On the Value of Scepticism Summary and Analysis: Bertrand Russel

On the Value of Scepticism Summary:

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On the value of scepticism summary: In the first paragraph Russel says that he wants to talk about a doctrine which will be somewhat fearful in terms of repercussions. The doctrine is that a proposition of any nature shall be trusted unless proved by any supporting and logical argument.

He says that he aware of the depth of this statement. He says that by talking about the above fact, he would come in conflict with all the clairvoyants, bookmakers, bishops and others who have belief in irrational and illogical propositions which have no factual ground. He says this because the repercussions of proving this statement would reduce the income of all those above mentioned people who propagate things without their logical basis.

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He then narrates the story of Pyro who is the founder of Pyrrhonism (means Skepticism). Pyro states that our knowledge about different things is very less on the basis of which we cannot decide about one thing as wiser than other. Russell says that, one day Pyro was going and in the way he saw his teacher of skepticism with his head stuck in a ditch. The teacher was unable to get out of the ditch with all his efforts. Pyro stopped near him and thought for some time whether he should help his teacher or not but then he left his teacher in the same way. The others blamed Pyro for his heartlessness and help his teacher to come out of the ditch. Pyro rejected their blame and said there was no ground to prove that he was doing well in taking the teacher out of the ditch. So he left him. His teacher who was the man of principles, applauded and praised Pyro for his consistency in the field.

Russell states that he does not advocate such skepticism because he has common sense. He then says that he admits that the facts science provides have some sort of ground and proofs. He says he admits that they are not always true but they present some basis for rational action. He then gives an example if science announced a date for moon eclipse so he would he see on such date whether it really was taking place or not. He then says that Pyro would have not believed the argument of science. Russell then says that he is happy because he neither is of Pyro`s party as extremely extremist nor a conventional believer to believe without any logicality.

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He says that there some matters about which the people who investigate them get agreed. While there are some matters about which they don’t agree. He then says that if they agreed on some matters, it is not the proof that they would be right. He presents the case of Einstein. Einstein`s view about the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been clearly rejected by the experts, few years ago. But it is now proved that he was right. He then says, however, the unanimous opinions of experts must be accepted by the non-experts because there are chances that they could be right. He then comes to his on view of skepticism. Russell says that the skepticism he advocates is;

  • When experts are agreed on some matter, so, the opposite matter cannot be held true. It has to be false then.
  • When the experts are not agreed, so the non-experts must think about something as certain and true.
  • When the experts says that there are no sufficient grounds for the proof of something, so, the ordinary man must not reject the stance of expert.

He says that if these propositions are implemented, they can bring about a greater change.

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Russell says there are three classes of opinions for which people are always willing to fight. He then adds that the skepticism he advocates, condemns these categories.

He says when there are something which has ground of proof is left by people and they want it to get operated by itself. He says that such opinions are dealt by people with calm and no passion.

All other opinions which are dealt with full passion and zeal have no sufficient grounds.  He says that the passion shows that the one who shows passion is lacking in rational conviction.

He says that opinions in politics and religion are held with passion. It shows no presence of legal grounds. He says in China, a man having no strong opinions is called poor creature. He then talks about the common thought of belief according to which rational thinking is considered false because it can make practical life impossible as the demands of practical life are different. Russell says that he thinks of the contrary to this thought. He then says the he is going to prove it.

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He talks about the unemployment in the years after 1920. He says the view of one party was that it was due to the wickedness of trade unions. The view of other party was that it was due to the confusion on the Continent. A third party, stated that it was due to the policy of the Bank of England in trying to increase the value of the pound sterling. This third party contained experts.

Politicians do not take any interest in the view when it is not in their party favor. The ordinary people favor those views which can be of adverse effects to their enemies. He says, because of this people fight for some illogical and irrelevant causes. The other people who have rational views are not listened properly.

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He says that he wants to talk about the marriage and its customs. He says that a number of population in every country is motivated to all marriage customs. He then says that those who do not stand by these customs lose their lives. In India, remarriage of widow is considered a wrong thing.  In Catholic countries, divorce is regarded as wicked. In America, divorce is easy and extra conjugal activities are condemned. He then says that Muslims favor polygamy but we think it wrong. He then says that all these different beliefs are strongly supported by the followers and those who oppose them are doomed. He then says that, unfortunately, no one tries to prove that the customs of his country are more contributive to the happiness of the humans.

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He says that when we open any scientific treatise on the subject of marriage we across some strange facts. He says that we find every types of custom has existed in which may should have been opposed. We think we can understand polygamy, as a custom forced upon women by male oppressors. But what we can say to the custom Tibet where one woman has several husbands. He says that almost all customs of marriage involve cruelty and intolerance.

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He then says that nationalism is also an example of fervent belief. He says that any scientific historian would have been in prison if he had written about the Great War. He said that China is the only exception to this case because the truth tellers are not punished there. He says that opposition to the established belief is considered wicked and no application of reason in such matters is tolerated.

When people are challenged as to why skepticism should be considered wicked, so, the only answer is that myths help to win wars. Their opinion is that a rational nation would be killed rather than kill.

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He posts a question; what would be the effect of a spread of rational skepticism?

Human events spring from passions, resulting in generating systems of myths. He says when a person calls himself a king and states that he mistreated so people lock him up. But the same person, if says, something for nation, he becomes a political or religious leader.. In this way a collective insanity grows up, which follows laws very similar to those of individual insanity. Everyone knows that it is dangerous to dispute with a lunatic who thinks he is King but when a whole nation shares a delusion, its anger is of the same kind as that of an individual.

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He says the intellectual factors in human behavior is a matter of much disagreement among psychologists. There are two quite distinct questions: (1) how far are beliefs operative as causes of actions? (2) How far are beliefs derived from logically adequate evidence, or capable of being so derived? On both questions, psychologists are agreed in giving a much smaller place to the intellectual factors. He then takes both the questions in detail way.

  • How far are beliefs operative as causes of action?

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He talks about the question by taking an example of ordinary man`s life. He gets up in the morning because of habit and there is no belief in it. He eats his breakfast, catches his train, reads his newspaper, and goes to his office, all because of habit. All this routine is formed because of habit except for the choice of job. He believed that the job offered to him was as good as he deserved. In most men, belief plays a role in the original choice of a career.

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At the office, if he is a low rank person, he will continue to act because of habit. On the other hand, if he is a partner in the firm or director of the firm, he will have to take difficult decisions. He then says that in such decisions belief plays a great role. He believes that some things will go up and others will go down. And he acts accordingly to the beliefs.

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In his home-life there will be much more involvement of the belief.  At ordinary times, his behavior to his wife and children will be governed by habit. On great occasions like some serious decisions in life, he cannot be guided by habit. In proposing marriage, he may be helped more by instinct, or he may be influenced by the belief that the lady is rich. If he is guided by instinct, he will trust that the lady is the best partner for him then his course of action are fine enough. In choosing a school for his son, belief plays a greater role.

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He then adds that although beliefs are not directly responsible a larger part of action in our life but the actions for which they are responsible are among the most important, and largely determine the general structure of our lives. In particular, our religious and political actions are associated with beliefs.

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He then comes to the second question:

I come now to our second question, (a) how far are beliefs in fact based upon evidence? (b) How far is it possible or desirable that they should be?

He says that the ratio according to which beliefs are based on evidence is very less. Take the kind of action which is most nearly rational: the investment of money by a rich City man. He takes the example of rich man and says that his views on the rise in currency rate depend upon his political sympathies. He says, even, in bankruptcies the original cause of ruin is sentimental factor. Political opinions are hardly based upon evidence.  He then tells the readers that they have got accustomed to Frued1s view of “rationalizing,” i.e. the process of inventing what seem to ourselves rational grounds for a decision or opinion that is in fact quite irrational. But, according to Russell, especially in English-speaking countries, a contrary process is in vogue which may be called “irrationalizing.” A shrewd man will sum up, more or less subconsciously, the advantages and disadvantages of a question from a selfish point of view. A man comes to a decision with the help of his unconscious, and invents a set of high-sounding phrase to manifest that he is concerned for public good. Anybody who believes that these phrases give his real reasons must suppose him quite incapable of judging evidence, because the public good he is talking about cannot be ascertained from his action as his action is in his own perspectives. In this case a man appears less rational than he is; what is still more curious, the irrational part of him is conscious and the rational part unconscious. It is this trait in our characters that has made the English and Americans so successful.

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Russell argues that shrewdness belongs more to the unconscious part of our nature. He says that this shrewdness is the main quality for the success of business. He says it is good from business perspective but from the moral perspective it is selfish. If the Germans had shrewdness, they would not have adopted the unlimited submarine campaign. If the French had shrewdness, they would not have behaved as they did in the Ruhr. If Napoleon had shrewdness, he would not have gone to war again after the Treaty of Amiens.

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He says that he thinks he has gone out of his topic but he, then, says that but it was necessary to disentangle unconscious reason, which is called shrewdness, from the conscious variety.  He then taunts the ordinary methods of education which has no effect upon the unconscious, so that shrewdness cannot be taught by our present technique.

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He says, even, morality cannot be taught by present methods. He thinks that people should be made shrewd by intellectual means. He then says that he does not know how teach shrewdness but he knows to teach them to be rational. By rationality he means a scientific habit of mind in forecasting the effects of our actions.

On the Value of Scepticism Analysis:

  • This essays is one of the hall marks of Bertrand Russell.
  • The main argument of this essays is that skepticism is only way through which we can find out truth in this world.
  • Skepticism can promote positivity in life because it allows a logical and objective view of life.
  • Skepticism broadens the view of the eye and gives the capability to challenge the rights and the wrongs.
  • Skepticism builds a road way to rationality which facilitates human in conclusion and accomplishing life goals.
  • Russell is against staunch skepticism where a man never believes any proposition.
  • He is against dogmatic knowledge where people blindly follow the path directed to them.
  • His way is a moderate way of skepticism. He does not challenge the ideas when the experts get agreed to.
  • His view is very wide about skepticism.
  • His opinion is that we must not follow the tradition blindly because it can contain something which is against humanity.
  • The skepticism which Russell advocates is not the one which denounces morality, religion and God.
  • His skepticism is directed for the betterment of humanity.

He wants us to be skeptical so that humanity focused efforts could be done.