On the Value of Scepticism by Betrand Russell Explanation

On the Value of Scepticism by Betrand Russell

A word about the author ..

Sir Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was and continues to be Britain’s foremost thinker. He was a mathematician, philosopher, writer, political activist and visionary. He created many controversies during his time for his anti-war views, and crusade against the ultra-nationalists and the fanatics. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. He is best remembered for his seminal work “Pricipia Mathematica’., which he co-authored with Alfred Whitehead. He studied in Trinity College, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics.


The essay ….

I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it. I am also aware (what is more serious) that it would tend to diminish the incomes of clairvoyants, bookmakers, bishops, and others who live on the irrational hopes of those who have done nothing to deserve good fortune here or hereafter. In spite of these grave arguments, I maintain that a case can be made out of my paradox, and I shall try to set it forth.

First of all, I wish to guard myself against being thought to take up an extreme position. I am a British Whig, with a British love of compromise and moderation. A story is told of Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrhonism (which was the old name for scepticism). He maintained that we never know enough to be sure that one course of action is wiser than another. In his youth, when he was taking his constitutional one afternoon, he saw his teacher in philosophy (from whom he had imbibed his principles) with his head stuck in a ditch, unable to get out. After contemplating him for some time, he walked on, maintaining that there was no sufficient ground for thinking he would do any good by pulling the man out. Others, less sceptical, effected a rescue, and blamed Pyrrho for his heartlessness. But his teacher, true to his principles, praised him for his consistency. Now I do not advocate such heroic scepticism as that. I am prepared to admit the ordinary beliefs of common sense, in practice if not in theory. I am prepared to admit any well-established result of science, not as certainly true, but as sufficiently probable to afford a basis for rational action. If it is announced that there is to be an eclipse of the moon on such-and-such a date, I think it worthwhile to look and see whether it is taking place. Pyrrho would have thought otherwise. On this ground, I feel justified in claiming that I advocate a middle position.

Explanation .. The author reassures his readers that, being a member of the British Whig party, he has no radical views. He is moderate and reasonable. [The Liberal Party of modern day Britain originated from the British Whig party, inheriting its philosophy of compromise and accommodation.] To press his point further, he wants to assert that he is not an ardent admirer of Pyrrho, so he is inclined to look at each and everything through the prism of Pyrrhonism which a philosophical thought strongly anchored to skepticism. Pyrrho was convinced that we humans do not know sufficiently enough about one course of action to accept it unquestioningly in preference to another. Then the author cites an anecdote about Pyrrho’s student days. On one occasion, he found his philosophy teacher lying with his head stuck in a ditch. Pyrrho reasoned that there was no compelling reason for him to rescue his teacher. Another pupil, who happened to pass by around that time, scrambled to his teacher’s rescue. Afterwards, the teacher had a word of praise for Pyrrho’s sense of judgment, because he had stuck to the principle of skepticism very truly. The author hurries to state that he is no Pyrrho, and would follow a middle path.

There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed; the dates of eclipses may serve as an illustration. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts not many years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.

Explanation .. The author takes the case of celestial events like the eclipse. Astronomers calculate the date of a future eclipse and generally arrive at a unanimous decision about its likely date. There are other matters pertaining to which the experts’ opinions are not so unanimous. Quite intriguingly, matters on which experts agree unanimously, may prove to be fallacious. For example, when Einstein found out that the path of light does get deflected by gravity, most experts dismissed it as unacceptable. Yet, Einstein was proved right, and the experts wrong.

However, the facts remain that ideas on which experts agree unanimously, are more likely to be proved right, than those on which experts differ.

The author concludes that his skepticism is rooted in the following three premises.

  1. that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain
  2. that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and
  3. that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

The author reiterates that the above three stipulations could be mild, but when adopted, they can radically transform our living.

The opinions for which people are willing to fight and persecute all belong to one of the three classes which this scepticism condemns. When there are rational grounds for an opinion, people are content to set them forth and wait for them to operate. In such cases, people do not hold their opinions with passion; they hold them calmly, and set forth their reasons quietly. The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately. Except in China, a man is thought a poor creature unless he has strong opinions on such matters; people hate sceptics far more than they hate the passionate advocates of opinions hostile to their own. It is thought that the claims of practical life demand opinions on such questions, and that, if we became more rational, social existence would be impossible. I believe the opposite of this, and will try to make it clear why I have this belief.

Explanation …. The people get ginned up to fight and persecute others fall in any one of the above three categories. When a cause appears more or less rational, but not unequivocally, people just calmly accept it. Their support appears subdued. On the other hand, when people rise stridently in support of a cause, it has been seen that the cause is not supported by any rationality at all. It is the whim and passion that guides the people who aggressively fight for such a cause.

Political or religious opinions have always a band of very enthusiastic followers. A citizen is not held in sufficient esteem if they do not have a strong opinion of religion and politics. Only in China, such an absurd description of a ‘worthy’ citizen is not found.

Quite curiously, in the public eye, skeptics receive much more derision, than those with strong views on religion and politics, no matter whether such views are agreeable or disagreeable. In other words, when confronted by a sceptic, and someone with opposite views, a person is more likely to hate the former than the latter.

In our day-to-day life, it becomes imperative to hold a view on religion and politics. For skeptics, who doubt every possible opinion, living in a community becomes quite problematic. The author says that he will prove how the opposite can be proved to be true.

Take the question of unemployment in the years after 1920. One party held that it was due to the wickedness of trade unions, another that it was due to the confusion on the Continent. A third party, while admitting that these causes played a part, attributed most of the trouble to the policy of the Bank of England in trying to increase the value of the pound sterling. This third party, I am given to understand, contained most of the experts, but no one else. Politicians do not find any attractions in a view which does not lend itself to party declamation, and ordinary mortals prefer views which attribute misfortune to the machinations of their enemies. Consequently people fight for and against quite irrelevant measures, while the few who have a rational opinion are not listened to because they do not minister to any one’s passions. To produce converts, it would have been necessary to persuade people that the Bank of England is wicked. To convert Labour, it would have been necessary to show that directors of the Bank of England are hostile to trade unionism; to convert the Bishop of London, it would have been necessary to show that they are “immoral.” It would be thought to follow that their views on currency are mistaken.

Explanation … The unemployment crisis that plagued the western countries after 1920 was attributed to militant trade unions by some people, while some others felt it was due to the turmoil that engulfed Europe then. The experts in the matter had a third view. They said unemployment situation worsened because of Bank of England’s policy to shore up the Pound Sterling. This view, emanating mostly from experts, had few backers among the common people. This is because political parties willingly accept views that are in line with their party’s declared positions. Ordinary folks feel it wise if their suffering is attributed to the machinations of their “enemies’, real or fictional. As a result, people get embroiled in controversies relating to trivial matters. Such type of rancorous public discourse is needless and completely wasteful. On the contrary, opinions of experts are rarely discussed in pubic with any seriousness, because such opinions are not partisan in nature. They don’t ignite passions.

Portraying Bank of England’s actions as inimical to trade unions would have been music to the ears of Labour Party’s supporters. In the same way, painting the Bank’s actions as immoral would have been palatable to the Bishop’s ears. So, the judgment of the trade unions and the Bishop over the matter can be called into question.

Let us take another illustration. It is often said that socialism is contrary to human nature, and this assertion is denied by socialists with the same heat with which it is made by their opponents. The late Dr. Rivers, whose death cannot be sufficiently deplored, discussed this question in a lecture at University College, published in his posthumous book on Psychology and Politics. This is the only discussion of this topic known to me that can lay claim to be scientific. It sets forth certain anthropological data which show that socialism is not contrary to human nature in Melanesia; it then points out that we do not know whether human nature is the same in Melanesia as in Europe; and it concludes that the only way of finding out whether socialism is contrary to European human nature is to try it. It is interesting that on the basis of this conclusion he was willing to become a Labour candidate. But he would certainly not have added to the heat and passion in which political controversies are usually enveloped.

Explanation .. The author then cites the controversy around Socialism to illustrate his point. There are people who are very critical about the idea of Socialism. Others, like Dr. Rivers had a lot of praise for this political philosophy. Sadly, he is no more, but his book, Psychology and Politics, published posthumously, has the content of his lecture delivered in University College. In his lecture, Dr. Rivers explained that Socialism is quite compatible with the humans. To prove his point, he relied on anthropological analysis of the remains found in Melanesia. But, to say Socialism is compatible with Europeans can’t be deduced from this logic. So, it becomes necessary to try Socialism in Europe and see if it suits the Europeans’ nature. In this regard, he mulled becoming a Labour candidate in election, but he loathed the polemics that invariably make electioneering so toxic.  

I will now venture on a topic which people find even more difficulty in treating dispassionately, namely marriage customs. The bulk of the population of every country is persuaded that all marriage customs other than its own are immoral, and that those who combat this view do so only in order to justify their own loose lives. In India, the remarriage of widows is traditionally regarded as a thing too horrible to contemplate. In Catholic countries divorce is thought very wicked, but some failure of conjugal fidelity is tolerated, at least in men. In America divorce is easy, but extra-conjugal relations are condemned with the utmost severity. Mohammedans believe in polygamy, which we think degrading. All these differing opinions are held with extreme vehemence, and very cruel persecutions are inflicted upon those who contravene them. Yet no one in any of the various countries makes the slightest attempt to show that the custom of his own country contributes more to human happiness than the custom of others.

Explanation .. Bertrand Russell then takes up the subject of marriage customs, which proves to be very contentious among people. People are so tied to their own views that they blindfold themselves while evaluating a different system of marriage. People tend to think that the system prevailing in their country is the best, and that in other countries are immoral. In India, remarriage of widows, so common in western societies, is treated with revulsion. Catholic societies frown upon divorce, but reluctantly allow a certain degree of infidelity on the part of the men folks. In America, divorce is commonplace, but extra-conjugal relationships are considered as totally reprehensible. In Islam, polygamy is approved, but in England, it causes moral disgust. People are so convinced about the desirability and morality of their own systems of marriage that they stoutly refuse to discuss if a system other than theirs could bring greater human happiness. Dogma prevails over reason.

When we open any scientific treatise on the subject, such as (for example) Westermarck’s History of Human Marriage, we find an atmosphere extraordinarily different from that of popular prejudice. We find that every kind of custom has existed, many of them such as we should have supposed repugnant to human nature. We think we can understand polygamy, as a custom forced upon women by male oppressors. But what are we to say of the Tibetan custom, according to which one woman has several husbands? Yet travellers in Tibet assure us that family life there is at least as harmonious as in Europe. A little of such reading must soon reduce any candid person to complete scepticism, since there seem to be no data enabling us to say that one marriage custom is better or worse than another. Almost all involve cruelty and intolerance towards offenders against the local code, but otherwise they have nothing in common. It seems that sin is geographical. From this conclusion, it is only a small step to the further conclusion that the notion of “sin” is illusory, and that the cruelty habitually practiced in punishing it is unnecessary. It is just this conclusion which is so unwelcome to many minds, since the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.

Explanation .. The classical book Westermarck’s History of Human Marriage has views that are quite divergent from the prejudices we willingly have accepted on the matter of marriage today. The book details some customs that existed in the times of yore that could easily horrify us as being decadent. We are conditioned to believe that polygamy is a manifestation of male power over the weaker sex, but in Tibet, a woman is free to take more than one husbands. So, the contradiction is quite baffling here.

Travelers to Tibet narrate how families where one woman has more than one husbands are as happy as those in Europe where a husband takes only one wife. So, careful reading of the social practices in other lands should lead us to believe that we are not necessarily right to assume that our system is the best. There is, however, one common thing in all systems. A person, who deviates from the local code of marital life, is sternly dealt with. Other than this common factor, there is no commonality between different systems of marriage.

The notion of ‘sin’ is also confusing. What is ‘sin’ in one geography, is morally correct in another. This calls in to question the rationale of meting out severe punishments to those who cross the local code of ‘good marriage’.  Moralists, and the society’s conscience keepers find justification for their harsh treatment of the so-called ‘sinners’. For these people policing the society, the idea that ‘sin’ is not universal, but a concept severely limited by geography could be deeply upsetting. To impart a moral sanction to their authority, they invented ‘Hell’.


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