Archive for the ‘Bertrand Russell’ Category

Bertrand Russell on belief in God

August 11, 2016


Is There a God? by Bertrand Russell (1952)

Bertrand Russell speaks to the future

June 24, 2016

Ramanujan: ‘the man who knew infinity’

June 11, 2016

I saw this movie a week or so ago.  I liked it a lot.  It is about the untutored Indian genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and how the famous British mathematician, G.H. Hardy, invited him to study with him at Cambridge University in England.

It begins with an epigraph quoting Bertrand Russell:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.

The movie shows the interesting and quirky characters of Ramanujan and Hardy as interesting and quirky characters, products of two very different cultures, and the backgrounds of life in Madras, India, in the early 1910s and in Cambridge during World War One.

The two men represented very different ways of knowing.  Ramanujan, the deeply religious Hindu, saw things holistically, as a kind of mystic vision.  The movie shows him in his job as clerk, writing in the sum of a column of numbers without adding them up, yet getting the correct figure.

G.H. Hardy was an atheist.  He didn’t believe in anything that couldn’t be proved.  Ramanujan didn’t want to bother with proofs.  He thought Hardy should just be able to see that his mathematical discoveries were right.

After all, his theorems appeared to work.  You can use the Pythagorean Theorum for estimating measurements without knowing Euclid’s proof.  Except, according to the movie, there was at least one occasion in which Ramanujan was wrong.

Mathematics is an example of a reality that is intangible, yet real.   For Ramanujan, the study of mathematics was a kind of spiritual discipline.

He made a great sacrifice for his love of mathematics.  As a high-caste Hindu, he was considered defiled for crossing the ocean.  He separated from his wife, whom he deeply loved.   He had a hard time sticking to his vegetarian diet, and he suffered from the damp, cold English winters.  Eventually he caught tuberculosis and nearly died.   In fact, he did die, at the age of 32, shortly after he returned to India.

One good thing about life today is that institutions such as Cambridge are sensitive to cultural differences.  A contemporary Ramanujan would be provided with food that he could eat.

Bertrand Russell is a minor character in the movie, and it is interesting to see him in the prime of life, with dark hair and a dark mustache, and not the elderly, white-haired image I hold in my mind.

The failure of philosophy in a secular age

June 7, 2016

Dr. Robert A. Heineman

Robert Heineman is professor of political science at Alfred University.  He is the author of several books, including Authority and the Liberal Tradition and (with W.T. Bluhm) Ethics and Public PolicyThe following is his notes for a talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on March 10, 2016, at Writers & Books Literary Center in Rochester, NY.

This was originally posted on March 13, 2016.

By Dr. Robert Heineman
Alfred University

PhilipKitcherLifeAfterFaith41M561fKDdL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_This evening I propose to engage the claims of the secular humanists that there is no “transcendent” reality in the world.  My argument moves beyond positions of this sort that take religion as their opponent, as does Philip Kitcher in his recent book Life After Faith.

I shall argue that not only is the transcendent existent, but that it has been recognized as such by major thinkers in the western tradition.  What has happened, unfortunately, is that the advances of science and the ideological dominance of academic philosophers have diverted serious intellectual analysis of who we are and where we are located in the universe from a proper framework.

Briefly in terms of western intellectual tradition, for the Greeks science and philosophy were intertwined to the benefit of both.  Following this period the dominance of the Catholic Church imposed a form of transcendental thought on the western world for at least a millennium.

The Enlightenment witnessed the development of tremendous scientific advances led by Isaac Newton, and as a direct corollary those of a philosophical bent constructed major theoretical systems that reflected their belief that all thought had the characteristics of scientific systems.

In this effort the empirical drive of especially English thinkers drove philosophy away from the assumption of universal transcendental axioms toward the narrower confines of logic, language analysis, and quantitative formulations.

George Sabine notes the special importance of advances in mathematics and the move toward a precision of thought beyond the ruminations of classical Greece.  This approach in his words constructed “the principles by means of which systematic inference can construct a completely rational system of theorems.”

The result was an era of “demonstrative systems” of thought that dominated the 17th and 18th centuries that sought a comprehensiveness and logical rigor that was seen as paralleling the “dazzling progress” in the sciences between Galileo and Newton.

This focus has in many ways disabled philosophy as an encompassing framework, both interpretive and analytic, for human beings living in the twenty-first century.  While science continues to project the existence of universals beyond the tangible, philosophers have become ideologically attuned to the empirical as the sole source of truth.

As Quentin Meillassoux has put it contemporary philosophy is witnessing the “religionizing of reason“ in contrast to the progressive rationalization of religion during the hey-day of Greek philosophy.


The large philosophical idea collider

November 9, 2015

philosophyNewsNetwork1 (more…)

Haldane vs. Russell on science and the future

September 12, 2014

by Phil Ebersole

These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on Sept. 11, 2014.

My presentation tonight is based on two essays, Daedalus: Science and the Future, written in 1923, in which the mathematical biologist, J.B.S. Haldane said that science held the seeds of a possible utopian future, and Icarus: the Future of Science, written by 1924 by Bertrand Russell in rebuttal, warning of the dangers in the development of scientific technique.

These conflicting claims about science are still with us, and I think these older essays shed light on the question precisely because they are old.  Both Haldane and Russell made predictions about the future which we are in a position to judge.

I think most of us know something about Bertrand Russell, but maybe not so much about John Burton Sanderson Haldane.

J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane

He was born in 1892 to an aristocratic and secular Scottish family.  He made important contributions to science.

He helped lay the groundwork for combining Mendelian genetics with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is the current basis of evolutionary theory, and for the idea of kin selection, popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.  He developed a theory of the origin of primitive life from complex non-living molecules, and constructed a human gene map for color blindness and hemophilia.

Like Richard Dawkins, he was both a successful popularizer of science and a militant atheist.  He was a staunch socialist and Marxist, and edited the London Daily Worker from 1940 to 1949.

In 1956, he emigrated to India in order, he said, to enjoy the freedom “not to wear socks”.  He became a naturalized citizen of India and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute until his death in 1964.

It is interesting that he entitled his essay “Daedalus,” who was, according to the legend, a morally ambiguous figure.  Daedalus was a technological genius who supposedly fled his native city of Athens to Crete after murdering his nephew, whom he feared would surpass him in achievement.  He constructed a wooden cow for the Cretan Queen Pasiphae (pas-if-eye) to hide in while she had sex with a white bull sent by Poseidon.  She became pregnant with the Minotaur, half bull and half man, so Daedalus, as Haldane pointed out, was the first genetic engineer.  He designed the Labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, which fed on youths and maidens, and he gave Ariadne, daughter of Pasiphae and King Minos, a thread by which her lover Theseus could find his way out after killing the beast.

King Minos shut Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth, but Daedalus made feathered wings for himself and his son so they could escape by flying to Sicily.  But Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax attaching the feathers to his body melted, and he drowned.  There’s more, but I’m going to turn to Haldane’s essay.

Haldane said the science is —
(1) the free activity of humanity’s divine faculty of reason and imagination
(2) the answer of a few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory, and
(3) humanity’s gradual conquest of
(a) space and time,
(b) matter as such
(c) the bodies of living things, including the human body, and
(d) the human soul


Chipotle profits by investing in employees

April 12, 2014

The Chipotle Mexican-style restaurant chain enjoys good profits and good growth, while paying its employees generously and promoting from within.

220px-Chipotle_Brandon_Its current policy began about nine years ago when founder Steve Ells and then-COO Monty Moran visited the restaurants, and notice that the one that were best-run were all managed by employees who had started as restaurant crew members and worked their way up.

They decided to make that into a system, and reward restaurant managers, not for achieving set targets of holding wages and other costs down, but for mentoring employees and training them to be managers.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Why do so many managers ignore the examples of Chipotle, Costco and other companies and instead grind their employees down instead of building them up?  

I am reminding of a saying Bertrand Russell once made about human nature, When people are mistaken as to what is in their interest, the course they believe to be wise is more harmful to others than the course that really is wise.


Bertrand Russell on war for moral principle

September 5, 2013

In 1914, the British government justified its declaration of war on Germany by Germany’s violation of the neutrality of Belgium and by alleged German atrocities, most of which later turned out to be false propaganda.  Bertrand Russell, who opposed the war, wrote early in 1915 about the idea of going to war to punish nations for their crimes.

Moral judgment, as applied to others than one’s self, are a somewhat subtilised police force: they make use of men’s desire for approbation to bring self-interest into harmony with the interest of one’s neighbors.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

But when a man is already trying to kill you, you will not feel much additional discomfort in the thought that he has a low opinion of your moral character. For this reason, disapproval of our enemies in wartime is useless, so far as any possible effect upon them is concerned.

It has, however, a certain unconscious purpose, which is, to prevent humane feelings toward the enemy, and to nip in the bud any nascent sympathy for his sufferings.  Under the stress of danger, belief and emotions all become subservient to the one end of self-preservation.

Since it is repugnant to civilized men to kill and maim other just like themselves, it becomes necessary to conquer repugnance by denying the likeness and imputing wickedness to those whom we wish to injure.

And so it comes about that the harshest moral judgments of the enemy are formed by the nations which have the strongest impulses of kindliness to overcome.

==Bertrand Russell, “An Appeal to Intellectuals,” 1915

Bertrand Russell on action and thought

July 21, 2013

russell-vicky-cartoon-sHalf the useful work in the world consists in combating the harmful work. 

A little time spent in trying to appreciate facts is not time wasted.

        ==Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Ernie and the Forest of Envy

October 21, 2012

Click on Ernie and the Forest of Envy by Simon and Finn for a delightful picture story about how people make themselves unhappy.

Hat tip to Ken Blackwell.


How much do we really need to work?

July 13, 2012

The Greater Rochester Russell Set had a round-table discussion of Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” in which, among other things, Russell contended that a four-hour work day would be sufficient to produce everything that people need—provided that you eliminate work to produce munitions, useless luxuries and status symbols, and to support an idle rich class.

I have come across the four-hour work day many times over the course of my life.  It could well be true.  A certain irreducible minimum of work is needed, but no advanced country has ever collapsed as a result of reducing the work week or the work day, that I know of.

But I wonder whether the argument for the four-hour work day has any empirical basis.  Are there any communities, utopian or otherwise, that adopted a four-hour work day?

I suppose the so-called “primitive” people would be an example.  One of the complaints of white European conquerors was that native Americans and Africans were lazy; that is, they were satisfied with what to a European appeared to be bare subsistence, and were unwilling to work for wages or raise cash crops to get anything more.  A common solution was to impose taxes, which they had to earn money to pay.

I’m re-reading Eric Foner’s great historical work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, which says that the goal of many of the Northerners was something called “compulsory free labor.”   They thought that the freed slaves should continue to work on the plantations and pick cotton, but what the slaves wanted was to own their own land, grow their own food and sell crops only to buy what they could not provide for themselves.  Many of the white people, Northerners and Southerners, thought that was proof that Negroes were “lazy”; they didn’t want to work for other people.

People differ on what counts as work and what doesn’t.  Thomas Geohegan, in his book about German social democracy, wrote that the average German does much less paid work than the average American (and also, by the way, about half as much as the average Greek), but the German spends much more time doing chores—cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, etc.—which, however, are not thought of as work.

As for myself, I like being retired, and being able to choose for myself what I do and don’t do.  I enjoy my web log, but I would hate blogging for money and always having to worry about how many views I get.   It would be hard to go back to working for a boss.  I know this is a privilege, and I know that most people aren’t so lucky.

Click on In Praise of Idleness for a link to Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”

Click on The Right to Be Lazy for a link to an 1883 pamphlet by Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, which anticipates Russell’s argument.

Click on It’s the 21st century: why are we working so hard? for thoughts of a contemporary writer in The Guardian. [Added 7/14/12]

Click on America’s Misguided Culture of Overwork for an interview with Thomas Geohegan on work in Germany and the United States.

Click on Are the Greeks the Hardest Workers in Europe? for the figures on Greek and German hours worked.


A message for our time from Bertrand Russell

June 3, 2012

I’m a member of the Bertrand Russell Society, and just now got back from the BRS annual meeting, which was held this year in Plymouth, N.H.   My friend Tim Madigan, who teaches philosophy at St. John Fisher College near Rochester, showed some video clips of Bertrand Russell that he uses in his class—including this one, which was taken from an extended interview shown on the British Broadcasting System in 1959.

Russell was asked what message he would sent to the future.   We are part of the future for whom his message was intended.

Below is another video clip of Russell.


Bertrand Russell’s maxims for paranoids

June 3, 2012

1.  Remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself.

2. Don’t overestimate your own merits.

3.  Don’t expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself.

4.  Don’t imagine that most other people give enough thought to you to have any desire to persecute you.

These maxims are from Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness.

Click on Bertrand Russell Bulletin for information about Bertrand Russell and the Bertrand Russell Society.

Click on Russell Texts Online for writings by Bertrand Russell.

Click on Bertrand Russell Facebook for more about Russell.

Click on Schedule of Greater Rochester Russell Set for Russell-related talks and discussions in Rochester, N.Y.

What liberalism ought to be

February 17, 2012

Fundamentally liberalism is an attitude.  The chief characteristics of that attitude are human sympathy, a receptivity to change and a scientific willingness to follow reason rather than faith or any fixed ideas.
    ==Chester Bowles


This, perhaps, is the testament of Liberalism.  For underlying all the specific projects which men espouse who think of themselves as Liberals there is always, it seems to me, a deeper concern.  It is fixed upon the importance of remaining free in mind and action before changing circumstances.
This is why Liberalism has always been associated with a passionate interest in freedom of thought and freedom of speech, in scientific research, in experiment, in the liberty of teaching, in an independent and unbiased press, in the right of men to differ in their opinions and to be different in their conduct …
    ==Walter Lippmann

The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.  This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way they are held in theology.
    ==Bertrand Russell


What do I understand by the Liberal principle?  I understand, in the main, it is a principle of trust in the people only qualified by prudence.  By this principle which is opposed to the Liberal principle, I understand mistrust of the people, only qualified by fear.
    ==William E. Gladstone

Bertrand Russell’s rule

May 22, 2011

When people are mistaken as to what is to their own interest, the course they believe to be wise is more harmful to others than the course that really is wise.


Bertrand Russell’s message to our descendants

May 15, 2011

Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century’s most important and most interesting thinkers, lived from 1872 to 1970.  The video is from a BBC Face-to-Face interview in 1959.


Bertrand Russell’s rules for skeptics

December 19, 2010

1.  When the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain.

2.  When they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert.

3.  When they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.


Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments

May 21, 2010

The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote his own personal set of ten commandments. They were published under the title “My Ten Commandments” in Everyman magazine in 1930.

They ran as follows: –

1. Do not lie to yourself.russell_commandments

2. Do not lie to other people unless they are exercising tyranny.

3. When you think it is your duty to inflict pain, scrutinize your reasons closely.

4. When you desire power, examine yourself closely as to why you deserve it.

5. When you have power, use it to build up people, not to constrict them.

6. Do not attempt to live without vanity, since this is impossible, but choose the right audience from which to seek admiration.

7. Do not think of yourself as a wholly self-contained unit.

8. Be reliable.

9. Be just.

10. Be good-natured.

Years later he wrote another set of ten commandments, this one just for teachers. It was published in an article entitled “The Best Answer to Fanaticism – Liberalism” in the New York Times Magazine in 1951.