Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “Mysticism and Logic” can seem striking to readers at first glance. The first reason being that Russell actually seems to admire some mystic’s line of reasoning. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher that redefined mathematics and logic, giving praise to mystic’s wondrous and deep intuition. Despite being written in a period where Russell was redefining his own beliefs, that is especially odd for a man of his convictions. The second most striking thing is that, for being a man so adamant about logic and reason, he really doesn’t know much about mysticism.
The essay’s main focus is analyzing what Russell believes to be universal traits of mysticism. In contrast he often analyzes these traits along with their opposite beliefs in the realm of logic, these issues being:
- Good and Evil
These are definitely core issues of mysticism, intuition and unity being the most common. The basic claims with these two are that mystics reach their conclusions merely through insight or intuition, as opposed to logic and reason. This is a slight generality, but works for our purpose. Even Hegel, whom Russell claims is a more mystic philosopher, can undoubtedly be attributed high functions of reason in his philosophy. The second issue, unity, is something so central to much of Eastern philosophy. Here Russell sights the sayings of Heraclitus, such as “good and ill are one,” and “the way up and the way down is one and the same.” Even someone only familiar with philosophy on a satirical level understands the commonality of these sayings.
But there is some things in which Russell himself seems uncertain. For instance, he claims “Mysticism is, in essence, little more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about the universe.” While this is certainly true, I believe it misses some of the point about mysticism. At the core of the matter, is not quite the rejection of science, but only the acceptance that science cannot prove everything. With that idea, it follows that a person can hold certain beliefs that go against scientific thought, merely because science cannot claim to provide truth more than some intuition can. At this point mysticism surely does stem from intuition if not science, but it obviously has a reasonable base.
There is, however, one extremely interesting claim Russell makes that he never follows up on. That is of course the statement that “Reason is a harmonizing, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realm, it is insight that first arrives at what is new.” There is hardly anything controversial in this, but it deserves to be analyzed a little more. One crucial thing about mysticism is its appeal to so many people. When describing reason as a “harmonizing, controlling force” Russell seems to admit that it is applied second to a situation. In other words, it is so much easier to apply a mystical theory as opposed to a logical one. And first off, a mystical theory may be all our minds have to cope with a situation before a sufficient number of facts is provided.
Is this not true in our daily lives? Think of how often people attribute mystical causes to an event. While it may be a crude example, think of the many people that even half-seriously joke that their house is haunted. Take this situation as an example: a man returns home everyday from work only to find that a new coffee mug falls from cabinet every day and shatters on the floor. So at the end of each day he replaces the mug and goes to sleep. After a week, he jokingly tells a friend “I must have a ghost in my house.” Instead of any actual inquiry into the matter, he begins to superficially believe this claim himself. And worse off, every time that something along this line does happen it only reinforces the ghost theory. It would only take an hours worth of observation to realize the cat is knocking the coffee mugs off the cabinet shelf after he leaves, but the mystic theory seems to be more convenient.
Like I said, this is a crude example, but it begins to show the line of reasoning behind many trails of thought. Another appeal of mysticism, again that Russell half-heartily acknowledges, is that it is more creative, and in many cases more fun. This may seem odd, but anyone that has visited New Orleans is well familiar with this. Visiting many of the voodoo shops in the French Quarter and talking with mystics is an enlightening experience. Almost immediately you know that their voodoo claims are irrational and fake, but they’re so enticing that you have to at least listen. Walking through a voodoo store reveals the same feeling, you know it’s all fake but it’s interesting to look anyway. Especially when listening to mystic explanations of a real world event like Hurricane Katrina, the mysticism is a force that draws you in, but reason is what pulls you out.
Something, however, Russell had no way of identifying was the role of science and technology in mystic thought. It sounds contradictory, but it’s an odd justification. Take those cliche ghost hunter reality shows on television. Not only are they searching for ghosts, which a surprising number of people believe in, but they now incorporate instruments used to search for the ghosts. It almost seems like science fiction, using instruments to detect movement, patches of energy, the distortion of sounds, ect, and yet many still wait until 3 a.m. to fully use this equipment! It’s an odd phenomena with half-hearted pseudo science being used to fuel mystical thought, but nevertheless it’s there.
To return from my tangent, while it may be superficial, I do believe it is useful to judge ideas based on a linear line from mysticism to logic. Nobody is denying the validity of the fun aroused from mystical musings, but to quote Russell “[Intuition] is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means.” Essentially, it is natural to hold some mystic beliefs, especially when first being introduced to a subject, but it is folly to continue those mystical beliefs when confronted with facts.