“Talk Amongst Yourselves”: Bertrand Russell Quote

Mike Clawson here…

I’m going to try something new. In addition to the typical posts I usually put up, I’m going to start occasionally just throwing out a quotation from something I’m reading or have encountered, sans commentary, and just invite any and all of you to comment, critique or reflect on it as you so desire. No agenda on my part, just stuff that I thought would be interesting to hear others’ thoughts on.

So here’s a Betrand Russell quote I encountered this morning. This is from his essay “A Free Man’s Worship”. To give the context, Russell has just quoted the Mephistophelian account of creation as the performance of a quite heartless and capricious being, and then he proceeds:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of Death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticize, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life…

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Do you resonate with Russell’s words? Do you resist them? Find them inadequate? What do you think of his main point? (In my best Mike Meyer’s impression) “Talk amongst yourselves…” :)

  • http://asad123.wordpress.com Asad

    I find his words disturbing, depressing and unappealing.

    Check me out at asad123.wordpress.com.

  • Gregory

    If I took any given part of this, I could probably agree in principle, and yet the whole thing sits completely wrong with me. It’s the choice of words, really, a focus on the universe as cold and uncaring, when really it’s just that it’s not the custom built playpen we thought it was for so long. His words, in short, seem to have a bit of the petulance of a child who has gotten their first lesson that maybe, just maybe, the world doesn’t revolve around them.

    I don’t mean that as a dig against Russell, though it sounds like it :). It’s an era thing, that whole late 19th/early 20th century when science had really laid the smack down on our sense of ourselves — the discovery of evolution, and the growing understanding of just how big the universe is. You see the fear that generated all over the place, especially in early science fiction (“scientific romance,” as it was called then) — Doyle’s story of the poison cloud, Lovecraft’s dark, cruel, sinister and uncaring universe, you name it.

    Me, I grew up on Cosmos :). Sagan could, and probably did, say things very much like this quote, only very, very differently. I’ll take his awe and ecstatic joy over Russell’s stiff upper lip.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    It doesn’t resonate with me, because he’s struggling with a problem I just don’t feel. The problems he faces in the first paragraph strike me as the problems of a theist-turned-atheist. As an atheist-from-birth, I never felt this troubling emptiness he struggles with. When I was a little kid, theists would ask me, “But then what’s the meaning of life?” and it wasn’t until years later that I even understood what they were talking about. It wasn’t a question that I thought had an obvious counter-answer, so much as an incomprehensible question, like “But then why are there no monkey in blue, blue?” I just had no idea what they were even getting at. I understand the question better now, but to some degree, I still feel that way.

    . . .Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticize, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs. . .

    Sounds great for Man! I wonder what Woman should do during her brief years? Maybe take up knitting or something.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    It doesn’t resonate with me, because he’s struggling with a problem I just don’t feel. The problems he faces in the first paragraph strike me as the problems of a theist-turned-atheist. As an atheist-from-birth, I never felt this troubling emptiness he struggles with.

    Very interesting point AH. I’m curious about this. Would the atheists here who did used to be theists feel differently? I mean, would they resonate more with Russell’s struggle? And, conversely, are all other lifelong atheists here like yourself AH and have never felt much need for a “meaning of life”, or are there some that have been raised as atheists and yet still do occasionally feel that longing for a “higher meaning” even though they know it’s a pointless desire?

    (And again, before someone accuses me of it, these aren’t leading questions and I have no agenda. I’m honestly just curious.)

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    If I took any given part of this, I could probably agree in principle, and yet the whole thing sits completely wrong with me. It’s the choice of words, really, a focus on the universe as cold and uncaring, when really it’s just that it’s not the custom built playpen we thought it was for so long. His words, in short, seem to have a bit of the petulance of a child who has gotten their first lesson that maybe, just maybe, the world doesn’t revolve around them.

    I don’t mean that as a dig against Russell, though it sounds like it :). It’s an era thing, that whole late 19th/early 20th century when science had really laid the smack down on our sense of ourselves — the discovery of evolution, and the growing understanding of just how big the universe is.

    Believe it or not, this is exactly the point my professor made after reading this quote in class. :)

  • GullWatcher

    I think Gregory has the right of it – that piece was written in 1903, and to our modern ears it sounds overly dramatic. It’s a pretty negative way of saying “today matters”, even though I do think that positive sentiment is in there, under heaps of prose.

    are all other lifelong atheists here like yourself AH and have never felt much need for a “meaning of life”

    Yes, and yes. Lifelong, and I was always the one in the classic high school/college bull sessions going “what meaning of life?” and “who says there is one?” and “why do you think you need one?”. Just never felt the need for one, myself….

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    No agenda on my part, just stuff that I thought would be interesting to hear others’ thoughts on.

    Ah, so we finally found out your agenda! You want to “hear others’ thoughts”, which is obviously an euphemism for something far more sinister!

    Somebody contrasted this essay with Carl Sagan’s approach, which would usually evoke an awe with the wonders of the universe. But I think I actually prefer Russell’s approach. There is just something about cosmic sadness and tragedy that I find aesthetically pleasing. Tragedies make some of the best stories, I think. And that’s ultimately what it is, just a story. I don’t really consider Russell’s version to be any more or less true than Carl Sagan’s version.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    There is just something about cosmic sadness and tragedy that I find aesthetically pleasing.

    I agree. It’s why I like Norse Mythology so much – the gods lose in the end, but we should still fight on the side of the gods. Not too dissimilar from what Russell is saying.

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you Mike for an enjoyable conversation.

    I have understood and accepted this basic view of the universe since I was a kid, and it has never depressed or defeated me. I’m not really sure that Russell was personally feeling the despair that he was describing. He might have been singing the lament of others who thought it was supposed to be different, who thought that somehow life was supposed to have a meaning and a fairness built into it, and then were disappointed to discover that it does not.

    However, nothing has been lost but our childhood fantasy. Meaning and fairness are our inventions, and we can pursue their perfection if we wish, as best as we can within the limits imposed by our utterly mindless surroundings. It’s not that the universe is “unfair” and “uncaring” because those words subtly imply that, like a person, it is capable of fairness and caring but it chooses not to. No, it is neither fair nor unfair, neither caring nor uncaring. It is not capable of any of that because it is not conscious. Only living things have varieties of that, and we still fail to have a clear understanding of what consciousness even is. Some of us spin intricate and starry-eyed notions about the significance of our awareness and that other questionable concept we call free will, wanting to pump ourselves up to something that is worthy of the meaning and fairness that we still hope the universe will grant us. Nope. That stuff is up to us and only us, every day, year and lifetime.

    I know that some day there will be no trace of us but a thin dark line in the sedimentary rock, no poets to sing our heroic story, no monuments to our glory. Not one stone we cut will stand upon another. That is not sad or depressing or defeating to me. My carbon and calcium will be re-used again and again until the sun swallows the earth, and even after that, molecules everywhere will go on and on for trillions times trillions of eons until the final entropy. It’s silly and vain to think that my particular use of them is so important that it must somehow be preserved for eternity.

    In the meantime, I am living my life, inventing its meaning as I go along. I’m just as engaged in the struggle to survive as any animal or plant, but I’m one of the luckier ones, and I don’t take that for granted. I appreciate and take full advantage of my good fortune. Sandwiched between the sandstone of ages past and the shale of ages to come, I am here right now and I feel joy and love, and I happily accept that with that comes grief and pain. I’m able to pursue those popular hobbies called meaning and fairness. My version has to do with helping others and as far as the local standards go, I’d say that I’m doing a good job.

  • http://deeplyblasphemous.blogspot.com Chris Bradley

    As an interesting matter of fact, the universe is about 3 degrees Kelvin. There is no indication that it possesses sentience. So the descriptions of the universe as cold and uncaring are physically accurate. The universe is very cold and quite uncaring. ;)

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    I found it sweet, sad and inspiring, kind of like life is sometimes. None of his facts are wrong (or almost – there’s the old “random” canard), but his words (outside of the presentation of the basic facts) aren’t actually bleak – they’re more like turning to face the wind. He sees a kind of heroism in that, and I like that.

    I wouldn’t say I always feel the same way, but I sure get where he’s coming from. Facing up to the facts that there’s no particular purpose there, no destination and doing what you can anyway is kind of heroic.

  • Stephen P

    … all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

    This is an elegant summary of a point which takes most people a lot more words to express. One to remember.

  • Aubrey

    wow. Richard, you made me cry!

    Do you have to be so poetic???? :)

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I’m a life-long atheist. I do think that we all have the capacity to purposefully direct our attention. I try to look on the bright side of life (I’m thinking of the end of “Life of Brian”). Its quite possible to fully realize that you are only alive for a finite amount of time yet still enjoy your life and try to leave the world better than when you found it.

    Life is like going on a camping trip. You can have fun while camping, clean up your mess, and even pick up a bit of trash that isn’t yours. You know the camping trip is only for a couple of days, but you can still enjoy it still the same. You can marvel at the beauty of nature.

  • Todd

    Personally, when I dwell on the meaninglessness and amorality of existence, I find it liberating. I’m always careful about how I express that thought, because you never know how someone is going to take it, but I cannot deny that nihilism appeals to me.

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    I was raised deeply theistic, and when I became an atheist, I did have to struggle with the whole “meaning of life” thing a ‘little’ bit. Honestly, though, it’s hard to remember my feelings at the time, but I was much more ok with it than Russell’s quote makes it sound. I was so depressed under the confusing, cloying religion, it was actually a big relief to take a breath and realize, “Wow, I can make my own meaning in life!”

  • Mathew Wilder

    @ Mike: I agree with you about Norse mythology. Tom Shippey wrote about Norse mythology’s influence on Tolkien, and in describing it’s basic outlook, summarized it as “Dying undaunted is no defeat.” That resonates with me.

    I too like Russell’s piece aesthetically. Sagan can offer inspire when he describes the beauty of nature, but, and maybe this is just because I’m depressed, but I can only keep that feeling for a short time. Russell’s stuff upper lip is much more my style. When I look at the world of human affairs, there is so much hatred, violence, suffering, ugliness and despair, that any awe I have for science is completely overwhelmed.

    Russell here reminds me of Camus, who I think would agre with the Norse outlook. We live in an universe devoid of meaning, deaf to human cries for meaning, and that opposition is the Absurd; it is only by keeping the Absurd before us that we can avoid the totalizing worldviews that result from thinking one has grasped “the Meaning” and lead to totalitarianism.

    There is no such thing as purity. We all have blood on our hands, either directly or indirectly, but we can’t let that stop is from living our lives. The best we can do is make a stand for human solidarity against the plague of evil and suffering and death. It may be a small gesture, compared to the immensity of the coming darkness that awaits all, but it is the only thing we have.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    [A]re all other lifelong atheists here like yourself AH and have never felt much need for a “meaning of life”, or are there some that have been raised as atheists and yet still do occasionally feel that longing for a “higher meaning” even though they know it’s a pointless desire?

    Well, I’m a lifelong atheist myself, and I think I did have a sort of deconversionary experience when I realised that morality couldn’t be set in stone — that it was created by us, rather than the universe. In a way, that makes me unhappy, because morality is important to me.

    That said, I am determined to make the best of it. I scorn the suggestion that I might sacrifice my love of truth. And it seems ungrateful to wish for a ‘higher meaning’. I’m here. How incredible is that? Though the universe could not be hurt by my ungratefulness, nonetheless I am not ungrateful. The disconnect between the universe as it is and the universe I would wish for sets me a task, that’s all. I must create my own meaning. Fortunately, many others have gone before me, and I can draw ideas from them, but ultimately meaning is an artwork that I create myself.

    That power to create is a privilege. What if I were asked to surrender it to some higher power who would write my meaning for me? I would feel relief, perhaps — the task is difficult — but I would also feel an incredible loss. No, I do not wish for a ‘higher meaning’. I shall not ask that the paintbrush be taken from me.

  • Mike

    It’s an era thing, that whole late 19th/early 20th century when science had really laid the smack down on our sense of ourselves — the discovery of evolution, and the growing understanding of just how big the universe is.

    I think this gets at the heart of what is wrong off to us about the Russell quote. Since his time, we’ve discovered much more about our Universe, though I am sure many atheists still take the “cold and uncaring” view.

    I would recommend “View from the Center of the Universe” as an antidote to this view. Abrams and Primack lay out modern cosmology in such a way that it centers humanity in a unique and inspiring position in the Universe. I had the pleasure of meeting them, and while I won’t venture a guess as to their religious views, I would say that their understanding of science and the Universe has given them the warm fuzzies and not the cold shoulder.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Here is my philosophy,
    Always look on the bright side of life

  • http://loathing.wordpress.com Dave

    The world of science, so described, is not the one of which I think. The world I think of is a world for man and woman alike with which to become intimate. One that is unhindered and unobstructed by wastes of energy and time known as superstition. One that can provide countless beauties called natural phenomenon and deep meaning in understanding the intricate workings of nature.
    And, the lack of an ultimate destiny can be a marvellous thing. One can stop looking for answers in the shadows of invisible, untouchable phantoms; and start–to borrow from a cliché–creating one’s own destiny. Efforts need no longer go wasted. The potential of a person need no longer be leached to imaginings.

    Well that was my attempt to write early Victorian-esque (I’m assuming that’s the era) prose. Hopefully it some of it is comprehensible; if not organised, I admit.

  • Richard Wade

    Dave, not bad. I liked it.

  • http://seabhag.blogspot.com/2006/10/vista-of-endless-possibilities.html Jonathan Hardin

    I grew up in a very conservative home. Typical of the creationists I was taught that one couldn’t have any sort of morality unless one believed in a Creator. When I left the burdensome, heartweary, faith of my youth I was struck by how open the universe was. A world of possibilities, but I had to reach for them myself. It was amazingly freeing. I get that same image from Russell’s words here.

    I’m also a lover of the old Norse myths of standing against wrong even if one knows that one will lose. It is that sort of ‘romance’ (if one could call it that) which I think inspires. To fight against what I perceive as the unfairness of life and to make the world a better place than I found it. I liked Sagan’s sub-title to “A Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” Our lives may be short like candles, but the light from a source goes on (though ever dimmer) into the night long after the source has vanished.

    The brighter we burn, the more we strive to make the world a better place, to understand that much more about the universe in which we live, the longer that our impact on the world will be

  • Aj

    As far as I can gather meaning to religious people is significance to an all powerful deity that values you, loves you, or has a plan for you. Religion attributes everyday events with superstition, with intent, requiring intelligence, sometimes sentience, supernatural or semi-supernatural suspension of physical laws, this is where deities come from. People want to be significant, especially to the powerful. Calling this a “higher” meaning is rather pathetic, its one of our lower characteristics.

    It’s nice to be valued and loved but I really have to question theists apparant delight believing that someone else has a purpose for them, and they’re part of someone else’s plans. If you’re desperate for a purpose from someone else there’s plenty of humans that would glady fill that role, and often to under religious pretenses.

    Of course atheists have their share of narcissism, and you can’t really blame people for having this desire in their nature. Yet those that are life-long atheists that are rational aren’t going to miss being significant to supernatural entities. They’re going to have experienced it elsewhere, you don’t need a deity for a “meaning to life”, we can be significant to ourselves and be significant to others, we can give ourselves purpose, or acquire a purpose from others.

    Not having a deity that values us does have implications on our fragility, inevitable demise, and proportionally short stay as Russell laments. It has never troubled me, it would be nice to be safe, but lots of imagined states would be nice, I do not lament that I can’t move objects with my mind or have rivers of chocolate, however awesome that would be.


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