In the worlds of philosophy, science and mathematics, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays is a classic. It is a collection of ten essays and writings by influential British philosopher Bertrand Russell that form the core of an argument for finding beauty, awe and mysticism in logic, science and mathematics.
A mild word of caution: If that opening paragraph didn’t give it away, this is not light reading. The subject matter is heavy and these writings are intended to leave you with something to think about.
If you are frustrated by the claim that a godless person or atheist lives in a stark, uninspiring, hopeless world, so was Bertrand Russell. These claims are not new. Russell wrote many essays and lectures explaining not only how a strictly logical philosophy can inspire a person, but more importantly, that the inspiration be driven in a much more positive and productive direction an any other philosophy rooted in an idea of ‘specialness’. Staggering awe can be found in our figuring out the great mysteries of the universe, using a new approach to philosophy.
If you are also frustrated by the claim of “non-overlapping magisteria” – the idea that science, mathematics and logic are a realm completely different and entirely separated from philosophy and its contributions – well again, so was Bertrand Russell. Not only did he dispute that the realms were exclusionary by nature, but he posited that the basis of the scientific principle – logic and mathematics – was the most proper way to approach philosophy.
There has been a lot made recently by many popular scientists of the value of philosophers. These modern scientists view philosophers as a bunch pedantic time-wasters, devoting ridiculous effort to questions of little discernible value. Russell himself even said, “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”. This kind of thing is the reason why a great many scientists have little patience for philosophers. Russell, however, had an uncanny ability to marry the disparate universes of philosophy and science, firmly welding them together into a great fortress of reasoned thought.
In a nutshell, Russell describes mysticism as our want of there to be something more than what is observable about the universe. Of course, this is only a brief summary and Russell’s position is far more nuanced than that. Russell roots mysticism in our desire to find purpose or meaning in the universe. He points out that this desire is a product of our own minds, viewed through the lens of our own specialness in whatever creative process has brought us to this point. Many see that yearning for the mystical as evidence that there indeed is “something more”, but Russell asserts it is backward-looking, incorrect, and thus completely unproductive as a philosophical basis.
Russell matured some of his positions over his career, but he maintained the view he lays out in “A Free Man’s Worship”, a classic essay of his on the meaning of life, which is Chapter 3 in this book. In this essay, Russell explains that because this universe has an end which we will not survive, all of our accomplishments, morality and philosophy are for nought, so there is no objective meaning to life. However, as bleak and discomforting as that reality is, if there is a means for us to transcend this inevitability, we will only recognize it through a philosophy built on the unrestricted embrace of that reality.
You might not think that mathematics, because it deals with absolutes, lends itself to philosophical exploration, but in Chapter 4, “The Study of Mathematics” Russell lays out the case that because it deals directly with the abstract and is uniform in its approach, mathematics is perfectly suited to contemplating the intangible.
In the subsequent chapters, Russell redefines matter, cause, and our perception of our universe, bringing it all together into a new working philosophical model dependent upon empiricism and sense-data.
These essays are written in varying styles, from entertaining to heavily academic. That is because Russell was a masterful communicator. He tailored his message to his audience, using appropriate language and examples to get even the headiest of points across clearly.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 30 years or less (Bertrand Russell died in 1970). This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
Here is how you can access this book for free. You can listen to the book read in its entirety by Landon D.C. Elkind at Librivox.org. You can also download the book from Feedbooks.com, the Internet Archive (from the Cornell University Library), and at Project Gutenberg.