May 18, 2011 - Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell

This guy was really, really smart!

Bertrand Russell, who was born in Wales (Great Britain) on this day in 1872, became a philosopher, mathematician, logician, and historian, and he used logic and reason to discuss social problems, war, religion, and nuclear disarmament. 

He was a clear thinker and a clear writer, two of my favorite qualities in an intellectual.

He was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.

Being open...

One thing I like about Bertrand Russell is that he was capable of changing his mind. Although many times his first opinion on a topic remained intact all his life (for example, his support of women's rights and suffrage), in other cases he supported ideas or causes that he later modified or even reversed. For example, his first response to the Russian Revolution was hope that Communism would be a wonderful system for equality and liberty. However, he took the time to check out the results, rather than just speculate from afar; he went to the Soviet Union and met with Vladimir Lenin in 1920. He was unimpressed with what he saw, and he wrote critically of Lenin's Communism. Later, he was even more strongly critical of Stalin's regime.

In other words, he sought evidence about something he had supported, and when the evidence warranted a change in opinion, he quickly and publicly changed.

Russell didn't change his mind whimsically; he didn't just follow fads. He warned people who made extraordinary claims, especially those who made claims that couldn't be disproved, that the onus was on them to offer positive evidence for their idea. After all, he pointed out, nobody could prove that a teapot wasn't in outer space, somewhere, flying in a faraway orbit around the sun—but despite the fact that people can't disprove the idea, it's certainly reasonable for them to NOT believe such a claim!

In other words, Russell kept an open mind, but he didn't leave his mind so far open that his brains fell out!