Bertrand Russell’s invitation to epistemic humility

Next summer, I plan on offering a class on the philosophy of religion. While I’ve read philosophy on the side since I was an undergraduate, I didn’t major in it, nor have I logged anywhere near the same number of hours into studying it as say biblical and religious studies. So, while the class isn’t for another year, I find myself preparing now, reading all I can, and trying to envision the shape that the class will take.

Bertrand Russell. Image via Wikipedia.

One essay that I’m considering having my students read on the first day is Bertrand Russell’s “Philosophy for Laymen” (which can be found in Unpopular Essays, pp. 32-44). It’s a gem. Russell begins with the claim that since the dawn of civilization, humans “have been confronted with problems of two different kinds”: (1) how to master “natural forces” and (2) “how to best utilize our command over the forces of nature” (p. 32). Another way he puts it is that we have sought “a theoretical understanding of the structure of the world” and “tried to discover and inculcate the best possible way of life.” He concludes that philosophy has related to both of these concerns (p. 32) and therefore, “Philosophy has thus been closely related to science on the one hand, and to religion on the other.” (p. 33)

Then he goes on to warn against what today we call “scientism” and “anti-science” (p.36). Both are a bridge too far because both are a form of dogmatism. In this essay, the one thing that Russell presents as a great danger to us all is dogmatism. This doesn’t mean he promotes skepticism because, as we’ll see, skepticism is dogmatic too.

The reason that philosophy belongs to the “layman” and not just the professional is that everyone needs to learn how to approach thinking about and acting in the world in a way that is philosophical in nature if we’re to avoid the dogmatism that leads to the either/or, us-against-them, zero-sum approach that we see emerging again today not only in the UK from where Russell hailed but here in the United States and also in places like India. Democracy has become strained in these countries as certain ideologies—the kind promoted by figures ranging from Steve Bannon to Yogi Adityanath—promote a nativist, nationalist, and often theocratic justification for just winning, even if the principles that hold pluralistic democracies (like the United States and India) must be abandoned.

Russell’s words remain a relevant response to the willingness of the mob to follow people like Bannon and Adityanath when he writes:

…so long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipline is philosophy.

Unpopular Essays, p. 38

This call to “endure uncertainty” is seen as necessary for maturity but as I said, he doesn’t advocate a pendulum swing to skepticism or nihilism. Russell writes:

But if philosophy is to serve a positive purpose, it must not teach mere skepticism, for, while the dogmatist is harmful, the skeptic is useless. Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.

Unpopular Essays, p. 38

For Russell, “The pursuit of philosophy is founded on the belief that knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful.” (p. 41). But not all “knowledge” is the same: “all that passes for knowledge can be arranged in a hierarchy of degrees of certainty, with arithmetic and the facts of perception at the top.” (p. 39) My confidence that 2+2 = 4 should be higher than my confidence that a certain form of capitalism or socialism will be the most utilitarian. We can’t be frozen by our uncertainty, as Russell writes: “…it is necessary, at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dogmatically believing it.” (p. 39) Pragmatically, Russell tells us that we should ask what potential harm might come from acting on what we think we know. “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).

This last line reminds me of a claim found in the United States Declaration of Independence:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

I interpret this to mean that the architects of the Declaration are asking their audience to take their call for independence seriously because they know that something like revolution should be the last option. Now, for many who are oppressed or feel oppressed, this claim may seem unjust, but it should be remembered that the results of a revolution aren’t always positive. Yes, things can get better but they can get even worse as well. Most revolutions fail (remember the “Arab Spring”?) and stability is a virtue unless the suffering being experienced in a stable situation is worse than the potential suffering caused by the instability of revolutionary action.

Russell’s concern is that we don’t usually know if we’re right in the same way we know 2+2 = 4. And since there’s room for doubt, we must be cautious. We must allow our epistemic humility to guide us away from rash decisions. Is this to say that there’s never a time for action that might have some form of “collateral damage”? That’s unclear. The Founding Fathers appeared willing to act on principles that would suggest that they saw certain levels of pain and suffering to be worth it if certain freedoms were obtained, and maybe worth it even if those freedoms weren’t obtained, but they recognized that this is rare. Russell himself held to an evolving form of pacifism over his lifespan. Though his pacifism wasn’t absolute later in life, his belief that epistemic humility requires us to “pump the brakes,” if you will, seems to have remained consistent.

Now, epistemic humility isn’t always high-stakes. For Russell, it’s an attitude that should be applied generously. For my students next summer, I hope it’ll help them develop a posture of openness and inquiry. I think that would be a great way to open a philosophy course.