With another contentious election now behind us, I’ve been thinking about this famous, lengthy quote from Bertrand Russell. In an interview from 1959, he spoke of the need for people to find common ground and to make an honest effort at seeking truth, even when we don’t like what the truth is.
I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral.
The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.
The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say: Love is wise. Hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
Nobody has a monopoly on the truth, and a good deal of psychological research has pointed out that our brains are set up with a lot of blind spots and self-serving biases. Despite this, hopefully we can agree that there is an objectivity ‘out there’ that we can all gain access to, at least in theory, and that a heightened consciousness can make us aware of our biases (that might be wishful thinking). Therefore, Russell’s two points are interconnected: we risk further disagreement and hostility if we cannot even agree on what the facts are.
I think this is what gives science a special place in the realm of knowledge because it revolves around accumulating evidence and discarding disproved ideas, rather than relying solely on the foregone conclusions of dogma and ideology. Scientists, being human, are not immune to bias, but ultimately the goal of science is a noble one: to seek an understanding of nature by piecing together facts in order to formulate theories. When theories are not supported by the facts, they should be discarded. Other systems of knowledge have a harder time with facts that do not fit their theories, giving them a higher propensity to simply throw away the facts.
Many have pointed out that some of the most impactful scientific discoveries in history have been humbling to the Western view of humanity’s place in nature, and that this is one reason there has been resistance to them. This will be a somewhat caricatured synopsis, but we’ve gone from seeing the universe as designed, ordered, constant, and anthropocentric to one that is mechanistic, eternally changing, and with humans residing on just one of many branches on the tree of life. Adding to that list of humility, I think we can safely cross off the idea of humans being purely rational animals.
We often get angry when things do not go our way and the world does not conform to our biases – political, religious, or otherwise. After every recent presidential election in the U.S., there has been an upswell in talk of people who opine that they would rather move to Canada or some other country should their candidate lose. Recently, hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions requesting that their state be allowed to secede. I don’t know if one side of the political spectrum is more apt to throw these types of tantrums (show me the data), but before going deeper into our trenches and echo chambers, it would be a good idea to reflect on Bertrand Russell’s words.
I’ve been thinking about these things for a while. Below is my year book photo from senior year in high school, and the MLK quote on learning to live together sounds a lot like Russell’s, and is still one of my favorites. I’m still optimistic. Still biased. Still dorky (that was well before the Red Sox’ 2004 and 2007 titles).
Choice, Obesity & the Irrational Ape (Homo insensatus)
Love it. Right on the money, as always.
I recently discovered Russell’s liberal Decalogue, which I now have posted outside my door. I don’t think anyone has read it yet, but I think it makes a wonderful little summary of the common values of a liberal education. I don’t think we’ll ever agree on the common knowledge and the common skills, but the common values are all right there.
Cedar, thanks, but I’m tempted to remove your “as always” comment.
Russell’s Decalogue is great, and I’m adding it below. Hope someone reads the copy outside your door:
1.Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2.Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3.Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4.When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5.Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6.Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7.Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8.Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9.Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10.Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.