Posts Tagged ‘Bertrand Russell’

Insights as mutations


“Insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means.” – Bertrand Russell, in his essay “Mysticism and Logic”

I like this line. I like it because Russell manages to combine the rational person’s wariness of “gut feelings” as tests of truth, with an acknowledgement of the great value that such intuitions have in formulating hypotheses for science to test.

I also like it because it triggered a connection in my mind that I hadn’t considered before, between the operation of science and the operation of evolution. It boils down to a simple analogy:

Insight is to science as mutation is to evolution.

The great strength of modern science is of course the rigorous methods we have developed (methods of measuring, methods of analysing, and methods of thinking) for testing competing hypotheses and determining which is more likely to be true. But none of this would be worth anything without hypotheses to test, and the birth of many hypotheses is in personal intuitions that sprang into people’s minds, for reasons that may have little or nothing to do with reasoning or logic.

The great strength of evolution as a process is the tremendous power of selection – through competition, predation, sexual selection, whatever. Variations in the genetic instructions that confer advantages tend to proliferate, because the organisms carrying them reproduce more. But selection would be powerless without variations to work on. Variations are largely produced by mutation, a process that is blind to the selective advantage of any particular genetic change.

Insights are the raw material for scientific advances, just as mutations are the raw material for evolution.

There’s more.

The popular conception of science is rather mixed, but you often see in movies a lone scientist working away and then, at a critical moment, shouting “Eureka!” and solving the problem. The coolest thing about science in the eyes of moviemakers is (I suspect) the moment of intuitive insight. (The other side is that scientists are often thought of as following set procedures to come up with answers, without any creativity or spontaneity allowed.)

A common conception of evolution (frequently trotted out by creationists) is that it’s all about random change miraculously producing complexity. This is understandably laughed at – by creationists, who suggest that therefore evolution couldn’t be true, and by biologists, who suggest that evolution is not just random mutations. (The other side of popular conceptions of evolution is that it’s an inexorable progression – all about moving from more primitive to less primitive, from simple to complex – which is just as wrong.)

I don’t want to stretch an already thin metaphor, so I think I’ll stop there.

I’m not trying to suggest that any of these parallels provide support for either the scientific method or evolution. (Each of those stands very firmly on its own grounds.)

I also don’t think that the parallels above reflect any deeper symmetries or underlying message. We are pattern-matching machines, and I think this was just an example of my brain making a match and sitting back to say “wow”.

Let me know if you think this is cool too. Or if you think I have missed some key consideration that demolishes the beautiful analogy.

At any rate, thanks to Bertrand Russell for inspiring this train of thought. Russell was the “New Atheist” of his day, and received at least as much ill-conceived condemnation and vilification as today’s generation get.


Bertrand Russell on same-sex marriage?


From Bertrand Russell’s essay “On the value of scepticism” in the collection Sceptical Essays (first published 1928):

The bulk of the population of every country is persuaded that all marriage customs other than its own are immoral, and that those who combat this view only do so in order to justify their own loose lives.

Does this remind you of some contemporary issue? It sure strikes me as familiar.