Bertrand’s Example and the Ship of Fools

Bertrand Russel once offered a famous example. Suppose there were a merchant shipper who thought that one of his ships might be less than seaworthy. Instead of investigating and testing the integrity of the vessel, this man instead avoids thinking about the possibility and anything that might remind him of it. He does not look into the ship’s seaworthiness. He does not tell the crew, or suggest to them in any way that the ship might not be safe. He sends it on a voyage, loaded with goods, and frets – not at the chance that he ship could flounder, but with the difficult problem of keeping himself from acknowledging that the voyage might be lost. Every effort is bent towards maintaining his belief and conviction that the ship is seaworthy and that nothing untoward is likely to happen.

Has this man done wrong? Yes, Russell argues. But didn’t he have a sincere belief that the ship was safe? Yes, but that belief was based on nothing – and the man worked to maintain it despite having no valid reason to believe that his conviction was valid. He worked so hard to maintain it precisely because he suspected that conviction was invalid, and wished to avoid the inconvenience and financial loss that being forced to give up that conviction would entail.

If the ship sinks at sea, that in itself does not prove that the ship’s structural integrity was at fault. But let us imagine that a sailor escapes from the wreck with his life and reports that boards gave way halfway through the trip, without a collision or snag. That would mean that the merchant shipper was even more guilty of before, of an additional and even greater crime.

But even if the ship comes home safely, the merchant is guilty. Of recklessness, of endangering the lives and goods of others without their knowledge, of seeking to preserve his belief at the expense of veridical integrity.

Anyone who knew that the merchant behaved this way, and yet chose to sail with him regardless, would be a fool. Anyone who trusted any position of the merchant’s, no matter how sincerely expressed, would be a fool.

It’s easy to agree with Bertrand in the abstract. It’s rather more difficult to disagree with him when facing an issue you don’t want to look into, or on which you have a specific position you don’t wish to give up.

There are many on the Ship of Fools, but few who will admit even to themselves that they sought to sail upon it.


7 Responses to “Bertrand’s Example and the Ship of Fools”

  1. Do you mean Bertrand Russell?

    • Gah!

      I knew something wasn’t right about that post, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It kept going through spellcheck, I couldn’t find any more grammatical errors…

      I always thought he looked like a Bertram, anyway.

  2. I’m afraid there’s more than spelling that’s not right about your post. Russell may have used this example, he may not. I certainly cannot find any text in which he uses it. He does speak of not envying a fool’s paradise (since only a fool would see it as a paradise) and is often quoted as stating, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”.

    The ship of fools allegory was around long before Russell was born–just Google it and you’ll see lots of examples predating Russell’s lifetime by several centuries. William Clifford, a British philosopher and mathematician, published an essay containing this particular discussion of a ship and the shipbuilder in 1877, when Russell was only 5 years old. So far as I know, the essay, The Ethics of Belief, did not contain the phrase “ship of fools.”

    At the very least, these earlier sources of your subject deserve credit. At worst (and it really isn’t that bad), you’ve conflated some things in your memory and partially misattributed them to Russell. (If Russell does specifically discuss the ship of fools, please let me know, I’d love to read it.)

    • I didn’t suggest that Russell had used that phrase; its application to the situation was mine.

      I do wish I could locate the specific text I’ve discussed, to confirm that Russell did use the merchant shipper example. I’ll keep looking.

      • The citation problem remains. It’s unclear what you attribute to Russell and what you are adding. Most, if not all, of the points included about the merchant’s ship were published in William Clifford’s paper. If Russell offered this example he would have been borrowing very heavily from Clifford. Clifford’s paper is part of a famous exchange between him and William James. The essays in the exchange are often published together in texts. James’ famous paper from the exchange is “The Will to Believe”.

  3. Citation problem? Seriously? Russell is a famous skeptic who made a particular argument about skepticism with a vivid hypothetical. I don’t really care if that hypothetical was quoted, either conceptually or specifically, from someone else.

    The point is to examine the nature of skepticism, not to write an academic paper about some person who forwarded the idea. The identity of the individual(s) involved is completely irrelevant.

    • In calling it a “citation problem” I was being kind and modest in my criticism. This is, in fact, a major misattribution. First, as I said, I cannot find anywhere that Russell actually discussed this at all. Second, and more importantly, Clifford authored this entire “vivid hypothetical” and essentially everything you mention about its discussion and analysis before Russell could spell hypothetical. So even _if_ Russell presented/shared this argument at some point in his career, he was presenting someone else’s argument. He _may_ have also added to it, but nothing you have posted here really goes beyond Clifford’s discussion.

      If you still really don’t think this is a problem, then you miss the point of skepticism. Let me put it another way. You believe that Bertrand Russell presented this argument. Why? How do you “know” this? What evidence do you have for this belief? I provided good reasons to believe that it was actually someone else who presented this argument. That person published an article with the argument early in Russell’s lifetime, and it is part of a famous exchange between two well known philosophers, at least one of which (William James) was a well known _public_ intellectual. It is highly improbable that Russell, if he presented this information, could have been unaware that he was using someone else’s work. It is almost equally improbable that his audience would have been unaware of this. In the face of these reasons, rather than having second thoughts about your memory, you attempt to dismiss my objection as a silly irrelevance. Sounds rather like the merchant or one who listens to him, don’t you think?

      When it comes to the mechanics of citation, getting the page number or the year or some such, I don’t care about citation problems either (unless I’m trying to track down that particular source), but I do care when the citation, or attribution is downright dubious in its entirety. Such things are not trivial. Understanding the origin of an argument and its context provides tremendous help in the proper interpretation of the argument.

      Case in point: This example, and its analysis, is not about skepticism; it is about basic epistemology. Beyond that, and more importantly, it is about normative epistemology, hence the title, “The Ethics of Belief.” Clifford _does_ use the word “skeptic” (actually, he uses “sceptics”) _once_ in the article, as part of his dismissal of the idea that we should be “universal skeptics” or that expecting people to have (or holding them responsible for having) reasonable evidence for their beliefs amounts to skepticism. Knowing the actual the author and the context in which the paper was published helps one to understand the point of the vivid hypothetical.

  4. […] the thread about Bertrand Russell and the Ship of Fools; I’ve decided to expand my response to James into a thread of its own.¬† The quoted and […]

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