"As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles."
- Bertrand Russell in "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" in "Unpopular Essays"(1950)
My own ideas on the quote:
Bertrand Russell would have been a fool if he would have claimed that one should abandon all authority, even if on the surface this quote seems to imply such thing. No, the important part is the part about abandoning one's own reason. Only this process can lead to relying solely on the force of authority.
A blind relying on authority alone did, in fact, cause a situation where generation after generation of quite sensible men and women did believe that women do have fewer teeth than men. The reason for this was that none other than philosopher Aristotle himself had made such an erroneous claim. This idiocy persisted for centuries, even if anybody could have counted those teeth and would have seen that great man was wrong in this matter.
Of course, we inevitably accept a mass of things on face value on the basis of the perceived authority of the informant. This fact can much be even altered, as a life without trusted sources is just impossible. However, Bertrand Russell says that after we receive new information we should always use our own reason to analyze it. Are the received facts still current? Why is this person saying these things?
There is always one important question, Can the person in question have a some kind of hidden agenda that he or she tries to further by using just some facts but ignoring others? The danger of overlooking hidden agendas always arises when we start accepting things on face value. The hidden agendas are present everywhere.
This all is made more difficult by the fact that the source of information is not always even conscious of the mental process that does lead to the picking and choosing of one's data to suit one's hidden objectives. One just might not be even aware of that influence.
For example, many Christian scientist or historians may well think that they are perfectly objective. They can think so, even when they may quite systematically reject data that could be harmful for the interests of their ideology. They just might all too often be doing this picking and choosing quite unconsciously.
Bertrand Russell is saying here that one should never completely surrender one's critical faculties, even if the source of information should appear to be even extremely reliable. The danger is naturally greatest when we are in agreement with the source of the information. We all just humans and we are prone to let our critical faculties drop when we receive information that we want to be true. This is human and it is also quite inevitable. However, being aware of the trap might help a bit sometimes.
(This piece was completely refurbished on 30th of October, 2012)
Bertrand Russell is also in Facebook at:
"Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS(18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic."