Monday, 24 March 2008

Book: Sceptical Essays by Bertrand Russell

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.


Uri E. said...

Russell – that’s the guy with the barber and the haircuts, right?

While I find Skepticism to be an admirable quality, that’s not what I mean when I say you belong to the anti-religious religion.
The problem is that everyone (including you) tends to be more skeptic of things he’s against and less so to other things.
For example, I bet that presented with two papers, one proving that global warming is a fact and another that it’s fiction, you’d find more faults in the second paper (unless the first one uses arguments like “God says global warming is true”).
I think a true skeptic is more likely to be agnostic than an atheist, but at least in this case you did not take Russell’s advice.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I’ll try and address your points one by one. But just try.

First, regarding Russell the person: I really don’t know much about the man himself.

Second, regarding his views concerning religion, I have to add that although my review didn’t reflect it as much, Russell was just as much against nationalism or patriotism. No doubt a feeling enhanced by the experience of World War I. The point is, he gives away an impression of being skeptic about a great many things. Everything, pretty much.

Third, Russell’s suggested implementation of skepticism talks about early education. As in, educating kids not with “facts” that happen to suit the country they’re in, but rather educating them in evaluating evidence so they can make their own minds up. If successful at that, your point about favoring one opinion over the other should be moot. Second, unlike other philosophers who were so extreme in their opinions they were useless in the practice of actually living a healthy life, Russell says we should listen to what the experts in the field have to say. If those experts adhere to the scientific method then their advice would already be filtered by mutual criticism and peer reviews, which should also take care of a lot of noise. That said, he still advocates you try to evaluate the evidence and only rely on the experts to adjust the probabilities in your mind.

I fully agree with you on the point of favoring opinions that are similar to yours. That has been pretty much proven scientifically, too: it was demonstrated that the first opinion you hear on a matter tends to establish itself in your head as the correct opinion, regardless of whether that is true or not. That is exactly why I think force feeding kids with religious views is a crime and exactly why I think skepticism should be taught instead (not that I see that as likely to happen as it would compromise a lot of the reasons why states run schools to begin with).
As for myself, I do try to apply skepticism on anything that comes my way. It’s just that certain things are better written and certain things have more evidence (or have all the evidence): Global warming, for example, is not a certainty but rather a highly likely turn of events; given papers I have read I would rate it as 90% likely. I will add, though, that less than two years ago I was told that it’s 80% likely I have cancer while it turned out that I don’t, and my point therefore is that if something is 90% likely it also means that this something is 10%; it’s just that in the case of global warming, the damage from the 90% likely event is so high it is better to take more measures to address it than 90% would normally indicate (especially as those measures are quite positive in most respects other than the fossil fuel industry respect).
Note that one of the things I'm trying to say is that there are hardly any genuine proofs around. Your statement on one paper proving global warming and the other disproving it is an impossible contradiction on its own, as there are very few papers other than in mathematics that prove anything. It's all just a game of probabilities, and religion is just another player in that game.

Next I will move to your definition of agnosticism vs. atheism. I’m afraid we’ve been through that before: what you call agnosticism is what I call atheism. Still, I will go through the motions again:
When I say “I’m an atheist”, I do not mean to say “there’s no way god exists”. I’m in no position to say that; no one is, because no one has the proof to support such a claim (which, however, does not translate to god existing; I can come up with millions of stupid things no one would be able to disprove).
Saying conclusively “there is no god, period” is therefore rather foolish.
What I am trying to say is that by your definition I'm agnostic, but I still prefer my definition. The reason why I prefer "atheist" to "agnostic" is that I view an atheist as an agnostic that focuses on the lower probabilities of god's existence, while I view an agnostic as someone who is too lazy to check the evidence and come up with an opinion of his/her own. In short, the athesit is the one that checked things out and is not afraid to call a spade a spade by the available evidence, while the agnostic is just lazy.
When I say I’m an atheist what I mean is that the probability of god existing the way we imagine god to be is low enough for me to live my life as if that entity doesn’t exist. It's a view of life that says that while there are a million things I can believe in, I will only focus on those with evidence to support them.
As an example, Carl Sagan used to present himself as an agnostic, but I suspect you would agree that his definition of agnosticism was closer to my definition of atheism than to what your definition of agnosticism is.
At this point I will add that in the case of the bible based version of gods, the case for these gods is so full of shit I think I can safely say I would put all my money on it being false without blinking and without thinking twice. In my corner I wouldn’t just have fellow atheists, I would also have billions of Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, and worshippers of Thor (both living and deceased).

I would like to add that while I enjoy reading stuff that orients itself with my own views – Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Isaac Asimov to name a few – there are some very good reasons for that. All of them write with clarity and all of them present evidence supporting their case in very unambiguous ways. There are plenty of science books out there that tell you up to date scientific stuff but do so in such a bad way they are virtually as bad as religious propaganda; I stir away from those, especially those that rely on bombastic statements to make their point (sadly, they seem to be the majority of books out there).