Philosophy & Psychology

Bertrand Russell’s universe

One hundred and fifty years ago on 18 May 1872 the philosopher Bertrand Russell was born. Of everything he said and wrote during his 97 years of life, I want to focus on just four words that he said during one particular interview.

The words were stated to one of his biographers, Alan Wood, whose book Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Skeptic was first published in 1958. In the book, Wood asked Russell why there shouldn’t be an afterlife somewhere in the universe, if not on Earth, so that people who have suffered injustice and deprivations in this life could be compensated in the afterlife.

Russell, in the year 1957, was in his mid-eighties. He pondered a while before apparently answering: “The universe is unjust.” In that context, the comment revealed Russell’s scepticism of – indeed, his non-belief in – an afterlife. Befitting, it was, of the book’s title. 

Russell’s statement could well be responded to, just as a friend of this writer did, by asserting that it is futile to even attempt to ascribe justice or injustice to the universe: “The universe simply just is.”

Russell certainly realised that it is futile to even attempt to ascribe justice to the universe. His statement can be considered his rejection of, or non-belief in, the pious hope that hundreds of millions of people have held throughout the world and through the ages for better things in an afterlife.

Perhaps the point of Wood’s question was that, in order to compensate for the deprivations and inju...


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