Bertrand Russell the Passionate Skeptic: A Biography

By Alan Wood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
The Boy in the Garden

PHIL0S0PHERS exist to ask questions, not to answer them. The more unsolved problems they have on their hands, the better they are doing their job; so the gibes at them by the practical men completely miss the point. Though philosophy can claim no great advances in knowledge compared with the sciences, the sciences might never have got started without philosophy first awakening wonder. When the scientists give answers, often it is only because philosophers have asked.

The philosophers speculated about atoms long before they were discovered; and they may have given the scientists the idea of what to look for.Philosophers questioned the common sense view of matter, and the scientists later agreed with them that matter is not what it seems. To the practical man a tree is a tree, and common sense is common sense, and life is a dull prosaic affair. But one day in the history of the human race, some pioneer first asked a philosophical question--perhaps a completely impractical and useless question--such as 'Does this tree continue to exist if there is nobody here to see it; and, if so, how can I know that it does?' On that day philosophy was born, and men became more than automatic animals. And the achievement of the first philosopher to ask this question is not lessened in the least by the fact that, from that day to this, no subsequent philosopher has yet found a satisfactory answer to it.

Other questions first considered by philosophy, having been answered, have become part of science or mathematics or physiology. Bertrand Russell once put it that 'Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don't know'. But the finest minds will still be attracted by the unsolved residue of problems which remain, because to see the universe through the eyes of a philoso

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