Monday, November 2, 2020

Bertrand Russell: Thoughts on Politics, Passion, and Skepticism

In Bertrand Russell's essay “On the Value of Scepticism” (from in his 1958 book The Will to Doubt), he suggests that when opinions are expresses with great passion, including political opinion, it is often because the rational grounds for those opinions are limited.  Russell wrote: 
When there are rational grounds for an opinion, people are content to set them forth and wait for them to operate. In such cases, people do not hold their opinions with passion; they hold them calmly, and set forth their reasons quietly. The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder's lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.
Russell also offered an interesting working definition of skepticism in a world where may topics have a small-ish experts who have considered the issue at length, and then the rest of us. 
There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed; the dates of eclipses may serve as an illustration. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein's view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts not many years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.