Sunday, July 29, 2012

Beating a Dead Philosopher

[Lest one believe I fancy myself equal to sparring with the great Bertrand Russell, let me assure you that I only challenge the man with arguments I learned from far smarter men, borrowing confidence from the fact that he's dead and can't defend himself. Think of me here as the philosophical equivalent of a lion cub playfully pouncing on mortally wounded prey.]

Bertrand Russell said of God and the afterlife,  “If it is true you should believe it, and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t. If you can’t find out whether it’s true or it isn’t, you should suspend judgment.” This seems like a reasonable posture on a purely intellectual level, until one considers a more practical illustration.

Let’s say you find yourself in a dark room. You have slightly less reason to believe there is a man-eating tiger in this room as not. One does not simply suspend judgment - at this point one acts based upon other interests. Sure, you might end up seeming a fool if it turns out there was no tiger, but when the stakes are as high as life and death, useful caution wins out over Occam’s Razor.

Russell rejects Pascal’s Wager (try Christianity on and see if it works for you) on the principle that "one ought to believe something because it is true and not because it is useful." This is absurd. You cannot refrain from dubiously founded actions in this (not merely theoretical) life. I’ll bet Bertrand Russell wouldn’t suspend judgment in the above scenario. “Live to postulate another day,” and all that...

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