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The Scientific Outlook de Bertrand Russell

The Scientific Outlook (original: 1931; edição: 2011)

de Bertrand Russell (Autor)

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According to Bertrand Russell, science is knowledge; that which seeks general laws connecting a number of particular facts. It is, he argues, far superior to art, where much of the knowledge is intangible and assumed. In The Scientific Outlook, Russell delivers one of his most important works, exploring the nature and scope of scientific knowledge, the increased power over nature that science affords and the changes in the lives of human beings that result from new forms of science. Insightful and accessible, this impressive work sees Russell at his very best.… (mais)
Título:The Scientific Outlook
Autores:Bertrand Russell (Autor)
Informação:Nabu Press (2011), 278 pages
Coleções:Sua biblioteca

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The Scientific Outlook de Bertrand Russell (1931)


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Bertrand Russell

The Scientific Outlook

Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2009.

12mo. xxv+211 pp. Prefatory note to the Second edition by Bertrand Russell, 1949 [xxii]. Introduction by Bertrand Russell, 1931 [xxiii-xxv]. Preface by David Papineau, 2001 [vi-xxi].

First published, 1931.
Second edition, 1949.
First published in Routledge Classics, 2009.


Preface by David Papineau

Part I. Scientific Knowledge
I. Examples of Scientific Method
II. Characteristics of Scientific Method
III. Limitations of Scientific Method
IV. Scientific Metaphysics
V. Science and Religion

Part II. Scientific Technique
VI. Beginnings of Scientific Technique
VII. Technique in Inanimate Nature
VIII. Technique in Biology
IX. Technique in Physiology
X. Technique in Psychology
XI. Technique in Society

Part III. The Scientific Society
XII. Artificially Created Societies
XIII. The Individual and the Whole
XIV. Scientific Government
XV. Education in a Scientific Society
XVI. Scientific Reproduction
XVII. Science and Values



The title of this book is very accurate. Science is a matter of outlook. Sometimes phrases like “rational outlook” and “scientific method” are used, but they mean essentially the same thing: holding opinions for which there is some evidence to be true. This type of outlook may well exist in people who don’t work in the sciences, and it may well be absent in those who do. Indeed, as Russell immediately recognises, it is “in some degree unnatural to man; the majority of our opinions are wish-fulfilments”. Nor is it, or should be, exclusive and inflexible. As Russell describes it in a very balanced and beautifully poetic way:

The mind of the most rational among us may be compared to a stormy ocean of passionate convictions based upon desire, upon which float perilously a few tiny boats carrying a cargo of scientifically tested beliefs. Nor is this to be altogether deplored: life has to be lived, and there is no time to test rationally all the beliefs by which our conduct is regulated. Without a certain wholesome rashness, no one could long survive. Scientific method, therefore, must, in its very nature, be confined to the more solemn and official of our opinions.

Yet the title is also a bit misleading. Russell tries not so much to explore the scientific outlook, though he often mentions it of course, but rather to describe the essence of scientific knowledge and the impact of scientific technique on society. It’s essential to understand the difference between knowledge and technique in this context. Scientific knowledge is data that have been verified by sizable body of experiments and are therefore accepted as true (for now). This disinterested quest for better understanding of nature Russell considers equal, but not superior, to art. Scientific technique, on the other hand, is scientific knowledge which may have trivial intrinsic value but does produce great social consequences.

Part I is the meatiest and most rigorously philosophical section of the book. This is especially true of the last two chapters. Russell covered all this material in greater detail a few years later in Religion and Science (1935). But it’s always a pleasure to read his devastating sarcasm about those scientific theologians or religious scientists, both equally misguided, who tried to rehabilitate free will, God and the purpose of the universe on the basis of the Principle of Indeterminacy, thermodynamics and the quantum theory. Russell would have none of this, to put it mildly, wishful thinking. He takes as sparing partners eminent Sirs like Arthur Eddington and James Jeans, no less, and he makes short work of their half-baked arguments. He is equally merciless with their theological fans “who hold, apparently, that the demand for consistency belongs to the cold reason and must not interfere with our deeper religious feelings.” Nor do creative evolutionists receive any sympathy. Russell remains convinced that “the cold breath of scepticism”, however uncomfortable, is the only possible position for the rational man. There is no place for compromise:

While science as the pursuit of power becomes increasingly triumphant, science as the pursuit of truth is being killed by a scepticism which the skill of the men of science has generated. That this is a misfortune is undeniable, but I cannot admit that the substitution of superstition for scepticism advocated by many of our leading men of science would be an improvement. Scepticism may be painful, and may be barren, but at least it is honest and an outcome of the quest for truth. Perhaps it is a temporary phase, but no real escape is possible by returning to the discarded beliefs of a stupider age.


It is not by going backward that we shall find an issue from our troubles. No slothful relapses into infantile fantasies will direct the new power which men have derived from science into the right channels; nor will philosophic scepticism as to the foundations arrest the course of scientific technique in the world of affairs. Men need a faith which is robust and real, not timid and half-hearted. Science is in its essence nothing but the systematic pursuit of knowledge, and knowledge, whatever ill-uses bad men may make of it, is in its essence good. To lose faith in knowledge is to lose faith in the best of man’s capacities; and therefore I repeat unhesitatingly that the unyielding rationalist has a better faith and a more unbending optimism than any of the timid seekers after the childish comforts of a less adult age.

Part II is mostly of historical interest, but that hardly makes it less interesting. It is fascinating, to say the least, to read how a man like Russell, no scientist himself but certainly a possessor of true scientific outlook, viewed the world at this precise time in history. Science was booming and had changed out of recognition since the time of his youth (Russell, be it remembered, was born in 1872 when Relativity and quantum theory didn’t exist), yet in the nearly 70 years since the Second edition of this book virtually every branch has been changed profoundly again (some branches, like genetics and molecular biology, have actually been born).

Many of Russell’s specific examples, for instance quotations from the venerable Nature, are today hopelessly dated. Yet sometimes his reflections are eerily prescient. It is startling to see – in 1931! – warnings about the limited amounts of raw materials, most notably oil. Equally disturbing are Russell’s gloom predictions about the future of the world forests. This could not have been written later than 1949 (!), when a few minor changes were made for the Second edition, but probably it dates from 1931, too. With the burden of hindsight, it is a terrifying thing to read. Russell also has some far from comforting things to say about the human animal’s love of power and how it can find a potentially disastrous outlet in modern scientific technique. But more of that in Part III.

Russell is even more visionary when he speculates – in pre-genetic times! – about modifications of the chromosomes that might produce physical and mental changes in the future individual. This is the essence of genetic engineering, and though today we know a great deal more about genes and genomes, Russell’s perfectly possible visions are still in the far future. In the “Prefatory note to the Second edition”, Russell mentions Brave New World (1932) in regard to his final chapters, not because he might have influenced Huxley, but because such novels have made more popular many of the same ideas which thus look “more than an individual phantasy”. In fact, Russell’s bold musings on genetic manipulation, even if they were added in 1949, are scientifically far more plausible than Huxley’s crude embryonic conditioning. If they were there in 1931, as seems more likely, then Russell’s flight of the imagination must be regarded as extraordinary.

I must say I also enjoyed Russell’s scathing attack on social Darwinism (Chapter 11). This pernicious form of pseudo-science was apparently still widespread in the 1930s. Russell makes no bones that Darwinism “as applied to politics has turned out to be far from scientific.” Famous phrases like “survival of the fittest” are found to have “ethical implications” which make them quite immune to scientific approach. All sorts of oppression and persecution, racial and not only, can be justified on the basis of this “pseudo-Darwinian philosophy”. Such theories may be persuasively argued and look logical (i.e. scientific), but they rest on false assumptions in the first place. Russell’s conclusion cannot be paraphrased without some loss of power:

On account of the ethical bias, one must view all Darwinian arguments on social questions with the greatest suspicion. This applies not only as between different races, but also as between different classes in the same nation. All Darwinian writers belong to the professional classes, and it is therefore an accepted maxim of Darwinian politics that the professional classes are biologically the most desirable. It follows that their sons ought to get a better education at the public expense than that which is given to the sons of wage-earners. In all such arguments it is impossible to see an application of science to practical affairs. There is merely a borrowing of some of the language of science for the purpose of making prejudice seem respectable.

Part III is the most speculative and the most controversial. It’s dystopian (non-)fiction with utopian elements, or vice versa. Russell has already prepared the stage in Chapter 11, in which he discusses in Huxleyan terms (cf. Brave New World Revisited, 1958) the most powerful propaganda weapons, namely education, radio, the press and the cinema (“The producers of Hollywood are the high-priests of a new religion. Let us be thankful for the lofty purity of their sentiments.”), but here he lets his imagination roam through the future and the so-called “scientific society”.

What’s that, to begin with? Russell defines scientific society as “one which employs the best scientific technique in production, in education, and in propaganda.” In other words, and much unlike earlier societies, this one is consciously building itself towards certain ends. He takes as modern examples Japan, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. The conclusions to be drawn from them, as might be expected, are not optimistic. Germany and Japan were not really scientific societies. They adopted childish superstitions (Nazism and Shintoism, respectively) which plunged them into a disastrous war that undid all economic miracles achieved by scientific means. The Soviet Union was much closer to a true scientific state, and still very much in existence at the time of writing. Russell is wary of passing judgments on it or making any definite predictions about its future, but he seems more positively disposed than he was before (cf. The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism, 1920) or would become later (cf. “Why I am not a Communist” in Portraits from Memory, 1956).

Put briefly, Russell’s scientific society of the future would substitute security for adventure. Obedience to the State, a World Socialistic State of course, would be the highest virtue. There would be no “nineteenth-century dreams” like equality and liberty, nor would “the anarchic system of private enterprise” exist at all. There would be a highly intelligent governing class and a moderately stupid governed class. The vast gulf between them would be created and maintained by rigorous scientific reproduction. Family and parenthood, except among the low working classes, would be more or less abolished. Children would be conceived mostly through “artificial impregnation”. They would be raised and educated entirely by the State. Sexual promiscuity would be tolerated if not encouraged, but most men and women would be sterilised to avoid unfortunate consequences. Put briefly, this is pretty much Huxley’s Brave New World. There is much pleasure in it, but no joy.

For much the greater part of Part III, I feel Russell is torn by divided loyalties. On the one side, he very much approves of using the most powerful scientific techniques to produce something as clean, orderly and efficient as Huxley’s Brave New World. On the other hand, he is appalled by the virtually limitless ways in which the power-hungry oligarchies can, and probably will, abuse their godlike control. I think Aldous Huxley felt much the same way. He began his famous novel as a satirical dystopia, but he ended it as a kind of reluctantly embraced semi-utopia. (This is not infrequent in artistic circles; so Maurice Ravel wanted “Scarbo” from Gaspard de la nuit to be a parody of Romanticism, but in the end it turned out to be a tribute.) Both Huxley and Russell well knew that this kind of society comes at a high price. Both were, if not convinced, at least open to the idea that the price might be worth paying. Having described his own Brave New World, Russell offers this rather sardonic comment:

Whether men will be happy in this Paradise I do not know. Perhaps biochemistry will show us how to make any man happy, provided he has the necessaries of life; perhaps dangerous sports will be organized for those whom boredom would otherwise turn into anarchists; perhaps sport will take over the cruelty which will have been banished from politics; perhaps football will be replaced by play battles in the air in which death will be the penalty of defeat. It may be that so long as men are allowed to seek death, they will not mind having to seek it in a trivial cause: to fall through the air before a million spectators may come to be thought a glorious death even if it has no purpose but the amusement of a holiday crowd. It may be that in some such way a safety valve can be provided for the anarchic and violent forces in human nature; or again, it may be that by wise education and suitable diet men may be cured of all their unruly impulses, and all life may become as quiet as a Sunday school.

“I am, however, only prophesying a certain future, not advocating it”, says Russell at one place. At another, he admits he finds “pleasure in splendid individuals rather than in powerful organisations”, and in the future society he is describing there will be no place for such people. These confessions should be taken with a grain of salt. But Russell is nothing if not honest with his readers. In the final and very lyrical chapter, in which he traces the history of science from its idealistic origins as love of the world to its present corruption as love of power, Russell finally admits his ambiguous attitude: “The reader will have observed that features that everyone would consider desirable are almost inextricably mingled with features that are repulsive.” This is, of course, a matter of degree. If the world just described looks too bleak, this is because scientific technique is left to “rule unchecked” and “forms the whole culture of the holders of power”. Is it possible to combine the cold knowledge of the scientist with the colourful one of the mystic, the lover and the poet into a more balanced world? Ever the fearless optimist, Russell concludes thus:

All that is needed is that men should not be so intoxicated by new power as to forget the truths that were familiar to every previous generation. Not all wisdom is new, nor is all folly out of date.

Man has been disciplined hitherto by his subjection to nature. Having emancipated himself from this subjection, he is showing something of the defects of slave-turned-master. A new moral outlook is called for in which submission to the powers of nature is replaced by respect for what is best in man. It is where this respect is lacking that scientific technique is dangerous. So long as it is present, science, having delivered man from bondage to nature, can proceed to deliver him from bondage to the slavish part of himself. The dangers exist, but they are not inevitable, and hope for the future is at least as rational as fear.

The whole book is as beautifully written as anything and extremely thought-provoking on a number of levels and in a number of directions, but it does, of course, have some defects. They stem partly from the time of writing and partly from Russell himself. A case in point is his casual racism when he remarks – twice! (as Mr Papineau correctly observes in his Postscript) – that black people are of inherently lower intelligence but would be useful for hard labour thanks to their greater physical strength. Such opinions are regrettable, but they are not hard to understand. On the whole, Russell was way ahead of his contemporaries in many areas, but occasionally he was the victim of much the same prejudices. After all, even the greatest genius cannot altogether transcend his times.

Russell is also unfair to Darwin. In Chapter 1, he rightly puts him in the company of Galileo (whose “few proved truths banished the scintillating firmament of mediaeval certainties”), Newton (whose “triumph was the most spectacular in the history of science”) and Pavlov (“one of the great men of our time”), but then goes on to state, curiously, that Darwin’s cultural impact has not been matched by his scientific achievements since natural selection “is less in favour with biologists than it used to be.” This was written before the Modern Synthesis, so I guess the times may be held responsible for it. But when Russell claimed that natural selection is the “mechanism” of evolution and that Darwin was “mistaken” about the laws of heredity, he evidently wrote about things he didn’t really understand. Natural selection is not, of course, the mechanism of evolution: it is merely the driving force. And Darwin was not so much mistaken about the origin of hereditary variations (the real mechanism) as silent about them.

These quibbles (and a few others) aside, The Scientific Outlook has aged very well indeed. It makes for a fabulously stimulating and not a little entertaining read. Russell’s provocative, witty and crystal clear prose does not age at all. Neither does the content, however dated a few examples may be. Whether we are living in another age of scientific scepticism, as in the time of the first edition, or in another age of scientific optimism, as in the end of the nineteenth century, much of this book cannot fail to be relevant. Our societies today seem to develop, if they develop at all, in the chaotic way from pre-scientific times. But that doesn’t mean the horrors of the purely scientific society are less plausible in the future. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Mar 29, 2017 |
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An unbroken mood of felicity seems to have visited Mr. Bertrand Russell while he wrote The Scientific Outlook. It is an extraordinarily gay and inspiring work, full of the good sense that comes from intellectual vitality. If a boy or girl of sixteen can be found who does not like this, they should be removed from school and sent somewhere else; he or she is not getting the right sort of education...

The Scientific Outlook makes no cheap pretence that the universe is a box of tricks which any B.Sc. can turn inside out. On the contrary, it passes on to a lively description of what a hell the world would become if there were only science to shape it; and in an eloquent last chapter Mr. Russell declares that though “knowledge is good and ignorance is evil–to this principle the lover of the world can admit no exception,” the ultimate usefulness of science depends on the system of values it upholds.
adicionado por SnootyBaronet | editarDaily Telegraph, Rebecca West (Sep 29, 1931)

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Introduction -- To say that we live in an age of science is a commonplace, but like most commonplaces it is only partially true. From the point of view of our predecessors, if they could view our society, we should, no doubt, appear to be very scientific, but from the point of view of our successors it is probable that the exact opposite would appear to be the case.
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According to Bertrand Russell, science is knowledge; that which seeks general laws connecting a number of particular facts. It is, he argues, far superior to art, where much of the knowledge is intangible and assumed. In The Scientific Outlook, Russell delivers one of his most important works, exploring the nature and scope of scientific knowledge, the increased power over nature that science affords and the changes in the lives of human beings that result from new forms of science. Insightful and accessible, this impressive work sees Russell at his very best.

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