Bertrand Russell on faith versus fact

I was shocked when a reader mentioned, in a recent comment, that the famous philosopher, logician, mathematician and vociferous atheist Bertrand Russell had written a book about the conflict between religion and science. How could I have missed it when I wrote a book about the same issue in 2015, and spent two years reading before I wrote it? I was chagrined, and of course nothing would do but for me to get the book, which was published in 1935.

Fortunately, our library had it, and I got it and devoured it within a few days. I was happy to once again read Russell’s clear prose and dry wit, but also to see that while his topic was nominally the same as mine, there isn’t much overlap between our books. I’ll just highlight a few points of similarity and difference, and mention a few of Russell’s ideas that we still talk about on this site.

Below is the title page; you can still buy the book here, with the reissue having an introduction by Michael Ruse. As for whether you should buy it, well, if you’re familiar with Russell’s popular writings you’ve probably read most of it before, and a lot of it isn’t really about religion vs. science. I’ll be self-aggrandizing and say that if you can only read one book on the conflict—and you think there is a conflict—it should be Faith Versus Fact rather than Russell’s. (If you don’t see a conflict, there are other books by accommodationists you can read). I don’t make that recommendation lightly, as Russell was far brainier and more eloquent than I. It’s just that things have moved on in the last 85 years (NOMA, advances in physics and evolutionary biology, conflicts about global warming and faith-based healing, and so on), and I don’t spend a lot of time—as Russell does—dealing with stuff like the mind/body problem, demonology, the idea of a soul, and the notion of “cosmic purpose.”

There is some overlap between what Russell and I consider to be the “conflict” between religion and science. First, our differences.  I see it as a conflict in how to adjudicate what is true given the disparate “truth-seeking” methods of science and religion, while Russell sees the conflict largely as a historical phenomenon: the fact that religion and science have been at odds with each other since science became a discipline.  That is, Russell adheres to what’s known by accommodationists as “the conflict hypothesis”. Thus, he has whole chapters on evolution vs. creationism, the Copernican revolution and how heliocentrists like Galileo fought with the Church, and the scientific vacuity of the idea of “souls” and of some external “purpose of life.”

That said, Russell does recognize that the conflict arose from the different ways that science and religion determine truth, with the former relying on empirical investigation and the latter on revelation, scripture, and authority. Surprisingly, though, for a man who wrote the famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” (1927; read it at the link), Russell is surprisingly soft on religion, extolling its virtues as an arbiter of morality and saying that its appeal is emotional, having little to do with truth.

He further argues that, when he wrote the book above, the warfare between science and Christian theology was “nearly ended,” as theology was yielding territory repeatedly to scientific facts. But he didn’t know that creationism would still be with us decades later, and doesn’t discuss the fact that, even in his time many religious people, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Hindus, and, in fact, most faiths, still held beliefs that are contradicted by science (reincarnation, souls, karma, spiritual healing, and so on). This conflict will always be with us so long as religion asserts truths that aren’t based on empirical observation and assent—i.e., “science construed broadly.”

I’ll mention just two of Russell’s arguments with which I agree, and also deal with in Faith Versus Fact. I’ll give his quotes in indents.

Is there an objective morality? Russell discusses this in detail, and although a few modern philosophers and thinkers assert that matters of right and wrong can be discerned objectively, through science, he disagrees, as do I. At bottom, “right and wrong” are matters of subjective preference, and you cannot decide which morality is objectively “better” unless you have some personal preference for what you want morality to do. (Sam Harris, for example, thinks morality should maximize well being, and what is “right” can be determined by a calculus of well being.) But well being, like all criteria for morality are at bottom simply tastes. As Russell says,

We may desire A because it is a means to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must come to something, which we desire for no reason, but not on that account “irrationally”. All systems of ethics embody the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed in a mist of words. (p. 254)

I particularly like the concise truth of the last sentence.

Russell concludes that science cannot decide questions of values, which puts both of us at odds with people like Sam Harris and Derek Parfit. So be it. But I would argue that neither can religion decide questions of values. That’s because those questions can be decided only by referring to scripture, authority, or revelation, and those are at odds with each other among religions. I would further argue that since secular ethics (which has a long tradition) is not beholden to ancient scripture or the parochialism of faiths and of their gods, it produces a morality better than that of religion. And indeed, you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise, for then you’d have to defend all sorts of ridiculous “morality” around sex, food, and so on. Is it really immoral to masturbate? Catholicism says so, as do many branches of Judaism.

Science is the only way of knowing what’s true. We’ve repeatedly discussed whether there are other ways of “knowing” beyond science, and that, of course, depends on what you mean by “knowing”.  If you construe it, as I do, as “the apprehension and recognition of facts about the universe—facts that are widely agreed on”, then yes, I conclude in Chapter 4 of Faith versus Fact that science is the only game in town, and religion, insofar as it makes factual statements about the Universe, including about the existence and nature of God, fails miserably. (See pp. 185-196 of FvF.) Science means “the empirical method that science uses to ascertain truth”, and need not be practiced by scientists alone.

Russell clearly agrees. Here’s one quote (my emphasis):

“The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value – the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation.

Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.

Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true.

I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.” (p. 197)

In the end, morality and “ways of knowing” converge in the last paragraph of the book proper (before the “conclusions” section):

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.  (p. 255)

Here’s Russell, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950:

37 Comments

  1. Ken Pidcock
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    My favorite Bertrand Russell quote has nothing to do with science or religion.

    Perhaps instead of teaching manners, parents should teach the statistical probability that the person you are speaking to is just as good as you are. It is difficult to believe this; very few of us do, in our instincts, believe it. One’s own ego seems so incomparably more sensitive, more perceptive, wiser and more profound than other people’s. Yet there must be very few of whom this is true, and it is not likely that oneself is one of those few. There is nothing like viewing oneself statistically as a means both to good manners and to good morals.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted October 17, 2020 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Remind us of the finding that 90+% of drivers consider themselves better drivers than average.

  2. GBJames
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Sub

  3. Publius
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I was just reading Brian Greene’s new boook — Until the End of Time…”. In Chapter 2, Greene discusses the concept of entropy. At the beginning of the chapter Greene quotes Bertrand Russell’s observation that the universe crawls toward universal death and that if this is considered evidence of the purpose of creation by a god, it was not very appealing to Russell. Throughout the chapter, Greene returns to Russell’s point. Then I decide to check out what Professor Coyne is posting and WHAM! Bertrand Russell. Coincidence for sure, but I love it.

  4. Posted October 17, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    We’ve repeated(ly)discussed 🙂

  5. Posted October 17, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think physics has changed all that much from what Russell knew, in ways that Russell would need to bear in mind for his 1935 book. Russell literally wrote the book on Relativity. He was familiar with quantum mechanics. And Lemaître presented his paper on the Big Bang in 1931.

  6. JP415
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading Russell’s Unpopular Essays when I was young and finding it pretty enjoyable, especially the essay “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish.”

  7. rickflick
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    “science cannot decide questions of values”

    I’ve often wondered if Sam Harris’ notion that science can decide values is simply a semantic confusion. Science can answer scientific questions related to morality. That is, once you’ve decided your foundational approach of maximizing well-being, you can ask corollary questions about how an action might affect people and answer them using science.

    • Posted October 17, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I agree. While we can’t use science and logical reasoning exclusively to decide morality and values, they certainly should be used as much as possible.

      • Posted October 17, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        Nobody, much less I, take issue with the value of science in figuring out what to do ONCE YOU HAVE ESTABLISHED AN OBJECTIVE FOR MORALITY. But adjudicating what IS moral vs. immoral is always a matter of preference.

        • Posted October 17, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          “But adjudicating what IS moral vs. immoral is always a matter of preference.”

          One’s decision as to whether abortion should be legal might depend on when a fetus can feel pain, a question that science will presumably answer someday. Such knowledge can influence which moral questions need answers, how the questions are phrased, and the environment in which the questions are considered. Scientific knowledge can obviously affect our thinking on non-scientific matters. Scientific knowledge affects our preferences.

        • rickflick
          Posted October 17, 2020 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          Sam likes using extremes to make a point. He would say it’s obvious we can tell the moral difference between the worst torture you can imagine, and being treated to you favorite food, watching your favorite movie, and listening to your favorite music. The more subtle decisions would have to be worked out through political argumentation.

    • Posted October 17, 2020 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think so. Plenty of people have put that point to Sam. He really does seem to think that morality is objective in the sense that the facts of the matter (alone) determine what we “should” do.

      (He has not convinced me of this.)

      • rickflick
        Posted October 17, 2020 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        But, I think he would say its objective after you accept the simple foundational assumption that you are to aim to maximize well being. It may be that any philosophical system requires some foundational assumptions. I think Piano said that.

        • darrelle
          Posted October 17, 2020 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          I am a bit confused about Sam’s views, or rather I think I must be because of the apparent interpretation by so many others of his views. Jerry’s interpretation of Sam’s views on morality are common, and this gives me pause.

          However, I have watched Sam’s presentation of his ideas on this at the Beyond Belief conference, as well as the other speakers presentations and the following discussions, several times over the years. And from that I agree with your interpretation. Sam seems to have said, yes you have to make one initial values decision, that suffering is bad, and that from there on the methods of science can be applied to figure out what the best moral rules are.

          But I admit I have only that one source to go on. I haven’t read his book or any of his other writings on morality, or listened to any other talks by him on the subject.

          It seems to me that he’s pushing back against the mainstream attitude in moral philosophy circles that is very quick to respond negatively to any suggestion that science can be used effectively to figure out moral problems. But to me it looks very much like a spectrum and just about everybody is on it. Moral philosophers commonly do think that science has some utility, but tend toward the “very little” end of the spectrum while Harris does seem to acknowledge that you do have to start with a value judgment but is near the opposite end of the spectrum, toward “science is the most useful tool.”

          As far as I understand him, I tend to agree more with Sam, but wouldn’t place myself as far over on the spectrum as he sits. But I agree with him that the mainstream attitude that seems so often to sneer at the mention of using science to figure out moral problems is wrong.

          As far as I can tell his view matches Russell’s and Jerry’s as written in the OP, except perhaps in degree. Russell and Jerry may think that there are many necessary value judgements to be made while Sam thinks there is only one that needs to be made.

          • rickflick
            Posted October 17, 2020 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

            I agree. So, it’s not as much a sharp difference as we sometimes think. Just a matter of emphasis. Sam emphasises how much science helps us decide on moral questions. Others emphasis that this has to rest on a basic judgement or preference. But, few would argue that maximum suffering for the most people possible is good and that pleasure for the most people possible is bad. Even though you can’t ground this in the essential fabric of the universe.

          • Posted October 18, 2020 at 2:52 am | Permalink

            “Sam seems to have said, yes you have to make one initial values decision, that suffering is bad, and that from there on the methods of science can be applied to figure out what the best moral rules are.”

            If Sam is really saying that, he should then say “… and therefore morality is subjective, since it all depends on your value declaration and your suffering metric”.

            And everyone would then agree. That’s not a controversial stance.

            But, he seems to think that he has found a way towards objective morality, and criticises philosophers for not agreeing.

            • darrelle
              Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

              Well, I am saying that Sam said just that. He did. Would you like a link?

              As I said I have only one source to go by for his views on this. Though it is an extensive and first hand source, right out of Sam’s mouth. Obviously it’s possible his view has shifted some, perhaps he has hardened his position. Do you have any 1st hand sources for that or are you just going by the general zeitgeist of what people think about what Sam’s views are?

              As far as criticizing philosophers for not keeping in touch with empiricism, is that supposed to be a bad thing? Sam’s bad because he thinks moral philosopher’s should include more validation by testing against reality in their studies of morality?

              • Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I’d certainly be interested if you have a link to Sam saying that, yes, morality is subjective because we need to subjectively choose the values-based metric that is at the heart of his moral calculus.

              • darrelle
                Posted October 18, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

                Well now Coel, you’re not thinking about moving the goalposts are you? That’s not exactly what I said Sam said. Instead of me writing it over again please go back and read my previous comments, if necessary.

                Here is a link. ‘Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?’ Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, and Peter Singer
                Turns out it was a Great Debate conference, not Beyond Belief.

                Starting at about time mark 9:05 Sam describes a basic premise to start with, “imagine a universe in which every conscious creature suffers as much as it possible can, for as long as it can.”

                He then says about that basic premise(at about the 9:45 mark),“Now this, it seems to me, is the only philosophical assumption you have to grant me.”

                Now you could, and I’m certain you will, argue that this doesn’t indicate that Sam doesn’t believe that morality is entirely objective. But given what he says here, I don’t see how that’s valid.

                It seems clear based on what he said here that, at the time of this meeting at least, he did believe just what I described in my previous comment, “you have to make one initial values decision, that suffering is bad, and that from there on the methods of science can be applied to figure out what the best moral rules are.”

      • savage
        Posted October 17, 2020 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        The problem is that his POV ignores trade-offs. There is no ideal (platonic?) morality just like there is no ideal human. Instead, there are more-or-less sensible adaptations to different environments.

  8. BobTerrace
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  9. Posted October 17, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    This conflict of views between religion and science boils down to whether or not heaven exists. The statement by many atheists, agnostics and secular Jews, that the supernatural doesn’t exist, doesn’t seem to be appreciated for the significance it holds.
    That supernatural realm of immaterial entities, the place we learn about as children when told of our heavenly father or a tooth fairy. Heaven is just the imagination on steroids, with mortality the reason for it all.
    Since heaven doesn’t exist, all the rest is just BS.
    The claim of a supernatural creator gives religions protection against conviction of fraud.

    “Faith versus Fact” A good book. Thanks, Jerry. Also, I like your “war on religion” piece on theconversation.com.

    If the supernatural were ever to interact with the natural world, it would be called a miracle. GROG

  10. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    “Why I’m not a Christian” was not instrumental in me becoming a atheist, but it definitely gave me ‘philosophical’ and real life back-up. It made my atheism so much stronger. Grateful to the old Bertrand.

  11. miss keating
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    But he didn’t know that creationism would still with us decades later,

    still hel beliefs that are contradicted

    We’ve repeated discussed whether

  12. Posted October 17, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I love this from Russell (quoted in the article):

    “Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.”

    …And yes, I’d also recommend reading Faith vs Fact before this book. I think it is really is the definitive survey of the territory and guide to avoid getting stuck in a thicket of nice sounding theological babble.

    I would also recommend Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Even if you’re not into philosophy, he provides chapters summing up the philosophical culture of various time periods, which effectively serves as a history of the effects of Christianity on philosophy and science throughout history.

  13. JP415
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I found a copy online and I began reading the introduction. Russell seems to be taking a swipe at accommodationism here:

    . . . theology was gradually forced to accommodate itself to science. Inconvenient Bible texts were interpreted allegorically or figuratively; Protestants transferred the seat of authority in religion, first from the Church and the Bible to the Bible alone, and then to the individual soul. It came gradually to be recognized that the religious life does not depend upon pronouncements as to matters of fact, for instance, the historical existence of Adam and Eve. Thus religion, by surrendering the outworks, has sought to preserve the citadel intact—whether successfully or not remains to be seen.

  14. nellwhiteside
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been a fan of Russell for most of my long life. Here is one quote which seems to hold for all time:

    “Most people would rather die than think – and they do.”

  15. Posted October 17, 2020 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    ‘The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value – the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation.

    Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.

    Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true.’

    These paragraphs remind me of Sam Harris in another way, for they describe something like his ‘spiritual materialism’ and meditation project, which goes something like this: many eastern practices of meditation have provided great insight into the subjective nature of the mind and experience, and we should use those practices because they will help us achieve a better state of mind, BUT the supernatural beliefs which accrued on top of those core insights over the centuries are unnecessary.

  16. Posted October 17, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    “If you construe [knowledge], as I do, as ‘the apprehension and recognition of facts about the universe—facts that are widely agreed on’, then yes, I conclude in Chapter 4 of Faith versus Fact that science is the only game in town.”

    If you restrict “knowledge” to facts about the universe that are widely agreed upon, then I concede that science is the only game in town. But I would argue that you’ve eliminated more than you’ve accounted for by such “knowledge”—namely, everything in the universe that is not widely agreed upon. This would include, among other things, all matters of taste such as art, music, and, at least according to you, morality. Surely the things that people argue about without coming to agreement far outnumber those things about which they “widely agree.” Nor are such things, for not being agreed upon, any less important. This is what G.K. Chesterton, perhaps with Russell in mind, was getting at when he argued in Othodoxy:

    “As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. … His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.”

    • Posted October 17, 2020 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      This is the last time I’m going to reply to your comments that ignore the main point of my post to somehow attack materialism and indirectly praise the numinous. Art, music, and morality are not “knowledge”, nor do you have any evidence that people argue about more things than they widely agree on. If you look at people’s day-to-day lives, we all conduct them according to widely agreed knowledge: eating, sleeping, taking antibiotics, driving cars and getting on planes, expecting to fall down when you jump off a cliff. No, “surely the things that people widely agree on greatly outnumber the things they argue about.”

      And I never said that materialism covers everything, as you’d know if you’d read Faith Versus Fact, or look at the topics I cover on this website. Nope, my cosmos is not “small”, for I appreciate the things that are subject to controversy: food, music, and travel. As did Russell. Chesterton’s comment is beside the point. This holds true for at least a vast majority of the readers here.

      What have I “eliminated” from my world? All I’ve done is limn the sphere of what counts as “knowledge”, and you agree. In fact, as so often happens, I’m not at all sure what point you’re trying to make. But never mind, I’m not engaging further.

  17. merilee
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    🐾🐾

  18. Jon Gallant
    Posted October 17, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    “Science broadly construed” is more widely distributed than is often realized. It is the method of not only auto repair, plumbing, and so on, but of virtually all our relations with the physical world. Someone—I think Jacob Bronowski, among others—long ago pointed out that the method of empirical observation and hypothesis-testing underlies the mental mental processes by which we navigate the world. At an early age, we discover empirically the dangers of touching hot surfaces. In the same way, we
    discover empirically that going around the block brings us back home; we test the alternative hypothesis that going around the block will get us somewhere else; and so on.

  19. Posted October 17, 2020 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Russell … my favourite philosophical agnostic.

  20. Posted October 18, 2020 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    I’d swear I emailed you about it when you were writing the book & I was looking up quotes – I read it at that time!

  21. Lurker111
    Posted October 19, 2020 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. Given how the title page of that book looks, it appears that Word mixed up the outside and gutter margins again.


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