We Fear Thought

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, June 18, 2014 )

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. ~ Bertrand Russell (“Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel,” pp. 178-179)

I have not dedicated a column to a discussion of a quote before, but I had forgotten about this old chestnut and thought it merited comment. Let me begin by saying that I don’t know if people fear thought more than they fear torture, cancer or the death of their children. And surely all thought isn’t unafraid, as I’m sure Russell knew. But with those caveats out-of-the-way, let’s proceed.

Russell thought that most people don’t like to think, as another of his quotes reveals: “Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.” When he says that people “fear thought,” he is giving a reason why many people don’t like to think. Of course persons reject thinking because of laziness or inability or other reasons too, but fear is a major inhibitor of thought. But why?

People reject thinking not just because it is hard, but because they worry it will undermine their long-held, comfortable beliefs. Having taught university philosophy for many years I have seen this first hand. Students often dread thinking about controversial topics like politics, ethics, and religion. But probe even deeper. If you start thinking, you may reject not only god and country but love, friendship, freedom and more. You may discover that what is called love is reducible to chemical attraction; that friendship is mutual reciprocity; that morality is what those in power decree; that messengers of the gods are often psychologically deranged; that freedom is an illusion.  You may  even find that life is absurd. Thought breeds the fear that we will lose our equilibrium, that we will be forced to see the world anew. We fear thinking because what we and others think matters to us.

I used to tell my students to not believe that ideas and thoughts don’t matter—that they exist in the ivory tower with no significance for the real world—as if beer and football are more important. No. Thoughts and ideas incite political revolutions; they inspire people to sacrifice their lives for just and unjust causes alike, often killing others in the process. They determine how one treats both friends and enemies, and whether family is more important than money.

Even the most abstract thinking affects the world. Non-euclidean geometry or symbolic logic are about as abstract as thinking gets—yet you can’t understand Einsteinian gravity without the one or run computers without the other. Thinking matters to us, to others, and to our world. That’s one reason why we fear it so much—it shakes our foundations.

But not just any thinking will do. If we truly love thinking we will engage in careful and conscientious thinking informed by the best reason and evidence available—our dignity consists, in large part, on good thinking. More than forty years ago I entered a university where the following inscription was etched on its library’s wall. I have never forgotten its words:

This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

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One thought on “We Fear Thought

  1. There is a certain hubris to Russell’s sweeping condemnation of the majority of individuals (“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth”, “Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.”). These assertions imply that fear is holding back the vast majority of individuals from being able to think critically. While common anxieties like fear of the unknown or fear of failure may play some role, I think the more likely explanation is more mundane: the vast majority of individuals lack the means, motive and/or opportunity to think critically (especially to anywhere near Russell’s level). Those three ingredients are required for an individual to accomplish anything in life, from the simplest task to the most complex analysis (or, for that matter, to rob a bank). Each individual has a unique combination of genes, nutrition, family influences, educational opportunities and the chance encounters with the environment that all influence the ability and desire for critical thinking. But even with the highest ability and motivation, an individual might have a stifling daily life that limits the opportunity for thought.
    Rather than focusing on “fear” as preventing critical thinking, which is an implicit judgement on an individual’s strength of character, we need to focus on providing the environment that can enhance the ability, motivation and opportunity for an individual to critically think about today’s issues, with motivation being the most difficult to address. We need to strengthen education and foster reflective public discourse, which is exactly what this web site does (and I cannot compliment you enough about it). Like it or not, the internet is becoming our primary source of information about the world and on-line education will someday, perhaps soon, replace the bulk of traditional education (although I hope there will always be a place for a device-free classroom). We need more free and open sites like this one to help us practice and learn to think critically, which is the skill needed sort through all the information and misinformation that permeates the internet and the world at large.

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