The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain… a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision – God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life… It is the actual spring of life within me.
Bertrand Russell from Selected Letters
Bertrand Russell was a celebrated atheist and one of the most important philosophers of the analytical school of philosophy that dominated the teaching of philosophy in Britain and America during the twentieth century.
This analytical approach hinges on a particular strategy for doing philosophy – identifying those truths that have certainty – and building out from there.
Hannah Arendt reflected on the problem with this strategy:
…truth is a rather difficult deity to worship because the only thing she does not allow her worshippers is certainty. Philosophy concerned with truth ever was and probably always will be kind of docta ignoratia – highly learned and therefore highly ignorant. The certainties of Thomas Aquinas afford excellent spiritual guidance and are still much superior to almost anything in the way of certainties which has been invented in more recent times. But certainty is not truth, and a system of certainties is the end of philosophy.
And Goethe made the same point rather more tartly:
To be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.
This then leads us to the rather peculiar paradox – we may not be able to have certainty and truth.
To the religious this paradox is resolved through faith and an acknowledgement of the mystery of certain fundamental truths – but to the non-religious this seems like a cop-out. I see no intellectual trick which we use to harmonise these conflicting approaches to life. But I think that Russell’s honesty helps us understand something of the price paid by those who will only have truth with certainty, and so often find themselves without anything.