فصل 31

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فصل 31

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chapter 31

Is the Present King of France Bald?

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell’s main interests as a teenager were sex, religion and mathematics – all at a theoretical level. In his very long life (he died in 1970, aged 97) he ended up being controversial about the first, attacking the second, and making important contributions to the third.

Russell’s views on sex got him into trouble. In 1929 he published Marriage and Morals. In that book he questioned Christian views about the importance of being faithful to your partner. He didn’t think you had to be. This raised a few eyebrows at the time. Not that that bothered Russell much. He’d already spent six months in Brixton prison for speaking out against the First World War in 1916. In later life he helped found the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which is an international movement opposed to all weapons of mass destruction. This sprightly old man would be at the front of public rallies in the 1960s, still as opposed to war as he had been as a young man some fifty years earlier. As he put it, ‘Either man will abolish war, or war will abolish man.’ So far neither outcome has been realized.

On religion he was just as outspoken and just as provocative. For Russell there was no chance of God stepping in to save humanity: our only chance lay in using our powers of reason. People were drawn to religion, he believed, because they were afraid of dying. Religion comforted them. It was very reassuring to believe that a God exists who will punish evil people, even if they get away with murder and worse on earth. But it wasn’t true. God doesn’t exist. And religion nearly always produced more misery than happiness. He did allow that Buddhism might be different from most other religions, but Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism all had a lot to answer for. These religions throughout their histories had been the cause of war, individual suffering and hatred. Millions had died as a result of them.

It should be clear from all this that, despite being a pacifist, Russell was prepared to stand up and fight (at least with ideas) for what he believed to be right and just. Even as a pacifist he still thought that in rare cases, such as the Second World War, fighting might be the best option available.

By birth he was an English aristocrat. He came from a very distinguished family: his official title was the 3rd Earl Russell. You could probably tell that he was an aristocrat just by looking at him. He had a distinguished haughty sort of look, an impish grin and twinkly eyes. His voice gave him away as a member of the upper classes. On recordings he sounds like something from another century – which he was: he was born in 1872, so was truly a Victorian. His grandfather on his father’s side, Lord John Russell, had been Prime Minister.

Bertrand’s non-religious ‘godfather’ was the philosopher John Stuart Mill (the subject of Chapter 24). Sadly, he never got to know him as Mill died when Russell was still a toddler. But he was still a huge influence on Russell’s development. Reading Mill’s Autobiography (1873) was what led Russell to reject God. He had previously believed the First Cause Argument. This is the argument, used by Thomas Aquinas amongst others, that everything must have a cause; and the cause of everything, the very first cause in the chain of cause and effect, must be God. But Mill asked the question ‘What caused God?’ and Russell saw the logical problem for the First Cause Argument. If there is one thing that doesn’t have a cause then it can’t be true that ‘Everything has a cause’. It made more sense to Russell to think that even God had a cause rather than believe that something could just exist without being caused by anything else.

Like Mill, Russell had an unusual and not particularly happy childhood. Both his parents died when he was very young, and his grandmother, who looked after him, was strict and a bit distant. Taught at home by private tutors, he threw himself into his studies and became a brilliant mathematician, going on to lecture at Cambridge University. But what really fascinated him was what made mathematics true. Why is 2 + 2 = 4 true? We know it is true. But why is it true? This led him quite quickly to philosophy.

As a philosopher, his real love was logic: a subject on the border between philosophy and mathematics. Logicians study the structure of reasoning, usually using symbols to express their ideas. He became fascinated by the branch of mathematics and logic called set theory. Set theory seemed to promise a way of explaining the structure of all our reasoning, but Russell came up with a big problem for that idea: it led to contradiction.

The way he showed this was in a famous paradox that was named after him.

Here’s an example of Russell’s Paradox. Imagine a village in which there is a barber whose job it is to shave all (and only) the people who don’t shave themselves. If I lived there, I’d probably shave myself – I don’t think I’d be organized enough to get to the barber every day and I can shave myself perfectly well. And it would probably work out too expensive for me. But if I decided I didn’t want to, then the barber would be the one to shave me. But where does that leave the barber? He’s allowed to shave only people who don’t shave themselves. By this rule, he can’t ever shave himself because he can only shave people who don’t shave themselves. This is going to get difficult for him. Usually if someone can’t shave himself in this village it is the barber who does it for him. But the rule won’t allow the barber to do that, because that would turn him into someone who shaved himself – but the barber only shaves the ones who don’t shave themselves.

This is a situation that seems to lead to a direct contradiction – saying something is both true and false. That’s what a paradox is. It’s very puzzling. What Russell discovered was that when a set refers to itself this sort of paradox emerges. Take another famous example of the same sort of thing: ‘This sentence is false.’ This is a paradox too. If the words ‘This sentence is false’ mean what they seem to mean (and are true) then the sentence is false – which then means that what it states is true! This seems to suggest that the sentence is both true and false. But a sentence can’t be true and false at the same time. That’s a basic part of logic. So there’s the paradox.

These are interesting puzzles in themselves. There’s no easy solution to them, and that seems strange. But they were far more important than that for Russell. What they did was reveal that some of the basic assumptions that logicians all over the world had been making about set theory were wrong. They needed to begin again.

Another of Russell’s main interests was how what we say relates to the world. If he could work out what made a statement true or false it would be a significant contribution to human knowledge, he felt. Again, he was interested in the very abstract questions that lie behind all our thinking. Much of his work was devoted to explaining the logical structure underlying the statements we make. He felt that our language was far less precise than logic. Ordinary language needed to be analysed – taken apart – to bring out its underlying logical shape. He was convinced that the key to making advances in all areas of philosophy was this sort of logical analysis of language, which involved translating it into more precise terms.

For example, take the sentence, ‘The golden mountain does not exist.’ Everyone is likely to agree that this sentence is true. That’s because there is no mountain made of gold anywhere in the world. The sentence seems to be saying something about a thing that does not exist. The phrase ‘the golden mountain’ seems to refer to something real, but we know it doesn’t. This is a puzzle for logicians. How can we talk meaningfully about non-existent things? Why isn’t the sentence completely meaningless? One answer, given by the Austrian logician Alexius Meinong, was that everything that we can think about and talk about meaningfully does exist. On his view, the golden mountain must exist, but in a special way he labelled ‘subsistence’. He also thought unicorns and the number 27 ‘subsist’ in this way.

Meinong’s way of thinking about logic didn’t seem right to Russell. It does seem very strange. It meant that the world was full of things that exist in one sense but not in another. Russell devised a simpler way of explaining how what we say relates to what exists. This is known as his Theory of Descriptions. Take the rather odd sentence (one of Russell’s favourites) ‘The present king of France is bald.’ Even in the early twentieth century when Russell was writing there was no king of France. France got rid of all her kings and queens during the French Revolution. So how could he make sense of that sentence? Russell’s answer was that, like most sentences in ordinary language, it wasn’t quite what it seemed.

Here’s the problem. If we want to say that the sentence ‘The present king of France is bald’ is false, this seems to be committing us to saying that there is a present king of France who isn’t bald. But that surely isn’t what we mean at all. We don’t believe there is a present king of France. Russell’s analysis was this. A statement like ‘The present king of France is bald’ is actually a kind of hidden description. When we speak about ‘the present king of France’ the underlying logical shape of our idea is this: (a) There exists something that is the present king of France. (b) There is only one thing that is the present king of France. (c) Anything that is the present king of France is bald.

This complicated way of spelling things out allowed Russell to show that ‘The present king of France is bald’ can make some sense even though there is no present king of France. It makes sense, but is false. Unlike Meinong, he didn’t need to imagine that the present king of France had to exist somehow (or subsist) in order to speak and think about him. For Russell the sentence ‘The present king of France is bald’ is false because the present king of France doesn’t exist. The sentence suggests that he does; so the sentence is false rather than true. The sentence ‘The present king of France is not bald’ is also false for the same reason.

Russell started what is sometimes called the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, a movement in which philosophers began to think very hard about language and its underlying logical form. A.J. Ayer was part of that movement.

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