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Posts Tagged ‘Bertrand Russell’

03 FEBRUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What “The Good Life” Really Means

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“There are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) is one of humanity’s most grounding yet elevating thinkers, his writing at once lucid and luminous. There is something almost prophetic in the way he bridges timelessness and timeliness in contemplating ideas urgently relevant to modern life a century earlier — from how boredom makes happiness possible to why science is the key to democracy. But nowhere does his genius shine more brilliantly than in What I Believe (public library).

Published in 1925, the book is a kind of catalog of hopes — a counterpoint to Russell’s Icarus, a catalog of fears released the previous year — exploring our place in the universe and our “possibilities in the way of achieving the good life.”

Russell writes in the preface:

In human affairs, we can see that there are forces making for happiness, and forces making for misery. We do not know which will prevail, but to act wisely we must be aware of both.

One of Russell’s most central points deals with our civilizational allergy to uncertainty, which we try to alleviate in ways that don’t serve the human spirit. Nearly a century before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s magnificent manifesto for mystery in the age of knowledge — and many decades before “wireless” came to mean what it means today, making the metaphor all the more prescient and apt — Russell writes:

It is difficult to imagine anything less interesting or more different from the passionate delights of incomplete discovery. It is like climbing a high mountain and finding nothing at the top except a restaurant where they sell ginger beer, surrounded by fog but equipped with wireless.

Long before modern neuroscience even existed, let alone knew what it now knows about why we have the thoughts we do — the subject of an excellent recent episode of the NPR’s Invisibilia — Russell points to the physical origins of what we often perceive as metaphysical reality:

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.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Nowhere, Russell argues, do our thought-fictions stand in starker contrast with physical reality than in religious mythology — and particularly in our longing for immortality which, despite a universe whose very nature contradicts the possibility, all major religions address with some version of a promise for eternal life. With his characteristic combination of cool lucidity and warm compassion for the human experience, Russell writes:

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.

And yet, noting that the existence or nonexistence of a god cannot be proven for it lies “outside the region of even probable knowledge,” he considers the special case of personal immortality, which “stands on a somewhat different footing” and in which “evidence either way is possible”:

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.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

But evidence, Russell points out, has little bearing on what we actually believe. (In the decades since, pioneering psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that the confidence we have in our beliefs is no measure of their accuracy.) Noting that we simply desire to believe in immortality, Russell writes:

Believers in immortality will object to physiological arguments [against personal immortality] on the ground that soul and body are totally disparate, and that the soul is something quite other than its empirical manifestations through our bodily organs. I believe this to be a metaphysical superstition. Mind and matter alike are for certain purposes convenient terms, but are not ultimate realities. Electrons and protons, like the soul, are logical fictions; each is really a history, a series of events, not a single persistent entity. In the case of the soul, this is obvious from the facts of growth. Whoever considers conception, gestation, and infancy cannot seriously believe that the soul in any indivisible something, perfect and complete throughout this process. It is evident that it grows like the body, and that it derives both from the spermatozoon and from the ovum, so that it cannot be indivisible.

Long before the term “reductionism” would come to dismiss material answers to spiritual questions, Russell offers an elegant disclaimer:

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

Art by Roz Chast from her illustrated meditation on aging, illness, and death. Click image for more.

Our obsession with immortality, Russell contends, is rooted in our fear of death — a fear that, as Alan Watts has eloquently argued, is rather misplaced if we are to truly accept our participation in the cosmos. Russell writes:

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.

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.

In a sentiment of chilling prescience in the context of recent religiously-motivated atrocities, Russell adds:

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.

Science, Russell suggests, offers the antidote to such terror — even if its findings are at first frightening as they challenge our existing beliefs, the way Galileo did. He captures this necessary discomfort beautifully:

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

Art from 'You Are Stardust,' a children's book teaching kids about the universe. Click image for more.

But Russell’s most enduring point has to do with our beliefs about the nature of the universe in relation to us. More than eight decades before legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s exquisite proclamation — “If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.” — Russell writes:

Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve 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.

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:

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.

Russell’s definition of that “good life” remains the simplest and most heartening one I’ve ever encountered:

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

Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.

What I Believe is a remarkably prescient and rewarding read in its entirety — Russell goes on to explore the nature of the good life, what salvation means in a secular sense for the individual and for society, the relationship between science and happiness, and more. Complement it with Russell on human nature, the necessary capacity for “fruitful monotony,” and his ten commandments of teaching and learning, then revisit Alan Lightman on why we long for immortality.

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21 JANUARY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom and “Fruitful Monotony” in the Conquest of Happiness

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“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Between the time Kierkegaard contemplated boredom and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his bewitching case for why the capacity for it is essential for a full life, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) tussled with the subject more elegantly than any other thinker before or since. In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement” from his altogether indispensable 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer” — he teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how vital it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence — a capacity essential for that very conquest of happiness — Russell shines timeless wisdom and remarkably timely insight on the deep-seated demons of human nature that keep us small and unhappy, and offers sage assurance for transcending them by bringing greater awareness to our own perilous pathologies.

With the same astounding prescience that defines most of his work, Russell writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, refuge for running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Indeed, the cultivation of this core capacity early in life fortifies the psychological immune system of the adult. Nearly a century before the iPad, which is now swiftly shoved in the screen-hungry hands of every toddler bored to disgruntlement, Russell writes:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

DIY indoor boomerang from the vintage gem 'How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself.' Click illustration for more.

Instead, he exhorts parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself,” a testament to Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” Russell writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

Even humanity’s greatest works of literature, Russell points out, have boredom baked into their very substance — something he illustrates with an entertaining example all the more perfectly parodic of contemporary publishing:

All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives have contained uninteresting stretches. Imagine a modern American publisher confronted with the Old Testament as a new manuscript submitted to him for the first time. It is not difficult to think what his comments would be, for example, on the genealogies.

“My dear sir,” he would say, “this chapter lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the highlights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

So the modern publisher would speak, knowing the modern reader’s fear of boredom. He would say the same sort of thing about the Confucian classics, the Koran, Marx’s Capital, and all the other sacred books which have proved to be bestsellers.

(Of course, it’s triply tragicomic to imagine what Russell might make of the listicle — today’s ultimate reactionary hedge against our fear of boredom.)

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish illustrated guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

He uses the most intimate of metaphors to illustrate the existential emptiness that such groping for fleeting excitement engenders:

Consider the difference between love and mere sex attraction. Love is an experience in which our whole being is renewed and refreshed as is that of plants by rain after drought. In sex intercourse without love there is nothing of this. When the momentary pleasure is ended, there is fatigue, disgust, and a sense that life is hollow. Love is part of the life of Earth; sex without love is not.

This, indeed, is both Russell’s most timeless and most devastatingly timely point — that our dread of boredom is a self-inflicted wound resulting from the singular modern violence of our break with nature. But here is the most striking part: The sight of a man walking down the street transfixed by a glowing rectangle, completely blind to the sky and deaf to the birds and hardened to the wind’s caress, would have been completely foreign to Russell. Many decades before such violent forms of severance from nature existed, he admonishes:

The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. It makes life hot and dusty and thirsty, like a pilgrimage in the desert. Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind. A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

The Conquest of Happiness is a spectacular, existentially necessary read in its entirety. Complement it with Russell on human nature, his heartening message to descendants, and his ten commandments of teaching and learning.

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28 JUNE, 2013

Happy Birthday, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: 21 Essential Reads on Education

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Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Isaac Asimov, Kio Stark, and more.

After previously requested reading lists like famous writers’ collected advice on writing, the best books of 2012, and history’s finest letters of fatherly advice, here is another omnibus of popular demand: 21 great reads on education from the Brain Pickings archives, to commemorate the birthday of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712–July 2, 1778), whose reverberating wisdom shaped modern thinking on education.

Complement with the Book Pickings education archive.

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