is it specifically that should be promoted.

    In thinking about science literacy today, I can’t help but think back to that earlier period. What is science in its most basic form?

    We have come to have a very constrained notion of science these days. That earlier generation of scientists wouldn’t understand why we leave science to the experts. To them, science at its best was part of everyday life. It was an attitude and a mindset, a way of looking at the world and interacting with the world.

    At the same time, science has become more part of our daily life today. We are surrounded by the products of science. Our entire lives are shaped by it. But we rarely think about this. For the most part, science is something someone else does and they do it elsewhere, in a lab.

    My post was inspired by discussions I was having with a fellow blogger, skepoet. That is why I linked to his post at the end of my post here. My thoughts were going in a different direction than his, but I offered the link as context.

  3. Rationalism is perhaps the greatest gift that humanity has developed for itself.

    I think that the problem at heart is that we never really evolved a sense of rationalism. Perhaps there was some sort of selective pressure against it?

    “We have accepted the products of science, but we have rejected its values.”
    – Carl Sagan

    On that note, I have not been able to comment much as of late. I was just in a car accident today (I’m ok luckily, but the car … not so much). I suppose human life is always more valuable than a car in a situation like this.

    • Sorry to hear about your troubles. Hope all is well now. I had a friend who was in a car accident a couple years ago and she had a concussion. It’s been a struggle for her. As long as you are ok, then that is the important part. If all that is damaged in a wreck is a car, then that is not a bad ending at all.

    • I hope you got a medical checkup. Tiredness, either mental or physical tiredness, can be a symptom of concussion. My friend has had troubles with tiredness. This past year she finally was getting back some of her stamina.

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