"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Bertrand Russell

In reading internet posts by atheists, a curious pattern emerges.  Almost to man (there are very few women in this group), they think of themselves as intellectual, brag about how intellectual they are, and accuse us religious folk of being anti-intellectual.  Yet, at the same time, it seems that their personal philosophies are built chiefly out of sources that aren’t terribly intellectual.  For instance, the folks that I hear most frequently quoted by atheists are Douglas Adams, George Carlin, Terry Pratchett, members of Monty Python, and others who one doesn’t typically associate with academic conferences.

There is one exception, however; one author whose quotes often appear who actually is an intellectual.  That would be Bertrand Russell.  According to the autobiographical sketch in my copy of The Problems of Philosophy, his influence on twentieth century intellectual life “cannot be exaggerated”, and I’m willing to believe it.  (Whether this speaks positively of Mr. Russell is an open question.)  There’s no doubt that he knew a great deal about mathematics, logic, philosophy, and history while having at least a decent background in any other intellectual field.  Furthermore, he looked the part:


So if we wish to gauge the strength of the intellectual arguments that supposedly back up modern atheism, his works should be a good place to start.

The first thing one notices upon reading The Problems of Philosophy is that it is very boring.  It is dry; uses lots of big, dull vocabulary; deals mostly with abstractions; and when it does use examples, the examples themselves are boring.  The book begins by dealing with the question of whether we can know anything.  It is telling that the example Mr. Russell chooses is the question of whether we can know that a table exists.  Several chapters are devoted to this question.  In the end, Russell concludes that the table he sees probably exists, but that he should forever maintain a modicum of doubt about its existence.

Some might object that it’s wrong to judge an academic book negatively just because it’s boring.  Surely a book can be boring and still be true, while another can be interesting but false.  I would certainly have argued this way when I was a college freshman.  But now consider this.  If an author truly believes that what he as to say is true and of real importance, won’t he take the time to make his prose sparkling and flowing?  So if a book proceeds through page after page, chapter after chapter of tedium, doesn’t that rather suggest that the author himself doesn’t care about it.  And if he doesn’t care about it, should we?

Consider these excerpts from The Problems of Philosophy:

The relation involved in judging or believing must, if falsehood is to be duly allowed for, be taken to be a relation between several terms, not between two. When Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio, he must not have before his mind a single object, ‘Desdemona’s love for Cassio’, or ‘that Desdemona loves Cassio’, for that would require that there should be objective falsehoods, which subsist independently of any minds; and this, though not logically refutable, is a theory to be avoided if possible. Thus it is easier to account for falsehood if we take judgement to be a relation in which the mind and the various objects concerned all occur severally; that is to say, Desdemona and loving and Cassio must all be terms in the relation which subsists when Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio. This relation, therefore, is a relation of four terms, since Othello also is one of the terms of the relation. When we say that it is a relation of four terms, we do not mean that Othello has a certain relation to Desdemona, and has the same relation to loving and also to Cassio. This may be true of some other relation than believing; but believing, plainly, is not a relation which Othello has to each of the three terms concerned, but to all of them together: there is only one example of the relation of believing involved, but this one example knits together four terms. Thus the actual occurrence, at the moment when Othello is entertaining his belief, is that the relation called ‘believing’ is knitting together into one complex whole the four terms Othello, Desdemona, loving, and Cassio. What is called belief or judgement is nothing but this relation of believing or judging, which relates a mind to several things other than itself. An act of belief or of judgement is the occurrence between certain terms at some particular time, of the relation of believing or judging.

But wait, there’s more!

We are now in a position to understand what it is that distinguishes a true judgement from a false one. For this purpose we will adopt certain definitions. In every act of judgement there is a mind which judges, and there are terms concerning which it judges. We will call the mind the subject in the judgement, and the remaining terms the objects. Thus, when Othello judges that Desdemona loves Cassio, Othello is the subject, while the objects are Desdemona and loving and Cassio. The subject and the objects together are called the constituents of the judgement. It will be observed that the elation of judging has what is called a ‘sense’ or ‘direction’. We may say, metaphorically, that it puts its objects in a certain order, which we may indicate by means of the order of the words in the sentence. (In an inflected language, the same thing will be indicated by inflections, e.g. by the difference between nominative and accusative.) Othello’s judgement that Cassio loves Desdemona differs from his judgement that Desdemona loves Cassio, in spite of the fact that it consists of the same constituents, because the relation of judging places the constituents in a different order in the two cases. Similarly, if Cassio judges that Desdemona loves Othello, the constituents of the judgement are still the same, but their order is different. This property of having a ‘sense’ or ‘direction’ is one which the relation of judging shares with all other relations. The ‘sense’ of relations is the ultimate source of order and series and a host of mathematical concepts; but we need not concern ourselves further with this aspect.

It may be objected that I’m taking these quotes out of context.  I promise, though, that reading them in context doesn’t make them any better.  And bear in mind that among the scores of books and hundreds of articles that Russell wrote, this is supposed to be his most accessible work.  Given that, it’s not surprising that most of those who run around posting Bertrand Russell quotes on internet message boards to demonstrate their intellectual acumen probably haven’t actually read any of what he wrote.


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