Sunday Snippet: Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970)

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

For the longest time, it was common knowledge that the Earth was flat. Then, we learned that it was spherical. Then, we learned that it was more like a squished sphere. For the longest time, it was thought that dinosaurs were strictly reptiles. Then, we learned that they were the ancestors of modern birds.

All too often, we take “common knowledge” for granted and just assume it to be true. While this may hold up for many things, there are countless other “facts” that have subsequently been debunked. And that is why famed philosopher Bertrand Russell encourages us to take a more skeptical view of the world, questioning what we know in order to further expand our understanding.

Conversely, it would be impractical to assume that everything we know is wrong. We’d become frozen in place. But at the same time, we have to recognize that, as a general matter of fact, we really “know” nothing at all. If you consider David Hume‘s example on black and white swans, this point is well illustrated. Even if every swan that you’ve ever seen is white, you cannot know that all swans are white. Seeing a single black swan would refute that conclusion. And that’s why it’s so important to learn how to figure things out, as Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it. That’s why we need logic and science and philosophy.

If you are interested in other writings from Bertrand Russell, there is certainly no shortage. You can read about the History of Western Philosophy, for example, or dive into his countless essays on religion, geometry, mathematics, happiness, and more.