The Value of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell was a British philosopher, mathematician, and political activist who lived from 1872-1970. His magnum opus is generally considered to be the Principia Mathematica which is a three-volume work establishing the foundations of mathematics using logical axioms and symbolic logic. Russell then proceeded to venture into the field of epistemology. I started my recent foray into philosophy with Russell’s book, The Problems of Philosophy. The book is short and dry but serves as a solid starting point for understanding many of the epistemological questions and conclusions reached by philosophers since the Greeks. The book also provides some clear insight into the structured, logical method through which Russell constructed his personal moral system and shaped his political convictions. Reading Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Russell, Bertrand Russell: A Life, provided some further context for the book and the man behind it. Through these two texts, the value of philosophy as a tool for understanding that which is uncertain is made apparent. It seems to be a commonly held belief that reason applied through science is the only objective method of understanding the universe, but it remains the case that there exist questions that cannot be answered by the scientific method. The world could do with more people like Russell in it – people with ethical convictions who use sound reasoning to support their opinions, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty in the political arena, and who have a love for the human experience.

The Problems of Philosophy is Russell’s attempt to build framework for human knowledge based upon the groundwork established by the theories of Plato, Descartes, and Kant et alia. Russell begins the book by drawing a distinction between the physical world and the sense-data which we experience, using the example of a table. When a person interacts with the table, they may feel the roughness of the surface, smell the varnish on the wood, see the colour and shape occupying visual space, and hear a thud when they rap their knuckles against it. Although all this sense-data is, without a doubt, real, the reader is introduced to the idea that it is not immediately apparent that there is a physical table for which the sense-data is directly related. For example, when someone is dreaming, they too experience real sense-data related to sights, sounds, and smells, but for which there is no apparent physical object eliciting such sensory experiences. In his explanation of the existence of matter, Russell accepts that it is impossible to explicitly prove the presence of a physical world, but he contends that it is not unreasonable to consider its existence. He argues that we hold the instinctive belief that a physical world exists and corresponds to our sense-data, and that instinctive beliefs, although they may contain some degree of error due to doubt, should only be rejected if they directly contradict some other knowledge which is known with a greater degree of certainty. By establishing the foundations for which knowledge can be gained about the world, Russell then provides a distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. Acquaintance with something requires no additional knowledge of truths in order to be understood. For example, sense-data are immediately known upon their experience – an individual is not required to know anything about the colour red to understand what red is upon seeing it. Knowledge by description requires relating truths to things with which one is acquainted to derive new information. The knowledge that the table is a physical object causing particular sense-data is descriptive; that is, the physical object is not directly known to us without relating it to our acquaintance with sense-data first. The remainder of the book continues to flesh out how concepts such as inductive reasoning, logical axioms, mathematics, and even ethics can be known through either acquaintance or description, as well as where doubt may lie in such knowledge. The book concludes with Russell asserting that the value of philosophy lies in its ability to provoke discussion and provide answers to questions that contain uncertainty.

What made Russell special was the way in which he merged his love of philosophy and reason with a desire to do good. Moorehead’s book tends to focus on the relationships between Russell and his colleagues, friends, and lovers, as well as on his political activism. As a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a society that facilitated discussion, he “was regarded as a somewhat chilly figure with a manner which could be trenchant and dismissive. His passion lay, not in the ‘finer shades’ of friendships, nor in the intimacies of frivolity and gossip, but in ideas” (Moorehead, 1993, pp.126-27). Despite his cold demeanour, Russell appears to have experienced a rather eventful love life, with a total of four marriages and a significant number of affairs being maintained in between each marriage. The affairs appear to have occupied a great amount of Russell’s time, with him sending Lady Ottoline Morrell letters at an almost hourly rate during the first days of his affair with her. When Russell was 29 years old, he witnessed his colleague Alfred Whitehead’s wife suffer what was assumed to be a heart attack. He later recorded in his autobiography the following passage:

“’Within five minutes I went through some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that’” (Moorehead, 1993, pp. 91).

The image of Russell that Moorehead builds for the reader is, therefore, one of a brilliant, egotistic man who valued rational discussion, but who had a keen understanding of the human condition and was driven by empathy in terms of how he allowed his rational nature to manifest within the world.

Nowhere is Russell’s empathy clearer than in his efforts campaigning for women’s suffrage and pacifism. Russell was a staunch advocate for full adult suffrage and joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies’ (NUWSS) council in 1906. When the MP holding the seat for Wimbledon retired in 1907, the NUWSS asked Russell to run for the seat on their behalf. The campaign saw enormous commitment from Russell and his supporters, but unfortunately the seat was lost to the Tory candidate. Despite the loss, Russell continued to expend efforts on the suffrage movement by joining the People’s Suffrage Federation (PSF). As a member of the PSF, Russell explained, “’It is not women as women that I want enfranchised, but women as human beings. And even poor women as human beings’” (Moorehead, 1993, pp. 149). Russell had a commitment to treating all people with the equality they deserved, applying his skills with logic and rhetoric by publishing a number of articles and performing public talks on behalf of the PSF. When World War I broke out in 1914, Russell became one of the primary public figures involved in the pacifist movement. He published articles such as ‘Is a Permanent Peace Possible?’ in the Atlantic Monthly paper and ‘The Ethics of War’ in the International Journal of Ethics to argue for his pacifist position. Russell also worked with the Union for Democratic Control and No-Conscription Fellowship to protest British war efforts, arguing that the only tenable peace was one in which no side emerged as the ultimate victor. After providing a series of public lectures arguing against the proposition for the United States of America to join the war, Russell was imprisoned for six months. Russell would be jailed again at the age of 89 for participating in anti-nuclear demonstrations in London. In Russell is found an individual who held moral convictions and was willing to fight for them using his talent as a reasonable interlocutor, never compromising his integrity when met with resistance to his ideas. He also valued philosophy as the tool for addressing epistemological, moral, and political questions, just as it ought to be used.

I am not a philosophy student myself. It is, to be honest, an area in which I remain incredibly naïve. But, as a student of science and engineering, I have noticed a disturbing trend towards staunch “scientism” amongst my peers. Scientism is the conviction that science is the only means of providing objective analysis of epistemological and even ethical questions. It is a gross misunderstanding of the scientific process and everything it can perform. A while ago, I mentioned to a friend that I thought it would be prudent for some sort of statistical analysis course to be compulsory for everyone undergoing a science degree at my university. They responded with confusion – what use were statistics to science? Doesn’t science seek to find objective facts which are not reliant upon probability? Interestingly, no. Objective reality is beyond the scope of the scientific method. Rather, science seeks to build predictive models that apply some sort of order to our experiences. Predictive models are incredibly powerful things – our model of light existing in a wave-particle duality enabled the invention of devices such as radios and mobile phones that rely on electromagnetic waves for communication; molecular modelling of proteins facilitates the production of medication; and Einstein’s theory of general relativity is fundamental to the operation of the GPS network. None of these models provide a sound description for scientific entities, though. Does an electron objectively exist? We have created models for electrons: through our description of electron orbitals using the Schrodinger wave equation, we can make powerful predictions about molecular structure, electronic properties, chemical properties, and physical properties. But the question remains: is there a physical object that we can point to and call an electron? We, quite simply, cannot answer this question using the scientific method. Russell contends that we instinctively know a physical world corresponds to our sense-data (with some degree of doubt), but we do not even experience sense-data for scientific entities such as electrons. Such knowledge appears to have a greater degree of uncertainty than knowledge about the existence of a physical table, which makes the introduction of philosophy as a tool for discussing what may conventionally be considered a scientific problem incredibly important.

Now, you might be wondering what quantum mechanics has to do with your day-to-day life. My point is simply to say that science is limited to the use of inductive reasoning to create predictive models. When people try to extend the use of science beyond this capacity, they become disillusioned with the system when it fails. Nowhere is this disillusionment more prevalent today than amongst climate change deniers. One of the big climate change denial talking points is the idea that climate models fail to make accurate predictions about the future. In 1998, the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels suggested in front of congress that James Hansen’s climate model significantly over-predicted global warming. In truth, Hansen had formulated three possible scenarios and Michaels disingenuously only presented the fact that Scenario A was not representative of global temperature trends. Scenario B, however, was actually spot on with its prediction. Nonetheless, science appeared to have failed to spit out an objective fact about the world, which meant that either the climate scientists were lying because they have some sort of spooky agenda, science itself was a complete failure, or people failed to understand the scope of the predictive models produced on the Earth’s climate. As more data has been acquired over time, the climate models were improved upon. As such, the climate models today are much more sophisticated and accurate than those of the past – for all intents and purposes, science has done nothing but succeed in the field of climate science. Sure, we do not know with absolute certainty that climate change is man-made, but our sophisticated models suggest with a statistically significant confidence (>95%) that it is being driven by humanity (IPCC, 2014). Yet, simply because it seemed to have failed to spit out an objective fact about the universe, some people lost faith. In less than a chapter, Russell showed that the existence of a physical world cannot be known with absolute certainty, yet we must continue to live our lives assuming that it is the case. How is it possible for people to hold an uncertain belief about such a basic experience, yet deny the effectiveness of climate models that contain such a high degree of certainty? It seems that a poor understanding of the philosophy of science has decreased confidence in the method, manifesting itself in very real ways such as through climate change denial.

The existence of scientism remains prevalent amongst academics too, even in the field of ethics. Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, claims that science can provide a system for crossing what is known as the “is-ought gap”. The is-ought gap is a philosophical problem suggesting that it is not possible to derive a normative claim from a descriptive claim. On Twitter, Harris states that “if we were to learn everything there is to know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, etc., we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less”. He uses the example of touching a hot stove, stating that it would “really and truly suck”, as if to suggest that if somebody has an aversion to pain, they ought to act to avoid it. Harris’s claim could be extrapolated to imply that if somebody has an aversion to homosexual people, they ought to act to remove them too. His moral framework contains some clearly shaky foundations, but he seems to have blocked it off from any sort of reasonable discussion. Although it seems more like Harris is using some warped version of utilitarianism to build his ethical framework, he continues to champion it under the guise of objective, infallible science. The claim that knowing everything about science will give us everything we need to know to make ethical decisions is incredibly fallacious. Crossing the is-ought gap can only be made with some degree of uncertainty, so philosophy remains to be the most valuable tool for generating discussion and finding answers to ethical questions.

Interestingly, I too would have been considered an adherent of scientism only a year or two ago. It is very easy to find yourself trapped in a bubble when all your studies are localised in a particular field or speciality. When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As such, I suspect the presence of scientism is a result of people becoming too insular within their field, failing to branch out and understand the world from any other point of view. So, when proponents of scientism are presented with questions beyond the scope of the scientific method, they lack the tools required to adequately formulate a reasonable answer. They proceed to hit that nail with the hammer of science. As a result, they spread misinformation about the capacity of science, leading to people becoming disillusioned with science, promoting poor ethical systems, and inadvertently damaging rational discourse. By understanding the limitations of the tools I use to understand the universe, I have learnt to branch out and approach my learning in a more holistic manner. Russell was a mathematician who quickly learned to value philosophy when engaging in debates about topics such as women’s suffrage and pacifism. He fought for his convictions but was open to new experiences and changes in opinion when they appeared reasonable to him. If Russell chose to only view the world through the lens of mathematics, he would have been a far less notable person. Now, more than ever, with the world growing ever more complicated, interconnected, and diverse, the answers provided by philosophical study become ever more pertinent to the success of humanity. No matter your background or education, I would encourage you to leave your comfort zone and try to learn something beyond your specialty. We need people like Russell promoting holistic approaches to life if we are to strive towards a brighter future.

“The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason… Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.” (Russell, 1988, pp. 156-161)

Further Reading

Russell, B. 1988, The Problems of Philosophy, Prometheus Books, New York.

Moorehead, C. 1993, Bertrand Russell: A Life, Sinclair-Stevenson, England.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

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