John Ray: Testing Knowledge with Observation

The following quote is from page 152 of the 1735 edition of Wisdom of God, Ray’s best known book.   He is bemoaning the fact that so few professors have any experience from observation but appear to be content with the knowledge of the past which they have gained from books.

Let us not suffice us to be book-learn’d to read what others have written, and to take upon trust more falsehood than truth, but let us ourselves examine things as we have opportunity, and converse with nature as well as books. Let us endeavour to promote and increase this knowledge, and make new discoveries, not so much distrusting our own parts, or despairing of our own abilities, as to think that our industry can add nothing to the invention of our ancestors, or correct any of their mistakes.  Let us not think that the bounds of science are fixed, like hercule’s pillars, and inscrib’d with a ne plus ultra; let us not think we have done when we have learn’d what they have deliver’d to us; the treasures of nature are inexhaustible, here is employment enough for the vastest parts, the most indefatigable industries, the happiest opportunities, the most  prolix and undisturb’d vacancies.…….

John Ray
John Ray - Natural Historian

Much might be done would we but endeavor, and nothing is unsuperable to pains and patience.  I know that a new study at first seems very vast, intricate, and difficult, but after a little resolution and progress, after a man becomes a little acquainted, as I may so say, with it, his understanding is wonderfully clear’d up and enlarg’d, the difficulties vanish, and the thing grows easy and familiar.  And for our encouragement in this study, observe what the Psalmist saith, Psal cxi 2 The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.  Which tho’ it be principally spoken of the world of providence, yet may as well be verify’d of the works of creation. I am sorry to see too little account made of real experimental philosophy in this university, and that those ingenious sciences of the mathematicks tbor ih’d at are so much neglected by us; and therefore do earnestly exhort those that are young especially gentlemen, to set upon these studies, they may possibly invent something of eminent use and advantage to the world; and one such discovery would abundantly compensate the experience and travel of one man’s whole life.  However, it is enough to maintain and continue what is already invented; neither do I feel what more ingenious and manly employment they can pursue, tending more to the satisfaction of their own minds, and the illustration of the glory of God, for he is wonderful in all his works.

A note about some terms.  “Experimental philosophy” could be thought of as being opposed to “armchair philosophy” but Ray obviously does not have in mind the modern field of experimental philosophy but rather a more general idea that ideas should be tested by experiment/evidence.    Indefatigable means unable to tire out or not able to become fatigued.

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