Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 (pages 56-68), “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives”

Philosophers want to believe general propositions about humans or the universe, but they are only satisfied if they can believe on intellectual grounds. So they develop intricate fallacies that provide the appearance of intellectual underpinnings to their beliefs. One false step enters their thinking, and they are led “into the quagmire of falsehood [p. 57].” Descartes found that he did not have an intellectual basis for almost any belief – except that his own doubts were evidence that the doubter himself existed.

From the starting point of Descartes’ existence, though, he proceeds to propound a slew of propositions that have only scholastic tradition to support them, including a demonstration that God exists. “In a man whose reasoning powers are good, fallacious arguments are evidence of bias [p. 58].” Desires become certainties. Leibniz’s chain of reasoning that ours is ‘the best of all possible worlds’ is of a piece with Descartes’ delusions. Leibniz, “like other philosophers,…believes it possible to find out important things, such as the nature of God, by merely sitting still and thinking…[p. 60].” To avoid a conclusion that would challenge his faith in free will, Leibniz “takes refuge in obscurity and ambiguity [p. 60].”

Bishop Berkeley attempted to show that matter doesn’t exist, and to deduce from this, that God does exist. His demonstration of the first proposition shows much valid reasoning, in that your perceptions of objects are in your mind, and don’t really need the objects themselves. But he shrinks from the next step, that objects exist only when we perceive them, and substitutes instead the notion that objects are ideas in the mind of God. Successors to Berkeley, with the exception of Hume, also have succumbed to a shrinking away from the consequences of their own reasoning. They won’t accept that we have no reason to believe that anything other than our own mental states exist (p. 61).

Despite the excellencies of Hume, his chief impact “was to stimulate two new sets of fallacies… [p. 62],” one by Kant and one by Hegel and Marx. Kant gets around Hume’s overthrow of causation by claiming that humans might experience causation, even if there is no causation in the underlying reality. But then space and time are our creations, too, while pure reason cannot tell us whether God exists, or whether our actions are free. So Kant invents a second type of reason, practical reason, that allows him to accept the moral truths he had been taught when he was young. Via the categorical imperative of practical reason, Kant could determine that free will, an afterlife, and God all exist.

Hegel developed a system that made the future, in its broad outlines, foreseeable. Improvements in logical thinking, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, are somehow mimicked in history, from Pure Being (ancient China) to Absolute Idea (Hegel’s Prussia). Hegel’s reasoning is both obscure and optimistic – optimistic because the historical development is one of progress. [Hegel published a proof that there must be exactly seven planets a week before the eighth was discovered.] Marx took over Hegel’s dialectic as governing history, but instead of the Prussian state as the ultimate end, there needs to be “[o]ne more turn of the dialectical wheel – that is to say, one more revolution…[p. 66].” But Marx has the same deterministic future in his model, which gives believers hope for what is to come and belief that they are on the right side of history, like “the Christian belief in the Second Coming [p. 66].”

“Philosophy is a stage in intellectual development, and is not compatible with mental maturity [p. 67].” Philosophers must believe that they can uncover important truths through thought alone, but outside mathematics, truths through thoughts are unavailable. Philosophers come to this belief through a confusion of names with what those names represent, and a “conviction that the world must be ethically satisfying [pp. 67-68].” Science abandoned the comforting notion that the world will evolve more-or-less as we would wish – but science has its own brand of optimism, that through our intelligence we can satisfy most desires.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 (pages 45-55), “The Future of Mankind”

Barring major unforeseen events, there are three possible fates for the earth by the end of the 20th Century: (1) human life, and possibly all life, exterminated; (2) return to the stone age after a massive depopulation; (3) a single world government controlling weapons of mass destruction.

The next world war won’t finish off humanity, but the post-war arms race and further instability might, through radioactivity. “Although the last survivor may proclaim himself universal Emperor, his reign will be brief and his subjects will all be corpses. With his death the uneasy episode of life will end, and the peaceful rocks will revolve unchanged until the sun explodes [pages 45-46].” Maybe this is not such a bad turn of events, but people don’t really believe that – even if they say they would rather see the world end than communism (or capitalism) take over. Such spoken sentiments are harmful, as they lessen our commitment to working to avoid the apocalypse.

A single world government might arise if either the US or Russia wins the next war, or if nations voluntarily agree to such a government. A common argument against a world government is that the prospect is utopian, but those commentators are only considering the voluntary means of achieving one. Russell concurs that as things now stand, the hopes for agreement between the two main sides are negligible; therefore, it would have to be “imposed by force [p. 47].”

Why can’t the world continue as before, with the occasional war? Technological development in weaponry has brought a level of destruction such that soon, any major world war would result in either extermination or depopulation and barbarism. (Russell foresees that the USSR will soon have lots of nuclear weapons.) Nor can it be hoped that for some reason, within the existing nation-state structure, war itself will become history.

Russell claims that a poll indicates that a majority of Americans support world government – but they do not understand the need for it to be established via force or the threat of force. The side that prevails in an armed struggle will have an irresistible monopoly of force, leading to a “secure peace [p. 49].” The leaders of that society will be rich and secure, allowing them to be generous to others. So a world government, of American or Soviet origin, will be preferable to the current “international anarchy [p. 50].” But an American-constructed world government will be better, because of the freedoms that are valued in America. We can see what sort of civilisation the Soviets would install by looking at what happened to the education system and the middle class in Poland once it fell under Soviet domination. Within a generation, all independent thought in Poland could be replaced with jejune communist orthodoxy, and this will also be the global fate within a Soviet uni-polar world – so a Russian victory in the bi-polar struggle would be “an appalling disaster [p. 51].” If America emerges as the victor, European cultures will not be crushed, nor will be freedom of expression. Soviet control of the press allows the ruling oligarchy to oppress the masses much more severely than in the US, so Soviet social inequalities worsen and harden.

The third alternative future outlined above, that of world government, can almost be as bad as the first two if it involves Soviet domination. The next step is for Britain and the US to start a military unification, with invitations and inducements to other nations to join. Once the alliance is large enough, any country that refused to join should be given an ultimatum: either join or be named an outlaw. Presumably Russia would receive such an ultimatum, and the war to follow – provided it happens quickly enough – should still leave US power intact, and then the military unification can be completed. We could hope that the ultimatum alone would work, that war would not be necessary – but we cannot rely upon that.

This all sounds gloomy, and it is, but the prospect of a world without wars also holds great promise; for the first time in 6000 years: “a weight will be lifted from the human spirit, deep collective fears will be exorcised, and as fear diminishes we may hope that cruelty also will grow less [p. 54].” Without war, poverty could be ended on a global scale “within a generation [p. 55].”

The global monopolization of force is a means, not an end; the end is to set up a system of laws to govern international relations. If we succeed in establishing such a system, we will enter a golden age; if we fail, “we face utter disaster [p. 55].”

Friday, October 12, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 (pages 32-44): “Philosophy for Laymen”

Mankind faces the problem of mastering nature -- a problem left to science -- along with the problem of how to use our command over nature. The latter problem is best addressed by reference to current and historical experience. Certainly more mastery over nature has not always brought about increased happiness; rather, wisdom is required. And since philosophy’s literal meaning is 'love of wisdom,' philosophy is what is needed to prevent a fall into the atomic abyss.

Philosophy has always tried to understand how the world works (a process connected with theory and science), and to identify and inculcate sound living (a process connected with practice and religion). The science part is sometimes misunderstood, because as soon as philosophical speculations become subject to the usual scientific method, the topic is removed from philosophy into one of the sciences – this has happened, for instance, with planetary theory and evolution. But the science might never have come about without the earlier philosophical theorizing. Philosophy still points to the proper attitude to take towards science, by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of scientific understanding. It also stokes interest in important questions (such as, does the universe have a purpose?) that cannot yet be answered scientifically.

Unknowledgeable approaches to philosophy lead to people thinking that their own “brand of nonsense” is an eternal truth, and any alternative is a “damnable heresy [p. 37].” Hence the religious strife of the last 1,600 years, when a little command of philosophy would reveal to the participants that they have no good reason to think their own ideas correct. Dogmatism is an enemy to human happiness. It is natural to desire certainty, but it is “an intellectual vice [p. 38]” nonetheless. People need to be trained to “withhold judgment in the absence of evidence [p. 38]” – this would prevent pernicious but popular doctrines that proclaim that killing one subset of humanity will somehow make the world better. Philosophy is the discipline best poised to teach people how to suspend their judgment in the absence of evidence.

Skepticism itself, however, like dogmaticism, is absolutist, embracing the certainty of unknowing -- but philosophy should serve as a counter to certainty of any type, whether of knowledge or ignorance. It would be good if education could make it the case that political statements would be more effective when couched in the probabilistic terms that accurately reflect our imperfect knowledge, rather than the absolutist statements that currently sell better politically. Though of course, we must act on our best knowledge, even as we recognize its potential incorrectness – and presumably our actions will include insurance against the possibility of being wrong. “When you act upon a hypothesis which you know to be uncertain, your action should be such as will not have very harmful results if your hypothesis is false [p. 40, italics Russell’s].” So you shouldn’t burn dissenters at the stake, though it might become a delicate matter if it gets to the point where it is either you or they who will be burned: “an uncertain hypothesis cannot justify a certain evil unless an equal evil is equally certain on the opposite hypothesis [p. 40].”

Philosophy’s practical aim is, like religion’s, to recommend the good life, though unlike religion, philosophy recognizes no appeal to authority or tradition, and more attention is given to the “intellectual virtues [p. 41]”. Ancient philosophers addressed their advice to men of means and leisure who could set up their own experiments in living if need be. But now, most people “have to earn their living within the existing framework of society, and they cannot make important changes in their own way of life unless they can first secure important changes in political and economic organisation [p. 41].” So in modern times ethics have to be reflected more in political behavior, and less in private life, than was the custom anciently.

An initial axiom is that “knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful [p. 41].” Our beliefs are influenced by profound forces, including our youthful lessons and the importuning of powerful organizations. So we must be careful to scrutinise our beliefs – especially those that we (or others) find painful to doubt -- to see which of them are held as true for good reason.

Statements about politics tend to be believed or not on the basis of the nationality of the believer – “which is logically irrelevant [p. 42].” Try replacing terms that might bias you – country names, for instance – with symbols, so that you can think more objectively and generally about political propositions. Generality might also be achieved by being acutely sensitive to dangers faced by distant, anonymous foreigners, but this is a rare characteristic, and most people have to rely instead upon an abstract frame of mind. But a widespread distribution of either approach would lead to vast improvements, as populations at odds with each other would work for their common good, without being too concerned about the precise distribution of the benefits.

Some study of philosophy can “greatly increase the student’s value as a human being and as a citizen [p. 44],” by inculcating the habit of exact thought, for instance, and providing a measure of man’s place in the cosmos. Philosophy, by broadening our thoughts, helps to relieve present anxieties, and promotes, as much as can be hoped for in a troubled world, serenity.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 (pages 11-31): “Philosophy and Politics”

Generally, in civilized countries other than modern liberal democracies, the authorities endorse a particular philosophy, as with Soviet Marxism. Early liberal democracies were themselves connected with the philosophy of Locke.

Traditionally philosophy included a doctrine of virtuous behavior. It has been appended to the criminal law and religion to prevent chaos, to make individual desires and the social good cohere. This leads to an insincere philosophy, one that responds not solely to truth but to the fear that “clear thinking would lead to anarchy...[p. 14],” and is exhibited by Plato and Hegel. Protagoras and Hume, skeptics both, are exceptions. It wasn’t the skeptics, but rather the empiricists Democritus and Locke, who were the formidable intellectual opponents with whom Plato and Hegel had to contend. The philosophy of Plato and Hegel “made itself the champion of injustice, cruelty, and opposition to progress [p. 15].” (Russell cites Karl Popper as demonstrating this claim in the case of Plato.) Plato was so artful that people did not recognize “his reactionary tendencies [p. 17]” until Lenin and Hitler put them into practice.

Russell continues by elaborating on the totalitarianism in Plato’s Republic, including the censorship of literature, drama, and music, the sacrifice of individual happiness for the collectivity, and the purposeful deception by the ruling oligarchs to enforce (with the aid of infanticide) their eugenic aspirations. Plato’s ideas require the pretty patina of philosophy to disguise their horrors.

Plato’s purported static optimum is insufficient in a dynamic world, where hope and change are needed for happiness. Modern philosophers thus have adopted an evolutionary viewpoint, where there is progress toward a goal that is never achieved. But change is a scientific notion, and progress is an ethical one. The earth once produced “harmless trilobites and butterflies [p. 19],” but moved on to produce Neros and Hitlers. Peace will return, though, as the earth returns to a state where it cannot support life.

Philosophers are not content with the undirected change of the earth. They note features of the world they like, and others that they don’t like, and then claim that an immutable law of history is leading to an increase in the former and decrease in the latter. “At the same time the winning side, for reasons which remain somewhat obscure, is represented as the side of virtue [p. 20].” Hegel was successful in selling a version of this pap, in part because his writing was so obscure that it was believed to be profound.

Russell provides a capsule and unflattering view of Hegelian philosophy, with its timeless Absolute Idea and the illusory unreality in which we dwell. Hegel somehow is able to conclude from these philosophical foundations that “true liberty consists in obedience to an arbitrary authority, that free speech is an evil, that absolute monarchy is good…[p. 21],” and so on. The intermediate steps involve the logic of the ‘dialectio,’ the uncovering of “contradictions in abstract ideas and correcting them by making them less abstract [p. 22],” with ideas thereby progressing to the Absolute Idea.

Hegel compounds the folly by asserting that “the temporal process of history repeats the logical development of the dialectic [p. 22].” Despite the universality of the philosophy, the historical process applies only to earth, and develops fully only in those times and places on earth with which Hegel was familiar. It was Hegel’s contemporary Germany that has progressed closest to the Absolute Idea.

Hegel’s “farrago of nonsense” carried the day in philosophy for a long time, and Russell would have succumbed, like his peers, had he not seen that Hegel’s writing on the philosophy of mathematics was “plain nonsense [p. 23].” Marx, of course, followed in Hegel’s footsteps, and in much of the world “you will be liquidated if you question this dogma…[p. 23].”

Hegel’s philosophy did not require him to praise Prussia -- his favorable opinion could have been bestowed upon any place with strict governmental control. Hegel (in his own conceit) knew what others did not, and a strong government could force them to act in their own best interest. Russell quotes Heraclitus, “to whom Hegel was deeply indebted,” as noting that ‘Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows.’ Russell’s caustic retort: “Let us, in any case, make sure of the blows; whether they lead to a pasture is a matter of minor importance…[p. 24].”

Once you “know” where history leads, you can justify any sort of compulsion to help people along the path. Autocracy thinks itself justified by some such dogma. Democracy, alternatively, receives a theoretical justification only from Lockean-style empiricism.

A Liberal political theory develops in commercial societies, especially those that are not military powers. Trade brings contacts with foreigners and erodes dogmatism, and successful trading requires an ability to see your partner’s point of view. Liberalism is a "live and let live” approach, one that eschews fanaticism; it accepts no truths, but rather, holds opinions on a tentative basis. Liberalism concerns itself not with what opinions are held, but how they are held. This is the approach of science, though not of theology. “The decisions of the Council of Nicaea are still authoritative, but in science fourth-century opinions no longer carry any weight [p. 26].” Look at how Marxian dogma affects Soviet science. Locke “stood for order without authority…[p. 27].” With the nuclear threat, global survival requires “liberal tentativeness and tolerance [p. 28].”

The realization that your current views may well be wrong suggests that you should be very reluctant to commit a “present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good [p. 29].”

There is a popular notion that fanatics are likely to win conflicts between themselves and liberals, given the commitment that fanatics have to their cause. But in actual combat, democracies do better. Fanatics choose impossible tasks, or inappropriate means, and “rouse the hostility [p. 30]” of others. Dogmatic systems that seek to persecute others lose out on the contributions – indeed, invite the intense opposition of – the persecuted. Germany might have had the atomic bomb first were it not for Hitler’s hatred of Jews. While fanatic systems can bring social coherence, so can democracies: look at WWII Britain.

Because dogmatism does not accept argument as a way of getting to the truth, all that is left to rival dogmas is force. A robust empirical liberalism is needed to prevent disaster.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Introductory Matter

Willis’s Introduction (pages vi-xiv):

There’s a coherence to Russell’s thought, disparate as it is, that is well demonstrated by Unpopular Essays. Willis follows up this observation with a biography of Russell, one that comes to life when relating Russell’s triumphant return to Trinity College at Cambridge in 1944: “Russell’s lectures were memorable performances – lucid, witty, irreverent, full of sweeping themes and picturesque asides, and delivered with a verve that at once enthralled his audience and incarnated the moral seriousness and intellectual grandeur of philosophical study [page xi].”

Eight of the chapters in Unpopular Essays were already written, some of them years earlier, when the book was proposed by Russell’s publisher; all of the chapters were imbued with the liberalism that had characterized Russell’s thought throughout his career. Upon publication, the book achieved critical and popular success.

In his one page Preface, Russell suggests that the essays are unified by their stand against dogmatism. He also explains the title. An earlier of book of his, which he claimed was written in part for the broad public, had been criticized for not being accessible. Russell takes a jab at those critics by suggesting that the current book, given that some sentences might not be understood by “unusually stupid children of ten…,” must not be a popular book – hence, unpopular. [I do not note the page number for Russell’s preface – there is no number on the page itself but the Table of Contents lists the Preface as being on page 9 -- because the pagination seems to be erroneous. From page 9 on things look OK, but it is hard to fathom how the preface page could be page 9, when it immediately follows page xiv.]

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Next Up: Unpopular Essays

The original plan called for Unpopular Essays to follow close upon the heels of Marriage and Morals, and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to further perfect the plan, to use the old Soviet terminology.

Unpopular Essays was published in 1950 by George Allen & Unwin; I will be using the Routledge paperback, which includes an Introduction by Kirk Willis and a one-page preface by Russell. The Routledge edition first appeared in 1995; my copy is a 2000 reprint. Here is a list of the titles of the twelve chapters:

1. Philosophy and Politics
2. Philosophy for Laymen
3. The Future of Mankind
4. Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives
5. The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed
6. On Being Modern-minded
7. An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish
8. The Functions of a Teacher
9. Ideas that have Helped Mankind
10. Ideas that have Harmed Mankind
11. Eminent Men I Have Known
12. Obituary

My suspicion is that my running summentary of these disparate essays will be a bit more selective than what spewed forth from Marriage and Morals. Onwards.

[Update: Apparently the entirety of Unpopular Essays is available online here.]

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Full Time

The second half of Marriage and Morals did not lead me to alter my general impressions from the halfway point. There’s the same relevance, and the same glibness. (My favorite Russellian pronouncement is from Chapter 14: “Children whose mothers do not feel a warm affection for them are apt to be thin and nervous, and not infrequently they become kleptomaniacs [p. 194].”) Indeed, much of what takes place in the second half recapitulates and expands upon material from the first half.

Among the points that are (mostly) new is the idea (Chapter 15) that among poor people, the state is substituting for fathers, and that a furtherance of this trend will undo the role of fathers. I think that on this point Russell proved prescient, given the massive increase in one-parent (typically female-headed) families in the US and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th Century. But the replacement did not extend into the middle class, and has diminished in recent years within the poorer sections of society, I believe. The same chapter also contains the correct prediction that married women would become eligible for the professions that were closed to them in the 1920s.

One area in which I remain far from convinced by Russell is his pronouncement of the need for (or desirability of) international government. (See, for instance, chapters 15 and 16.) Like Russell, I fear the practices and policies of standard national governments, but I doubt that they would be improved via a monopoly. Policy competition among various national governments (and the possibility for people to emigrate) provides a check – admittedly not a strong one – on the worst abuses. While international problems (such as global environmental degradation) require or benefit from international responses, a one-world government making population or education policy on a global scale sounds to me like a dystopia.

On eugenics, Russell was no enthusiast, but he accepted some notions that look foolish today; for instance, he put some credence in phrenology, and his willingness to sterilize imbeciles would have (presumably) had him vote with the majority in the 1927 US Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell. (Though his concern that perceived immorality would be used for negative eugenics might have shifted him into dissent – Carrie Buck was accused of prostitution and immorality as well as imbecility.) The whole idea of looking at the social value of (potential) individuals in formulating discriminatory population policy no longer seems worth the cost.

The most basic message of Marriage and Morals, however, to my mind still stands up. The traditional sexual morality damages people and essentially is irrational (especially the fetish of female 'virtue'), and people who were brought up in that tradition – I count myself among them – are more-or-less permanently harmed by the dissonance between instinct and imbued moral training. Russell’s suggestion for a replacement ethic, too, is one that I was stumbling towards before I read Marriage and Morals – the idea that close relationships are to be cherished, that they need not be put at risk by sex outside the relationship, and that jealousy has to be reined in. I am sorry that I didn’t read Marriage and Morals years ago, but if Russell is right, I couldn’t have overcome my childhood training in any case.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 21

Chapter 21 (pp. 303-320): “Conclusion”

Russell uses this chapter more as a summary than as a means to draw some final conclusions; the summary essentially follows the order of the preceding chapters.

Modern sexual ethics derive from the interest in verifiable fatherhood, and from an aesthetic view that non-procreative sex is wicked. Christianity is an important source of the wickedness view, and extended from women to men, in theory, the idea that extra-marital relations were sinful. With diminishing religious belief, the notion that fornication is sin has lost ground. Contraceptives have separated sex from pregnancy, though not entirely reliably. Husbands should adjust their jealousy only to apply when their wives have children fathered by others, in the manner that husbands in the East have tolerated the liberties taken by eunuchs.

So two-parent families might survive, with fewer restraints upon women. Simultaneously, the state is taking a larger role in raising and educating kids. Once protection and maintenance are wholly taken over by the state, fathers will have little purpose; if mothers work while the kids go to institutionalized day care, the role of mothers will likewise dissipate, and there will be no basis remaining for the traditional morality.

The replacement of families by the state is to be regretted, because states are harsh and will push nationalism on the kids – unless there is an international government, which also is needed to provide an adequate population policy.

The notion that sex is sinful commits untold harm, starting in early childhood. Friendly feeling is undermined. A new sexual ethic is needed, but reformers are accused of corrupting the youth, not always unfairly, as their pronouncements for reform might lend themselves to misinterpretation. The new ethic needs to work with human nature rather than against it, train instinct rather than thwart it. Rectitude is necessary, but self-control is not an end in itself; institutions and moral conventions should minimize the need for self-control. The exercise of self-control drains energies needed for useful activities. Traditional morality calls for constant self-control (which might not be exercised), creating a chasm between reason and instinct. Even those who intellectually reject the traditional values and act in ways contrary to them might be unable to do so wholeheartedly, and thus the value of their actions will be undermined.

The first general principle for a new sexual ethic is that it should maximize deep, serious love. A second principle is that kids should be well cared for physically and psychologically. But the old ethic makes prisons of marriages: “A good life cannot be founded upon fear, prohibition, and mutual interference with freedom [p. 316].”

Once kids are in the household, it is a duty of parents to try to maintain harmonious relations. If one of the parents lacks the self-control to keep serious arguments from coming to the attention of the kids, then it is probably better for the marriage to end.

“I believe that nine out of ten of those who have had a conventional upbringing in their early years have become in some degree incapable of a decent and sane attitude toward marriage and sex generally [p. 319].” They have (probably) been permanently damaged by their upbringing, and the best that can be done is to persuade them not to perpetuate the damage into the next generation.

Russell’s proposed ethic is not one of licentiousness. It requires as much self-control as the traditional ethic, but the self-control is now aimed at limiting the desire to restrain others – a type of self-control that is hard for those who are accustomed to condemning others for a perceived lack of virtue. The resulting freedom, the loosening of marital policing, can promote respect and deep intimacy within a marriage.