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Facts versus Wishful Thinking

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) has a comment that appears in many places on the internet:

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts.

Russell's statement fits with the comment by Albert Camus that, "The mind's first step is to distinguish what is true from what is false."

In accord with Russell's advice, I prefer historians whose scholarship is motivated by a search for what happened regardless of what they might wish to believe. I've read histories of Hinduism by a devout Hindu, and I've read The History of the World in Christian Perspective, and my more than a half-century of reading experience has led me to distrust histories written by those promoting a religious faith.

The historian Arnold J Toynbee (1889-1975) was a Christian and in the opinion of some historians today he strayed, but he also did good work.

I would not have asked the following question in response to Reza Aslan's new book, Zealot: "How can anybody trust the writings about a particular religion from someone that practices another religion?" Even a mediocre academic historian, Christian, Muslim, what have you, gathers from what he thinks are facts from reliable sources; and, if he is disciplined, he investigates persuasions different from his own. What is important is keeping the market place of ideas as to what is fact open, free and civil.

Russell's advice holds not only regarding history but also everyday discourse, especially internet discourse. The internet is full of proclamations that are purely polemical. This is the way of distortions, phobias and demagoguery with the unfortunate consequence of unnecessary social discord.

Benefit from a devotion to facts similar to Russell's comes to us from Hippocrates of Cos (460-370 BCE). The son of a priest-physician, he revolted against medicine that attempted to cure by use of charms, amulets and incantations. Diseases, he claimed, were subject to nature's laws. He wanted health care to be built upon observation of fact and sought to improve diagnoses by examining symptoms.

Finally, we should not believe that a fact or two that we possess proves a broader point. Science and history are about interactive connections. A rival perspective may include our fact or two but contain also a wider array of connected factuality.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.