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The Will to Doubt: Bertrand Russell on Free Thought and Our Only Effective Self-Defense Against Propaganda

The Will to Doubt: Bertrand Russell on Free Thought and Our Only Effective Self-Defense Against Propaganda

“We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny,” W.H. Auden observed in his commonplace book. Half a century earlier, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), the great poet laureate of reason, addressed the central equation of free thinking in his 1922 Conway Memorial Lecture, later published as Free Thought and Official Propaganda (public library | free ebook) — a short and searing book charged with Russell’s characteristic intellectual electricity, the immense power of which melts an entire century into astonishing timeliness speaking directly to the present day.


Three decades before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for “his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought,” Russell writes:

When we speak of anything as “free,” our meaning is not definite unless we can say what it is free from. Whatever or whoever is “free” is not subject to some external compulsion, and to be precise we ought to say what this kind of compulsion is. Thus thought is “free” when it is free from certain kinds of outward control which are often present. Some of these kinds of control which must be absent if thought is to be “free” are obvious, but others are more subtle and elusive.

Writing three years after the magnificent Declaration of the Independence of the Mind, which he signed alongside luminaries like Albert Einstein and Jane Addams, Russell points to two primary meanings of “free thought” — the narrower sense of resisting traditional dogma and a broader sense that encompasses all forms of propaganda pervading public life. A patron saint of nonbelievers, Russell writes:

I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. I do not believe that, on the balance, religious belief has been a force for good. Although I am prepared to admit that in certain times and places it has had some good effects, I regard it as belonging to the infancy of human reason, and to a stage of development which we are now outgrowing.

But there is also a wider sense of “free thought,” which I regard as of still greater importance. Indeed, the harm done by traditional religions seems chiefly traceable to the fact that they have prevented free thought in this wider sense.

He considers the three essential elements of this wider conception of free thought:

Thought is not “free” when legal penalties are incurred by the holding or not holding of certain opinions, or by giving expression to one’s belief or lack of belief on certain matters… The most elementary condition, if thought is to be free, is the absence of legal penalties for the expression of opinions.


Legal penalties are, however, in the modern world, the least of the obstacles to freedom of thoughts. The two great obstacles are economic penalties and distortion of evidence. It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search.

Echoing the essence of Descartes’s twelve tenets of critical thinking, penned three centuries earlier, Russell returns to the centerpiece of free thought — the willingness to doubt:

William James used to preach the “will to believe.” For my part, I should wish to preach the “will to doubt.” None of our beliefs are quite true; all have at least a penumbra of vagueness and error. The methods of increasing the degree of truth in our beliefs are well known; they consist in hearing all sides, trying to ascertain all the relevant facts, controlling our own bias by discussion with people who have the opposite bias, and cultivating a readiness to discard any hypothesis which has proved inadequate.

Half a century before Richard Feynman’s terrific meditation on science vs. religion and why doubt is essential for morality, Russell extols science as the domain of human knowledge that best exemplifies the fruitfulness of this “will to doubt”:

Every man of science whose outlook is truly scientific is ready to admit that what passes for scientific knowledge at the moment is sure to require correction with the progress of discovery; nevertheless, it is near enough to the truth to serve for most practical purposes, though not for all. In science, where alone something approximating to genuine knowledge is to be found, men’s attitude is tentative and full of doubt.

In religion and politics, on the contrary, though there is as yet nothing approaching scientific knowledge, everybody considers it de rigueur to have a dogmatic opinion, to be backed up by inflicting starvation, prison, and war, and to be carefully guarded from argumentative competition with any different opinion. If only men could be brought into a tentatively agnostic frame of mind about these matters, nine-tenths of the evils of the modern world would be cured. War would become impossible, because each side would realize that both sides must be in the wrong. Persecution would cease. Education would aim at expanding the mind, not at narrowing it. Men would be chosen for jobs on account of fitness to do the work, not because they flattered the irrational dogmas of those in power.

He points Einstein and the relativity theory he had formulated just seven years earlier as an epitome of this disposition:

His theory upsets the whole theoretical framework of traditional physics; it is almost as damaging to orthodox dynamics as Darwin was to Genesis. Yet physicists everywhere have shown complete readiness to accept his theory as soon as it appeared that the evidence was in its favour. But none of them, least of all Einstein himself, would claim that he has said the last word… This critical undogmatic receptiveness is the true attitude of science.

Indeed, we have seen a supreme testament to this in the recent landmark detection of gravitational waves — something Einstein saw as a purely theoretical concept of unimaginable empirical corroboration.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

Russell offers a disquieting thought experiment of sorts:

If Einstein had advanced something equally new in the sphere of religion or politics … the truth or falsehood of his doctrine would be decided on the battlefield, without the collection of any fresh evidence for or against it. This method is the logical outcome of William James’s will to believe. What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is its exact opposite.

He considers the core obstacles to this vital rational doubt:

A great deal of this is due to the inherent irrationality and credulity of average human nature. But this seed of intellectual original sin is nourished and fostered by other agencies, among which three play the chief part — namely, education, propaganda, and economic pressure.

Russell examines each of the three in turn, beginning with education — a subject he would come to consider closely four years later in his masterwork on education and the good life. Education’s formal institutions, he argues, are set up “to impart information without imparting intelligence” and designed “not to give true knowledge, but to make the people pliable to the will of their masters” — a seedbed of political and cultural propaganda that begins in elementary school, with the teaching of a history told by those in power, and results in the widespread manipulation of public opinion. Lamenting “the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought,” he envisions the remedy:

Education should have two objects: first, to give definite knowledge — reading and writing, languages and mathematics, and so on; secondly, to create those mental habits which will enable people to acquire knowledge and form sound judgments for themselves. The first of these we may call information, the second intelligence.

He then turns to propaganda — the concerted manipulation of public opinion by those in power. Having previously advocated for the blurring of the line between intuition and the intellect, he writes:

Too much fuss is sometimes made about the fact that propaganda appeals to emotion rather than reason. The line between emotion and reason is not so sharp as some people think.


The objection to propaganda is not only its appeal to unreason, but still more the unfair advantage which it gives to the rich and powerful. Equality of opportunity among opinions is essential if there is to be real freedom of thought; and equality of opportunity among opinions can only be secured by elaborate laws directed to that end, which there is no reason to expect to see enacted. The cure is not to be sought primarily in such laws, but in better education and a more sceptical public opinion.

Turning to the final impediment of free thought — the economic pressures of conformity, under which one is rewarded for siding with and adopting the dogmas of those in power — Russell writes:

There are two simple principles which, if they were adopted, would solve almost all social problems. The first is that education should have for one of its aims to teach people only to believe propositions when there is some reason to think that they are true. The second is that jobs should be given solely for fitness to do the work.

Nearly a century after Kierkegaard argued for the power of the minority and a generation before Hannah Arendt’s case for outsiderdom, Russell urges:

The protection of minorities is vitally important; and even the most orthodox of us may find himself in a minority some day, so that we all have an interest in restraining the tyranny of majorities. Nothing except public opinion can solve this problem.

It’s a sentiment of enormous poignancy and prescience, illustrating both how far we’ve come — Russell is writing more than three decades before the zenith of civil rights and the Equal Pay Act — and how far we have yet to go in a culture where, a century later, sexism and racism are far from gone and many workplaces are still systematically discriminating against minorities like Muslims and the LGBT community.

The cultivation of public opinion that advances equality and justice rather than upholding oppressive power structures has to do with the “will to doubt” at the heart of Russell’s case. He writes:

Some element of doubt is essential to the practice, though not to the theory, of toleration… If there is to be toleration in the world, one of the things taught in schools must be the habit of weighing evidence, and the practice of not giving full assent to propositions which there is no reason to believe true.

The role of the educator, he argues, is to teach young minds how to infer what actually happened “from the biased account of either side” and to instill in them the awareness that “everything in newspapers is more or less untrue” — a task all the more urgent today, when the old role of the newspapers has been largely taken over by incessant opinion-streams barraging us online and off with the certitude of their respective version of reality masquerading as truth.

Russell returns to the basic human predicament obstructing freedom of thought and envisions its only fruitful solution:

The evils of the world are due to moral defects quite as much as to lack of intelligence. But the human race has not hitherto discovered any method of eradicating moral defects; preaching and exhortation only add hypocrisy to the previous list of vices. Intelligence, on the contrary, is easily improved by methods known to every competent educator. Therefore, until some method of teaching virtue has been discovered, progress will have to be sought by improvement of intelligence rather than of morals. One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instruction as to the prevalent forms of mendacity.

Writing nearly a century ago, even before Walter Benjamin’s increasingly timely meditation on the challenge of extracting wisdom from the morass of (mis)information, Russell once again reveals his extraordinary prescience:

Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power.

He concludes by considering what it would take for us to implement these two pillars of free thought — an education system that fosters critical thinking rather than conformity and a meritocratic workforce where jobs are earned based on acumen rather than ideological alignment with power structures:

It must be done by generating an enlightened public opinion. And an enlightened public opinion can only be generated by the efforts of those who desire that it should exist.

Complement the timelessly terrific Free Thought and Official Propaganda with Galileo on critical thinking and the folly of believing our preconceptions, Ursula K. Le Guin on power, oppression, and freedom of mind, and Carl Sagan’s indispensable Baloney Detection Kit, then revisit Russell on what “the good life” really means, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, the nature of time, and the four desires driving all human behavior.

Published May 18, 2016




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