The Wisdom of Bertrand Russell

One of the benefits of being sick with this miserable cold has been that I’ve only had the energy to read and not do much else. Last night, after deciding to go to bed at an unusually early hour, I looked at my shelves and decided that Bertrand Russell would make for good company on the plague ship (as I have now re-named my bedroom), and provide a nice counter-point to the darkness of the German Romantics that I’ve been reading too much of lately.

I first read Russell in high school; it was his essay, “How I Write.” I remember liking it, but the stronger memory is of my literature teacher getting into trouble for assigning that reading. It was a Catholic school, after all, and Russell was not known for being kind to religion. That incident only served to pique my interest all the more, and by the time I started college, I had read a substantial amount of his work, including last night’s read, Why I Am Not a Christian. 

By the time I first read him, I must have been in my junior year of high school, and I had certainly already started to question my faith. As I previously wrote, that process of questioning started in the early eighties after watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. A question that always plagued me during those early years of questioning, however, dealt with morality. As someone raised Roman Catholic, morality was something relatively external; there were a set of rules you lived by, and if you transgressed, you were a sinner. If you had no religion, how would you know what was good? I found my answer in Russell, before I was even able to crack the spine of the book, in the preface.

The world that I should wish to see would be one freed from the virulence of group hostilities and capable of realizing that happiness for all is to be derived rather from cooperation than from strife. I should wish to see a world in which education aimed at mental freedom rather than at imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armor of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence. The world needs open hearts and open minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.

Needless to say, a thorough reading of the book and its many essays (especially “What I Believe”) drove the point home that morality, true morality, did not have to come from a preset set of rules, but that it was and should be something internal. According to Russell, morality sprang from a confluence of love and knowledge, or as he states, “love guided by knowledge.”

So this morning, as my daughter watched her cartoons and I ran around the house singing the Spiderman theme song (thanks Marc), I remembered a BBC interview with Russell that I watched a while back. There was a part of it where he was asked what he would say to future generations, what hopes he would have for us and our children. I was lucky enough to find the exact clip, and here it is. Everyone must watch this.

The full interview can be found here, and is definitely worth the watch. He is a beautiful mind and a beautiful man. “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.” Indeed.

Enjoy!

Happy 70th Birthday Stephen Hawking!

"It surprises me how disinterested we are today about things like physics, space, the universe and philosophy of our existence, our purpose, our final destination. It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious."

From Reuters:

 The world’s best known living scientist, Stephen Hawking, was too ill to attend his 70th birthday celebrations Sunday but in a recorded speech urged people to “look up at the stars” and be curious about the universe.

Hawking, the author of the international bestseller “A Brief History of Time,” was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 1963 and told he had barely two years to live. He has since been hailed as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein.

In the speech played out at a symposium in his honor at Cambridge University, he said his excitement and enthusiasm for his subject drove him on, and urged others to seek out the same inspiration.

“Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious,” Hawking said in the speech he had been due to give in person.

Earlier today while visiting my father, the conversation turned to the telescope that “Santa” had brought for my daughter and me. As the conversation went on, my father reminded me that he used to take me to the planetarium on his visitation days, when I was still quite young. I think within a span of a just two or three years we must have gone at least once every three weeks or so. It was certainly there where my obsession with space and science began. That was in the 70s. In the 80’s I discovered Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos, and began looking through the larger telescope at our local science museum. It was as that passion began to mature that I first came across Stephen Hawking.

His book, A Brief History of Time was given to me late in high school, and reading it had me absolutely determined to study physics. I did, and although I never quite got around to completing that major (I finally settled in the history department), it has shaped the way that I have learned to look at the world.

So thank you, Dr. Hawking, and a very happy birthday to you. Your work continues to inspire me to live filled with that sense of curiosity and wonder that I have so often written about, and your life serves as a reminder to face the challenges that I am handed with the strength that you have always shown.

Here’s the first part of the PBS series Steven Hawking’s Universe.

Keep looking up at the stars, and enjoy!