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Remembering Russell amidst times of national chauvinism, religious fundamentalism

By Harsh Thakor*

On his 150th birth anniversary, which fell on May 18th, we must salute late Bertrand Russell .He ranked amongst the greatest intellectuals of the last millennium who gave philosophy a new dimension. Even Although a committed atheist he exuded spiritual overtones. Russell challenged dogma and tradition in the very thick of it’s skin and opened up the mind of his generation to explore knowledge rationally.
Born in 1872 in famous aristocratic family Russell was brought up to cherish liberal values and by the age of 15 hero worshipped John Stuart Mill. His parents were supporters of the liberal party. His grandfather was the retired prime minister, John Russell. Russell led a solitary life in his childhood, being alienated from surroundings. He recounted often experiencing situations of madness. Bertrand was tutored by a series of eccentric tutors, before his brother took over to teach him geometry at the age of 11. He demonstrated his great mathematical prowess at a very tender age but was disturbed that there was no method of proving the foundation of geometry. Russell’s mathematical inquest was the breeding ground for his conviction in reason and rejecting religious beliefs.
Today we need to resurrect Bertrand Russell with our world being entrapped with threat of a nuclear war, religious fundamentalism, national chauvinism, economic disparity and crisis at the highest scale, suppression of political dissent, and all attempts to suppress scientific spirit.
I thank David Robinson and Judy Groves for valuable inputs.

Religion

Russell was bitterly critical of all conventional norms or morality, challenged authority of God and Church, was an e epitome of scientific spirit, questioned all religious beliefs and championed independent and critical thinking. In 'Why I am not a Christian', he shows admiration for Christ as a person for championing liberation, but illustrates how certain teachings violate true morality. Russell was an agnostic who stated that although he did not believe in God, there was no way that its existence could be disproved. Still morally Russell professed Atheism and rejected concept of ‘immortality’, He left no stone unturned in projecting how religious values or philosophy crippled mankind from attaining true happiness and patronised hypocrisy.
‘’All the evidence goes to show what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure an organised bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases, and a good alignment for insisting that all human beings have only one chance of happiness, in this life.”
“The Christian Religion as organised in it’s Churches, has been, and still is, the principal enemy of moral progress of the world. I regard religion as a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the Human Race.”
In his 1927 lecture ‘Why I am not a Christian” Russell rejects the idea of hell: "It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take him as his chroniclers represent him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that." On the other hand, he admires certain principles of Jesus's teaching, such as refusing to judge others and being generous to those in need, although he finds them "difficult to live up to".
Russell stated, "it is impossible, or at least impossible at the present time, to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned.”

Ideology

With death defying courage Russell raised his voice against all the evil designs of nationalism and capitalism.
Although a Socialist at heart Russell was critical of Bolshevism or Marxism. Initially he was an ardent admirer of the Soviet Union but after visiting Russia in 1920 felt that Bolshevism was most undemocratic, disillusioned with the bureaucratic tendencies existing. Russell admired Marx, but felt that Marx fell into the quagmire of dogmatism. Russell was suspicious of collective discipline which he felt suppressed liberal thinking but also bitterly opposed the concentration of economic power in the hands of individuals. He professed anarch-syndicalism, in which the government was answerable to the trade Unions. The factories here elected managers, with all the factories confederated into a guild.
Russel vociferously condemned his government in their action in the 1st world war -inspite of all constraints and also challenged the Nuclear war threat after Word War 2. In protest he courted jail during the First World War. He wrote an article revealing the mass starvation in Europe and the occupation of Britain by the American army, who he felt would use violence to suppress British workers, who decided to strike. Earlier Russell’s passport was terminated and lectureship at Trinity college suspended. Russell wrote a letter to US President Woodrow Wilson to stop the War.
Russell founded the Campaign for nuclear disarmament n 1958.He organised a meeting with Albert Einstein and scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain to challenge stationing of nuclear arsenal. In 1961 Russell led a powerful sit down outside the Ministry of defence house, through the Committee of 100-a group of people who courted arrest in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
The Bertrand Russell Peace foundation was formed to promote world peace with American world imperialism its main target and support to local guerrilla movements. Russell supported the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and in 1966 formed the International War Crimes Tribunal.
Russell was the pioneer in devising concept of a world government, with objective of reverting a nuclear war. It would establish monopoly over weapons of mass destruction and act as a buffer to sole disputes between nations. Initially Russell exhibited bias with America against Russia at start of cold War but later he became equivocally critical of America’s imperialist designs.
Ideologically Russell adopted the Anarchist view of power .He was convinced that eventually all power is usurped by oligarchies of various kinds and all forms of government were a manifestation of evil.
Russell was very critical of all sexual repression and advocated free approach to sex.
Russell maintained that the four most powerful men in history were the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Pythagoras, and Galileo, none of whom enjoyed official support in their lifetime, but after their death their long-term ideas won out.

Philosophy

In intrinsic detail Russell made a critical synthesis of the contribution of idealist philosophers. In challenging proponents of idealism Russell with G.R.Moore refuted philosopher Bradley, who professed that everything was interconnected , and that separateness and contradictions are illusions. Russell differentiated 2 different kinds of philosophers. One believed that the world was a whole like a bowl of jelly, while the others believed that the only way to understand the Universe is to spilt into the smallest parts or atoms. He elaborated this in his book ‘Why I took Philosophy’.
Russell held Descartes in great esteem whom he ranked the founder of modern philosophy. “Descartes writes not as a teacher but as a discoverer and explorer who strives to construct a completely new philosophic edifice.”
Bertrand Russell was an empiricist, which proscribes that all Knowledge is gained through experience. Russell questioned this asking whether one could completely trust the senses .David Hume however asserted that one may be able to accept sceptical arguments that show us that our experiences of the world are dubitable. John Berkeley propounded the theory that the world of objects does not exist without us and all we perceive are consistent ‘bundles’ of qualities. Thus in his view to be is to be perceived. Later in his work ‘On problems of Philosophy’ (1912) Russell derived a proposition that we believe that all we can ever experience are the appearances of the world present to us but we remain ignorant of its real nature. In his view is that we are trapped in the world that our sensory organs give us and have no knowledge of what really accuses those sensations.
Russell made a distinction between knowledge of memories, Universals, and other kinds of self –Conscious thoughts and feelings with Sense data, the other is the knowledge by the description, that one finds in books and other informative sources. In Russell’s view all knowledge by description is atomistic, ultimately reducible to knowledge by acquaintance.
Similar to Greek Philosopher Plato, that Universals are not thoughts but the objects o thought, that are real and external to us. Quoting Russell, “Truth has nothing to do with psychological states of mind –What makes the belief true is a fact, and this fact does not in any way involve the mind of a person who has a belief.”
Russell was convinced that philosophy can tell us nothing for sure about the way things are or how little we can ever know anything for certain. In the chapter on General Principles Russell distinguishes between Rational and Empiricist philosophers. Rationalists refer to necessary truths as the foundations of knowledge, whereas Empiricists claim that all knowledge has it’s source in our experiences of our world, however mysterious they may be. Russell as an empiricists firmly adhered to the fact that Priori knowledge can tell us nothing about the world, only about entities who do not exist, like properties and Relations. “Our everyday and scientific knowledge of the Universe will always be provisional and fallible, highly probable, but not ‘guaranteed’ or necessary in the way that the truths of maths and logic are usually thought to be.”
In ‘Our Knowledge of the External World’ (1914) Russell l continues to struggle with the implications of his assumption—that private experience is the proper place to begin philosophical inquiry. Russell argued that, “Whenever possible, logical constructions are to be substituted for inferred entities.” With this in mind. Instead of saying that physical objects create sense-data, he turns the matter around and argues that sense-data construct the physical object.
Russell spoke about the positivity of contemplative spirit and how the study of philosophy opens up a new world for us, making us think beyond ourselves, to respect the broader picture of life.
Quoting Russell “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.”
“Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”
Russell more than any modern philosopher illustrated that Science and Mathematics could be interpreted through the very prism of philosophy.
In ‘History of Western Philosophy’ (1945) Russell extricates from the traditional approach of historians to portray history with a new methodology.” The work is divided into three main sections: the first deals with Ancient, the second with Catholic, the third with Modern Philosophy.

Mathematics

In ‘Principles of Mathematics’ Russell demonstrated how Mathematics and logic were inter related. Both were concerned with the complex relationship of whole and parts. To truly understand something, is to break it into parts. After researching deeply Russell was convinced that mathematics had to be a system of guaranteed truths about the world, and that it had a real Platonic Existence -- numbers were real and not just a Platonic Convenience. In his view there were consistent truths within the very superstructure of Mathematics. Russell discovered how Mathematics could be reduced to logical terms. It took him a mammoth period of 9 years to finish the work; working jointly with professor Whitehead. Russell invented a new kind of symbolic logic defining mathematical actions in terms of logic. Here Russell’s analysis of the logic of classes must be thrown light upon, where he demonstrated how the relation of the whole to its parts are similar ,if not identical to the relation of a class to its members.

Theory of Knowledge

A remarkable contribution of Russell was his theory of knowledge. Which he have its expression in ‘Our Knowledge o the External world.” Russell continues to struggle with the implications of his assumption—that private experience is the proper place to begin philosophical inquiry. He reflected how logical atomism which combined, discussing value of sense data, breaking own things to their smallest components through atomism and combining it with reassembling things logically, rather than using guesswork. He concluded that the real world was only hypothesis. The more one disassembles experience, the more one will get to the truth. Russell imbibed that all one could be certain of was the private sense data, with the sense data neither wholly mental nor wholly physical entities, strangely something between the two.
Russell divided knowledge into three categories. They were priori, analytic and synthetic. In Priori knowledge without inspecting the whole world one can do mathematics in the mind .In analytic knowledge ne can be tautological, just repeating itself. Synthetic knowledge is about maths giving us true information about the world.

Science

Russell was deeply fascinated by new nuclear physics and pleased that a great deal of modern Science proved to be counter intuitive, similar to his own radical empiricism of Logical atomism. He felt that atomic physics dissolved matter into no more than series of events. “Counter Intuitive means that traditional definition of causation no longer works with Quantum theory with Einstein’s theory of relativity drastically changing traditional concepts of space and time.” Russell felt philosophers could be useful to Science by revealing what the metaphysical assumptions of Science are.

Post-Russell impact

Russell left us on 2nd February, 1970 suffering from Bronchitis with his Ashes scattered on the Welsh hills but his memories linger forever. Modern logicians like Alfred Tarski and philosophers like W.V.G.Quine, Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson Michael Dummett and A J Ayer base their work on Russell’s foundations of logic. Russell’s works also influenced the Linguistic Analytic schools.
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*Freelance journalist

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