Newton’s queries

Franklin had read Newton’s Opticks, for example, which contains a set of experimentally proven propositions and ends with a group of “queries,” unsolved questions for further studies.

This was a passing reference in Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air (p. 34), but it caught my attention.

In writing posts on this blog—especially longer posts—I’ve found myself compelled to come to some sort of a conclusion at the end of the post. While this may be what is expected of most non-fiction writing, this isn’t what I want to do on this blog. I want to capture and explore ideas that are new to me without necessarily coming to a conclusion. 

Sometimes in the course of writing about a new idea, I will draw a conclusion, but many times the conclusions at the end of these posts have been forced. Forced conclusions are not particularly compelling conclusions.

Newton’s queries are interesting because they provide a potential way to end a blog post while satisfying my deeply felt need for a resolution of some sort.  A set of questions—things I’m still uncertain about or need to research further—is also more in keeping with the purpose of this blog. It also invites commentary and conversation. Something I’ve not been very good at encouraging on this blog.

Queries

  • Is working toward a conclusion is a better way of exploring new ideas? For the moment, my hypothesis is that ending with unaswered questions, rather than a conclusion is a better way of doing this. By for the moment it’s only that: a hypothesis.
  • What I’m proposing here is different from what Newton did. He did come to a conclusion. What I’m doing on this blog isn’t science. These posts aren’t experimental outcomes, but in a way they are the experiment. Iss there a balance between coming to a conclusion and highlighting questions that I’d still like to find an answer for?

Franklin’s Gambit

We have been encouraged to believe that there might be a science of decision-making – a scientific procedure that should lead every conscientious person to the same objective answer. The distinction of the great business leader, the measure of financial acumen, would rest only in their ability to arrive at the objectively right answer faster than anyone else. I call this concept of scientific decision-making Franklin’s Rule, after the great American polymath Benjamin Franklin, who set it out in a famous letter to the English scientist, Joseph Priestley. Franklin explained that one should make decisions by listing pros and cons, and attaching weights to each item on the list.

But Franklin knew perfectly well that people – including himself – did not really make decisions this way. He went on to observe how ‘convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable person, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do’. This is Franklin’s Gambit – the process, so common in business and politics, of constructing elaborate rationalisations of decisions that have already been made on different grounds. Consultants’ fortunes have been made on the basis of Franklin’s Gambit.

John Kay discussing obliquity.