Daily Archives: January 28, 2019

The Will to Doubt: Summary of Bertrand Russell’s “Free Thought and Official Propaganda”

Conway Hall Entrance

Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL

What is wanted is not the will-to-believe, but the wish to find out, which is its exact opposite. ~ Bertrand Russell

In 1922 Bertrand Russell delivered his Conway Memorial Lecture, “Free Thought and Official Propaganda,” to the South Place Ethical Society, the oldest surviving freethought
organization in the world and the only remaining ethical society in the United Kingdom. (It is now called the Conway Hall Ethical Society.) The lecture was later included in his anthology The Will to Doubt

The main theses of the lecture are to: 1) advocate for freedom of expression; 2) champion the will to doubt; 3) explain the origins of dogmatism; and 4) promote critical thinking.

Free Expression

Russell begins by noting his agreement with the common definition of “free thought” as the rejection of popular religious beliefs.

I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. I do not believe that, on the balance, religious belief has been a force for good. Although I am prepared to admit that in certain times and places it has had some good effects, I regard it as belonging to the infancy of human reason …

However, Russell argues that the term should also refer more broadly to having and being allowed to express any opinion without penalty. Yet many ideas—for example, anarchism
or polygamy—are considered so immoral that we don’t tolerate them. But suppression of unpopular ideas is exactly the view that allowed torture during the Inquisition.

Russell then describes incidents in his own life to illustrate the lack of freedom of thought.

  1. He was forced to be raised Christian despite his dying father’s wishes.
  2. He lost the Liberal Party nomination for Parliament because he was an agnostic.
  3. He was denied a Fellowship at Trinity College because he was considered too “anti-clerical.” And when he later expressed opposition to World War I, he was fired.

Russell concludes this section by advocating total freedom of expression.

The Will to Doubt

Next, Russell turns to the importance of the will to doubt. He was responding to William James‘ notion of the will to believe. James had claimed that even without (or with conflicting) evidence, one might be justified in choosing to believe in something—like Christianity for example—simply because it may have beneficial outcomes. But this “will to believe,”  binds one to many untruths and halts the search for further truths.

Russell contrasts such an attitude with what he calls “the will to doubt,” which is choosing to remain skeptical as a means of eventually understanding more truth.

William James used to preach the “will-to-believe.” For my part, I should wish to preach the “will-to-doubt.” None of our beliefs are quite true; all have at least a penumbra of vagueness and error. The methods of increasing the degree of truth in our beliefs are well known; they consist in hearing all sides, trying to ascertain all the relevant facts, controlling our own bias by discussion with people who have the opposite bias, and cultivating a readiness to discard any hypothesis which has proved inadequate. These methods are practiced in science, and have built up the body of scientific knowledge … In science, where alone something approximating to genuine knowledge is to be found, [it’s] attitude is tentative and full of doubt.

In religion and politics on the contrary, though there is as yet nothing approaching scientific knowledge, everybody considers it de rigueur to have a dogmatic opinion, to be backed up by inflicting starvation, prison, and war, and to be carefully guarded from argumentative competition with any different opinion. If only men could be brought into a tentatively agnostic frame of mind about these matters, nine-tenths of the evils of the modern world would be cured. War would become impossible, because each side would realize that both sides must be in the wrong. Persecution would cease. Education would aim at expanding the mind, not at narrowing it. [People] would be chosen for jobs on account of fitness to do the work, not because they flattered the irrational dogmas of those in power.

As an example of the benefits of this kind of actual skepticism, Russell describes Albert Einstein‘s overturning of the conventional wisdom of physics and Darwin‘s contradicting the Biblical literalists. As soon as there was convincing evidence of these truths, scientists provisionally accepted them. But they didn’t dogmatically regard them as the final word incapable of further refinement.

Russell states his conclusion of this section in a single, concise sentence, “What is wanted is not the will-to-believe, but the wish to find out, which is its exact opposite.


Yet despite the fact that rational doubt or fallibilism is so important, individuals and cultures often adopt an irrational certainty regarding complicated issues. But why? Russell believes this results partly “due to the inherent irrationality and credulity of average human nature.” But three other agencies exacerbate these natural tendencies:

1 – Education — Public education doesn’t teach children healthy learning attitudes, but often indoctrinates children with often patently false dogma. As he puts it:

Education should have two objects: first, to give definite knowledge—reading and writing, language and mathematics, and so on; secondly, to create those mental habits which will enable people to acquire knowledge and form sound judgments for themselves. The first of these we may call information, the second intelligence.

2 – Propaganda — People aren’t taught to weigh the evidence and form original opinions, so they have little protection against dubious or false claims. As Russell states: “The objection to propaganda is not only its appeal to unreason, but still more the unfair advantage which it gives to the rich and powerful.”

3 – Economic pressure — The State and political class use its control of finances and economy to impose its ideas, restricting the choices of those who disagree. They want conformity. In Russell’s words:

There are two simple principles which, if they were adopted, would solve almost all social problems. The first is that education should have for one of its aims to teach people only to believe propositions when there is some reason to think, that they are true. The second is that jobs should be given solely for fitness to do the work.

This second point led Russell to emphasize tolerance: “The protection of minorities is vitally important; and even the most orthodox of us may find himself in a minority some day, so that we all have an interest in restraining the tyranny of majorities.”

Critical Thinking

And tolerance for Russell connects with the will to doubt: “If there is to be toleration in the world, one of the things taught in schools must be the habit of weighing evidence, and the practice of not giving full assent to propositions which there is no reason to believe true.” While Russell doubts that our moral defects can be easily improved, he argues that we can improve our intellectual virtue. Note the prescience of his ideas regarding disinformation:

Therefore, until some method of teaching virtue has been discovered, progress will have to be sought by improvement of intelligence rather than of morals. One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity. Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power.

Russell concludes by asking how we might nurture a world where critical thinking reigns.

If I am asked how the world is to be induced to adopt these two maxims — namely: (1) that jobs should be given to people on account of their fitness to perform them; (2) that one aim of education should be to cure people of the habit of believing propositions for which there is no evidence—I can only say that it must be done by generating an enlightened public opinion. And an enlightened public opinion can only be generated by the efforts of those who desire that it should exist.

My brief thoughts

If we are educated to think freely and critically, which itself encourages the will to doubt,  the human condition would improve. Only if we emphasize the truth, rather than lies and propaganda, can we create a world where we all can survive and flourish. After a lifetime of pursuing truth, I have concluded that lying may be the greatest sin of all.