Bertrand Russell on Fearing Thought

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 12, 2016.)

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

A while back I dedicated a post to this quote and titled it “We Fear Thought.” Recently I received a thoughtful comment regarding that post. The essence of the comment is this:

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 … 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.

If this is correct it leads the commenter to conclude that:

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 …

I agree with the commentator that critical thinking demands: 1) ability; 2) motivation; and 3) opportunity. I also agree that we should provide environments that make critical thinking possible. And I think Russell would agree with all of this too.

But for those who do possess the ability and opportunity to think critically—which is most of us in the first world—why do so many think so poorly? Why do they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and not in biological evolution? Why do the believe President Obama was born in Kenya or that climate change isn’t real? Why do they fear immigration rather than their fellow citizens? Clearly some reject critical thinking because it’s difficult. It is just easier to accept what the blowhards say on the radio, tv,  the internet or in church than to think carefully about whether what they’re saying makes sense.

Are all the scientists who have devoted their lifetime to the study of biology or climate science really involved in a conspiracy? If Obama really wasn’t born in the US, don’t you think someone would have found that out by now? Aren’t stories of virgin births more likely to be myths than historical facts? After all, virgin births are common in pagan mythology and nobody take those stories seriously. Don’t they realize that their chances of being killed by their fellow citizens far outweigh their chances of being killed by foreigner? Clearly it is just easier for people to believe what they are told than to assess whether what they are being told is reasonable.

But another reason that people don’t think is the reason that Russell notes—they fear that thinking might disrupt their worldview. As Camus put it, “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” I have had many university students through the decades who saw that thinking might undermine their cherished beliefs, and in response they retreated. They did fear their worldview might come crumbling down, and with it perhaps their relationships with those who shared those worldviews. Thinking is feared because it might destroy so much of what you are. We shouldn’t be critical of those who fear thinking about new things, and perhaps they are better off never questioning their long-held beliefs. But that doesn’t change the fact that they recoil in large part because they are afraid.

4 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell on Fearing Thought

  1. A sad realization I’ve been having lately is the notion that for as lauded as critical thinking may be. People generally don’t seem to appreciate it because of it’s undermining capability (either for themselves or in others). As a semi-recent college grad with a degree in essentially “hard science” (until I questioned too much and ended with a non-B.S. degree). It very much seems like people (a generalization) say they want “thinkers”, but in reality they want “conformists”….worldview supporters.

    You know the, “shut up and calculate camp” in physics to the notion of, “don’t question the established procedure because I said so” in other areas of life. It very much seems to me at this moment in time. That a person, having struggled to attain anything in life. Will readily cudgel another down to keep their own worldview intact to some extent. You know kinda like Charon in Dante’s Divine Comedy beating those sinners with an oar? Sinning implies dissent from the established moral order which in your original post on this subject indicated that morality is decreed by power (a thought I’ve entertained before myself).

    Thus we get political, and as Machiavelli said, “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.” & “Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” -The Prince

    Now to extrapolate a little to a generation which has been encouraged to get degrees/higher education. What does a individual, or group do? Yes they can think, and act. And yet, does anything change? The “Old Guard” holds onto their positions, and even if relieved by the “New Guard” the schema doesn’t change much….a “Karma” cycle?

    I suppose I should mention that I was brought to your blog by the “America on the Verge of Civil War?” article on IEET, so that may have influenced my point of view presented in this comment.

  2. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. There is a lot to say here and I’m no expert on politics or history. I don’t think much of Machiavelli though and things do change. Hopefully they’ll change for the better.

  3. I guess I tend to see Machiavelli the same way I see Nietzsche. Controversial, yes. Misunderstood, maybe. To be “idolized/lauded”? No, but they do shine a light on the less savory aspects of human nature which for that they should at least be recognized. If not “heeded”.

    I’m not an expert on history, or politics either. I just have an impression that “politics” is often the justification for one’s morality in actions (at least on an interpersonal level), and history is used to provide “legitimacy” to one’s claims.

    Sometimes I wonder if I should just write some form of “treatise” of my thoughts, but I don’t know if there’d be a point to it. I mean one looks back upon all the older philosophers/intellectuals, and they often didn’t have “credentials” verifying their status. It’s a little boggling that as a society we require so many contrived “bars” in order to be “anything”, but at the base they are all “constructs”. We’re so heavily indebted to Plato/Western thought that we forget that it’s just “water” (allusion to another post of yours).

    Take Nihilism (or existential despair) for example; It is understood as the negation of all meaning at the extreme, but for some odd reason I think such a stance “annihilates” itself by it’s own logic. Why hold a position of Nihilism that invalidates meaning if it’s only going to invalidate the meaning of Nihilism? Then onto existential despair, it’s like why “despair” over such notions if they may just be again “rational/emotional” constructs? Chemicals firing in the brain, like love, fear, or any other emotion. Further rationalization upon the point drives out such “feelings”….

    …I guess instead of writing a “book” or something, I just find it easier to ramble on other people’s blogs/articles… 😀

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