“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong” – Bertrand Russell

Disclaimer: Pseudo Political argument below! Also, Sorry for the hiatus, life has been very busy but I’m back and ready to philosophize!

Bertrand Russell, a personal idol of mine, is one of the most prominent philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Russell was the son of a Lord, god son of John Stuart Mill, Nobel  Laureate, Cambridge attendee, ex- convict (yeah that’s right), and one of the founders of analytical philosophy, which may be why, as the Practical Philosopher, I am so drawn to him. Bertrand Russell made large contributions in the fields of logic, philosophy of mathematics, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Aside from my preference towards his line of thinking, his quote “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong” seems extremely prevalent in our modern day society. While I will try to remain neutral on political matters here, my beliefs may spill through.

I will also reference another one of Russell’s famous dictums during this discussion, commonly referred to as Russell’s teapot. This dictum holds that the burden of proof falls on the person making an unfalsifiable claim, rather than the burden of disproof falling on others. He used this logic to open up dialogue around the existence of god. The argument goes something like this: If I told you a teapot were orbiting in space somewhere between Earth and Mars, I could not logically expect anyone to believe me just because it cannot be proven wrong. The burden does not rely on you to disprove it, rather on me to prove the assertion is true. While my aim in this blog is NOT to get into a discussion on the philosophy of religion (which is what Russell had intended to use this line of reasoning for), I do think Russell’s teapot bodes nicely with the quote mentioned at the outset. Now that we have gotten the history out of the way, let’s get PRACTICAL!

In the age of social media, it seems that almost everyone has strong opinions or beliefs on just about everything. The advent of the internet has allowed people to gain access to a seemingly infinite amount of information and share their ideas with others openly, which is a great win for freedom of speech! Unfortunately, as we also know, this access to information makes many people believe they are experts in a number of disciplines, and apparently you cannot really be an expert if you don’t share your newly found expertise with all of your followers and state it as fact or original thought.

This was perhaps most evident recently with the U.S. Presidential election, the keyboard warriors took to their computers to “research” information on their candidate and then post their “original” thoughts for everyone to see.

The obvious issue with this, is that it commits the fallacy of self-fulfilling prophecy, namely, if you want to find proof that Trump or Hillary are bad candidates, you will certainly be able to type a few words into your search engine and find it. This fallacy is not caused by social media; rather it is exacerbated by it.

The real cause seems to be imbedded in our physiology. We are all inclined by our socio-economic environment to believe certain things. In turn, these beliefs, when validated release dopamine and make us feel good. So it is actually quite natural to try and validate our points and historically it makes sense because if, for example, you were able to back up your beliefs regarding what to eat or how to attack another tribe, this could make the difference between life and death.

So while the nature of validating our beliefs is natural, the method with which we go about validation is all wrong and would most likely lead to certain death years ago! What you learn early on in philosophical thought is that in order to strengthen your beliefs and opinions you should actually be able to look to the merits of the other argument because it is only through understanding the other merits that you can truly hope at disproving them and strengthing your argument. Imagine you had a war tactic that you believed was the best, it had been used by your tribe for generations and only cost you 50% of your infantry! If you talk to other people in your tribe who have also used this tactic, they will simply bolster your belief system. However, if you go to other tribes, one that has a 75% death rate and one that has a 25% death rate you will quickly realize that while your beliefs regarding war tactics wasn’t the worst, it certainly wasn’t the best.

Going back to the Trump/Clinton analogy, if you are/were a Trump supporter and you only look at his strengths and Clinton’s weaknesses, of course you are going to feel good about your opinion, but then what happens when a good point is raised about Clinton? All you can do is defer, you will have no rebuttal other than to chastise Hillary/Trump for something irrelevant to the original point. It may appear that it is strengthing your argument, but in fact it is just strengthening your ignorance. So, on a superficial level I think we can all agree that in the age of social media, where your point of view can be validated almost instantaneously, you should never die for your beliefs because you might be wrong and chances are you likely are.

I added the caveat of “chances are you likely are” because as mentioned above, the so-called “expertise” you obtained was most likely from searching the internet. However, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you have spent countless hours following the election, reading both sides of the stories, understanding their agenda’s, etc. Here’s the thing, it is estimated that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a skill, while there is some disagreement around this, the variance is not that large! If we stick to the 10,000 hours rule, that translates to roughly 420 days. That means you would need to stay awake and do nothing but research American politics for well over a year just to qualify as an expert. But again, I will give you the benefit of the doubt.

So you’ve just spent the last 14 months doing nothing but research and somehow not died from exhaustion (or boredom), you are an expert on U.S. politics and are sure that you can debate your way in any argument to “prove” that Trump will be a better President. You just nailed Russell’s Teapot and are ready to take to the internet to share your newly acquired expertise. There is just one more problem, POLITICS IS SUBJECTIVE, and therefore it is JUST a belief. You may be able to argue for another 14 months non-stop, but you will still end up frustrated with the “ignorance” of people who do not get your view point. Do you know why?

A belief relies on faith and trust, rather than on fact. You do not “believe” that 2+2=4, you KNOW 2+2=4, and this is what Bertrand Russell was trying to say, don’t die for your beliefs because you may be wrong. I want to also note that this quote, at least from my perspective, is not to take away from those who have acted as Martyr’s, but what needs to be considered is where the belief system lies between ignorance and knowledge. I don’t think many people would argue that if you gave your life to save the lives of a group of innocent children against a tyrant, that this is a “good” deed. I would argue though that this person’s believes they are doing an act that is fundamentally good, and therefore it manifests as knowledge to that person. Unfortunately, the same argument would also be applicable to many extremists who commit heinous crimes based on a belief system they take as fact. While my aim here is not to get into discussions on the nature of morality (whether it is a priori, exists universally, or a posteriori, must be justifiably proven), I think if we look once more to Russell’s teapot we will find the answer.

I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong! But if you do posit that your beliefs are worth dying for (which I am by no means endorsing or encouraging anybody to pursue) remember that to proof of justification falls on YOU! If you cannot prove your belief, you may want to look at the merits of others to find justification. Not only will you learn more about the validity of your own argument, you may completely switch sides! From Clinton to Trump, Martyr to Extremist, don’t die for your beliefs, because in today’s day and age you might be wrong and probably are!


The Practical Philosopher.


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