Bertrand Russell’s Fatal Error – how Analytic Philosophy distorts Human Reason

Love for Wisdom (Philosophy) took by no means a bad advice as it embraced the demand of science for truth. Its opposition to religion in the pre-Socratic era, and again at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, emerged from a deep insight. The search for truth is indeed one of the foundations of human knowledge.

Analytical Philosophy went, however, far beyond this insight by taking the further step of transforming it into a dogma – just as if Philosophy had to rely on nothing else but the criteria of true versus false. Its adherents did not seem to suspect what damage they would inflict on their ‚Love for Wisdom‘, for they achieved the very opposite of their intention: a departure from it. The Grande Dame Philosophy was to become a living Zombie, a maid of science, with whom scientists themselves don’t know what to do.

Analytic Philosophy, which today dominates the academic world, has indeed turned a valuable insight into a pitfall. It did not want to see that truth, as understood by the sciences, does not encompass the whole reason of man, but merely half of it – more precisely that part the German sociologist Max Horkheimer had called ‘instrumental’. Its counterpart, ‘creative reason’, does not even exist in Analytic Philosophy; it is simply locked out, as if did not exist at all. The mere preoccupation with man’s instrumental reason, which represents nor more than his analyzing faculty, certainly does not arouse the Love for Wisdom.

Bertrand Russell

One of the spiritual fathers of Analytic Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, had anticipated this development – as I want to show here, he did so in the most uncompromising way. The exact sciences deal with the object of human understanding – call it nature or world, however you want – regardless of human will and desire. If the orbit of the stars, the fall of an apple, the melting point of ice or iron, depended on our will or mental condition, then there would be no laws of nature to rely on for sending rockets to Mars or to calculate lunar eclipses millennia in advance. The ‚objective‘ world whose laws do not depend on any human influence whatsoever, are the true object of the exact natural sciences.

So the conclusion seemed to suggest itself that the real object of philosophy had to be the same as that of science, namely reality as it exists independent from ourselves and is, in this sense, ‚objective‘, a reality we may describe by means of ‚iron‘ and ‚eternal‘ laws of nature. It is no objection to this procedure that we first ‚perceive‘ this world, ie absorb it with our senses, before we describe it by means of concepts. No matter whether we conceive of electrons as corpuscles or of waves, that is, no matter which conventions we adopt, it remains an indisputable fact that we may still calculate what happens inside an atom (not to mention macroscopic events). In virtue of such calculations we are able to construct devices such as LEDs, chips or quantum computers that function in a predictable way. Our descriptive conventions may be arbitrary to a certain extent – yet the reliable functioning of our devices proves that we have correctly understood the ‚objective‘ order of nature (their laws); in other words, that such statements about the world must be true or ‚objective‘. Bertrand Russell, brilliantly trained in mathematics and science, became a philosopher who accepted the truth of science as the only one philosophy would have to be concerned with.

Natural Laws and Human Will

The triumphal ascent of the exact sciences during the past two to three centuries probably had much to do with such a procedure – which is nevertheless based on a fundamental error. For it seems quite difficult to deny that, in addition to that order of nature, which exists independent of our wishes and desires, there is still a different one which humans – that is each individual and every nation and epoch – conceive through their wishes and desires before creating it with their hands. With reference to humans, I designate this alternative dimension characteristic of living beings as ‚creative reason‘. It, obviously, plays a role as important as its instrumental counterpart.

In countless university research centers and business laboratories all over the world, progressive investigation of the laws of nature is the subject of that part of human reason, which deserves its designation as ‚instrumental‘, because it serves to increase our domination of nature through better and better instruments. The aim itself is, of course, not part of nature but of human intent. It is our desires and wishes that occupy most of the conscious life not only of the average person, but also of any exact scientist and philosopher. As wanting and wishing beings, we constantly aim at doing this rather than that. In fact, we can hardly do anything else but follow specific goals and live by specific values, since, at any moment of our thinking and acting existence, we have to decide between alternatives. In a traffic accident, for example, I may run away, provide active help or stand by as a gazer. Certainly, nature as existing by itself independent of this volition, sets definite limits to my desires – the help I try to offer in an accident will be pointless if I have no idea how to deal with seriously injured persons – but only such desires enable us to use the instruments provided by instrumental reason. We give free rein to its creative opposite when we transform the spiritual and material worlds in accordance with our values ​​and purposes.

A big Dilemma

Religions never had reason to deny the overwhelming evidence of our will – to them the latter was already manifest in the creative mind of spirits and gods. For science, the reference to a sensually inaccessible world was, of course, out of the question, because it was impossible to provide evidence for or against any assertion. The criteria of true and false, as defined by science, are inapplicable to the supernatural. Grounding volition in an extrasensory world was, therefore, no valid procedure for science.

But was it any better to accept human volition as a purely worldly reality? Obviously, this too led right into an impasse. As long as volition was regarded as a merely subjective phenomenon, its manifestations – unlike those of the ‘objectively’ given world – had to be considered arbitrary, since they could not be described as part of a lawful order (ie independent of human will and desire).

For thinking men there seemed to be but two ways to disentangle them from this dead end or staggering dilemma. The more simple solution was to back away from it by simply hushing it up, or at least making it appear as secondary and insignificant. This is the common human response to challenges that are hard to overcome.

But you could, of course, also take the bull by the horns, thus launching a bold counterattack. Then you rather question the evidence itself and daringly assert that human volition only seems to be subjective, while in truth it is governed by objective laws like everything else. From a scientific point of view, desires and hopes would then be as independent of desires and hopes as the orbit of the moon and the melting of ice.

The Flaw of Humanities

The first of the two alternatives – the fearful retreat from a problem perceived as dauntingly difficult – has remained the predominant one. To this day, physics and chemistry are considered to be exact sciences, with the former claiming the rank of the supreme discipline of human knowledge. In comparison, the humanities – history, sociology, psychology, etc. – are held to be uncertain and therefore secondary because, unlike physics, they are obviously unable to establish ‚eternal‘ and ‚iron‘ laws. Some among the more orthodox scientists even contest their quality as true sciences in the first place.

The extent to which the humanities suffer from this assessment is obvious. On the one hand, they eagerly adopt the language of mathematics even if this procedure does not necessarily entail any gain in knowledge. They likewise prove this point by increasingly treating the cultural sphere in the same manner as non-human nature. In contemporary anthropology, e.g. archeology, this procedure has led to amazing progress. But fixing all attention on the measurable aspect of cultures has substantially lessened interest in the more fleeting and difficult-to-grasp mental phenomena many of which seem to be no longer worthy objects of research.

Reduction to a single Truth

The devaluation of human will and desire, in other words the spiritual sphere, is only one of two possibilities. The second alternative, a counter-attack on mind itself, is far more radical, but seems, at first glance, to represent a case of incontestable logic. If truth exists only where laws can be found whose validity is independent of human will and desire (so that they can never be relativized as merely subjective or arbitrary), then the unruly will can only be made subservient to science if it is likewise governed by laws.

In other words, it had to be possible, nay, even necessary, to discover ‚iron’ and ‚eternal‘ laws even in human will and desires; only then could the human mind be made the object of the exact sciences, so that it becomes a branch of physics and chemistry.

Any person of common sense would, of course, hardly feel any sympathy for such an idea. If he raises his hand, he thinks he does so simply because he ‘wants’ to do it. He is firmly convinced that he could have done anything else instead, in other words that he is perfectly free to choose among many alternatives. He shrinks back in horror from the idea of being a mere clockwork with a built-in mechanism, that so reacts to outward (or inward) stimuli as to allow just this and no other choice.

But science and philosophy need not accept common sense. The apparent foolhardiness of this out-of-the-way explanation remained their special domain. They resorted to this daring approach, because the world then turned amazingly simple. Everything could be explained by just one single principle, by one single truth that was acceptable to instrumental reason.

Only Atoms – no Room for the Mind

The endeavor to simplify the complexity of the world seems to be one of the most deeply ingrained human urges. We find it fully developed already in the fifth century BC with Democritus and Leukippus. With equal boldness it raises its head again towards the end of the 18th century, where the great French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace becomes its vocal advocate. And right in the twentieth century it is Bertrand Russell, who takes exactly the same position, which was soon to become orthodox and gain worldwide influence in Analytic Philosophy.

„It is believed”, Russell states, “that matter consists of electrons and protons of finite size and of which there are only a finite number in the world … The laws of these changes seem to be summarized in a small number of very general principles which determine the past and future of the world as soon as any small section of world events is known. The natural sciences are thus approaching the stage where they will be completed and therefore uninteresting. Knowing the laws governing the motions of electrons and protons, the remainder is only a matter of geography [i. their respective situations] – a set of specific facts describing their distribution in a particular section of the world. “

And elsewhere: „Some believe that physiology can never be reduced to physics, but their arguments are not very convincing, which is why it seems advisable to ignore them.“

Or, even more stringent: “Science as it exists at present is partly agreeable, partly disagreeable – it is agreeable through the power which it gives us of manipulating our environemnt… It is disagreeable because, however me may seek to disguise the fact, it assumes a determinism which involves, theoretically, the power of predicting human actions, in this respect it seems to lessen human power… If … we admit the claims of scientific method, we cannot avoid the conclusion that causality and induction are applicable to human volitions as much as to anything else. All that has happened during the twentieth century in physics, physiology and psychology goes to strengthen this conclusion.”

Creative reason, as an independent form of cognition alongside the instrumental one, is here simply declared to be non-existent, since it can and should be traced back to the ‚eternal‘ order of atoms, that is to say, to the realm of calculable events.

Evidence pushed aside by Fiat

The paradox that human will and desire then become independent of human will and desire, does not come into view. Nor does the paradox that the fleeting manifestations of creative reason would then be described like the eternal orders of physics. The breathtaking paradox that a human being and outstanding philosopher like Bertrand Russell, who like nobody else assumed for himself the role of a free thinker, thereby declared himself an unfree machine, whose operations could, in principle at least, be fully calculated, was not made the subject of serious scientific discussion.

And what about the paradox that this mental construct hovers high above empirical reality since it cannot be proved (or, for that matter, be made the object of falsification)? Paradoxes were simply discounted as this wonderfully simple solution had a bewitching effect on the minds of people who just wanted to believe it. For it offered an immediate reward to believers: once it was declared to be deterministic, the whole course of the universe could be made the object of natural science. Nobody seemed to care that even the most exact among sciences only detect and define individual causal strands. In its infinite complexity, reality is hardly better known to modern man than to early Stone Age people. No scientist is capable of predicting the future development of species or even that of emerging human collectives or ideologies.

Until the advent of quantum physics, the objections against determinism were simply wiped off the table. Nobody seemed to notice the utter meaninglessness of the claim that we would only need to take a snapshot of all atoms as presently arranged in the universe in order to predict the entire future (but alas, due to practical reasons this is so far not possible). Why did no one dare to say that this is pure nonsense, and that it is hard to accept a philosophy that is based on such nonsense, if it may be justified neither by logic nor in an empirical way?

The Contradiction between Person and Ideology

And yet I have read the works of few philosophers with so much pleasure as those of the great English thinker. Not only that his ever present humor contributes to the pleasure of reading and make it incompatible with all fanaticism, above all, it is what I would like to call his moral enthusiasm that distinguishes the man, for he has raised his voice many times against all kinds of injustice. Russell has proved that one can be human among humans appealing to their individual conscience and individual thinking without the need to believe in any ideologies or even in sacred books. In my view, the greatness of this English philosopher is based on moral integrity and personal sincerity. I have no difficulty in admiring him, though I consider the core of Analytical Philosophy to be, as I just said, ‘pure nonsense’.

Russell deserves special attention because in his very person he exemplifies the paradox pervading the past three hundred years of man’s ‘scientific worldview’. These centuries have been characterized by an unprecedented interference of human will with both nature and society. The globe we inhabit today bears hardly any resemblance to the one that still existed at the beginning of the 17th century. Homo faber – but we should rather speak of willing and wishing, that is creative man – has hardly left any stone unturned. No previous epoch has seen human freedom being exercised to such an amazing degree.

Bertrand Russell just a Thinking Machine?

And yet, it is this immensely creative epoch, which believed that the motor of such unfolding of active forces, is not what I term ‘creative reason’ based on freedom, but represents nothing more than the effect of neural mechanics. According to this conviction, not only the orbits of stars and stones obey ‚eternal‘ and ‚iron‘ laws, but also man’s thoughts and actions. Bertrand Russell, certainly a shining example for many people fighting for their convictions, is intent on devaluing all such struggles by making them mere subjective illusions. From the perspective of the Philosophy he founded and termed Analytic, all that he himself wanted and wished at any time of his life was just as predetermined by the neural mechanics of his brain as any process described by physics or chemistry.

Indeed, the contrast could hardly be more dazzling: on the one hand that moral enthusiasm of a dedicated fighter for social justice, on the other hand, that self-avowed thinking machine whose mechanic activity could have been predicted thousands of years ago by some superhuman intelligence.

This is, certainly, a staggering paradox which should have presented an enormous challenge to critical thinking. But that did not happen. The paradox remained unsolved until the present day. Bertrand Russell had pronounced the dogma, and his adherents accepted it happily without further questions and questioning.

Why Cognition so easily turns into Dogmatism

Science is characterized by turning almost everything into objects of its peculiar curiosity. Sometimes we may even get the impression, that driven by such an imperative, she is strenuously looking for ever new objects. But then, it is all the more difficult to explain the contradiction I just described. How come that science either tends to shy away from it or to wipe it out by resorting to dogmatism? I can think of only one explanation, which, however, has the advantage of revealing a trustworthy motive.

Right from the beginning – see Democritus in pre-Socratic times – science came up with an all-comprehensive claim. It asserted that, in principle, all things could be explained by means of empirical observation which would subject them to the criteria of true versus false. For what would be the consequence, if true and false could not be applied universally? It would have been the admission of limits to scientific understanding. Science would have to acknowledge the existence of at least parts of reality that are situated beyond its reach.

To be sure, there have always been individual scientists who – like Goethe’s Faust, but usually at the end of their career – found themselves compelled to pessimistically admit that, after all, they had learned nothing essential (Now here I am, a fool for sure! No wiser than I was before). Some, like William James or Karl Popper – both in many ways particularly clear-sighted men – even ventured to admit that human episteme is by no means unlimited, but this was the position of skeptic outsiders – never that of official science. The latter rather insisted that there are no fundamental limits to knowledge, provided reality be explored according to agreed-upon scientific standards.

This claim is, of course, based on the implicit assumption that phenomena can be described independently of human wishes and desires, that is, as representing ‚objectively‘ given facts. Therefore, desires and wishes and all thoughts and actions based upon them had to be eliminated as an independent dimension. Science was forced to find an objective basis for human will or – in case, it were not able to find it – to pull it like a rabbit out of the hat. This explains the age-old tendency from Democritus to Bertrand Russell to derive subjective will from objective laws so that it becomes predictable and manageable. Then, creative reason would, of course, be suppressed. What remained was nothing but its instrumental counterpart.

The World Formula

On closer inspection, the effect of this violent logical operation was, necessarily, grotesque. A philosopher – suppose him to be Bertrand Russell himself – would adopt a cosmic formula allowing him to predict his future thinking as surely as the next lunar eclipse. He wants to explain why right now he is forced to conceive this and no other thought or to perform this and no other action. Doing so he seems to be completely unaware that he got embroiled in an irresolvable contradiction. For this desire of his is no true desire at all, but constitutes nothing but a predictable result of some neural mechanism that is totally beyond his own desires, because it is governed by ‚eternal‘ and ‚iron‘ laws. It is as if a lifeless machine suddenly discover that it is – but a lifeless machine. Although man seems to raise himself into a position where he is finally able to explain all and everything, including his own wishes and desires, he only succeeds in this endeavor at the price of explaining himself away.

Until the end of the 19th century, the majority of extremely smart people regarded this nonsense – called Determinism – as uncontestable truth. It was not until the discovery of chance in Quantum Mechanics that the so-called ‚mechanistic worldview‘ was finally challenged. Many thought that this discovery was to produce a mental as well as spiritual revolution. As it turned out, their hopes were unfounded.

Meaningless Chance

The shock emanating from Quantum Physics remained without consequence, because from the vantage point of science, chance was but an embarrassing blank tantamount to a limitation of that omniscience, which, as a rule, was implicitly assumed, and only exceptionally contested (as, for instance, by William James and Karl Popper). Even giants like Albert Einstein shrank back from chance because, as he said „God does not play the dice“, ie God does not resort to senseless acts in the manner of random generators. The iron cage of a universe where everything including man could be explained according to the paradigm of the clockwork, was certainly invalidated by the discovery of chance, but it soon turned out that nothing positive had been gained. Willy-nilly science had now to accept that alongside with the predictable order it describes by means of natural laws, there exists a second realm comprising wholly or partly unpredictable events. This is the domain of meaningless chance, where chance came to be regarded as a waste product of science, whose existence one had to accept, but to which it was impossible to give any sense.

But now, there had, of course, emerged a second alternative for explaining the human will. It was no longer necessary to consider it, like Democritus or Bertrand Russell, to be governed by laws, that is determinate. After the rise of quantum physics, you might as well move it into the second area, that of chance. Then man was no longer regarded as a living machine every single operation of which future science, once it had reached the stage of perfection, would be able to predict like a lunar eclipse. Chance offered the possibility of understanding man’s will and action in just the opposite way, namely as totally arbitrary and fundamentally unpredictable – like the erratic movements of electrons.

Creative Reason – the Epitome of Meaningfulness

Again, nothing was gained. If one understands man as fully calculable, he is not different from so-called ‚dead‘ matter. Alternatively, if one understands his acts of will as if they were generated by some random generator, one deprives them of all possible meaning.

As you know, in science you are easily discredited if you do not suppress your emotions. They are strictly barred from interfering with ‘objectivity’. But in this case I am not afraid of giving free rein to my subjective impulses by calling both these approaches a nasty nonsense. And not only these two approaches but any mixture between the two, which have become popular under the head of ‘Soft Determinism’.*1*

After all, it is a most evident fact that our will is perceived by each of us as the epitome of meaningfulness, indeed, the very concept of meaning is derived from our daily activities to which we attribute sense and purpose. This basic insight is totally destroyed regardless of whether we hold human persons to be mere machines or to behave like random generators. In both cases all meaning is lost. Bertrand Russell, the father of Analytic Philosophy, has afflicted the latter with a fatal birth defect by depriving it of this basic category.

How to restore meaning to Philosophy, that is what I endeavor to show in my book, ‘Die Macht der Träume und die Ohnmacht der Vernunft – eine Philosophie der Freiheit’ (Metropolis, 2013). Up to now freely accessible on the net is a substantially extended English version, ‘Doubt and Dogma – a Philosophy of Freedom in Nature and Man‚.

1 It is a different matter that many of our actions are subject to definite restraints so that our freedom is never absolute.