Faraday and Hamilton

Summary:  Read about men who exercise their free will by choosing to focus, reason and develop new knowledge across their entire lifetimes.  Such a choice, whether made in the physical sciences or the humanities, can move man to unprecedented new levels of prosperity and happiness.  Here are two such exemplary figures.

The last two posts have asked you to dwell with the bottom feeders who evade the responsibility of thinking, adopt a victim stance, and even deny the existence of choice. This post will let you swim to the surface and breathe the fresh air of men who adopted the opposite approach.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) were two figures of the Enlightenment period.  This was a period in which it was fully accepted that man can think, that reason is efficacious, and that by his own choice and actions he can raise himself to the heights of knowledge, productive achievement and wealth.  In the Renaissance, men had begun to study the ancient volumes newly available in Europe, and now they pushed the boundaries further – in medicine, science, politics, and other practical arts there was a new flourishing, a new outpouring of discoveries, books and improvements.  Faraday and Hamilton, each in his own way, adopted the new philosophy of reason, and built on it to discover and implement the innovative, life-enhancing values of the future.

Faraday was born into a poor family and had only the most basic education until he was 13.  He was apprenticed to a bookbinder, a position Faraday earned by impressing a bookshop owner he worked for.  Unlike other apprentices, Faraday actually read many of the books he bound in the shop, in his spare time after a long hard day as an apprentice.  He read the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a 600 page chemistry book, among many others.  He spent money from his small salary to buy and experiment with chemicals and chemical apparatus.

A customer at the bookshop gave Faraday tickets to a series of lectures by the famous scientist Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution in London.  After the lectures, Faraday sent Davy a 300-page summary of the series, which so impressed Davy that he ultimately hired Faraday as an assistant.  From this point on, and for several decades thereafter, Faraday performed meticulous and original experiments in chemistry and electricity, invented new equipment (for example, a precursor to the Bunsen Burner), discovered electromagnetic induction and developed the science and practice of motors.  In addition, he was a lucid lecturer, who began the Royal Institution’s Friday lecture series and delivered lectures on a wide range of topics for many years.

Nothing better characterizes Faraday’s mental approach than a description of one of his most influential investigations.  He had been repeating earlier experiments by Gilbert and others related to magnetic fields around electrical coils, looking to see if those fields could induce current in other nearby coils.  Experiments with different materials, different numbers of loops in a coil, or different voltages on the coil, all ended in failure to see any current in a nearby coil.  However, Faraday noticed that a small current was visible when he connected the coil battery wires or disconnected them.  Rather than shrugging that tiny effect off as an anomaly or something impossible to understand, he studied it in detail.  He designed several different kinds of experiments – with different shaped coils, with circuits involving passage of current through brine, with different materials – to evaluate this phenomenon.  Ultimately he identified the fact that it was the movement of a magnetic field that induced a current, not the magnetism itself, and that the effect was proportional to the rate of movement.  These experiments were thoroughly described by Faraday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, in 1832.

Faraday made certain basic choices in life: to devote himself to thought, deliberate observation, experimentation, and conceptualizing scientific phenomena.  He chose to do this not for a week or a year, but for a lifetime.

Hamilton, like Faraday, had impoverished beginnings.  “The bastard brat of a Scottish peddler,” in John Adams’ graphic description, Hamilton was poor in knowledge, money, and position, a youngster stranded in a Caribbean island backwater. He started working at the age of eleven. At one job, as an accounting clerk for a firm engaged in international trade, Hamilton studied accounting and trade, and impressed his employer.  He also impressed a minister and newspaper editor by his articulate letter describing a hurricane that hit the island.  The employer and the minister decided to help Hamilton get a full education by agreeing to pay his way to America.  Once in America, Hamilton’s self-improvement program accelerated.  He studied languages, law, politics and military history and strategy.  Arriving just before the Revolution against Britain, he became convinced of the Patriot cause, and wrote political articles defending and explaining it.

During the war for independence, Hamilton fought brilliantly at the Battle of Yorktown, attacking the British flank in a daring charge.  His ability impressed George Washington, who appointed him staff assistant and adviser.  Hamilton’s self-developed writing ability enabled him to write many (some say most) of Washington’s military orders to other commanders.

A student of military history and political philosophy, Hamilton observed how chaotic the war effort was, with independent militias each contributing to a heterogeneous and poorly trained army.  This was the germ of what later became a conviction that America needed not a loose and disorganized Confederation but a central government.  Such a government would respect the rights of the individual but have the authority to protect those rights adequately.  Hamilton (and the other Founders) thus discovered new knowledge in the arena of political philosophy.  Hamilton ultimately supported, attended the Convention to develop, and promoted the new Constitution of the United States.  His arduous effort to explain the Constitution to the American people in numerous brilliant essays (two-thirds of which he wrote himself), represents one of the greatest achievements in political history, and was instrumental in the Constitution’s adoption.  Besides those achievements, he had a successful law career and became Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

Like Faraday, Hamilton made certain basic choices in life: to devote himself to overcoming ignorance and poverty, to understanding the complexities of law and political science, to explaining those complexities to the world.  Like Faraday, he chose to do this not for a week or a year, but for a lifetime (his tragic early end notwithstanding).

It is common for those of the “you didn’t build that” school to focus on the help men obtained rather than on a) what they did with that help, and b) what they did to deserve that help. Faraday was offered a job by Humphry Davy. Hamilton was offered a formal education in the United States from friends and teachers on St. Croix. Neither man ever denied the help he obtained, or tried to claim his achievements didn’t benefit from it.  More importantly, however, neither man stopped there. Each, starting with that help, built on it.  Further, the help itself is a testament to their self-made value: It was bestowed on them because of the value seen in them by their benefactors, value that preceded the offer of help.  Therefore, for each man, what he built, he did build.

More generally, it is absurd to say that a successful surveyor didn’t build his career because he relied on geometry, which was developed by Euclid in ancient Greece.  By the same argument, it is wrong to say that men like Faraday and Hamilton didn’t build successful lives, just because they relied on benefactors, or on the books they learned from, or on the roads they traveled on to get to their schools.

With regard to free will, there is an even more fundamental point that can be made from observing the lives of these two men.  They were men who discovered new knowledge, one in physical science and one in political science.  Those who deny free will have a serious problem to confront with anyone who discovers new conceptual knowledge:  How did he do it?  Without free will, it is impossible to explain how to overcome error.  Man’s conceptual level is fallible.  It is not guided automatically to the correct identification of essentials, the proper formulation of definitions, unerring generalizations.  These require a definite method, the discarding of error, the awareness of contradictions, sifting, analysis, editing, selection.

The free-will deniers would have a more plausible case if they tried to explain the mind of an animal, whose perceptual level is a product of what the brain automatically does with the external stimuli impinging on it.  They might even have a case to make about the type of mind that spits out un-thought-out tweets or unsubstantiated assertions.  That sort of mind is operating automatically (but only because its driver has, by choice, relinquished control of his steering wheel).  The scientific mind, by contrast, with its unremitting dedication to facts, its continuous error correction, its high level of focus and attention, its discarding of unfruitful methods like tea-leaf reading, cannot operate on automatic.  The development of knowledge requires a certain process, a sequence of steps, often spanning decades, without which nothing of value automatically appears.  Certain men engage in this process, and others do not.  And those, like Hamilton and Faraday, who engage in such a process, are doing something different with their minds than those others who do not.

On automatic, man’s mind produces falsehood, confusion, bull sessions.  When there is conscious direction, man arrives at knowledge, clarity, The United States of America and the electric motor.

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