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The influence of our wishes upon our beliefs is a matter of common knowledge and observation, yet the nature of this influence is very generally misconceived. It is customary to suppose that the bulk of our beliefs are derived from some rational ground, and that desire is only an occasional disturbing force. The exact opposite of this would be nearer the truth: the great mass of beliefs by which we are supported in our daily life is merely the bodying forth of desire, corrected here and there, at isolated points, by the rude shock of fact. Man is essentially a dreamer, wakened sometimes for a moment by some peculiarly obtrusive element in the outer world, but lapsing again quickly into the happy somnolence of imagination.

Bertrand Russell

The basic assumption of early psychology is that our beliefs are the product of instincts and desires, and that reason is employed to ‘rationalize’ these subjective beliefs. Objective truth being regarded as unobtainable, what alone is thought interesting are the reasons which lead people to formulate their particular brand of error.

Arnold Lunn

[The following passage is taken from Bertrand Russell’s 1923 essay, Can Men be Rational? The Plebs Text-Books Committee, which Russell quotes, was established by the Plebs’ League, a British educational and political organisation which originated around a Marxist way of thinking in 1908 and was active until 1926.]

It is said by many that the only function of intellect is to facilitate the satisfaction of the individual’s desires and needs. The Plebs Text-Books Committee, in their Outline of Psychology (p. 68), say: ‘The intellect is above all things an instrument of partiality. Its function is to secure that those actions which are beneficial to the individual or the species shall be performed, and that those actions which are less beneficial shall be inhibited’ (Italics in the original).

But the same authors, in the same book (p. 123), state, again in italics: ‘The faith of the Marxist differs profoundly from religious faith; the latter is based only on desire and tradition; the former is grounded on the scientific analysis of objective reality.’ This seems inconsistent with what they say about the intellect, unless, indeed, they mean to suggest that it is not intellect which has led them to adopt the Marxist faith. In any case, since they admit that ‘scientific analysis of objective reality’ is possible, they must admit that it is possible to have opinions which are rational in an objective sense.

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