What is your review of Bertrand Russell?

He was a brilliant thinker, an excellent writer who structured his arguments very carefully (most of the time), and someone who was far ahead of his era in many of his insights involving several areas of philosophy. Further, I think it is a shame that many of those insights — and in particular in the area of political economy — have frequently been overlooked or forgotten. Russell of course led the charge in analytical philosophy, and deservedly gets most of the credit for that initial trajectory. With all of this said, however, I disagree vehemently with Russell around both his characterizations of Hegel, and his pro-atheist, anti-Christian arguments. In these areas, I think Russel held such a profound bias that it clouded and muddied his thinking, so that his usual qualities of brilliance, insight and articulate communication were all but lost when he engaged with these topics.

Comment from Arslan Baig:

Thanks for the detailed answer. But, I’m a little curious to know more about your disagreement with Russel and why you think he was biased in those areas as you mention in the answer. As I remember, correct me if I’m wrong,

Wasn’t Bertrand Russel regarded himself to be a Critical minded agnostic?

Russell was an atheist by any careful observation (and by his own admission, when he is describing his views “in practical terms” accessible to a “popular audience”). He described himself as an agnostic so as to be consistent with his own rationalism to a “purely philosophic” audience. This very difference is one of the evidences of his bias. For example, he states plainly in “Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?” the following: “There is exactly the same degree of possibility and likelihood of the existence of the Christian God as there is of the existence of the Homeric God.” Not exactly an agnostic statement…and none of the rest of that essay is agnostic in tone. And tone is important, IMO.

I think Russell really despised established institutionalized religion — just as he really despised Hegel’s conception and justifications of the State — and Russell was indeed treated rather unfairly both by the Christian Church of his day, and proponents of Hegelian idealism…so perhaps his strong emotions around these topics were justified! But to read Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell is to encounter some fairly pedestrian distortions and misunderstandings of the Christian tradition — ones that plainly illustrate that Russell did not care to understand that tradition on anything more than a superficial and condescending level.

Regarding Hegel, I actually agree with his criticism of Hegel’s justification of the State and (to a lesser degree) Hegel’s approach to history. There are some real problems there. But after a successful critique of Hegel’s weaknesses in these areas, Russell then dismisses the mystical/metaphysical/spiritual aspects of Hegel’s philosophy, and demonstrates a rather poor understanding of Hegel in the process. Again, I think Russell simply didn’t like Hegel’s assertions in arenas that appear “non-rational” in nature, and wasn’t willing to entertain Hegel’s lengthy discussions of them to fully appreciate what, for example, is really meant by intellectual intuition, or the importance of a more holistic understanding of any whole to fully comprehend constituent parts of that whole, or what “Aufhebung” is really achieving. To Russell’s highly reactive ear, Hegel just didn’t satisfy a “rational” approach in terms Russell could appreciate (or perhaps even understand). Russell just “didn’t get it,” and so he rejected Hegel’s insights without (IMO) navigating their nuances. On a simpler, more emotional level, Russel probably also didn’t like Hegel’s inclusion of the Divine in his conceptions — a bias that most atheists tend to hold without appreciating the knee-jerk irrationality of their own distaste.

Comment from Arslan Braig:

What is your honest opinion on Russell tea pot argument/anology? Do you agree or disagree with his statements?

Note: I think it's safe to suggest that, this is were the entire notion of “the burden of proof is only on believers” initially comes from.

Russell's teapot - Wikipedia

LOL. Russel’s teapot is meaningless blather, I’m afraid. A person’s (or group of people’s) direct experience of a condition may have several explanations that are open to debate, sure. But to say this or that subjectively or collectively experienced condition is ABSOLUTELY non-factual/trivial/and or absurd (i.e. a teapot in space) for everyone — simply because the skeptic hasn’t experienced it themselves — is just arrogance. It’s a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where confidence rises proportionately to a lack of knowledge or understanding. Russell reveals his ignorance in this regard, but he asserts the primacy of logic in his own analogy because he reduces “faith” to an irrational belief. Sure, Russell (and many other atheists) frequently hypothesize that such beliefs are the shifting sands upon which the houses of religion are built. But this is simply not the case. Nearly all of the world’s “faith traditions” were actually originally grounded in direct experiential insights and intuitions of their earliest proponents (and replications of those experiences in generations of adherents), the characteristics of which share profound similarities across different belief systems (the Perennial philosophy hypothesis). Again, however, someone who hasn’t experienced these “evidences” themselves will remain skeptical — in fact I would say agnosticism, as a consequence of healthy skepticism, is really the only logical conclusion one could have without encountering such supporting evidence oneself. That’s completely understandable IMO. Atheism, on the other hand, often drifts into territory that is quite irrational and unhealthily dismissive in its skepticism; and to then impose one’s own ignorance on others by insisting that their experiences are invalid is, as I said, just plain old arrogance.

As to the actual causes of those “faith-inspiring” experiences, we can certainly debate whether there is in fact anything “spiritual” or Divine in play (or just some bizarre neurological hiccup in the hippocampus instead, etc.). That is a secondary debate that is well worth having IMO. But Russell (and others, such as Dawkins, in his earlier work) often focus primarily on the belief itself — that is, on the contextual explanation of a “believer” that they happen to disagree with — as an a priori invention reinforced by group delusion. But these writers shy away from fully exploring or understanding the a posteriori apprehension/intuition that was instead initiated through direct experience.

This is probably the greatest misunderstanding atheists perpetuate as they attempt to explore “faith” as a concept. Faith, in the sense that I and countless other spiritually-oriented writers over centuries have defined it, IS NOT BELIEF. It is instead a quality of character that grows out of direct experience and embodiment of love. I write about this here: “Faith” as an Intentionally Cultivated Quality of Character.

Is the Divine a teapot in space for some people who CLAIM to adhere to a particular faith tradition? Or a spaghetti monster? A Santa Claus? A Cosmic Crutch? Oh sure. There are a lot of those types of “believers of convenience” IMO. But to point to those examples of faith and confidently deny that anything more authentic exists is, again, just another manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I hope this was helpful!


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