Monday, March 05, 2012

Hearing the Voice of Bertrand Russell

by Gary Berg-Cross

The recent mention of Bertrand Russell in the Washington Post was nice reminder of a philosophical thought leader who was influential during my childhood. The article’ discussion takes place in a drum beat atmosphere for war with Iran and focused on some of Russell’s thinking about how we could survive in an age of nuclear weapons. Generally pacific, although he supported WWII, his approach during the Cold War was to confront, but not attack the Soviet Union over its nuclear materials and weaponry. Russell thought that a defensive deterrence stance was the right approach for ending war and “the only hope for humanity’s long-term survival in a nuclear age. Still sound advice and “ahead of his time” as the article notes.
Russell, born into the liberal aristocracy (his godfather was John Stuart Mill), was justifiably famous as a mathematician & logician with a three-volume work Principia Mathematica, on the foundations of mathematics, written with Alfred North Whitehead on 1910. Logic has moved on from the atomism of that work but Russell’s generally writing earned him a nobel prize for literature in 1950 "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought". It is a bit wonderful to hear humanitarian ideals being praised so freely. Bertie is remembered broadly as a campaigner for intellectual, social and sexual freedom, as well as peace and disarmament. It's a voice that heard in my mind as I read his wrtitings in paperback as a youth. For me and for many Russell’s image combined a rational, skeptical, humanist, and philosophical voice with an atheist one. Russell was probably the most prominent atheist voice of the era and well known for this from the 1920s on. His broad knowledge and clear philosophical argument provide a standard that only people like Dan Dennett attain:
"Dan Dennett is our best current philosopher. He is the next Bertrand Russell. Unlike traditional philosophers, Dan is a student of neuroscience, linguistics, artificial intelligence, computer science, and psychology. He's redefining and reforming the role of the philosopher." Marvin Minsky
In logical and analytic debates with clerics like the Jesuit Copleston he prefigures and illuminates the current debates by people like Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has been called by one critical of both he and Russell, “the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell.”
He wrote about his view on Religion in Why I am Not a Christian (published in 57, but given in a lecture in 1927). In outline it covers:
Russell’s logical approach is great to read and you can see a 3 minute video Bertrand talking in 1959 about this, truth, intellectual belief and his discarding of Christian dogma in his pursuit of knowledge onYouTube. One might find it amusing to see the interviewer trying to find some scrap of religious belief in Russell who focused responses as a “passionate skeptic” of such things are an intellectual joy to behold.
“A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”
Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic

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