Reflecting on Russell’s Religion and Science 3. Russell as a Skeptic, Even with Respect to Science

1. The present post is the third in a series of posts reflecting on the philosophical theses at work in Bertrand Russell’s Religion and Science.* In the series’ previous posts, I have directed attention to Russell’s “exclusivist epistemological scientism,” as I have dubbed it, the thesis that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge. I have also taken note that an adoption of that thesis requires the adoption of the further theses that there is no theological knowledge distinct from scientific knowledge, no philosophical knowledge distinct from scientific knowledge, and no mathematical knowledge distinct from scientific knowledge. In this post, I wish to direct attention to one of the at least two complications that any understanding of Russell’s exclusivist epistemological scientism has to recognize: for the Russell of Religion and Science, there is not even scientific knowledge. The other of the two complications will have to await its share of attention until the next post.

2. The most salient passage in which Russell denies that scientific theory counts in fact as knowledge begins with his saying (p. 14),

A religious creed differs from a scientific theory in claiming to embody eternal and absolutely certain truth, whereas science is always tentative, expecting that modifications in its present theories will sooner or later be found necessary, and aware that its method is one which is logically incapable of arriving at a complete and final demonstration.

Russell proceeds then to tell us that science achieves (1) not “absolute truth,” but rather “practical truth” or “‘technical’ truth” and (2) not “knowledge,” but “‘knowledge’.” He first (pp. 14-15) sets absolute truth aside.

But in an advanced science the changes are generally only such as serve to give slightly greater accuracy; the old theories remain serviceable where only rough approximations are concerned, but are found to fail when some new minuteness of observation becomes possible. Moreover, the technical inventions suggested by the old theories remain as evidence that they had a kind of practical truth up to a point. Science thus encourages abandonment of the search for absolute truth, and the substitution of what may be called “technical” truth, which belongs to any theory that can be successfully employed in inventions or in predicting the future. “Technical” truth is a matter of degree: a theory from which more successful inventions and predictions spring is truer than one which gives rise to fewer.

Russell proceeds next (p. 15) to set aside scientific knowledge, leaving us with but scientific “knowledge.”

“Knowledge” ceases to be a mental mirror of the universe, and becomes merely a practical tool in the manipulation of matter. But these implications of scientific method were not visible to the pioneers of science, who, though they practiced a new method of pursuing truth, still conceived truth itself as absolutely as did their theological opponents.

3. a. Two things may be said on Russell’s behalf here. The first is that he is, of course, absolutely right in pointing to the real progress that has been made in scientific knowledge. For example, it was once believed by most, including Aristotle and even Descartes, that light traveled instantaneously. As Professor Michael Fowler of the University of Virginia notes in his “The Speed of Light,” Galileo, in his Two New Sciences, has his character, Simplicio, “stating the Aristotelian position,”

SIMP. Everyday experience shows that the propagation of light is instantaneous; for when we see a piece of artillery fired at great distance, the flash reaches our eyes without lapse of time; but the sound reaches the ear only after a noticeable interval.

Now, of course, we know that, and I’ll put it cautiously, in at least some circumstances, light travels at a finite velocity, and so with a “lapse of time.”

3b. The second thing that may be said on Russell’s behalf is that the knowledge that we thought we had, that, say, in all circumstances,** light travels instantaneously, turns out to have been, not knowledge at all, let alone absolute knowledge, but merely, using Russell’s way of putting it, “knowledge.”

4. It remains the case. however, that, in at least some circumstances, light travels at a finite velocity, and so with a “lapse of time.”***

It is the case, moreover, that the proposition, “In at least some circumstances, light travels at a finite velocity, and so with a ‘lapse of time,’” is a true proposition and not at all a false proposition. It will not be displaced by a “truer” proposition at any point in the future, thereby becoming less true.

And it is the case, finally, that we know that, in at least some circumstances, light travels at a finite velocity, and so with a “lapse of time.” That knowledge is a genuine knowledge and not at all a case of non-knowledge or mere “knowledge.” It will not be displaced by an opinion that is more a knowledge at any point in the future, thereby becoming less a knowledge.

5. Let me add hastily that the piece of reasoning just concluded does not commit us to the view that, though “knowledge” may not “be a mental mirror of the universe,” knowledge is such “a mental mirror of the universe.” The relation in which a knowing mind stands to that which it knows is a topic that will have to await a post that will appear, if at all, sometime in a perhaps distant future.

6. To sum things up temporarily: the Russell of Religion and Science, then, is committed on the one hand to the view that neither theology, nor philosophy, nor mathematics provides us with knowledge, though science does. On the other hand, he is also, and inconsistently, committed to the view that not even science provides us with knowledge, that is, to a thorough skepticism. I say, “temporarily,” because we have yet to take into account the second of the complications alluded to in the opening paragraph of this post. That we will do with the next post in the series.

7. I’ll conclude this post by recommending that you watch and listen to a comedic turning of Russell’s contrast between religion and science on its head, from the “Science is a liar…Sometimes” episode of the television series, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Until next time.


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* Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, with an introduction by Michael Ruse (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 [1935]). Religion and Science is readily available for purchase through You need only click on the following image to be taken to the Amazon site:

** Though I’ve not researched the literature, I think it safe to assume that the vast majority of the statements of the view that light travels “instantaneously” left the “in all circumstances” clause unexpressed.

*** Our knowledge that, in at least some circumstances, light travels at a finite velocity, and so with a “lapse of time,” in no way rules out the at least logical possibility that we will at some point come to know that, in some other circumstances, light travels at an infinite velocity, and so with no “lapse of time.”

About Rchard E. Hennessey

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