The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy – I mean that if you are happy you will be good. ~ Bertrand Russell
So, Bertrand’s been on my mind a while. I started reading about him because I had been checking out some stuff about secular humanism, which I find quite appealing, though not entirely satisfying. The ideas of responsibility towards humanity, improving the planet and ethical behavior are totally worthy in my mind. [I wish I saw more evidence of all of that in the world around me.] Humanists (secular and otherwise) believe that ideologies and traditions should be tested out by each individual and not necessarily accepted simply on faith. Some people think this means testing only via the scientific method, but that is an incomplete assessment. Though humanists do believe in an adherence to critical reasoning, this seems to have more to do with the reluctance to accept logic like, “Because.” Russell specifically said that ethical terms dealt with subjective values, which cannot be verified in the same way as matters of fact. Humanists are concerned with the fulfillment, but also the growth and improvement of the individual – no mutual exclusivity here… And they are truth seekers with an understanding that our perception of truth is imperfect and dynamic. They believe that this life right now is worth salvaging through all of the above ideologies.
And Bertrand was down with this sort of thing, as well as the problems he saw in simply sitting around philosophizing about it all.
The more I read about Russell, the more fascinating he has become. He really liked to understand things – like really really really really understand them. Even if he accepted that this was not possible, he still liked the challenge of trying to fully comprehend things. That is simply bad-ass. [His ideas re: love and sex were pretty intereting too.]
Russell believed that our direct experiences have primacy in the acquisition of knowledge. Damn! Why was I not paying attention to this when I thought I could understand things based entirely on conjecture (mine and that of others…)
In contemplating all these things Russell held that of the physical world we know only its abstract structure, except for the intrinsic character of our own brain with which we have direct acquaintance. Thus the understanding of the flexibility of “truth.” As I help my students work on their essays of inquiry considering questions like, “Is the way we see things more a reflection of ourselves or what we are seeing?” I think a lot of Bertrand.
And then there is his paradox… I mean, come on, can he be any cooler? Without knowing it, I have been thinking about Russell’s paradox for a long time because it deals with mutual exclusivity. Basically.
The easiest way for me to get my head around what Bertrand the BAMF was working out was that in regards to sets, our inherent need to group and classify things because of OCD or mathematical necessity, creates a situation of “in the set and out of the set or…?”
This seems fair enough, and fairly simple, until, a little later, the following question occurs to you – does the barber shave himself? If he does, then he mustn’t, because he doesn’t shave men who shave themselves, but then he doesn’t, so he must, because he shaves every man who doesn’t shave himself… and so on. Both possibilities lead to a contradiction.
Can you imagine stumbling across this? And how cool to think that “the paradox raises the frightening prospect that the whole of mathematics is based on shaky foundations, and that no proof can be trusted.” Oh- had I had my hands on this as I suffered through Mr. Curme’s Geometry class and all those hideous proofs.
Who knew pigeon-holing could be so complicated? [Though, for a giggle, and a good pub trick, read down to the end of the linked article for the ‘solution’.]
Through it all Russell seemed to maintain his humility, though he was a bit of a scoundrel as far as relationships went – but you know what they say about living in glass houses and throwing stones, so I will let that slide. He fundamentally believed that we could be better people in really meaningful ways and he appreciated the joy of seeking knowledge with the acceptance that he was dealing with inherently limiting conditions.
So, here’s to Bertrand for doing something really cool that doesn’t happen enough today: conscious contemplation.