Sceptical Essays By Bertrand Russell

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I WISH to propose for the reader’s favorable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive.

The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.

I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it.

I am also aware (what is more serious) that it would tend to diminish the incomes of clairvoyants, bookmakers, bishops.

And others who live on the irrational hopes of those who have done nothing to deserve good fortune here or hereafter.

In spite of these grave arguments, I maintain that a case can be made out for my paradox, and I shall try to set it forth.

First of all, I wish to guard myself against being thought to take up an extreme position.

I am a British Whig, with a British love of compromise and moderation. A story is told of Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrho is (which was the old name for skepticism).

He maintained that we never know enough to be sure that one course of action is wiser than another.

In his youth, when he was taking his constitutional one afternoon, he saw his teacher in philosophy (from whom he had imbibed his principles) with his head stuck in a ditch, unable to get out.

After contemplating him for some time, he walked on, maintaining that there was no sufficient ground for thinking he would do any good by pulling the old man out.

Others, less skeptical, effected a rescue and blamed Pyrrho for his heartlessness. But his teacher, true to his principles, praised him for his consistency.

Now I do not advocate such heroic skepticism as that. I am prepared to admit the ordinary beliefs of common sense, in practice if not in theory.

AuthorBertrand Russell
PDF Size16.9 MB


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