Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bertrand Russell and dogma

Of all the philosophers I have read, I love Bertrand Russell the most. Of course the first reason is his sense of humor. To give but one example, when nuns told him, "You forget the Almighty God" in reply to his question about why they bathed in bathrobes when there was no-one there to see them, he says, "They obviously think of God as an Omnipotent Peeping Tom, who can see through walls but is foiled by bathrobes".

The more important reason, though, is the fact that he is one of the very few philosophers who neither followed nor created any 'ism'. The problem with 'ism's - whether in philosophy, politics or in religion - is that, sooner or later they turn to dogmas and end up stifling any free thought or dissent. This, of course, is a consequence of the fact that “A stupid man's report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.” Not merely inaccurate but dogmatically inaccurate as well, since 'stupid men' who follow the originator are incapable of thinking for themselves and prefer to follow the leader - in the manner in which they understand him - blindly.

Russell set off no such tradition, considering that he held that "I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine." Leave alone philosophy, a measure of doubt is not even entertained by people when it comes to their own tastes - so much so that people cannot even grant the possibility that something that they dislike can be liked by someone else and speak as if their distaste for something ought to be universal. So, how will they ever entertain doubts about their philosophy?

But then, as Russell says, "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." The problem also is that "Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones." That explains the persistence of beliefs in things that have long been discredited. I would not be too surprised to see a cult, which expects to fall off the edge of a flat Earth, arise and flourish.

A belief, which is wrongly held, is not as harmless a folly as it appears to be. Russell says, "Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false." History gives ample evidence of the fact that the greatest atrocities have been committed on the basis of false beliefs - including false scientific beliefs. Eugenics is a case in point for a false scientific belief that resulted in the unbelievable atrocities of Nazi Germany.

The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." This, in effect, means that the 'fools and fanatics' are willing to work to further their beliefs while the 'wiser people' are still dithering about the pros and cons of the issue - till it is too late. Whenever I see someone very sure of his own faith - and, no matter how virtuous the faith may be - it frightens me because the chap could well be a fool (insofar as he is no narrowly focused on his truth and his way that he fails to see the complete ramifications of his course of action) even if not a fanatic. I'd rather have dithering wiser men than confident fools running countries.

A follower of a creed is a greater danger. For the leader may be one who belongs to the category of “We have in fact, two kinds of morality, side by side: one which we preach, but do not practice, and another which we practice, but seldom preach.” Taken in by what is preached, the follower can be a far more potent harbinger of change than the leader - being far more convinced of the rightness of his cause - and may end up crowning the leader, literally or metaphorically. AND, followers could tend to believe the leader, 'even with bad grounds', which may end up with Society having to deal with what the leader 'practices but seldom preaches.'

Which is why, in ideas or in creeds, I prefer someone who, like Russell, says,“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” For, truth be told, anyone who says he would die for his beliefs actually means that he would kill for his beliefs.

If you read 'beliefs' to mean 'moral values' (for me and, I think, for Russell as well, they are two different things), my apologies for wasting your time with this post.

33 comments:

  1. Goon one :)
    http://www.ananyatales.com/

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  2. I feel like a naive child. This one was insightful and you know a lot of stuff! Damn!

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    1. I have lived far longer than you, Redhanded! By the time you reach my age you will know far more than me. You seem more active than lazy old me AND you have access to information through the Net which was conspicuous by its absence in my youth :)

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  3. Ditto! Russell is wonderful, and not obscure like Carlyle. Your write is great:)

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    1. Very unlike most philosophers - clarity and philosophy never seemed to go hand-in-hand till I read Russell.

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  4. Suresh Sir, a bit off-tangent but are you aware the great man appeared alongside Rajendra Kumar in a Hindi Movie :) ?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jy_45kPyP1M

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    1. I do not think anything much rubbed off on Rajendra Kumar :)

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  5. I havent read Betrand Russell, but your eulogy inspires me to. Your point about every thought/ principle becoming a dogma is right on dot. Unfortunately though skeptics are also considered bench sitters.

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    1. Tell me about it - I am the eternal skeptic, hence considered the eternal fence-sitter :)

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  6. Wonderful sir. I have heard a lot about Russel, and this one prompts me to move him higher in my To-Read list. I completely agree with your distrust of anyone passionate about his beliefs. I had written something about it long back http://adarsh89.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-important-of-being-fickle-minded.html

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    1. The most passionate people are also, normally, people who refuse to entertain any doubts about their views or actions - and people with such unshakable certainty generally cause the biggest disasters, even when their intentions are good.

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  7. This was a great read Suresh... :-) 'ism' is sure to create problem..always..history will stand for it... and these two lines .." For, truth be told, anyone who says he would die for his beliefs actually means that he would kill for his beliefs. "...nothing could be truer...

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  8. Lovely eulogy this.... one line in particular caught my attention -*A belief, wrongly held, is not as harmless a folly as it appears to be.*
    I have always found both to be equal.. esp. as you grow older, not being open to accept that you are wrong or for that matter to allow ignorance to grow... isn't it harmful for the person?

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    1. Harmful not merely for the person but for Society as well.

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    2. Why do I get the impression that you read "A belief, wrongly held, is ...." to mean "A belief is wrongly held to be ...."? My impression may be wrong but, in any case, I have edited it to "A belief, which is wrongly held, is ...." which was the import of the original statement.

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  9. What he said on nun episode is hilarious. Philosophy turning into dogmas and fool versus wise thing is so true. So, the point is readers didn't waste their time. They got gyan and fun for free. :)

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  10. The one about fools being sure and the wise being not so sure is so true. Wisdom plus Wit is your hallmark Suresh.

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    1. Great to hear, Alka! Though, in this, the wisdom AND the wit were all Bertrand Russell's.

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  11. Interesting - About moral values v/s beliefs, I am still not too sure - you may remember we have had this discussion at times. But Russel - yes - I even started by blog replicating a peice by Russel titled in praise of idleness.

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    1. Ah! Karthik! I do not think armed robbery, rape, murder for gain etc are wrong only subject to beliefs. But, yes, I do not want to create an 'Ism' of my own :P

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  12. The one about wise people and fools is very true! That happens most of the time. People with their self proclaimed theories of why only they are right and why everybody else is wrong!

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  13. I have not read this person's works. But his theory is in line with mine. People should always give room for error in their own beliefs as well as those of others. Unfortunately that seldom happen s

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    1. True, Jaish! That, probably, arises from the fact that people prefer certainties to ambiguities, even when the 'certainties' are not all that certain.

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  14. Suresh, your post was NOT a waste of time, I loved it. Especially the peeping Tom story at the beginning.
    I have a post called 'Nun Cake' in Chapter Four. I came to the conclusion that God was a tattle-teller.
    I really enjoyed your post.

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    1. Thanks Mary! Never thought that most of my readers could belong to the category to whom this would have been a waste of time :)

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