Category Archives: Thinking

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.

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 only 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 or kill others for just and unjust causes alike. 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 truth 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 it:

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



Thinking and Walking

Thought a bit more about nostalgia today on my morning walk. (I blogged about it recently here.)

Perhaps I enjoy nostalgia because of having, as best I remember, an idyllic childhood—wonderful parents who had a middle class income, a healthy mind and body, a good education, a physically safe environment, and all in the midst of a bustling economy with wealth distributed relatively fairly (much more so than it is now) and a polity still somewhat united in the aftermath of WWII. Had I not been born with that genome in that environment, I may be less nostalgic. I wish that everyone had a good past to look back toward, and an infinitely good future to look forward to.

It is not surprising that such ideas took hold while walking, which provides the opportunity for, and is conducive to, uninterrupted, reflective thinking. Many have extolled the virtues of walking: Lao Tzu, Aristotle, Rousseau, Dickens, Freud, Piaget, and former US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman.1 2 And the physical and psychological benefits of walking make it even more appealing. I encourage everyone to walk if possible and if you cannot, then move your body in whatever way you can.

And if for some reason you cannot move, then move your mind and explore its space. There you can travel as far as your imagination and sense of wonder allow; seeing sights and thinking thoughts that the able bodied may miss.