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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
THE AGNOSTICS
Thinkers in an Indeterminate Cosmos

BERTRAND RUSSELL

Sheryl Lin

Born on May 18, 1872 in Trelleck, United Kingdom, Bertrand Arthur William Russell, known simply as Bertrand Russell, was a well-known British philosopher, mathematician, logician and political activist. By the young age of four, Russell had lost his mother, father and sister which left him and his brother in his grandmother's care.

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

Although Russell's grandmother had raised him to be Christian, he later abandoned the religion. Russell's approach to religion falls into four categories. He criticized arguments that favor the existence of God; his observations of religion resulted in the conclusion that religion had historically stunted the advancement of knowledge and supported theories of morality that are more harmful than beneficial; and he analyzed religion as a mode of feeling rather than just a body of belief. In a time where people were told that in order to have serious discussions of religion, they had to have in-depth knowledge of Latin and church history, Russell provided them with the opportunity to better understand religion by discussing it in plain language. This resulted in the mass realization that each individual was entitled to their own views and beliefs. In addition, arguments from religious authorities became less influential.

Although the Nobel Prize committee stated that Russell had won “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought,” Russell believes that be had won the Nobel Prize due to his book Marriage and Morals, which was an anti-religious book.

Russell made many significant contributions to logic and the foundations of mathematics, one of which is his discovery of the Russell-Zermelo paradox. He made this discovery while working on his Principles of Mathematics (1903). The paradox proposes the idea that all sentences call for a contradiction. As the Scientific American nicely explains,

Russell's paradox is based on examples like this: Consider a group of barbers who shave only those men who do not shave themselves. Suppose there is a barber in this collection who does not shave himself; then by the definition of the collection, he must shave himself. But no barber in the collection can shave himself. (If so, he would be a man who does shave men who shave themselves.)

Seemingly, any description of x could fill the space after the colon. But Russell (and independently, Ernst Zermelo) noticed that x = {a: a is not in a} leads to a contradiction in the same way as the description of the collection of barbers. Is x itself in the set x? Either answer leads to a contradiction.

When Russell discovered this paradox, Frege immediately saw that it had a devastating effect on his system. Even so, he was unable to resolve it, and there have been many attempts in the last century to avoid it.

Between 1903 and 1908, while developing his theory of types, Russell had a response to the paradox. In 1908 Russell further developed his theory of types in his article, “Mathematical Logic Based on the Theory of Types.” The theory recognizes that there are two versions, one of which was attacked for being too weak and the other for being too strong. Russell indicated that it was unlikely that any one solution would resolve all known paradoxes.

Russell went about philosophy the same way he did the foundations of mathematics. He wanted to use logic to clarify issues in philosophy. Russell's was one of the founders of analytic philosophy and made significant contributions to many different areas including metaphysics, ethics, political theory and epistemology. Russell believes that it is the philosopher's duty to find a logically ideal language that is capable of portraying the world in a way where people will not be accidentally mislead by imprecise natural language.

In 1911, Russell wrote, “Can human beings know anything, and if so, what and how? This question is really the most essentially philosophical of all questions.” Russell's response to this question contained two parts. It was partially metaphysical and partially epistemological. From the epistemological perspective, Russell argues that it is crucial to be able to define any questionable entity in terms of another entity whose existence is more certain. For the metaphysical perspective, Russell developed his well-known theory of logical atomism, which is the idea that the world consists of a complex of logical atoms and their relations and properties. Russell's view in regards to the centrality of scientific knowledge and the importance of the existence of an underlying methodology common to philosophy and science unites his contributions to epistemology and metaphysics.

At the core of Russell's philosophical method was the production and development of hypotheses from the analyzation of evidence. Russell wanted to emphasize the scientific method in philosophy. From Russell's perspective, the only difference between philosophy and science is the generality and an a priority of philosophical statements rather than the methodology of the discipline. Russell believed that similar to mathematics, the advancement of analysis depended on the application of logical machinery. A famous example of Russell's “analytic method” is denoting phrases. These are phrases that include both definite descriptions and proper names. The idea states that every denoting phrase referred to an existing entity. By 1905 Russell had made some modifications to his initial claim. His view shifted to the belief that denoting phrases do not need to possess a theoretical unity. He explains that the assumption that every denoting phrase had to refer to an existing entity resulted in “a failure of that feeling for reality which ought to be preserved even in the most abstract studies”. He proposed that while logically proper names are associated with referents, descriptive phrases should be viewed as propositional functions that are meaningless when isolated. They only hold meaning in appropriate context.

Russell's defense of neutral monism is yet another one of his contributions. In 1913 while working on his Theory of Knowledge manuscript, Russell developed the theory of neutral monism is the idea that the world consists of only one type of substance that is neither purely physical nor purely mental, but it also rejects dualism. Unlike idealism, the belief that nothing exists besides the mental, or physicalism, the belief that nothing exists besides the physical, neutral monism believes that a single existing substance can be perceived as mental in some contexts and physical in others. Even decades later in 1964, Russell's belief of neutral monism had not changed.

There are three main reasons as to why Russell had significant social influence. The first reason was that he was constantly taking part in social activism. The second reason was that he had done a lot of writing about the social and political issues during the time, in addition to theoretical concerns. The third reason came from his popularization of many technical writings about philosophy and natural sciences. Russell saw the connection between education and social progress. He stated that, “education is the key to the new world.” This is partially due to our desire to understand nature, but also our desire to understand each other. The connection between Russell's theoretical work and his political activism was controversial, especially because Russell himself claimed that there was no momentous connection between his philosophical work and political activism.

After leading a remarkable life and leaving a lasting influence on the world, Bertrand Russell passed away on February 2, 1970 in Wales. On top of his abundant amount of influence in the areas of mathematics, politics, and philosophy, although he considered himself more of an author than philosopher, Russell achieved much more. He led many lectures all over the United States and around Europe, visited a handful of different countries, and received many awards/recognitions. From being married four times to being imprisoned twice, to being defeated three times while running for parliament, to winning a Nobel Prize, Bertrand Russell lived quite an eventful life.

I think to best understand Russell's philosophical views regarding metaphysics and god, it is important to look back to his extended 1953 interview on agnosticism. It is so worthy, in fact, that I have included the entire excerpt since it reveals so clearly the brilliance of Russell's mind and his rapier-like wit.

What Is an agnostic?

An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.

Are agnostics atheists?

No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.

Since you deny 'God's Law', what authority do you accept as a guide to conduct?

An Agnostic does not accept any 'authority' in the sense in which religious people do. He holds that a man should think out questions of conduct for himself. Of course, he will seek to profit by the wisdom of others, but he will have to select for himself the people he is to consider wise, and he will not regard even what they say as unquestionable. He will observe that what passes as 'God's law' varies from time to time. The Bible says both that a woman must not marry her deceased husband's brother, and that, in certain circumstances, she must do so. If you have the misfortune to be a childless widow with an unmarried brother-in-law, it is logically impossible for you to avoid disobeying 'God's law'.

How do you know what is good and what is evil? What does an agnostic consider a sin?

The Agnostic is not quite so certain as some Christians are as to what is good and what is evil. He does not hold, as most Christians in the past held, that people who disagree with the government on abstruse points of theology ought to suffer a painful death. He is against persecution, and rather chary of moral condemnation.

As for 'sin', he thinks it not a useful notion. He admits, of course, that some kinds of conduct are desirable and some undesirable, but he holds that the punishment of undesirable kinds is only to be commended when it is deterrent or reformatory, not when it is inflicted because it is thought a good thing on its own account that the wicked should suffer. It was this belief in vindictive punishment that made men accept Hell. This is part of the harm done by the notion of 'sin'.

Does an agnostic do whatever he pleases?

In one sense, no; in another sense, everyone does whatever he pleases. Suppose, for example, you hate someone so much that you would like to murder him. Why do you not do so? You may reply: "Because religion tells me that murder is a sin." But as a statistical fact, agnostics are not more prone to murder than other people, in fact, rather less so. They have the same motives for abstaining from murder as other people have. Far and away the most powerful of these motives is the fear of punishment. In lawless conditions, such as a gold rush, all sorts of people will commit crimes, although in ordinary circumstances they would have been law-abiding. There is not only actual legal punishment; there is the discomfort of dreading discovery, and the loneliness of knowing that, to avoid being hated, you must wear a mask with even your closest intimates. And there is also what may be called "conscience": If you ever contemplated a murder, you would dread the horrible memory of your victim's last moments or lifeless corpse. All this, it is true, depends upon your living in a law-abiding community, but there are abundant secular reasons for creating and preserving such a community.

I said that there is another sense in which every man does as he pleases. No one but a fool indulges every impulse, but what holds a desire in check is always some other desire. A man's anti-social wishes may be restrained by a wish to please God, but they may also be restrained by a wish to please his friends, or to win the respect of his community, or to be able to contemplate himself without disgust. But if he has no such wishes, the mere abstract concepts of morality will not keep him straight.

How does an agnostic regard the Bible?

An agnostic regards the Bible exactly as enlightened clerics regard it. He does not think that it is divinely inspired; he thinks its early history legendary, and no more exactly true than that in Homer; he thinks its moral teaching sometimes good, but sometimes very bad. For example: Samuel ordered Saul, in a war, to kill not only every man, woman, and child of the enemy, but also all the sheep and cattle. Saul, however, let the sheep and the cattle live, and for this we are told to condemn him. I have never been able to admire Elisha for cursing the children who laughed at him, or to believe (what the Bible asserts) that a benevolent Deity would send two she-bears to kill the children.

How does an agnostic regard Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Holy Trinity?

Since an agnostic does not believe in God, he cannot think that Jesus was God. Most agnostics admire the life and moral teachings of Jesus as told in the Gospels, but not necessarily more than those of certain other men. Some would place him on a level with Buddha, some with Socrates and some with Abraham Lincoln. Nor do they think that what He said is not open to question, since they do not accept any authority as absolute.

They regard the Virgin Birth as a doctrine taken over from pagan mythology, where such births were not uncommon. (Zoroaster was said to have been born of a virgin; Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, is called the Holy Virgin.) They cannot give credence to it, or to the doctrine of the Trinity, since neither is possible without belief in God.

Can an agnostic be a Christian?

The word "Christian" has had various different meanings at different times. Throughout most of the centuries since the time of Christ, it has meant a person who believed God and immortality and held that Christ was God. But Unitarians call themselves Christians, although they do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and many people nowadays use the word "God" in a much less precise sense than that which it used to bear. Many people who say they believe in God no longer mean a person, or a trinity of persons, but only a vague tendency or power or purpose immanent in evolution. Others, going still further, mean by "Christianity" merely a system of ethics which, since they are ignorant of history, they imagine to be characteristic of Christians only.

When, in a recent book, I said that what the world needs is "love, Christian love, or compassion," many people thought this showed some changes in my views, although in fact, I might have said the same thing at any time. If you mean by a "Christian" a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then, certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian. And, in this sense, I think you will find more "Christians" among agnostics than among the orthodox. But, for my part, I cannot accept such a definition. Apart from other objections to it, it seems rude to Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and other non-Christians, who, so far as history shows, have been at least as apt as Christians to practice the virtues which some modern Christians arrogantly claim as distinctive of their own religion.

I think also that all who called themselves Christians in an earlier time, and a great majority of those who do so at the present day, would consider that belief in God and immortality is essential to a Christian. On these grounds, I should not call myself a Christian, and I should say that an agnostic cannot be a Christian. But, if the word "Christianity" comes to be generally used to mean merely a kind of morality, then it will certainly be possible for an agnostic to be a Christian.

Does an agnostic deny that man has a soul?

This question has no precise meaning unless we are given a definition of the word "soul." I suppose what is meant is, roughly, something nonmaterial which persists throughout a person's life and even, for those who believe in immortality, throughout all future time. If this is what is meant, an agnostic is not likely to believe that man has a soul. But I must hasten to add that this does not mean that an agnostic must be a materialist. Many agnostics (including myself) are quite as doubtful of the body as they are of the soul, but this is a long story taking one into difficult metaphysics. Mind and matter alike, I should say, are only convenient symbols in discourse, not actually existing things.

Does an agnostic believe in a hereafter, in Heaven or Hell?

The question whether people survive death is one as to which evidence is possible. Psychical research and spiritualism are thought by many to supply such evidence. An agnostic, as such, does not take a view about survival unless he thinks that there is evidence one way or the other. For my part, I do not think there is any good reason to believe that we survive death, but I am open to conviction if adequate evidence should appear.

Heaven and hell are a different matter. Belief in hell is bound up with the belief that the vindictive punishment of sin is a good thing, quite independently of any reformative or deterrent effect that it may have. Hardly an agnostic believes this. As for heaven, there might conceivably someday be evidence of its existence through spiritualism, but most agnostics do not think that there is such evidence, and therefore do not believe in heaven.

Are you never afraid of God's judgment in denying Him?

Most certainly not. I also deny Zeus and Jupiter and Odin and Brahma, but this causes me no qualms. I observe that a very large portion of the human race does not believe in God and suffers no visible punishment in consequence. And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.

How do agnostics explain the beauty and harmony of nature?

I do not understand where this "beauty" and "harmony" are supposed to be found. Throughout the animal kingdom, animals ruthlessly prey upon each other. Most of them are either cruelly killed by other animals or slowly die of hunger. For my part, I am unable to see any great beauty or harmony in the tapeworm. Let it not be said that this creature is sent as a punishment for our sins, for it is more prevalent among animals than among humans. I suppose the questioner is thinking of such things as the beauty of the starry heavens. But one should remember that stars every now and again explode and reduce everything in their neighborhood to a vague mist. Beauty, in any case, is subjective and exists only in the eye of the beholder.

How do agnostics explain miracles and other revelations of God's omnipotence?

Agnostics do not think that there is any evidence of "miracles" in the sense of happenings contrary to natural law. We know that faith healing occurs and is in no sense miraculous. At Lourdes, certain diseases can be cured and others cannot. Those that can be cured at Lourdes can probably be cured by any doctor in whom the patient has faith. As for the records of other miracles, such as Joshua commanding the sun to stand still, the agnostic dismisses them as legends and points to the fact that all religions are plentifully supplied with such legends. There is just as much miraculous evidence for the Greek gods in Homer as for the Christian God in the Bible.

There have been base and cruel passions, which religion opposes. If you abandon religious principles, could mankind exist?

The existence of base and cruel passions is undeniable, but I find no evidence in history that religion has opposed these passions. On the contrary, it has sanctified them, and enabled people to indulge them without remorse. Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed. The persecuting character of present day communism is exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier centuries. In so far as Christianity has become less persecuting, this is mainly due to the work of freethinkers who have made dogmatists rather less dogmatic. If they were as dogmatic now as in former times, they would still think it right to burn heretics at the stake. The spirit of tolerance which some modern Christians regard as essentially Christian is, in fact, a product of the temper which allows doubt and is suspicious of absolute certainties. I think that anybody who surveys past history in an impartial manner will be driven to the conclusion that religion has caused more suffering than it has prevented.

What is the meaning of life to the agnostic?

I feel inclined to answer by another question: What is the meaning of 'the meaning of life'? I suppose what is intended is some general purpose. I do not think that life in general has any purpose. It just happened. But individual human beings have purposes, and there is nothing in agnosticism to cause them to abandon these purposes. They cannot, of course, be certain of achieving the results at which they aim; but you would think ill of a soldier who refused to fight unless victory was certain. The person who needs religion to bolster up his own purposes is a timorous person, and I cannot think as well of him as of the man who takes his chances, while admitting that defeat is not impossible.

Does not the denial of religion mean the denial of marriage and chastity?

Here again, one must reply by another question: Does the man who asks this question believe that marriage and chastity contribute to earthly happiness here below, or does he think that, while they cause misery here below, they are to be advocated as means of getting to heaven? The man who takes the latter view will no doubt expect agnosticism to lead to a decay of what he calls virtue, but he will have to admit that what he calls virtue is not what ministers to the happiness of the human race while on earth. If, on the other hand, he takes the former view, namely, that there are terrestrial arguments in favor of marriage and chastity, he must also hold that these arguments are such as should appeal to the agnostic. Agnostics, as such, have no distinctive views about sexual morality. But most of them would admit that there are valid arguments against the unbridled indulgence of sexual desires. They would derive these arguments, however, from terrestrial sources and not from supposed divine commands.

Is not faith in reason alone a dangerous creed? Is not reason imperfect and inadequate without spiritual and moral law?

No sensible man, however agnostic, has "faith in reason alone." Reason is concerned with matters of fact, some observed, some inferred. The question whether there is a future life and the question whether there is a God concern matters of fact, and the agnostic will hold that they should be investigated in the same way as the question, "Will there be an eclipse of the moon tomorrow?" But matters of fact alone are not sufficient to determine action, since they do not tell us what ends we ought to pursue. In the realm of ends, we need something other than reason. The agnostic will find his ends in his own heart and not in an external command. Let us take an illustration: Suppose you wish to travel by train from New York to Chicago; you will use reason to discover when the trains run, and a person who though that there was some faculty of insight or intuition enabling him to dispense with the timetable would be thought rather silly. But no timetable will tell him that it is wise, he will have to take account of further matters of fact; but behind all the matters of fact, there will be the ends that he thinks fitting to pursue, and these, for an agnostic as for other men, belong to a realm which is not that of reason, though it should be in no degree contrary to it. The realm I mean is that of emotion and feeling and desire.

Do you regard all religions as forms of superstition or dogma? Which of the existing religions do you most respect, and why?

All the great organized religions that have dominated large populations have involved a greater or less amount of dogma, but "religion" is a word of which the meaning is not very definite. Confucianism, for instance, might be called a religion, although it involves no dogma. And in some forms of liberal Christianity, the element of dogma is reduced to a minimum.

Of the great religions of history, I prefer Buddhism, especially in its earliest forms, because it has had the smallest element of persecution.

Communism like agnosticism opposes religion, are agnostics Communists?

Communism does not oppose religion. It merely opposes the Christian religion, just as Mohammedanism does. Communism, at least in the form advocated by the Soviet Government and the Communist Party, is a new system of dogma of a peculiarly virulent and persecuting sort. Every genuine Agnostic must therefore be opposed to it.

Do agnostics think that science and religion are impossible to reconcile?

The answer turns upon what is meant by 'religion'. If it means merely a system of ethics, it can be reconciled with science. If it means a system of dogma, regarded as unquestionably true, it is incompatible with the scientific spirit, which refuses to accept matters of fact without evidence, and also holds that complete certainty is hardly ever impossible [possible?].

What kind of evidence could convince you that God exists?

I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence. I can imagine other evidence of the same sort which might convince me, but so far as I know, no such evidence exists.

Source: https://scepsis.net/eng/articles/id_5.php

Further Reading:

Portraits from Memory and other Essays

My Philosophical Development

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

FROM THE INTRODUCTION | DAVID LANE

Davide Lane (ed.), The Agnostics

Often in the philosophy classes I have taught in undergraduate and graduate school, I would bring up this point of “unknowingness.” Pointing to a crumpled piece of writing paper, I would ask the class, “What is this?” Almost in unison, the students would respond, "A piece of paper." Taking this as my cue to lead into a deeper philosophical investigation of materialism, I probed further, "Yes, but what is that?” Catching my drift, one student invariably answered, “Oh, it is actually a transformed sheet of wood.”

Not wanting them to stop there, I asked, “And wood is made of what?” “It's comprised of molecules," the more scientifically oriented students would shout. Connecting to the now forgotten inner space ride at Disneyland, which takes one through an imaginary voyage inside a snowflake molecule, I queried, “But what is a molecule made of.” By this time, we had gotten down to the subatomic level, and our words began to betray our modicum of knowledge (electrons, protons, quarks, lucky charms, superstring). The final question I asked was quite simple, but given the line of investigation it led to some severe complications: What is matter?

Well, it should be obvious to the reader as it was to my class and to myself that there's only one truly appropriate response, “I don't know.” Now, this is exactly the response not only of most mystics, but most quantum physicists as well. As Sir Arthur Eddington, the distinguished astronomer put it, “Something unknown is doing we don't know what!”

To be sure, mystics have said that the world (or matter) is nothing but consciousness. But, what is consciousness? Not even a sage as enlightened as Ramana Maharshi of South India could answer that question. To such queries, Ramana would often sit in silence. Ultimately, matter leads to consciousness and consciousness to God or Nature (with a capital N) and both to Mystery. However, no matter how you define it, slice it, categorize it, blend it, intuit it, the fact remains that Reality is a Mystery, and nobody apparently (not me, not you, not Einstein) knows what that Reality is. We are sitting right in the middle of the Mystical Dimension.






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