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.

Dogmatism

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.

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

  1. This should be made compulsory reading for the academics and students in British and American universities.

  2. “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.”

    We go along with the religious to get along. To quote what I wrote re Sylvia Jane Wojcik’s article:

    “One can accept that no meaning exists while tolerating those who crave meaning as needing necessary fictions– one is complicit in their necessary fiction. A fellow traveler.
    On Christmas we don’t exclaim ‘humbug’, even though we do think Christmas is humbug because even the original meaning has been lost. Technically, it is a pagan worship of decorated trees and gifts, and though we accept it into our lives we know it is false and opposed to the meaning of Christ.”

    In the past, would discuss this with anyone but today the checks & balances are excessively delicate, a greater degree of diplomacy is required. Otherwise people become defensive and the purpose of dialogue is lost.
    The irony is how modern yet blasphemous 21st century Christianity is. From a modernist view, Christmas trees, gaudily-wrapped gifts and colored little lightbulbs actually make sense (in syncretizing the ancient with the modern) however are outright blasphemy via historical Jesus. 21st century Christians worship their own prefab Christ. A paraphrase of the Biblical scripture reads ‘first seek God and all things shall be added to you’,
    not,
    *You’ve come a long way, Baby. You can have everything you want materially; have your Jesus cake and eat it too*

  3. E. O. Wilson says that many persons prefer the void as purpose than to be devoid of purpose. JGM

  4. Wilson is right.
    Not to imply in the comment that Christmas or, say, Easter are wicked and have no genuine purpose. Only to write how the meaning is lost in the shuffle– no link to Christ (except perhaps that chocolate Easter rabbits are remotely connected to the sugary sweetness of Jesus dying for us on the Cross).
    Do not dislike the holidays, but cannot say with a straight face to a believer that the holidays are truly holy; they are more ersatz-spiritual than holy. One could surely write that saint Nicolaus has no linkage whatsoever to a big man in a red ‘n white outfit, pulled in the sky by reindeer, taking gifts down into chimneys. Not sinful but, rather, kid stuff– not Jesus stuff.

  5. One more comment, re:

    “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”

    Want to return to the question of holidays. Random question is, would the historical Jesus like Santa Claus? No. Even though we know Santa is harmless family entertainment, a saint being turned into a cartoon-like character dispensing goodies round the Christmas tree is not something Christ would appreciate. However that pertains to historical Jesus and, again, what believers do is syncretize ancient faith with the Now. Holidays are to give people a respite from reality, which is when,

    “…I am prepared to admit that in certain times and places [religion] has had some good effects”

    comes into effect.
    *Holidays bring a break from work.
    *Holidays when business and government close down offer a break from having to drive around to different places.
    On a holiday, the drive might be to a family gathering where the cares of the day are forgotten. Holidays may very well be the main purpose of religion in the 21st century.
    Problem is trying to communicate this to defensive religionists– resulting in no real communication.

  6. They say religions give solace to those who live in fear of a world they cannot understand and the fear of death. I think there is truth to this. Our educational system leaves many without the power of much rational thought and investigative skills. I was one of those in my childhood training. When I thought Jesus loved me, for a time it helped me when I was being tortured at school and abused at home. So…. That makes it weird for me now because I believe the kind of religions in my culture mostly destroy people and country and our freedoms.

    How can we make sure that children are not left in such a situation that I was? It seems hopeless in the short run. In the long run there is some hope as these religions are dying out slowly. What I fear is that we take things like science and turning that into a religion which I see happening in the popular media.

    Plus there may be some things going on beyond the realms of science that we must not completely shut our minds off to as a possibility. If you really stop and think and feel what reality seems to be, one is very likely to come to the conclusion that anything is possible. Who besides Philip K. Dick long ago thought we might be in a simulation or matrix and reality was made of information and what the possibilities of such a thing might actually mean? Then we have things like OBEs NDEs, Lucid Dreams etc. It all boggles my mind.
    I have no way of knowing what is real with a surety as long as I have a meat 3d body and a brain that at least partially acts to filter out information that isn’t necessary for my survival here and now. The rabbit hole may not have a bottom and we might not have the faculties to know about that. I’m totally frustrated with my search for the “truth”. What I’ve done with my limited mental emotional resources is just to follow my gut and heart after I’ve used my rational abilities to the best of my ability. Still I expect my guess to be wrong. The odds are not in my favor. I think, in my own little mind that I’m an important thinker but how could that be when I’m just one of 7 or 8 billion ants in this nest?

  7. “Who besides Philip K. Dick long ago thought we might be in a simulation or matrix and reality was made of information and what the possibilities of such a thing might actually mean? Then we have things like OBEs NDEs, Lucid Dreams etc.”

    And parallel universes, the multiverse, etc: mindboggling and sometimes stomach-churning.

    “Still I expect my guess to be wrong. The odds are not in my favor. I think, in my own little mind that I’m an important thinker but how could that be when I’m just one of 7 or 8 billion ants in this nest?”

    If someone were to ask “who was the most important person who ever lived?”,
    the answer could possibly be the first person. The first ape who became a ‘person’ might have been the most important. And now with 7 going on 8 billion ants in the nest, each one is not so important. (Or say the first book ever printed, it was very special; today books are extremely common, so the first book even though it was merely papers primitively attached together, is still considered very special. Copies of printing pressed Gutenberg Bibles are treasured.)

    “there may be some things going on beyond the realms of science that we must not completely shut our minds off to as a possibility. If you really stop and think and feel what reality seems to be, one is very likely to come to the conclusion that anything is possible.”

    Yes. We have both come to the conclusion that anything is possible, except perhaps goodness. I can remember back to about 58 years ago; then it was presumed that good and bad existed. That bad exists is still not really questioned however that good exists is in some doubt. At any rate, the religious concept of good and evil is today considered Manichean by just about everybody but, as you know, appearances are kept up.

    “In the long run there is some hope as these religions are dying out slowly. What I fear is that we take things like science and turning that into a religion which I see happening in the popular media.”

    Science is merging with religion as machines are merging with people. I don’t like it but I see youth who are as happy as can be about it. College students don’t remember a time before the Internet; children don’t remember a time before smartphones.
    They don’t know what they’re missing yet they think the same about me.
    Am glad not to be young because there are so many choices today. It used to be chocolate, vanilla, strawberry… now it is countless flavors. Today I purchase the first thing seen on a shelf; cannot deal with making choices anymore.

  8. [one more comment]

    Here’s a key to it:

    “I’m totally frustrated with my search for the ‘truth’ ”

    Before the Renaissance, Truth to a great degree existed in Europe because people subscribed to The Truth. They would often look to the sky and think they saw God. They didn’t always act accordingly via The Truth, but the majority felt guilty when they did not. Even in the 1950s, The Truth was still somewhat in vogue; today not. Am also frustrated for the same reason– and also due to becoming old and impatient just when new possibilities are opening up. Can’t adjust anymore.
    It is true I remember a time when people were friendlier and friendships were deeper. As the pace of change quickened during the last five decades, dislocation increased and much got lost in the shuffle. However it’s also true that youth (let us say under the age of 23) though they do not remember a time of deeper friendships, can adjust better to continuing radical change.

    “I believe the kind of religions in my culture mostly destroy people and country and our freedoms.”

    Agreed. Without mentioning by name a certain Administration, one can see how aggressive religious support of power seekers can contribute to the destruction you list above. (‘Course, religionists think secularism is aggressive.)
    IMO religion is escapism most of all. Doesn’t matter if the escape is substance use, the Arts, or religion: it is escape because if reality were not meatworld, we would not need to escape.

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