1. Russell points out that while there is no way to prove the existence of a reality independent of perception, there is likewise no way to prove that perception is the only reality. Since one or the other of these ideas must be true, and both are logically possible, it remains to choose the one that is most probable or agrees with other fundamental beliefs most simply. Russell believes that the existence of perception-independent reality is the simplest answer, because it explains how objects and individuals can change when one does not actively perceive them.
2. Russell views philosophy as a system of critical analysis of humanity’s intuitive beliefs. Philosophy provides a way to distinguish between truly instinctive beliefs, which may not be justifiable but without which nothing can be known, and beliefs which only appear instinctive. It is a way of fine-tuning these beliefs so that they form a coherent, non-contradictory system.
In another chapter of The Problems of Philosophy, Russell continues to examine the value of philosophy. He argues that while philosophy’s benefits may be subtler than those of science, they are ultimately just as important. Science has obvious, practical benefits for everyone, even those who do not study it; philosophy’s benefits are less tangible. Philosophy changes the lives of its students, and it indirectly affects the rest of the world through these changed people.1
Russell also writes—and to me this is one of his most important points—that philosophy is a way to expand the mind, to look at common objects and ideas in a new light, and to enlarge the scope of one’s thinking. The petty divisions of everyday life seem inconsequential in the face of the far-reaching, often unanswerable questions of philosophy. Philosophy clarifies knowledge and undermines dogma.
I remember that when I took a drawing class in eighth grade, I began to look at the world completely differently. Whereas before I had observed passively, I started to see things in terms of light and shadow and graphite strokes. Suddenly I was imagining how I would draw everything, what colors or shapes I was really seeing, instead of those that my brain automatically created. A similar change in perception occurred when I took physics for the first time last year. The orderly understanding of movement created a new lens through which I viewed the common interactions of life with renewed fascination; everything suddenly made so much more sense. And then I discovered philosophy, a third way to view the world. Observing the world in terms of philosophy was not just a matter of light and shadow, but of much more fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge and perception themselves. Previously, I had thought of philosophy as so complicated and esoteric that I would never be able to understand it, would never even want to understand it. Scientific philosophy changed this belief by providing an orderly, rational system for the analysis of thought. Scientific philosophy, or course, can still be confusing, but it is thought-provoking confusion rather than confusion born from hazy imagery. I value philosophy for the same reason I value art and physics: all three allow me to view the world with greater clarity.2
1. I do sometimes wonder why there appears to be so little interest in philosophy when it is so fundamental. Is it a lack of awareness, a quality of abstractness that makes it difficult to appreciate, or simply an unwillingness to value anything without direct utility?
2. There is a quality to very complex scientific fields – when you read papers or hear arguments that are almost incomprehensible – of there being a sense that the people who are discussing the ideas, or even arguing about them, really know what they’re talking about and have a common ground of understanding which they share and which is not simply fabricated, as opposed to many writings in the humanities which often feel like a semantic free-for-all.