Bertrand Russel on “Facts & Love” – Impact on societies

At the end of an interview with Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), undertaken in 1959, the interviewer asks the great mathematician and philosopher to say something to the future generations. Russell splits the advice into two segments; one intellectual and the other moral.

He first advises to keep a close (and exclusive) eye on facts when it comes to intellectual pursuits. Any intellectual pursuit, not only science:

The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

Whereas in moral issues, the path to follow should be the path of love:

The moral thing I should wish to say…I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

In other words: Live with a clear mind and clean heart.

Fifty years after this interview, sadly enough, factual truths are still far from being the dominant source of the process of opinion-making (a simple and illustrative case: here). It is also ironic that in this information era, where everything seems to be accessible at a single click, it is very difficult to get to the truth. It seems to me that Information overload is to modernity what geographical distance was to our ancestors.

At the same time, ignorance hides behind a superficial knowledge. I think that many people are confusing Knowledge with its Accessibility: No, we don’t know something because we can google it, and read the introduction of the wikipedia article about it, and we are not smart because we own a smartphone! Internet, as wonderful as it is, can be as well (paradoxically) a tool that spreads ignorance.

In the case of politics and society, modern journalism in particular is a good manifestation of this phenomenon: We have never had so much access to the news.. yet at the same time we have never been so misinformed and easily manipulated as we are now. The general feeling that Truth is that which is said by the (social) media is clearly dominant now.
Where are the factual truths in electoral promises? or partisan “journalism”?
It is true that most of us do not have time to cross-check the information or to carefully select the good sources from the bad ones (a painful effort). It is much easier to believe the media and ‘the street’ than to shape sound and well-based opinions…. but this may lead us to develop wrong opinions.

And this is exactly where the second point of Russell comes in.

We live in a world that’s more interconnected than it has ever been.. yet, fanaticism, racism, xenophobia, and now islamophia (this one is more and more alarming) are not only part of our world but are increasing in some regions (including the so-called civilized world)! It is true that poor journalism and unethical politicians bear a large responsibility in this but the direct responsibility of the individuals cannot be dismissed. There is no question that a politician who plays on fear and other basic instincts to manipulate people and stigmatize others is immoral but at the same time, the gullible people who follow him are as responsible as him for their obtuseness and/or lack of love. This is why the second advice of B. Russell is so important and wise: it can override the first one in political and social matters and evade the dangers of ignorance and narrow-mindedness.

To love, or at least to accept the others is accessible to everyone. With or without knowing the truth behind the news. Love and acceptance of diversity and difference is compulsory upon every one of us for “Love is wise , Hatred is foolish”.


PS. The complete interview, which is quite interesting and enjoyable, is available in three parts:  Part I,  Part II, and Part III.


8 thoughts on “Bertrand Russel on “Facts & Love” – Impact on societies

  1. Thank you for sharing the interviews and an excellent post. The only thing I would be a bit cautious is to assume the accessibility to the Internet by everyone. I live in the United States which is one of the richest nation in the world ( though we do have deep debts). The accessibility to the Internet is not as universal as most people think, in the low income groups, particularly seniors. Also there is a great need for buy-in and education for this underserved population. I live in a city with a very diverse population. There is still a huge need to work on cultural diversity education in order to achieve not only accepting but embracing other cultures, including ethnic, religious and life style cultural differences.

    I like the message of your post. Yes, peace! Thank you!

    1. Hello and thank you for taking the time to read and write a valuable comment.
      You are right to point out that the internet is not universally accessible.. I agree with you. In fact, in many other regions even books are not accessible and this post becomes irrelevant (it is just assumed that people who read this post have access to the internet).

      My main point is that, on average, people in most parts of the world have access to (or are exposed to) more information than in the past (via internet and/or newspapers and/or tv, … etc.) . And that this information overload may blur the limit between what’s true and what is not.

      In the case of the US for instance, even people who do not have access to the internet are overwhelmed by information. Just take the last election : phone-calls, ads, TV, militants door-to-door,.. one simply couldn’t escape it, yet.. in all this, almost nothing is based on factual truths; only superficial messages. Someone like Romney, could never have been taken seriously by anyone checking his factual truths (or doing some math).. yet, he almost got elected president of the USA! That’s where the danger of taking information for granted lies…

      Thank you! and sorry for the long reply..

  2. Russell (with my deep respect), he inspires me to live with a clear mind and a loving heart (also with a clean conscience, that will be even more formidable).

    I couldn’t agree more that sometimes “ignorance hides behind a superficial knowledge”, that “superficial knowledge” indeed becomes too much too penetrating in our time, I must say that today’s “information overload” in turn accelerates such danger of ignorance!

    Your notion on “individual responsibility” is always alerting, very often I sense that the mass population is marching towards “the death of common sense” (we no longer listen to our own conscience, but perhaps more to the politicians or other biased voices); the worrying part is by abandoning our common sense, do we at the same time shed away our individual sense of responsibility, quite conveniently! It is indeed individual’s responsibility or mission to build a world free of whatever kind of prejudice. After-all, we do not die together but are supposed to live together (in Russell’s words).

    P.S. allow me to point out a typo : “sill” is supposed to be “still”

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