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Bertrand Russell: The Original Scientific Fundamentalist

November 11, 2012, 8:00 PM

The mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) may have been the original Scientific Fundamentalist.

At the end of his 1959 TV interview “Face to Face” on BBC, Bertrand Russell was asked the following question.

“One last question.  Suppose, Lord Russell, this film were to be looked at by our descendants, like a dead sea scroll in a thousand years’ time.  What would you think it’s worth telling that generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?”

This was the first part of Russell’s answer.

“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral.  The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this.  When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only “What are the facts?  And what is the truth that the facts bear out?”  Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe or by what you think could have beneficent social effects if it were believed.  But look only and solely at what are the facts.  That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.”

I could not have said it better my own damn self.  Bertrand Russell is the original Scientific Fundamentalist.

Of course, he could also be the original hippie, as this is the second part of his answer.

“The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple.  I should say “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.”  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 we don’t like.  We can only live together in that way.  But if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

The problem with most social scientists today is that they practice their “science” guided by Russell’s moral principle, not by his intellectual principle.  Social scientists are often guided precisely by “what they wish to believe” and by “what they think could have beneficent social effects if it were believed.”

It’s funny that Russell thought that people were getting more and more closely interconnected in 1959.  What would he have thought of the iPhone and Twitter?

Thanks to my friends Paul Craven and Nick Carlin for alerting me to the Russell quote and noticing a close link to my own Scientific Fundamentalism.


Follow me on Twitter:  @SatoshiKanazawa