Born to Compete: Review of “Religion and Science” by Bertrand Russell

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Imagine two brothers born to compete, the elder dominating the younger. The elder brother is arrogant and manipulative, but also sincere and well-intentioned. When people ask him questions about the world, he answers quickly and often flippantly, as if he knows all. When he doesn’t know, he answers anyway, gleaning his answers from within. He never thinks to look into the world for his answers, because he’s certain he already knows everything. His younger brother agrees and admires him, repeating his answers when people ask him the same questions.

One day late in life, the younger brother decides on a whim to compare his wise old brother’s answers about the world to the world. He quickly notices discrepancies and points them out. The elder is horrified by his young brother’s disrespect and orders him to apologize and forgo any further comparisons. But the younger continues his comparisons and in short time proves most of his elder brother’s claims about the world to be grotesque, deleterious superstitions. In the face of overwhelming evidence, the elder can do nothing but retreat from his prior claims and assert that their truthfulness is insignificant when compared to the “feeling” he has in believing them. The younger brother can make no real world comparison to his elder brother’s “feeling,” and thus the fraternal competition ends, the elder left grinning in self-righteous impotence while the younger busies himself with the salvation of mankind.

For Bertrand Russell the elder brother is religion and the younger science. His book about the two makes for a great read and a devastating critique of religion. For Russell, religious creeds are little more than residue of a former age’s prejudices clung to by fearmongers and fools. Cloaking themselves in “goodness” and “righteousness,” the followers of these creeds invariably enact the most depraved barbarities upon their fellow man, and never come close to conferring upon humanity the kinds of benefits science offers.

Russell’s book has teeth. He sets forth his arguments with immaculate reasoning, plentiful examples, and centuries of history conveyed in lucid and witty prose. If you’re like me, you’ll be fascinated to learn, for example, that Darwin (the “apostle of dirt-worship,” in Carlyle’s words) was very much standing on the shoulders of geologists when he transgressed orthodoxy and declared evolution.

It was geologists of the 18th century who first proffered a theory of development in nature, speculating that mountains, seabeds, and coastlines actually change with time, and that the changes they’ve endured over millennia can be attributed to causes observable now. This was a revolutionary idea. Orthodoxy had hitherto claimed that the world and everything in it had, Venus-like, sprung to life in full form and, barring a few miracles, not changed since. Thus when French geologist Buffon claimed in 1749 that the hills one sees may not have always been there, the pathway to Darwin was sure as set.

The two most interesting chapters in Russell’s book are those on Determinism and Cosmic Purpose. In the former Russell has the audacity (and wisdom) to disavow both determinism and free will. He does so by relegating both theories to the dustbin of “absolute metaphysical theories”—theories that remain beyond what’s provable in the real world. For Russell, claiming that our lives are completely determined or that they are freely willed is something akin to claiming that life is just a dream— a point that can neither be proved nor disproved and is, in the end, moot.

Referring to the “modern doctrine of atomic caprice” (quantum physics), Russell maintains that even if a law were discovered that could determine with certainty the behavior of atoms, their subatomic parts, and everything composed of atoms and subatomic parts (in a word, everything) — something that still hasn’t happened as of 2008, by the way — that discovery would add no consequence to the claim that our lives are determined. On the other hand, Russell urges us to reject “uncaused volitions” (truly “freely” willed choices) as impossible occurrences, and to avoid lamenting this fact or feeling any less potent because of it. Power, Russell rightly claims, “consists in being able to have intended effects,” and that ability is neither increased nor diminished by discovering what causes our intentions.

Regarding the purpose of our cosmos, Russell rejects all doctrines that assert as much. To claim the cosmos has a purpose intended by God or by some creative or blind impulse in matter is to be guilty of logical fallacy. We sense order within us and we see it around us, and then we assume someone or something has intended that order. But we could just as well assume that no one intended it. And we could just as well assume that someone intended disorder, of which we’ll find an equal amount within and around us if we so choose to look for it. What we choose to look for and assume, however, will always depend upon our values, which stem from our desires. Science, as it were, has nothing to say about our values—it cannot tell us what is good or bad or right or wrong— and thus science has nothing to say about cosmic purpose.

Sir James Jeans, whom Russell quotes at length in his chapter on Cosmic Purpose, claims that life could just as well be regarded as “something of the nature of a disease, which infects matter in its old age when it has lost the high temperature and the capacity for generating high-frequency radiation with which younger and more vigorous matter would at once destroy life.” Another conception devoutly to be wished, perhaps.

For his part, Russell wonders if there isn’t something in mankind that could be described in terms worse than Jeans’ “disease.” Writing the book in 1935 at the height of the world’s most dangerous new religious creeds, those of Hitler and Stalin, Russell muses about mankind’s seemingly infinite capacity to inflict suffering upon the world. He ends the book warning of a new Dark Age that will descend on civilization if either of the murderous new creeds succeeds and prevents scientists from doing their work. “New truth,” he writes, “is often uncomfortable, especially to the holders of power; nevertheless, amid the long record of cruelty and bigotry, it is the most important achievement of our intelligent but wayward species.”

My recommendation: read this book. It cannot lead our species any further wayward and will only make you more intelligent.