Friday, August 19, 2011

Bertrand Russell's Advice to the Future

Although I've been living in China the past 5 years I still closely follow news and commentary in the US.  During that time, I have wondered if there was an increase in the severity of several problems that I believe interfere with meaningful debate over how best to address a number of important issues, whether the environment, the recession, the debt, etc.  Two of these problems are:
  • Attacks against or dismissal of logic, science and intellectualism.
  • Labeling those with different viewpoints as "evil" or "traitors".
I find them particularly concerning since they work against traits that I believe are part of some of America's most important strengths.  I'm certainly not the first to note them and neither is new to the world.  In fact, in 1959 when Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say to people alive 1000 years later his response touched on these two issues.

The following is a video of Russell's response.  It is just a 2 minute clip from a longer interview (which can be found here).  I'd be curious to know how various people interpret and react to it.

I don't think his response would be at all out of place if he made it today, especially this:
In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other.  We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don't like.  
Maybe the continued aptness of his comments shouldn't come as a surprise since he apparently thought this advice would still be useful about 950 years from now -- possibly a silver lining for an interpretation of struggles in today's debates.  And while Bertrand Russell's comments were likely the result of some careful thinking, I suspect he would also appreciate debate about his very own advice.  After all, he has said:
I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.
I believe there is much strength in that view.  And I believe that if more people held it, we might be able to have more productive debates in the US.


  1. There is no doubt that the advice expressed in the video is good. The problem is that in the face of the HARD FACTS that are presented in nearly any debate in the U.S. or around the world, there is always conflicting parties to interpret those facts in differing ways. Each party may have 'Good intentions' or each party may have 'selfish ambitions' but in the end, both of these positions dismiss facts instead of rally around them. So in the U.S. there is no doubt we have allowed our debt to get too high - it is a FACT. However, because of good intentions or already long established benefits to the populous, nobody is willing to 'take less' to reduce the debt. It is not that people or politicians are 'bad' per se, they are just self interested. In the end however there is really nothing to debate - it you OVERSPEND, you will go into debt and the only way out is to STOP SPENDING. Even honest 'factual' people understand this but they cannot agree where to stop the excessive spending. W.C.C.

  2. I had some earlier thoughts on Russell's stressing the importance of "facts". In short, determining what counts as a "fact" and how best to interpret it (if there is a "best" way) seems critical to following his advice. I'd like to look into Russell's philosophy on this issue.