Welcome to Notes on Quotes, an article and podcast series in which Stephen Harrison chats with interesting people about a quotation of their choosing.
Barry Lam earned his PhD in philosophy from Princeton University, and is now a philosophy professor at Vassar College in New York. He’s also the executive producer and host of the Slate podcast Hi-Phi Nation, a philosophy podcast that turns stories into ideas. The Guardian described Barry’s podcast as “varied, moving and thought-provoking.”
This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated. The podcast version is currently private – contact firstname.lastname@example.org with inquiries.
Stephen Harrison: So what quote will we be chatting about today?
Barry Lam: The quote I have is from the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
“Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.”
I was really happy you picked this quote, because I wasn’t that familiar with Bertrand Russell. Could you tell us about who he was?
Bertrand Russell is probably one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century. His life pretty much spanned the end of the 19th century, and almost all of the 20th century, surprisingly. He essentially founded at Cambridge what we today might call something like analytic philosophy, which is philosophy that tends to get its influence from logic and mathematics.
He was the teacher to another philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was also a famous philosopher of the early 20th century. And then pretty much he spent most of the 20th century being involved in British politics, international politics.
He wrote a lot. He wrote on all areas from religion, politics, culture. He wrote a very influential book about the morality of sex and marriage. He was essentially a free love advocate before—before people were even having sex!
Bertrand Russell grew up in a harsh Victorian, England culture, and he spoke very much in an old 19th century Victorian way. If you listen to old recordings of Bertrand Russell, it sounds like he’s from a different century, which he was.
Nonetheless, he advocated what we today would call incredibly liberal positions socially and politically. And from all of that work, I think he’s the only philosopher who won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Russell was antiwar and pretty much a pacifist from the get-go, and his activism on international scene spans such a ridiculously long timeframe. There are writings of him in opposition to the Belgian occupation of the Congo, all the way to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam—the last thing he opposed was Israel’s occupation of the territories in the Six-Day War. I mean, that’s the range that Russell had. A remarkable individual.
Do you remember when you came across Russell in your philosophy studies?
This was before I was a philosophy major. I must have been, I don’t know, 19 years old? And it was a Bertrand Russell poster. [Stephen Harrison note: Perhaps this one?]
A couple years later, when I took my philosophy of language class, we actually read Bertrand Russell—his early works that were the founding texts in analytic philosophy. It was such an interesting story to me, that somebody who wrote on such technical, arcane matters in philosophy had such a long career and that most people knew him as an activist. So I looked up some of his more popular writing, and this was one of the quotes I came across.
The quote again is, “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.” Why did this quote resonate with you?
Because it talks about believing. That’s what got me into philosophy as an undergraduate—what we call, in philosophy, epistemology, which is the theory of rational belief. [Stephen Harrison note: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent entry on Epistemology.] You might also call it the theory of knowledge.
From the get-go, I was very interested in why people believe what they do. What I've come to learn is that there are so many ways to answer that question.
Man is a “credulous animal.” What do you make of that specific wording?
There’s an interesting contrast in terms. “Credulous animal.” You don’t think of animals as believers, because you don’t think of humans as animals!
Credulous is used to describe an animal that is a believer and has a fault. Usually, when you use the term “credulous,” you are describing somebody with a vice, not a virtue. Somebody who just wants to believe.
And what of the second part of the quote? In the absence…
Russell says “in the absence of good grounds for beliefs, he will be satisfied with bad ones.” That’s a complicated statement, though it seems simple on its face. There’s this contrast between good and bad reasons for belief.
The word that Russell uses is “grounds.” That paints a picture that philosophers have, which might not actually be true: that for every belief you have it must be grounded in something else. Grounded in reasons. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. And Russell’s observation is that humans will gravitate toward the bad ones if you don’t offer them good ones.
That does seem to be what Russell is suggesting. That humans tend to believe without having any sort of rational basis.
That’s right. A lot of this were Russell’s reflections on religious faith. He wrote a lot about that. But it’s not just religious faith that we’re talking about. For many years, we thought it was settled that we have good grounds for believing in the efficacy of vaccinations. But a group is emerging that says vaccinations are harmful.
Do you think Russell would be surprised that the vaccination issue is seemingly not resolved?
I don’t think he’d be surprised at all. If you read the quote, you'll see that Russell was not particularly optimistic about human beings being reasonable.
What we've discovered through empirical study are the various mechanisms that prevent people from believing even when there are good reasons. Or the psychological reasons that drive people to believe things based on bad or insufficient evidence.
You mentioned beforehand that Noam Chomsky is a kindred spirit of Bertrand Russell. Why do you think they're similar?
That’s a fascinating question to me as an admirer of both. First, I want to say that they couldn't be farther apart when it comes to philosophical views, generally. Although Chomsky is a scientist in some ways, he has this view of the mind and view of learning that is very much anti-empiricist. He’s what you might call a rationalist. In fact, I would call him a neo-Cartesian. He’s kind of a follower of the line that extends back to René Descartes, that believes a lot in innate knowledge, of a strong set of conditions in human nature, that humans are born a certain way, and that left to their own devices, human beings flourish in certain contexts. But Russell was an empiricist.
But then again, Chomsky has appeared on talk shows for years. There is similarity in the sense that they're both public figures—or at least trying to influence the public conversation.
Absolutely. They pretty much spent their life kind of calling things as they see it, in the sense that they were both dissidents. They were both incredibly left-wing.
Their personalities are distinct. There’s a great story of the Beatles meeting Russell. Paul McCartney tells the story about finding out that there was this famous philosopher living in a certain flat in London. And just deciding to knock on his door. He knocked on the door, and out came Russell. He was an old man at this time. They just had a conversation. I don’t think of Chomsky as somebody who engages with popular culture all that much.
I love that story. The quote again says that man must believe something, even without good grounds for that belief. Is there some sort of evolutionary or biological reason for that? What’s your take? Recognizing that the question is perhaps outside the remit of philosophy…
Absent me giving you an answer, I'm going to give different ways of thinking about it. generally tend to be the kind of person who likes to like to ask the hard questions, rather than give my opinion about it.
—Typical philosopher in that sense…
That’s right! I do think it’s hard-wired into evolutionary psychology in some ways. It has something to do with the fact that we're social creatures, and that our survival generally depends on a community of other people. Those kinds of pressures show up in very strange ways in beliefs.
Take Theology. I think of the subject as the attempt to rationally reconstruct good reasons for why things are the way they are. You have an elaborate set of facts that are supposed to be true. Those facts have to somehow hang together. So much of what theologians do is trying to make everything hang together. Consider the early days of Christian theology and the doctrine of the. Trinity. How could Jesus be at the same time the son of God, and God, and whatever the holy spirit is? Like how could it be identical? How could there be one god but also three things, and so on? Theologians have thought of all sorts of sophisticated ways of fitting it together.
But at the end of the day, most Christians don’t know or care much about how it fits together! The sense of community is important, and one thing that happens to keep the community together is a set of beliefs.
So that could be why man tends to be “credulous,” in Russell’s words. Beliefs help keep you in a community. Disbelief is unfortunately one of those things that gets you kicked out. There lies the tension.
That’s a good point. When Russell says man is a credulous animal, he might also be saying that man is a social animal, with a desire to form a community.
If we take Bertrand Russell’s quote at face value, that man is a credulous animal and he will look for reasons to believe in something even if it’s not actually the case—what are the practical consequences of that insight?
The practical consequence is to be less sure, to be more skeptical of yourself. Look at some of your strongest convictions, and be open to the fact that the reasons you have for those beliefs aren’t as great as you think.
I tend to have fewer strong convictions. For every strong conviction that I have, underneath it is all this doubt that I don’t have all the evidence that I need.
You picked the quotation from Bertrand Russell. You obviously admire him. But do you think that might be a criticism of Russell? That he was too strong in his convictions?
That could be. Like looking back at his life, Russell had a lot of very humanitarian views. He was for nuclear disarmament. Russell was reputably not a good person to his children and his partners. He wasn’t horrible, but he believed in free love, and that ended up hurting his family and people who were close to him. Free love is a very socially liberal thing—that’s great, right? But a strong conviction like that might lead you to be blind to the harms.
When Russell was in his nineties, he was in a conversation in Cambridge, some theist came up to him and said, “Lord Russell, you're gonna die soon, and what’s going to happen when you appear before God at the gates of heaven, and God says, ‘All you had to do was believe’?” Without even blinking, Russell said that he would tell God, “You didn’t give us enough evidence!”
Ha! Reminds me of this quote: “In God we trust. All others must bring data.” But I’d like to quote something else now. Your faculty bio says, “Instead of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, my primary aim is to disseminate my thinking about these issues in narrative audio form.” In other words, you're not just writing for other philosophers in an academic context, but for the public. Why do you think this type of public outreach is so important?
I think it’s important for the reasons why Russell did it, and Chomsky, and the reason why a lot of younger people in philosophy are now doing it, and have done it in the past.
There’s a lot about philosophy that is for the experts, but these people are dealing with issues so abstract and so removed from everyday human experiences that not everybody is going to be interested.
For me, the other side of philosophy is to show people that you can think about some of the more philosophical issues in that story, and come away with a little more humility about your understanding. That’s what I’m trying to do with my Hi-Phi Nation podcast for Slate.
Philosophy exists in culture for a reason. But if we’re not doing philosophy for a large enough group of people, I think we’re failing. We’re trying to free enough people from being trapped into the thinking of their youth so that we can make progress as a species.
Philosophy exists to change people’s minds and help people think a little bit more deeply, but also to “corrupt the youth.” [Stephen Harrison note: This was the criminal charge brought against Socrates.]
Yes, corrupting the youth is the beginning of philosophy. There’s a reason why that’s the first thing we teach in our intro classes. Socrates died for “corrupting the youth.” That’s absolutely true. I think it’s very important for the youth everywhere, even in very liberal societies, to at least try to break free from the bonds of convention that they were raised with.