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The Enigma Of The Universe : Bertrand Russell

Published: 26.08.2014

One of the most renowned exponents of the modern Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, was a staunch supporter of realism. His philosophical thoughts are not only based on logic and common sense, but also on modern scientific and mathematical facts. The reason that he has given consideration to mathematics in his philosophy is that mathematics is concerned with objective reality.[1]

Russell, on logical basis, concludes that the things which we perceive must exist objectively. He argues that there must be some resemblance between the perception and the perceived objects, otherwise the former cannot give us the knowledge of the latter: thus perception, to some extent, is an effect of the perceived object.[2] Unless the external objects have independent existence, this cannot happen.

Further, Russell believes that, because the external world has objective existence, it appears alike to different percipients He explains this thus, "The fact that it is possible for a number of people to perceive the same noise or the same coloured pattern obviously depends upon the fact that a physical process can travel outward from a centre and retain certain of its characteristics unchanged, or very little changed. The most notable of such charac­teristics is frequency in a wave-motion. That, no doubt, affords a biological reason for the fact that our most delicate senses, sight and hearing, are sensitive to frequencies, which determine colour in what we see and pitch in what we hear. If there were not, in the physical world, processes spreading out from centres and retaining certain characters practically unchanged, it would be impossible for different percipients to perceive the same object from different points of view, and we should not have been able to discover that we all live in a common world."[3]

Thus, we see that Russell clearly accepts the objective reality of the physical world. On the other hand, he also believes in the real independent existence of non-physical reality-mind or consci­ousness.[4] He has refuted the materialists and emergent materialists who consider "mind" as only a structure of material units. Russell writes-"Is a mind structure of material units? I think it is clear that the answer to this question is in negative."[5] Further considering "mind" the subject of psychology and matter that of physics, he distinguishes them:-"....there certainly is knowledge in psychology which cannot ever form part of physics."[6]

Russell's philosophy, however, is not a naive dualism of mind and matter, though he believes in the real existence of both. Distinguishing his philosophy from idealism and naive realism, he writes. "Popular metaphysics divides the known world into mind and matter, and a human being into soul and body. Some-the materialists-have said that matter alone is real and mind is an illusion. Many-the idealists in the technical sense, or mentalists, as Dr. Broad more appropriately calls them-have taken the opposite view, that mind alone is real and matter is an illusion. The view which I have suggested is that both mind and matter are structures composed of a more primitive stuff which is neither mental nor material.[7] This view is called 'neutral monism.' The more primitive stuff of Russell is termed by him as 'events.' In his own words, "Everything in the world is composed of events."[8]

By 'event', he means "something occupying a small finite amount of space and time." Further describing the structure of 'event' he writes, "Events are not impenetrable, as matter is supposed to be. On the contrary, every event in space-time is overlapped by other events….. When I speak of an 'event' I do not mean anything out of the way. Seeing a flash of lightning is an event, so is hearing a lyre burst, or smelling a rotten egg or feeling the coldness of a frog "particular colours and sounds and so on are events, their causal antecedents in the inanimate world are also events."[9]

Further, he believes that every event is composed of a finite number of events that have no part. Such events, he terms as 'minimal events'. Then, he divides the events into two distinct groups-one of material event and the other of mental events. Matter, according to him, is to be constructed out of the events belonging to the former group, while mind out of the latter. Material events are defined as "events which cause our sensations," while mental events are "events in a region combining sensitivity and the law of learned reaction to a marked extent", event or in simple language, mental event is "any event in a living brain."[10]

In his own words, his view is described thus: "It will be seen that the view which I am advocating is neither materialism nor mentalism, but what (following a suggestion of Dr. H. M. Sheffer) we call it 'Neutral Monism.' It is monism in the sense that it admits the existence of a great multiplicity of events, each minimal event being a logically self-subsistent entity."[11]


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Title: The Enigma Of The Universe Publisher: JVB University Ladnun English Edition: 2010 HN4U Online Edition: 2014

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  1. Bertrand Russell
  2. Body
  3. Brain
  4. Monism
  5. Russell
  6. Soul
  7. Space
  8. Will Durant
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