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  • Writer's pictureClaire Klingenberg

About the Skeptical Decalogue, Skeptically

Although Bertrand Russell wrote his "Ten Commandments" in the context of living life in the spirit of liberalism, they are quoted by skeptics and atheists alike as a good starting point for critical thinking. And I do agree to a certain point. For the Decalogue to remain relevant and conducive to thinking critically even after 70 years, some of the points must be put in the context of his era, and Russel's way of thinking.

So what were his points, what can we learn for them, and where do we have to tread with caution?

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything. That is a good point to live by, nonetheless, to be able to function in everyday lives, we can't be constantly questioning. However, we must be ready to change our minds and opinions when presented with adequate evidence.

  2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light. No arguments here. We must educate the public about the various worths of evidence, but that is not mutually exclusive with presenting relevant evidence.

  3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed. The phrase "You are thinking about it too much." is prevalently in the domain of woo.

  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory. Appeal to authority is a no-no.

  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found. We're humans, we can err, we must look at evidence.

  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you. Skeptics are usually not in the position to suppress anything. But it does pay off not to make opinions, no matter how baseless they are, into the forbidden fruit. Though it takes much more work, it is important to explain why we as skeptics see certain views as nonsensical.

  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric. This point must be understood in the context of Russell's personality. He was a diligent, extremely well-read and educated man, who was humble in what he claimed to understand and was meticulous in looking at the evidence before forming his views. For him, to be eccentric in opinion meant coming to an opinion after much deliberation and being able to intelligently argue that opinion at length. It did not mean, and does not mean, looking at a YouTube video.

  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter. This is very important for the skeptic movement. We occasionally get lost in preaching to our choir, and with certain personalities, the choir passively agrees, in other words, does the complete opposite of what a skeptic should.

  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it. Yeah, that usually isn't our problem.

  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness. Ignorance is not bliss.

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