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The Art of Philosophizing
and Other Essays
By Bertrand Russell
Philosophical LibraryCopyright © 1968 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Art of Rational Conjecture
Let us begin with a few words as to what philosophy is. It is not definite knowledge, for that is science. Nor is it groundless credulity, such as that of savages. It is something between these two extremes; perhaps it might be called "The art of rational conjecture." According to this definition, philosophy tells us how to proceed when we want to find out what may be true, or is most likely to be true, where it is impossible to know with certainty what is true. The art of rational conjecture is very useful in two different ways. First: often the most difficult step in the discovery of what is true is thinking of a hypothesis which may be true; when once the hypothesis has been thought of, it can be tested, but it may require a man of genius to think of it. Second: we often have to act in spite of uncertainty, because delay would be dangerous or fatal; in such a case, it is useful to possess an art by which we can judge what is probable. This art, so far as very general hypotheses are concerned, is philosophy. Particular questions, such as "will it rain tomorrow?" do not belong to philosophy; philosophy is concerned with general questions, such as: "Is the world governed by mechanical laws, or has it a cosmic purpose, or has it both characteristics at once?" Philosophy examines whether anything can be said on such general questions.
The first thing to realize, if you wish to become a philosopher, is that most people go through life with a whole world of beliefs that have no sort of rational justification, and that one man's world of beliefs is apt to be incompatible with another man's, so that they cannot both be right. People's opinions are mainly designed to make them feel comfortable; truth, for most people is a secondary consideration. You, dear readers, have of course no prejudices; but you will admit that in this you are different from most people. I shall suppose that you are a Baptist from Tennessee. It is obvious to you that America is the greatest country in the world, that Tennessee is the most distinguished of the States, and that the Baptists are the sole repositories of theological truth. Let us suppose that I concede all this. What am I to say to a man from another State or another country? How can I persuade a French Canadian Catholic of the truths which are so luminously evident to you? There are still a good many points about which you and he will agree, but how if you have to argue with a Turk or a Hindu or a Confucian? You will find them questioning most of what you have accepted as unquestionable, and if you are to argue profitably with them you will have to find common ground beneath your respective assumptions.
You will still find some things about which you can agree with the Turk. Are men descended from monkeys? Perish the thought! Is man the supreme glory of the universe? Of course. On such matters your common humanity makes you see eye to eye. But if one day an intelligent being were to arrive from Mars, he might turn out to be as superior to men as men are to monkeys; he might think the difference between men and monkeys very slight, and consider it obvious that they had a common ancestry. He would assert the claims of Mars (unless he were a philosopher) as confidently as you had asserted the claims of Tennessee. And what could you do about it?
If you wish to become a philosopher, you must try, as far as you can, to get rid of beliefs which depend solely upon the place and time of your education, and upon what your parents and schoolmasters told you. No one can do this completely, and no one can be a perfect philosopher, but up to a point we can all achieve it if we wish to. "But why should we wish to?" you may ask. There are several reasons. One of them is that irrational opinions have a great deal to do with war and other forms of violent strife. The only way in which a society can live for any length of time without violent strife is by establishing social justice, and social justice appears to each man to be injustice if he is persuaded that he is superior to his neighbors. Justice between classes is difficult where there is a class that believes itself to have a right to more than a proportionate share of power or wealth. Justice between nations is only possible through the power of neutrals, because each nation believes in its own superior excellence. Justice between creeds is even more difficult, since each creed is convinced that it has a monopoly of the truth of the most important of all subjects. It would be increasingly easier than it is to arrange disputes amicably and justly if the philosophic outlook were more wide-spread.
A second reason for wishing to be philosophic is that mistaken beliefs do not, as a rule, enable you to realize good purposes. In the middle ages, when there was an epidemic of plague, people crowded into the churches to pray, thinking that their piety would move God to take pity on them; in fact, the crowds in ill-ventilated buildings provided ideal conditions for the spread of the infection. If your means are to be adequate to your ends, you must have knowledge, not merely superstition or prejudice.
A third reason is that truth is better than falsehood. There is something ignominious in going about sustained by comfortable lies. The deceived husband is traditionally ludicrous, and there is something of the same laughable or pitiable quality about all happiness that depends upon being deceived or deluded.
If you wish to become a philosopher, you must train both the intellect and the emotions. The two sorts of training are intimately interconnected, but they must be to some extent separated in discussion. I shall begin with the training of the intellect.
The training of the intellect has both a positive and a negative aspect: you have to learn what to believe, and what not to believe. Let us begin with the positive aspect.
Although, in the last analysis, everything may be more or less doubtful, yet some things are so nearly certain that for all practical purposes the element of doubt may be ignored. The would-be philosopher will ask himself what kinds of knowledge seem least open to question, and why. He may, in starting this inquiry, reasonably assume that the most certain kinds of knowledge are those about which there is least dispute. He will soon find that these are not the kinds of knowledge, or supposed knowledge, that are asserted with most vehemence. Everyone is agreed about the multiplication table, but no one goes about proclaiming that it contains Sacred Truth. If anyone were to deny its truth, he would not be burnt at the stake or imprisoned as a fifth columnist. A sensible man, if he fell among arithmetical heretics, and were asked to recant his belief in the multiplication table, would do so, conscious that his recantation could do the multiplication table no harm. These are the characteristics of a belief about which there is no reasonable doubt.
Whoever wishes to become a philosopher will do well to acquire a considerable knowledge of mathematics. In the course of this study he will get to know what sorts of truths can be discovered by mere thinking, without the help of observation. He will also acquire familiarity with exact reasoning, and with the sort of mistakes to which even very expert reasoners are prone. For this last purpose, he will do well to study mathematics historically. For example: before Einstein, everybody thought it had been proved mathematically that gravitation is propagated instantaneously, but Einstein's theory required that it should be propagated with the velocity of light. Sure enough, the mathematicians found a mistake in the argument which had satisfied them for generations, and now, unless they are Nazis, they are all agreed that Einstein was right about the velocity of gravitation. This, however, was a very advanced and difficult question; it would be a mistake to be led by this instance into a general skepticism about mathematics. What it is right to infer is that, where questions are concerned that are both more complex and more nearly related to our passions than the questions of mathematics, the chance of errors in reasoning becomes very great. This applies especially to social and religious questions.
Logic is useful to the philosopher in its modern form, not in the musty medieval form that the schoolmen produced out of Aristotle. It is useful chiefly as teaching caution in inference. Those who are not trained in logic are prone to inferences that have no validity. For example, if one class or nation is oppressed by another, and you think this oppression ought to cease, they will expect you to regard the oppressed class or nation as possessed of superior virtue, and will be surprised if you do not feel a personal liking for each and every one of them. There is here no logical connection, although to an untrained mind there seems to be one. The more expert you become in logic, the fewer will be the inferences that you allow to be valid, and the seldomer will you regard it as inconsistent to hold two opinions at once. This is important practically, since it allows necessary compromise, and prevents acceptance of some rigid bloc of opinions. Blocs of opinions, such as Catholicism, Communism, or Nazism, tend to be persecuting, and are practically certain to be at least partly false. Practice in logical analysis makes it harder to be satisfied with such ready-made mental clothing.
Logic and mathematics, useful as they are, are only intellectual training for the philosopher. They help him to know how to study the world, but they give him no actual information about it. They are the alphabet of the book of nature, not the book itself.
The knowledge that is needed above all, if you wish to become a philosopher, is knowledge of science—not in its minute detail, but in its general results, its history, and especially its method. It is science that makes the difference between the modern world and the world before the 17th Century. It is science that has destroyed the belief in witchcraft, magic and sorcery. It is science that has made the old creeds and the old superstitions impossible for intelligent men to accept. It is science that has made it laughable to suppose the earth the center of the universe and man the supreme purpose of the creation. It is science that is showing the falsehood of the old dualisms of soul and body, mind and matter, which have their origin in religion. It is science that is beginning to make us understand ourselves, and to enable us, up to a point, to see ourselves from without as curious mechanisms. It is science that has taught us the way to substitute tentative truth for cocksure error. The scientific spirit, the scientific method, the framework of the scientific world, must be absorbed by any one who wishes to have a philosophic outlook belonging to our time, not a literary antiquarian philosophy fetched out of old books. Assuredly Plato was a man of great genius, and Aristotle was comprehensively encyclopedic; but in their modern disciples they can inspire only error. An hour with Galileo or Newton will give you more help towards a sound philosophy than a year with Plato and Aristotle. But if you go to a university, this will not be the opinion of your professors.
Science, we said, is important to the philosopher in its results and in its method. Let us say something about each of those in turn.
As regards results: the first thing of importance to the philosopher is the history of the universe, past and future. The earlier and later parts are conjectural, but there is a long stretch in the middle about which there is not much doubt. It seems that, a good while ago, there was a diffused nebula, something like a very thin mist; some parts were not quite so thin as others, and these gradually became stars. Our star, the sun, either because another star passed near it or for some different reason, gave birth to a number of planets, which, at first, were as hot as their parent, but being smaller they presently cooled. One of them, when it reached a suitable temperature, generated certain chemically complex structures having the property of being able to confer their own composition and structure on suitable neighboring matter. This property is called life. Living structures became gradually more complex as they evolved through the animal and vegetable kingdoms; one of the most complex is man. The existence of life depends upon a number of conditions, chemical and thermal. For countless ages the weather was too hot for life; perhaps in the end it will be too cold. But some astronomers, for instance Sir James Jeans, tell us that before it grows too cold the sun will burst, which will cause the earth and all the other planets to become gaseous. In one way or in another, it is pretty certain that life on earth will presently cease.
The universe is on a large scale, both in time and space. The sun is almost 93 million miles from the earth, and its light reaches us in eight minutes. The nearest of the stars are so distant that their light takes several years to reach us. All the stars we see with the naked eye are part of the milky way, which is one of a vast number of star- clusters. In addition to star-clusters there are nebulae—something like a million of them—which are incredibly remote, so remote that their light takes many hundreds of thousands of years to reach us, although it travels at the rate of 180,000 miles a second. As for the time-scale, the earth has existed for millions of years, but its beginning is recent as compared to the beginnings of the sun. When Sir James Jeans speaks of the possibility of the sun bursting, one gets at first an impression that this catastrophe is imminent, but in the end he consolingly suggests that it will not happen for a million years. The universe, we are told, is steadily tending towards a state in which energy will be uniformly distributed, and therefore useless for all the purposes which it serves at present. When that time comes, and probably long before it, life will be extinct everywhere, and only a miracle could restore it. Even the most religious men of science, unless they are Catholics, agree that these are the most probable conclusions on the present evidence.
Let us contrast this picture of the universe with that presented in the Bible and the Fathers, which was generally accepted throughout Christendom until science caused men to question it. According to the Bible and the Fathers, the universe was created in six days by God's fiat; the date of the creation can be computed from the data in Genesis, and has been estimated at B.C. 4004. The earth is the center of the universe, and the creation of Adam and Eve was the last act in God's work. God told them not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree, and when they nevertheless did so, He was very angry, although He had always known that they would disobey Him. He was so angry that He decided on an infinite punishment: they and all their progeny deserved to burn eternally in an everlasting fire. But God the Son took upon himself the punishment due to a certain portion of mankind, by suffering crucifixion and spending three days in hell. In virtue of His suffering, those who hold correct theological opinions and undergo certain ceremonies will go to heaven instead of hell. The visible world will pass away at Christ's second coming, the date of which is uncertain. The first disciples believed it to be imminent; then it was expected in 1000 A.D. Some Protestant sects still think that it will come within a few years. After that there will be only heaven and hell—and purgatory for a while, according to the Catholics.
Excerpted from The Art of Philosophizing by Bertrand Russell. Copyright © 1968 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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Table of Contents
The Art of Rational Conjecture,
The Art of Drawing Inferences,
The Art of Reckoning,