Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bertrand Russell's Advice to the Future


In 1959, philosopher Bertrand Russell had two pieces of advice for the future: In intellectual pursuits, pay attention to the facts. In moral matters, consider that love is wise and that hatred is foolish.

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Via Best of YouTube

29 comments:

Claire said...

Wise words indeed... :)

Andrew Wales said...

There is a very interesting graphic novel called "Logicomix" that looks at Russell's contribution to mathematics and Alfred North Whitehead. One of the best graphic novels I've seen.

http://www.logicomix.com/en/

Stephen Southerland said...

This may sound paradoxical, but I wonder if Russell would advise tolerating intolerance?

David B. Ellis said...

He would probably say that it depends on how you're defining "tolerating intolerance" and, most importantly, what situation one was talking about.

Christopher Moeller said...

Most excellent advice. If Russell thought the "increasing interconnectedness" of the world made tolerance for unfamiliar ideas important then, imagine how much more important it is now.

stevec said...

What a weird feeling it is to find my art RSS feeds and my atheism RSS feeds colliding like this.

Petr Mores said...

In this very general form it sounds commendable, but there are concealed practical problems in his statement. His mention of reliance on facts (apart from probably being a veiled attack on religion) is problematic in itself, because only in an ideal situation, one does know enough facts to make fully "rational" decisions. In most practical situations, however, we must make decisions before we either know all the facts, or are able to make sense out of them. We cannot step outside of the flow of life, pause it for days or even years, gather and consider facts, and then reason perfect decisions. We live on the Planet of Inexperience, as Milan Kundera says. Some kind of faith is implied (not necessarily religious, of course), whenever we make decisions based on our expectations of future (future being the fundamental non-fact). As a matter of fact, the very circumstance that our decisions are concerned with future makes them impossible to be based solely upon facts. This, I think, opens up a possibility for religious faith (as well as the lack of it) as both potentially entirely valid life strategies.

And I of course agree with his second point - that people should allow each other to form their personal hypotheses and strategies without the belief that some have better access to "truth" than the others.

etc, etc said...

Ivory towered liberalism. While I empathize with the tremendous grief Russell was forced to deal with in childhood, I think it is naive to assume his worldview was unbiased and unaffected.

David B. Ellis said...

"His mention of reliance on facts (apart from probably being a veiled attack on religion) is problematic in itself, because only in an ideal situation, one does know enough facts to make fully "rational" decisions."

We don't have to have perfect access to all the facts to make rational decisions.

"Some kind of faith is implied (not necessarily religious, of course), whenever we make decisions based on our expectations of future (future being the fundamental non-fact)."

And here we come to the rhetorical use of ambiguity in the word "faith". As if making decisions in the knowledge that you may not know all relevant facts and, therefore, should being willing to revise one's views should new evidence come to light is somehow like taking things on faith in the religious sense.

Barbara said...

Beautiful clip; thank you for sharing it.

Gary Yeung said...

very well said! love is wise and hatred is foolish!

Petr Mores said...

The ambiguity is not rhetorical, it is just conventional. We just happen to use the word "faith" more often in religious context, but "assumption" is essentially the same thing. Maybe you could say that "faith" is an assumption that is hard or impossible to be verified.

One can (and should) adjust their stance in the face of newly emerging facts - there is no denying that. Any faith that denies facts turns into ignorance. But some questions that happen to be important to many people (such as the existence or non-existence of some form of afterlife) are fundamentally closed to empirical verification. They require you either have faith, or suspend your judgment.

In this respect, an atheist who denies afterlife needs as much faith as a religious person who embraces it. To stick to the facts alone would make him an agnostic, not an atheist (as Russell himself says elsewhere). The terms "agnostic" and "atheist" are often treated as interchangeable, but they are not.

I'm not trying to push any particular view here, just trying to exercise some critical thinking if I may. ;-)

David B. Ellis said...

"The ambiguity is not rhetorical, it is just conventional."

I didn't say the ambiguity is rhetorical. The ambiguity is inherent in the rather vague and broad common usage of the term. I said this ambiguity is being exploited for rhetorical purposes.

"We just happen to use the word "faith" more often in religious context, but "assumption" is essentially the same thing."

The word has quite a few different usages. In the religious sense it usually refers to a belief based on either authority or a personal sense of conviction which the believer usually takes to be some manner of direct revelation from a supernatural source (one Christian philosopher refers to it as "the self-authenticating witness of God's Holy Spirit"). In either case, generally it's a belief in the absence of compelling empirical evidence. The word "faith" can also simply mean to have confidence in something. As in "I have faith in you".

"Maybe you could say that "faith" is an assumption that is hard or impossible to be verified."

That would be nearer to the usual usage in which it's a belief lacking empirical evidence to support it. But, aqain, this is a far cry from making decisions when one doesn't necessarily know ALL the relevant facts. We're practically never in that position but we still have rational and irrational courses of action and beliefs. They simply can't be ascribed 100% certain confidence of working out as expected (in the case of decisions) or of being true (in the case of beliefs as such).

"But some questions that happen to be important to many people (such as the existence or non-existence of some form of afterlife) are fundamentally closed to empirical verification. They require you either have faith, or suspend your judgment."

Pretty close. But there's one other option. Rational disbelief. To take an example we'd probably both agree on:

We have no good empirical evidence to support belief in werewolves. But our options are not limited to:

a. take on faith that they exist
b. take on faith that they don't
c. suspend judgement

In fact, not only are these not the only options there is a better one: strong, though provisional, disbelief. Provisional in the sense that we'd be open to having our minds changed if good evidence was presented.

"In this respect, an atheist who denies afterlife needs as much faith as a religious person who embraces it. To stick to the facts alone would make him an agnostic, not an atheist (as Russell himself says elsewhere). The terms "agnostic" and "atheist" are often treated as interchangeable, but they are not."

Would a person who denied the existence of werewolves need as much faith as a person who affirmed, in the absence of evidence, that they exist?

How about wizards who obliviated (if you read Harry Potter I'm sure you'll know that term) those who see them work magic? Does disbelief take as much faith as belief?

Why should it be regarded differently in reference to an afterlife?

etc, etc said...

David,
I have never heard anyone analogize metaphysical arguments with werewolves.

Atheists have posited "compelling empirical evidence" throughout history, all the while scientific paradigms have been turned on their heads. One can always stake a position on the current scientific paradigm. However, I take the fact that physicists are flirting with the possibility of extra dimensionality as big hint that they don't quite feel all is explained materialistically by the current paradigm.

David B. Ellis said...

"have never heard anyone analogize metaphysical arguments with werewolves."

I haven't been discussing metaphysics. I've been discussing epistemology (for those not into philosophy, in a nutshell, the study of how and why beliefs are rationally justified).

"Atheists have posited "compelling empirical evidence" throughout history, all the while scientific paradigms have been turned on their heads."

I never said we have empirical evidence for atheism. My examples should have make that plain. After all, we don't have "compelling empirical evidence" of the nonexistence of werewolves or wizards....yet we're quite justified in being, not merely agnostic, but strongly disbelieving regarding the existence of those things.

And, again, I ask: what makes you think the case for an afterlife different.

"However, I take the fact that physicists are flirting with the possibility of extra dimensionality as big hint that they don't quite feel all is explained materialistically by the current paradigm."

First, I'm not a materialist. Second, modern physics has not provided us with evidence of anything that might be reasonably categorized as supernatural.

etc, etc said...

"I haven't been discussing metaphysics"

Wow. Nevermind.

David B. Ellis said...

Another point regarding this comment:

" But some questions that happen to be important to many people (such as the existence or non-existence of some form of afterlife) are fundamentally closed to empirical verification."

This statement is simply false. The existence of an afterlife is not intrinsically beyond empirical verification. There are many things which would constitute sound empirical evidence for an afterlife:

If we could confirm the existence of ghosts.

If people having near death experiences, across cultures and throughout history, without cross-cultural contact, all saw the same things described in Dante---whether ancient Aztecs or tiny tribes living in the remotest island. That would be pretty compelling evidence that they were seeing a reality and not just that their imaginations were conjuring hallucinations.

If people could really contact the dead and give detailed information that only the dead person would know (though one would need to consider the possibility that the psychic was reading the mind of the bereaved loved one so this wouldn't be as good as the other two examples).

And I'm sure we could come up with many other examples if we tried.

Robert Isler Wanka said...

To employ only an intellectual and philosophical understanding of the depth of existence, our existence as conscious beings is to be “too much in your head". I know it is unpopular among those who play that game well, to have it pointed out to them that mankind also experiences reality viscerally, as in through the heart, meaning as in feelings and through intuitive understanding. Should you become conscious of that particular fact you will know that “faith” is no fairytale; it is not on par with mind inventions like Werewolves, and Wizards but in fact is part of the heart based creative processes within every human being! To compare it Werewolves & Wizards is to demonstrate just how focused you are in your head . . . your intellect. In such a polarized focus one is given to deny utterly the power of the heart and the validity of faith having any real consequence in creation. In truth, when faith and intellect are not sundered but rather combined in seeking understanding, amazing things will happen. Let me offer up this empirical example. As an artist I have grown to realize that when a painting is begun, both intellect and the heart (feelings, intuition, and yes “faith”) are given validity, they are compatriots to the creative act. To the extent in which these polarities are allowed to interact freely and in harmony, amazing things will happen upon the canvas . . . something to consider for those who are too much in their heads, think of your life as the canvas.

David B. Ellis said...

"To compare it Werewolves & Wizards is to demonstrate just how focused you are in your head . . . your intellect."

Our intellects, imperfect as they are (mine included), are the only effective tool we have for distinguishing true claims from false ones.

An afterlife either exists or does not exist. My emotions can't distinguish true claims from false ones. My heart cannot distinguish true claims from false ones (at least not in matters involving external reality). And, so far as I can tell, faith can't distinguish true claims from false ones. In fact, faith has a long track record of being dead wrong as science has advanced and formerly untestable claims have become testable.

"Let me offer up this empirical example. As an artist I have grown to realize that when a painting is begun, both intellect and the heart (feelings, intuition, and yes “faith”) are given validity, they are compatriots to the creative act. To the extent in which these polarities are allowed to interact freely and in harmony, amazing things will happen upon the canvas . . . something to consider for those who are too much in their heads, think of your life as the canvas."

I too am an artist and do not in the slightest devalue the human heart---the wellspring of love, compassion, awe, wonder and joy.

But the human heart is not a fact finding tool. It can tell us much about human nature and aspirations....but little or nothing about what exists or does not exist as a matter of external, independent reality.

Robert Isler Wanka said...

David,
I do not disclaim the value of the intellect in ascertaining what the facts may be at any given time, what I am saying is that we are creative beings which means we can bring things into existence from a mix of the heart and the intellect. The heart holds steady a feeling for that which is to be created and the mind holds steady the vision. With enough training and talent the body (in the case of a painter such as myself, the hand) carries out the intentions held by these tightly held foci. The heart for the most part does not deal in facts, what it does is create the imprint the feeling that will go into those things that do not as yet exist physically. The heart works on faith, the faith that what is felt when held steady will manifest, the intellect holds the vision and works the tiny details (the facts) into existence via the actions carried out by the body (hand). Being consciously aware of these dynamic is not always a given. It is possible to be one sided in this awareness though, as in consciously aware of the physical understanding needed and the work required to create something and yet unaware of the hearts place in all of this. Similarly it is possible to be overly “heart” oriented and thus the intellect is not utilized effectively nor the body . . . we call such a state “dreaming” or castle in the sky living. The down side of being oriented towards the intellect at the expense of the heart is to be a slave to what “is” as in “facts”, you effectively believe in nothing but what is in existence now and by that we mean physical existence. Surly you know that what is in existence now will one day not be, in other words things, physical things made of matter come and go . . . what do you suppose causes this dynamic to oscillate thus? To believe there is no cause behind the dance of matter is to be one sided and unaware of the role that the heart plays in all of this. The spirit, (feel) and primary cause behind the dance comes from the heart. This awareness when understood and put into practice puts us (humankind) squarely back into the drivers’ seat; we are not victims of a heartless unforgiving universe. Only in the light of this kind of consciousness is it possible to Love with wisdom (a heart action) or to grasp the facts effectively with the intellect as Bertrand Russell was suggesting.

David B. Ellis said...

"I do not disclaim the value of the intellect in ascertaining what the facts may be at any given time, what I am saying is that we are creative beings which means we can bring things into existence from a mix of the heart and the intellect."

Are you saying we can will an afterlife into existence? If so, that seems, to put it kindly, less than plausible. If not, what relevance does the comment have to this discussion?

"It is possible to be one sided in this awareness though, as in consciously aware of the physical understanding needed and the work required to create something and yet unaware of the hearts place in all of this."

My position is not one-sidedly intellectual. Rather, my heart passionately desires truth. And desiring truth, I whole-HEARTedly pursue the goal of increasing my rationality. The heart and head are working together. It's simply that the heart is not usurping the role of the head---which is what you seem to be suggesting it can do. Unless you mean something entirely different by "faith" than the normal usage of the word.

"The down side of being oriented towards the intellect at the expense of the heart is to be a slave to what “is” as in “facts”, you effectively believe in nothing but what is in existence now and by that we mean physical existence."

That is simply obviously false. The rational person does not believe only in what exists now---obviously we are aware that there is such a thing as the future (being a fanatical science fiction lover I'm more deeply interested in it than average).

"Surly you know that what is in existence now will one day not be, in other words things, physical things made of matter come and go . . . what do you suppose causes this dynamic to oscillate thus? To believe there is no cause behind the dance of matter is to be one sided and unaware of the role that the heart plays in all of this."

What reason is there to think cause and effect have anything to do with the human heart? Cause and effect occurred long before human beings (or any other life) existed on this world. Or are you talking about some sort of "cosmic" heart? In which case I'll simply point out that the idea is just as speculative as the afterlife.

"The spirit, (feel) and primary cause behind the dance comes from the heart. This awareness when understood and put into practice puts us (humankind) squarely back into the drivers’ seat; we are not victims of a heartless unforgiving universe. Only in the light of this kind of consciousness is it possible to Love with wisdom (a heart action) or to grasp the facts effectively with the intellect as Bertrand Russell was suggesting."

The universe does indeed appear to be heartless. But we are not. And that wonderful fact is more than sufficient. In a cosmos governed by blind natural laws beings have emerged that are capable of creativity, intellectual delight and lovingkindness. Far from being a cause for despair, I see that are reason for boundless joy.

David B. Ellis said...

"...as reason..." I meant to say.

António Araújo said...

>We don't have to have perfect access >to all the facts to make rational >decisions.

This is actually a well know (and in a certain sense solved) problem. Since I am working on this, I'll give you bayesian reasoning in a nutshell:

Classical logic tells you how to think rationally when certain propositions are known to be absolutely false of absolutely true. This, however, doesn't occur often in ordinary life. Hence logic cannot tell you what do think or do most of the time.

Bayesian probability is the generalization of logic to the case in which you only have a knowledge of the probability of those propositions being true. It allows you to calculate the probability of the conclusions from that of your premisses ("priors") and the observation of data.

But how do you know the probability of the premisses? It is a given! Meaning, in a final analysis, you have to guess it. Now, a whole school says that this makes probability "subjective". Others would say that it proves that you need some sort of "faith" to start your reasoning. True. The problem is that people use "subjective" and "faith", which are very loose terms, in a loaded way.

Yes, it is "subjective"-as it is "subject" to your initial hypothesis; but then again so is logic "subjective" in that sense (without hypothesis you only deduce tautologies (Look mom, I wrote a poem: to be, or not to be, that is a tautology! :)))).

Yes, it needs "faith" - but only in the sense of the "leap of faith" that a researcher makes upon making an informed guess; meaning, accepting the necessity for making initial decisions on insuficient data, that you can and will revise later when the facts contradict it (hence not "blind faith", not "religious", but vulnerable to facts)

Finally, in a higher sense, logical probability is "objective", in the sense that, for every choice of initial guess and for every set of observed facts, it tells you what the logical consequence must be.

Hence old Bertrand is far from a wide-eyed idealist, methinks. One can be rational. Of course, thinking rationaly, in no way guarantees reaching the right comclusion; only that you are thinking in the most honest and clear way we know how, which is still no guarantee of success: loosely paraphrasing Hypocrates: art is long, life is short, opportunity fleeting, experiment perilous, decision difficult.

Robert Isler Wanka said...

David,
In response to some of your points about what I had written:
I was not specifically talking about supernatural powers. I was of course talking about the creativity of a living person. Did I not use the analogy of an artist using the heart the mind and the body to create an external result such as art?

As for delivering proof of life after death where in the seed of this discussion of Bertrand Russell ‘s comments did this become the point of the discussion?
It may be that you actually seek an answer to that question or it may be that you seek to score intellectual and factual points against it, If the latter is the thrust of your intentions then you have made my earlier point about being “too much in your head” dominated by your intellect. In truth I do not know your motivation but I will say what I think about this idea of life after death.

There can be no intellectual or factual proof of life after death since death is not an intellectual achievement. Another way of putting it, life after death can not be “physically” proven or disproven because it obviously is not a physical state. I know, your mind will not accept that answer but I say your heart will. If you were truly interested in finding out whether or not a “non physical” dimension existed, one that could actually impact your personal experience of the physical world, you would need to explore the dynamics within your own being. There is one caveat however; it would require exercising some faith.

Ah but there in lies the rub, for you have already denied the value of faith and thus the door inwards is held tightly shut by your own attitude of mind.

However, not all is lost, it is in the very nature of the human condition, through loss and sorrow . . . when the pain becomes unbearable that you might bend your attention inwards and seek for peace in the experiences that come from a place that cannot be describe in words. This is a place that is so thoroughly original it can not be saddle by facts, which means it can not be turned into a formula to be used with automatic results, the antithesis of originality. This is a place beyond the reasoning mind and if you are one sided, dominated by that mind; all that I have just hinted at will sound like gibberish to you. If however, you are just beginning to open that door to the heart, a faint bell of recognition will ring within the mind and you will sense the opportunities such an inward journey represents. One of which will be the establishment of a cooperative and coordinated effort between the mind and the heart. In such a state of balanced dynamics, you will be more than a believer and collector of only the facts about creation, you will become a fully conscious participant within it as well.

You will know this as a truth when the universe no longer appear heartless to you.

David B. Ellis said...

"David,
In response to some of your points about what I had written:
I was not specifically talking about supernatural powers. I was of course talking about the creativity of a living person. Did I not use the analogy of an artist using the heart the mind and the body to create an external result such as art?"

But what does that have to do with this discussion? I never remotely suggested that the human heart isn't important to artistic creation. The discussion has been about whether faith and/or "the heart" are a sound basis for belief in an afterlife.

"As for delivering proof of life after death where in the seed of this discussion of Bertrand Russell ‘s comments did this become the point of the discussion?"

Peter Mores said "But some questions that happen to be important to many people (such as the existence or non-existence of some form of afterlife) are fundamentally closed to empirical verification. They require you either have faith, or suspend your judgment."

Which led to a discussion about what constitutes sound basis for belief in an afterlife.

To which you responded with comments about, I quote, "“faith” is no fairytale; it is not on par with mind inventions like Werewolves, and Wizards...." and about "....the power of the heart and the validity of faith...."

"In truth I do not know your motivation but I will say what I think about this idea of life after death."

Not to be snarky but I'm glad you're at least getting back to the issue that is actually in dispute.

"There can be no intellectual or factual proof of life after death since death is not an intellectual achievement."

Actually, there are lots of things that would constitute overwhelming empirical evidence for an afterlife (several examples have already been mentioned). That death "is not an intellectual achievement" (whatever that's supposed to mean) is quite irrelevant. My dog isn't an intellectual achievement either but I have solid empirical evidence of his existence. Things don't need to be an intellectual achievement for us to have good evidence they are real.

David B. Ellis said...

"Another way of putting it, life after death can not be “physically” proven or disproven because it obviously is not a physical state. I know, your mind will not accept that answer but I say your heart will."

Things don't have to be physical to be susceptible to proof---if that we're so there would be no such thing as math. Not that I'm even asking for absolute proof---only sound reasons for belief.

As for my heart's role, it is this:

My heart desires to believe an afterlife exists if an afterlife exists and to not believe an afterlife exists if an afterlife does not exists.

To put it more succinctly, my heart longs for the truth over even the most comforting self-deceit.

"If you were truly interested in finding out whether or not a “non physical” dimension existed, one that could actually impact your personal experience of the physical world, you would need to explore the dynamics within your own being. There is one caveat however; it would require exercising some faith."

A) I used to be a person of faith before becoming the rationalist that I am today. I've experienced both from the inside. And:

B) Even if an afterlife does not exist, one can still have faith experiences telling one it does. There is nothing about the experience of faith that can distinguish a true, independently real fact from self-delusion. One can have all the faith in the world and one is not, in fact, one step closer to having a sound basis for believing an afterlife exists.

"However, not all is lost, it is in the very nature of the human condition, through loss and sorrow . . . when the pain becomes unbearable that you might bend your attention inwards and seek for peace in the experiences that come from a place that cannot be describe in words."

Please refrain from making assumptions about my experiences. I've experienced quite a lot of loss and sorrow. I've also spent quite a considerable effort on looking inward and even pursuing the contemplative life.

But I'm also quite aware that looking inward will only tell you what's within (at most). No one has ever discovered a fact about external reality by introspection.

"You will know this as a truth when the universe no longer appear heartless to you."

You seem like a decent person and I'm sure you don't mean that comment to come across as condescending. Nonetheless, condescending it is. That someone doesn't share you're belief in supernatural (or pantheistic) realities is not evidence that you have a higher, mystical insight into reality they lack. Nor even that you've experienced something they haven't. I once held views quite similar to yours during my "mystic" phase. Between my conversion away from organized religion and before becoming a full-fledged rationalist/humanist.

Robert Isler Wanka said...

David,
I believe I have made my point regarding the need to strike a balance between the intuitive and the rational, the heart and the mind. Bertrand Russell said it in fewer words and in that he may have been the wiser.

Thank you for the discussion.

Robert Isler Wanka said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David B. Ellis said...

"I believe I have made my point regarding the need to strike a balance between the intuitive and the rational, the heart and the mind. Bertrand Russell said it in fewer words and in that he may have been the wiser."

I don't think you were saying anything like the same thing Russell was. Him I agreed with.

"Thank you for the discussion."

And thanks to you as well. I'm always happy to discuss philosophy. It's a shame that Russell didn't live to see the amount of philosophical discussion that the internet has facilitated.