Lowdown: Skepticism as the ticket for a healthy society.
After expressing my opinions concerning religion, I am often accused of being a fundamentalist anti-religion-ist who just replaces the common Judeo-Christian religions with the religion of science. It's not just me that's been put in this corner; better and smarter people than I will ever be, like, say, Richard Dawkins, have been accused of similar crimes before.
As a result I often had to express my line of defense to the above accusations. These are based around the claim that religion is a form of bad science in the sense that it pretends to deliver similar answers but fails to rely on fact. That explanation tends to be tedious and often falls on deaf ears; instead, I should have just adopted Bertrand Russell's main point of his Sceptical Essays, which is simply this: One can either make a call based on prejudice, or, alternatively, one can make a call based on evidence. Religions are prejudice based, which is why there are so many of them and why there are so many contradictions between them. They also lack in the evidence department, which is why all of them sanctify the value of belief so much. Russell, however, asks us all the recognize the inherent uncertainties of our beliefs: when the experts in a field do not agree, the opposite opinion is not certain; actually, no opinion is certain. And when there is insufficient evidence for them to make a conclusive call, it is best to suspend judgment.
That is the starting point from which Russell, a British philosopher (1872-1970), commences a personal trek across 17 essays in his book Sceptical Essays. You sort of get the feeling most of the essays if not all of them were written in the twenties, shortly after The Great War. In his essays, Russell explains what is skepticism, why skepticism is important at the personal level and at the level of society at large, and then he goes on to apply skepticism across multiple pans of life. He demonstrates the value of skepticism at the workplace; he argues for the importance of it in education; he claims that skepticism is exactly what we need in order to get away from blind capitalism that only serves the ruling classes and from the bad implementation of Marxism in Russia; and he finishes by providing his vision for a less bitter future than his future and our present and how that can be achieved through the application of skepticism and the consideration of things for what they are rather than what we blindly think or wish they are.
Let my opinion be as clear as it can be: While I have definite issues with some of what Russell has to say, you can definitely count me as someone who agrees with Russell, his approach, his attitude, and his opinions. That said, the essay collection is far from perfect.
For a book written almost a hundred years ago, Sceptical Essays is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you agree with Russell) still very much relevant. This does not, however, exclude some significant parts of it from expiring as irrelevant. Take, for example, a rather tedious and long overview of 19th century philosophies and their standing at the beginning of the 20th; virtually all of the philosophies discussed there are philosophies hardly anyone would hear of today, and for a very good reason: they're stupidly silly. Yet the mentality of the early 20th century made them relevant at the time, or at least relevant enough to bring them to the top of people's agendas. We have been blessed by enough science since to clear the drawing board of such nonsense, but Sceptical Essays still retains them.
Another problem with the book is its reliance of psychoanalysis to support its arguments. Granted, Russell is true to his skeptic word and keeps on emphasizing that we don't know as much as we would like about psychology, but then again he still hangs on to psychoanalysis whereas today the world has moved on. In contrast, glaring in its absence is evolutionary psychology, which would have clearly helped Russell in the promotion of his ideas much further.
At the personal level, Secptical Essays is a bit of a miss. Was I to read it just a few years ago I would have found it to be a revolutionary book that took me light years ahead in my understanding of the world around us. However, being at a point where I have read enough similar books, Sceptical Essays did very little to further expand my horizons. It did, however, help in organizing them further. Don't take me the wrong way: I would argue Sceptical Essays is a book that should be taught in schools at the early teenage years if not earlier in order to promote open thinking in future generations. That has been Russell's goal, and between his mostly flowing style and flowing sarcasm I think I can safely say he did his bit of the task, the writing of the book, very well.
Overall: While the irrelevant bits make me want to give it 3 stars, the relevant bits are surprisingly relevant. I will therefore rate it as 3.5 out of 5 stars, but regardless of ratings I would recommend the book to anyone who values thinking.