A Man Not Subject to Natural Forces

Bertrand Russell included the following comment in an essay in which he satirized the reader’s ability to see irrationality in the views of others, but not in his or her own view.

“Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity”.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

With these words, he concluded the essay that introduced the Celestial Teapot to the world. And they provide evidence supporting his claims about our inability to spot irrationality in our own beliefs; though not, I suspect, in the way that he would have wanted it to.

We exist as the product of the interaction of our genetic coding with the environment.  If you take away natural forces, what is left?

 Supernatural Man!

Bertrand Russell was a man who held intelligence in high regard.

Only in thought is man a God; in action and desire we are the slaves of circumstance

Letter to Lucy Donnely, November 25, 1902.

It is possible even probable that he regarded intelligence as something apart from natural forces.

The human brain and the human penis are large compared to those of other primates, and evolutionary biologists are not certain about how the forces of natural selection brought about these enlargements. This is not sufficient reason to declare, natural selection null and void, and  either of these two organs supernatural.

How humans came to have these anomalously large organs is of interest to researchers, and there are abundant hypotheses purporting to explain the phenomena.

One theory of human intelligence is that proposed by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers. He argues that our intellectual abilities are the consequence of a metaphorical arms race between genes coding for the ability to deceive others, and genes for detecting that deception.  He adds one extra ingredient to this mix; genes that have been selected for, because they enable us to self-deceive, and thus ensure that we don’t inadvertently clue others into the fact that we are deceiving them.

He thus argues that high intelligence rather than being a gift which enables you to acquire an accurate understanding of the world, is strongly linked with self- deception.  That is it enables you to see clearly only the evil and foolishness in the other.

In the following quote Bertrand Russell demonstrates that he understands this human capacity for seeing foolishness and irrationality in the other.

We all know that there are absurd beliefs in Soviet Russia. If we are Protestants, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Catholics. If we are Catholics, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Protestants. If we are Conservatives, we are amazed by the superstitions to be found in the Labour Party. If we are Socialists, we are aghast at the credulity of Conservatives. I do not know, dear reader, what your beliefs may be, but whatever they may be, you must concede that nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths of mankind are totally irrational. The beliefs in question are, of course, those which you do not hold. 

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

Yet he shows no awareness that his own belief system might be similarly flawed, believing apparently that his vast intelligence has the capacity to save him.

Our human nature leaves us with the capacity to believe ourselves and the social groups to which we belong, to be better than they really are, to see the evil only in the other, and worse still to project our faults on to others.

To understand this truth does not require an understanding of evolution, it requires observational skills, and the gumption to realise that you are not likely to be free of the flaws, that it is so easy to observe in others.  It is knowing this truth that has the capacity to make you free, not the lack of subjection to natural forces.

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

John Chapter 8 Verse 32 King James Version

This freedom was the aim of the real Christianity, that I rather suspect Jonathan Swift was in favour of, despite his claim to the contrary.

I hope no reader imagines me so weak to stand up in the defence of real Christianity, such as used in primitive times (if we may believe the authors of those ages) to have an influence upon men’s belief and actions. To offer at the restoring of that, would indeed be a wild project:

An Argument against Abolishing Christianity   Johnathan Swift 1708

This real Christianity is a thousand years older than the traditional theology Bertrand Russell critiqued in “Is there a God.”

Real Christianity, allowed you to acknowledge the truth about yourself, and know that despite the fact that you were a disappointment to yourself, that God loved, accepted and freely forgave you. Knowing this you were freed to, metaphorically, pin your old nature on the cross and live to emulate Christ.

 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

Galations Chapter 2 verse 20  King James Version

Bertrand Russell’s essay was entitled, Is there a God? and while he argued that there was no reason to believe the dogmas of traditional theology, he appeared not to give a direct answer to the question. Yet I would argue that the final two sentences of his conclusion do provide an answer.

“Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity”.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

The  Man described here is the God  at the centre of the Christian message.  The Supernatural Being who became flesh to show us how to live, and who by his victory over death demonstrated that he was not subject to natural forces

So while it was probably not his intention to do so, and he probably didn’t understand that he had:

Bertrand Russell said,“Yes.”

Of course just because Bertrand Russell said it, is insufficient reason to believe it to be true.

For those of us who are not philosophers, the existence of a witty remark is sufficient to convince us that someone must have made it, the same is true of jokes.

I know of course that co-incidences occur, as do Freudian slips, but I really  want to say:

Nice one God!

  1. Does size matter? Evolution and the Primate Penis. Suzanne Harvey (blogs.ucl.ac.uk)
  2. Robert Trivers Blog (roberttrivers.com)
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