Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Bertrand Russell, fully Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell

British Philosopher, Logician, Mathematician, Historian, Socialist, Pacifist and Social Critic

"Persons are part of the everyday world with which science is concerned, and the conditions which determine their existence are discoverable. A drop of water is not immortal; it can be resolved into oxygen and hydrogen. If, therefore, a drop of water were to maintain that it had a quality of aqueousness which would survive its dissolution we should be inclined to be skeptical. In like manner we know that the brain is not immortal, and that the organized energy of a living body becomes, as it were, demobilized at death, and therefore not available for collective action. All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based."

"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."

"Religion is an attempt to overcome this antithesis. If the world is controlled by God, and God can be moved by prayer, we acquire a share in omnipotence... Belief in God ... serves to humanize the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are really their allies. In like manner immortality removes the terror from death. People who believe that when they die they will inherit eternal bliss may be expected to view death without horror, though, fortunately for medical men, this does not invariably happen. It does, however, soothe men?s fears somewhat even when it cannot allay them wholly."

"Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear, and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad."

"This is not materialism: it is merely the recognition that everything interesting is a matter of organization, not of primal substance."

"What we call our "thoughts" seem to depend upon the organization of tracks in the brain in the same sort of way in which journeys depend upon roads and railways. The energy used in thinking seems to have a chemical origin; for instance, a deficiency of iodine will turn a clever man into an idiot. Mental phenomena seem to be bound up with material structure."

"Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power."

"But there is also a wider sense of ?free thought,? which I regard as of still greater importance. Indeed, the harm done by traditional religions seems chiefly traceable to the fact that they have prevented free thought in this wider sense."

"A great deal of this is due to the inherent irrationality and credulity of average human nature. But this seed of intellectual original sin is nourished and fostered by other agencies, among which three play the chief part ? namely, education, propaganda, and economic pressure."

"Legal penalties are, however, in the modern world, the least of the obstacles to freedom of thoughts. The two great obstacles are economic penalties and distortion of evidence. It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search."

"Some element of doubt is essential to the practice, though not to the theory, of toleration? If there is to be toleration in the world, one of the things taught in schools must be the habit of weighing evidence, and the practice of not giving full assent to propositions which there is no reason to believe true."

"The evils of the world are due to moral defects quite as much as to lack of intelligence. But the human race has not hitherto discovered any method of eradicating moral defects; preaching and exhortation only add hypocrisy to the previous list of vices. Intelligence, on the contrary, is easily improved by methods known to every competent educator. Therefore, until some method of teaching virtue has been discovered, progress will have to be sought by improvement of intelligence rather than of morals. One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instruction as to the prevalent forms of mendacity."

"Education should have two objects: first, to give definite knowledge ? reading and writing, languages and mathematics, and so on; secondly, to create those mental habits which will enable people to acquire knowledge and form sound judgments for themselves. The first of these we may call information, the second intelligence."

"Every man of science whose outlook is truly scientific is ready to admit that what passes for scientific knowledge at the moment is sure to require correction with the progress of discovery; nevertheless, it is near enough to the truth to serve for most practical purposes, though not for all. In science, where alone something approximating to genuine knowledge is to be found, men?s attitude is tentative and full of doubt."

"I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. I do not believe that, on the balance, religious belief has been a force for good. Although I am prepared to admit that in certain times and places it has had some good effects, I regard it as belonging to the infancy of human reason, and to a stage of development which we are now outgrowing."

"If Einstein had advanced something equally new in the sphere of religion or politics ? the truth or falsehood of his doctrine would be decided on the battlefield, without the collection of any fresh evidence for or against it. This method is the logical outcome of William James?s will to believe. What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is its exact opposite."

"His theory upsets the whole theoretical framework of traditional physics; it is almost as damaging to orthodox dynamics as Darwin was to Genesis. Yet physicists everywhere have shown complete readiness to accept his theory as soon as it appeared that the evidence was in its favour. But none of them, least of all Einstein himself, would claim that he has said the last word? This critical undogmatic receptiveness is the true attitude of science."

"It must be done by generating an enlightened public opinion. And an enlightened public opinion can only be generated by the efforts of those who desire that it should exist."

"In religion and politics, on the contrary, though there is as yet nothing approaching scientific knowledge, everybody considers itde rigueur to have a dogmatic opinion, to be backed up by inflicting starvation, prison, and war, and to be carefully guarded from argumentative competition with any different opinion. If only men could be brought into a tentatively agnostic frame of mind about these matters, nine-tenths of the evils of the modern world would be cured. War would become impossible, because each side would realize that both sides must be in the wrong. Persecution would cease. Education would aim at expanding the mind, not at narrowing it. Men would be chosen for jobs on account of fitness to do the work, not because they flattered the irrational dogmas of those in power."

"Too much fuss is sometimes made about the fact that propaganda appeals to emotion rather than reason. The line between emotion and reason is not so sharp as some people think."

"The objection to propaganda is not only its appeal to unreason, but still more the unfair advantage which it gives to the rich and powerful. Equality of opportunity among opinions is essential if there is to be real freedom of thought; and equality of opportunity among opinions can only be secured by elaborate laws directed to that end, which there is no reason to expect to see enacted. The cure is not to be sought primarily in such laws, but in better education and a more sceptical public opinion."

"Thought is not ?free? when legal penalties are incurred by the holding or not holding of certain opinions, or by giving expression to one?s belief or lack of belief on certain matters? The most elementary condition, if thought is to be free, is the absence of legal penalties for the expression of opinions."

"There are two simple principles which, if they were adopted, would solve almost all social problems. The first is that education should have for one of its aims to teach people only to believe propositions when there is some reason to think that they are true. The second is that jobs should be given solely for fitness to do the work."

"When we speak of anything as ?free,? our meaning is not definite unless we can say what it is free from. Whatever or whoever is ?free? is not subject to some external compulsion, and to be precise we ought to say what this kind of compulsion is. Thus thought is ?free? when it is free from certain kinds of outward control which are often present. Some of these kinds of control which must be absent if thought is to be ?free? are obvious, but others are more subtle and elusive."

"William James used to preach the ?will to believe.? For my part, I should wish to preach the ?will to doubt.? None of our beliefs are quite true; all have at least a penumbra of vagueness and error. The methods of increasing the degree of truth in our beliefs are well known; they consist in hearing all sides, trying to ascertain all the relevant facts, controlling our own bias by discussion with people who have the opposite bias, and cultivating a readiness to discard any hypothesis which has proved inadequate."

"Cast-iron rules are above all things to be avoided."

"It is a dangerous error to confound truth with matter-of-fact. Our life is governed not only by facts, but by hopes; the kind of truthfulness which sees nothing but facts is a prison for the human spirit."

"For the first time in history, it is now possible, owing to the industrial revolution and its byproducts, to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness. Physical evil can, if we choose, be reduced to very small proportions. It would be possible, by organization and science, to feed and house the whole population of the world, not luxuriously, but sufficiently to prevent great suffering. It would be possible to combat disease, and to make chronic ill-health very rare. ? All this is of such immeasurable value to human life that we dare not oppress the sort of education which will tend to bring it about. in such an education, applied science will have to be the chief ingredient. Without physics and physiology and psychology, we cannot build the new world."

"Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it. ? We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy. ? Whatever may be thought of these definitions, we all know in practice whether an activity is to be regarded as constructive or destructive, except in a few cases where a man professes to be destroying with a view to rebuilding and are not sure whether he is sincere."

"Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows: (1) Do not feel absolutely certain of anything. (2) Do not think it worthwhile 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, endeavor 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."

"Passionate beliefs produce either progress or disaster, not stability. Science, even when it attacks traditional beliefs, has beliefs of its own, and can scarcely flourish in an atmosphere of literary skepticism. ? And without science, democracy is impossible."

"In a mechanistic civilization, there is grave danger of a crude utilitarianism, which sacrifices the whole aesthetic side of life to what is called ?efficiency.?"

"In the immense majority of children, there is the raw material of a good citizen and also the raw material of a criminal."

"Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty; that much of what passes for knowledge at any given time is likely to be more or less mistaken, but that the mistakes can be rectified by care and industry. In acting upon our beliefs, we should be very cautious where a small error would mean disaster; nevertheless it is upon our beliefs that we must act. This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy. But though difficult it is not impossible; it is in fact the scientific temper. Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors, when wide-spread, produce social disaster."

"It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, ?progress? would become mechanical and trivial."

"The first beginnings of many virtues arise out of experiencing the joys of construction."

"Those whose intelligence is adequate should be encouraged in using their imaginations to think out more productive ways of utilizing existing social forces or creating new ones."

"The raw material of instinct is ethically neutral, and can be shaped either to good or evil by the influence of the environment."

"What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?"

"Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own."

"God and immortality ? find no support in science? No doubt people will continue to entertain these beliefs, because they are pleasant, just as it is pleasant to think ourselves virtuous and our enemies wicked. But for my part I cannot see any ground for either."

"Fear is the basis of religious dogma, as of so much else in human life. Fear of human beings, individually or collectively, dominates much of our social life, but it is fear of nature that gives rise to religion. The antithesis of mind and matter is ? more or less illusory; but there is another antithesis which is more important ? that, namely, between things that can be affected by our desires and things that cannot be so affected. The line between the two is neither sharp nor immutable ? as science advances, more and more things are brought under human control. Nevertheless there remain things definitely on the other side. Among these are all the large facts of our world, the sort of facts that are dealt with by astronomy. It is only facts on or near the surface of the earth that we can, to some extent, mould to suit our desires. And even on the surface of the earth our powers are very limited. Above all, we cannot prevent death, although we can often delay it."

"Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong. We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value Nature is only a part. Thus in this world we are greater than Nature. In the world of values, Nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, deserving of neither admiration nor censure. It is we who create value and our desires which confer value? It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature ? not even for Nature personified as God."

"He admonishes against confusing ?the philosophy of nature,? in which such neutrality is necessary, with ?the philosophy of value,? which beckons us to create meaning by conferring human values upon the world:"

"Religion is an attempt to overcome this antithesis. If the world is controlled by God, and God can be moved by prayer, we acquire a share in omnipotence? Belief in God ? serves to humanize the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are really their allies. In like manner immortality removes the terror from death. People who believe that when they die they will inherit eternal bliss may be expected to view death without horror, though, fortunately for medical men, this does not invariably happen. It does, however, soothe men?s fears somewhat even when it cannot allay them wholly."

"What we call our ?thoughts? seem to depend upon the organization of tracks in the brain in the same sort of way in which journeys depend upon roads and railways. The energy used in thinking seems to have a chemical origin; for instance, a deficiency of iodine will turn a clever man into an idiot. Mental phenomena seem to be bound up with material structure."

"Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same na?ve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy."