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Favourite Philosopher

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Everyone has a favourite philosopher, right? Well maybe not, especially since very few people (me included) know much about the subject, but actually I do have my favourites and one of those would certainly be Betrand Russell.

He was such a character and I think that was shown especially in his later years with his slightly dishevelled hair, the suit and tie, and of course, his pipe! But it was the way he thought about and described things that I liked the most, especially his often dismissive remarks about religion.

But instead of bashing religion yet again (and that is so easy that it often feels like picking on the poor retarded kid in the class who can’t fight back) I want to talk about some more general points he made which I find interesting, specifically his “Ten Commandments.”

So, here they are, including my commentary after each one…

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

That’s got to be good advice because it is often the people who are most certain of their beliefs (I know that psychic could read my mind, I know I saw a UFO, I know that I can talk to my god) who are really the most deluded and out of touch with reality. That doesn’t mean that when I say that I am 99% certain evolution is true that I am deluded of course because I can justify that number plus it does indicate some lack of certainty, even if it is only 1%.

2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

Evidence would normally only be concealed if the person concealing it wanted to be dishonest in some way. In an ideal world all debate and discussion would proceed with every party knowing about and giving appropriate credibility to every piece of relevant information. I do have to say that sometimes it is tempting to hide certain information when you know your opposition is going to misuse it, but I agree that in general it’s a bad idea.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

There’s a common criticism of our education system which says it discourages thinking. I think it’s hard to disagree with this in general although there are a few exceptions. Most people are too lazy to think too much whether they are encouraged to or not, but surely actively discouraging it can’t be good.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

I totally, absolutely agree. Anyone who works or participates in any hierarchical organisation (which is basically them all) will probably understand what I mean here. If someone is ordered to do something there should be a good reason why, and “because I want you to” or “because that is appropriate” are not reasons, they are examples of commandment 3, the failure to think!

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

This one can be a bit dangerous because I think we should give more credibility to experts than non-experts. That’s not to say for a second that experts are always right, but the fact is that no one has the time to fully research every fact themselves so we all must rely on experts to some extent. However we should remember to keep some room for healthy skepticism too.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

I think all opinions should be considered. Unless they are examined how do we know whether they’re wrong or harmful? And if they are harmful then countering them with a better argument is better than just hiding them which might lead to the criticism that they are being hidden because they cannot be easily countered.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

Again this can be a bit dangerous because you could look at the idea of continental drift about 100 years ago and say it was eccentric even though it turned out to be right. Unfortunately you could also look at the theory that all the world leaders are really reptiles from outer space in disguise as an eccentric theory and I suspect the chances of that being true are somewhat less! Still, it’s a good idea in theory, at least.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

I don’t agree with the idea of argument for its own sake… well maybe sometimes I do, and I often like to play devil’s advocate because that can be useful to explore issues. I do welcome debate and that’s one of the reasons I write this blog. If there was more genuine debate in this world instead of people just taking a conforming view for political (in the broad sense) purposes we would be a lot better off.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

This is similar to 2. It is best to deal with the truth, but I do have to say that when people misuse the truth it is tempting to twist it slightly. For example, to say there is no debate about evolution isn’t strictly 100% true but it so close to being the truth that to say scientists are 97% sure evolution is true just invites people to attach too much credibility to the remaining 3% (who are generally the nutty fringe, not to be confused with the eccentric minority in point 7).

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.

I have often heard that the penalty for being intelligent and rational is often unhappiness. There is some evidence that this is true and that people who live in a fantasy world (for example, highly religious people) are more happy. Still, this evidence is unclear and a lot of the studies involve self-reporting. Whatever the facts though I don’t think any rational, intelligent person feels envious of someone living in a fantasy world. We tend to feel more pity (and a certain amount of irritation) than envy.

So there are his Ten Commandments. I think they are a bit limited in scope because they seem to apply more to intellectual discussion and philosophy (no surprises) than to the more mundane stuff the original Commandments covered, but they’re still interesting and worth thinking about.

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