Daily Archives: July 4, 2016

Bertrand Russell on Fearing Thought

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(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 they 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 lifetimes 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 takes 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 a 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.