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Delicious Facts

Russell

  • Grandfather was British prime minister
  • Told Virginia Woolf his devotion to serious intellectual work came to an end when “my passions got hold of me”
  • Met Lenin on a visit to Russia. This visit turned him against the Russian Revolution

Wittgenstein

  • His Austrian family was one of the richest in the world
  • Was at same (obscure) school at same time as Hitler
  • His family paid off the Nazis using their fortune to be classified as “mixed” rather than “full Jews” (and avoided the Holocaust)
  • Three of his four brothers died by separate acts of suicide
  • Tried to move to the Soviet Union to work as a laborer

Haldane

  • Aristocratic family, father was a prominent biologist
  • Introduced the primordial soup theory of the origin of life
  • For a period, he was a Stalinist and defended Lysenkoism on BBC radio
  • Moved to India late in life and renounced British citizenship

Needham

  • As a professor of biochemistry, at age 37 he began an improbable pivot into Sinology when he fell in love with his Chinese grad student and started learning Chinese
  • In China he befriended Zhou Enlai and met Mao
  • He was part of a commission investigating whether the US had used biological weapons in the Korean War and was fooled into believing the US had

Turing

  • Would occasionally run 40 miles from Bletchley to London for meetings and tried out for British Olympic team
  • Apparently he took fortune-telling seriously

Biographies

Also see:

  • Biopic film on Turing from the BBC
  • Wittgenstein movie, which includes Russell and Keynes as characters:
  • Logicomix: graphic novel feature Russell, Turing, and Wittgenstein (coauthored by computer scientist)

Why I found these figures interesting

  • They made exceptional and creative intellectual contributions (helping to found new fields). Turing’s contributions seem most important.
  • They had dramatic, full-bodied involvement in wars
  • They spent significant periods working outside academia
  • For their time, they had highly unconventional romantic lives and were eccentric in other ways
  • Russell and Haldane were self-described rationalists

Interactions

Russell acted as Wittgenstein’s PhD supervisor but felt Wittgenstein surpassed him already as a student. Keynes invited Wittgenstein to join the Apostles and helped him get British citizenship during WW2. Turing attended Wittgenstein’s lectures on the philosophy of mathematics. Needham succeeded Haldane as Reader in biochemistry at Cambridge.

 

Russell on Keynes:

Keynes's intellect was the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool.

Keynes on Russell and Wittgenstein:

The first impression conveyed by the work of Russell was that the field of formal logic was enormously extended. The gradual perfection of the formal treatment at the hands of himself, of Wittgenstein and of Ramsey had been, however, gradually to empty it of content and to reduce it more and more to mere dry bones, until finally it seemed to exclude not only all experience, but most of the principles, usually reckoned logical, of reasonable thought. Wittgenstein’s solution was to regard everything else as a sort of inspired nonsense, having great value indeed for the individual, but incapable of being exactly discussed.

Wittgenstein on Russell:

Russell's books should be bound in two colours…those dealing with mathematical logic in red – and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them.

Russell wrote a long essay (“Icarus or The Future of Science”) responding to Haldane’s seminal book “Daedalus”.

Haldane was the reviewer for Turing’s famous paper on morphogenesis. The review is prickly:

Before the paper is accepted, I consider that the whole mathematical part should be re-written. In the first place, some passages assuming ignorance in readers might be omitted without much loss. Secondly, much of the biology, e.g. pp 56-58, can be found in elementary textbooks, and often stated more accurately

1. Does it contain contributions to knowledge of sufficient scientific interest for the space required? Yes

2. Are any portions of the paper, or any illustrations, redundant? Yes

3. Should the paper be published by the Society? Yes, subject to drastic emendations.

7. Comments or criticisms which might enable the author to improve or correct his

statement.

I regret that my report, in the absence of figures or tables, must be insecurely grounded. I should be glad to discuss the paper with the author, but may be leaving for India shortly. I regard the central idea as being sufficiently important to warrant publication. I am equally clear that the paper should not be published as it stands.

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Met Lenin on a visit to Russia. ... Tried to move to the Soviet Union to work as a laborer ... was a Stalinist and defended Lysenkoism on BBC radio ... was part of a commission investigating whether the US had used biological weapons in the Korean War and was fooled into believing the US had.

It interests me that so many very smart people were enamored with communism to varying degrees. I imagine the atrocities/genocides/purges/gulags/terrors/etc. were not commonly known at the time? But how could that be? I think the most plausible hypothesis is that self-deception/wishful-thinking/filter-bubbles were part of the story here. This should be the default hypothesis anyway, given human nature.

Yes, I'd also like to understand better the attraction of communism. Some off-the-cuff ideas:

  • It was harder to get good information about the Russian or Chinese communists during certain periods. (No Internet, fewer reliable journalists, less travel in each direction). 
  • Non-communist countries were much more violent than post-WW2. There was more homicide and more violence that involved the state (e.g. violence in prisons, colonial violence, civil wars, interstate wars). Maybe the Soviet Union up to 1935 didn't look radically different from non-Communist countries. 
  • Economics was less developed and (possibly) fewer smart people had a basic grasp of the field. (Some good arguments against Marxist economics already existed but weren't widely known). 
  • The empirical evidence against command economies vs market-based systems was much less clear. (Modern concept of GDP was only developed in 1934!)
  • Non-communist countries were very conservative in some ways, e.g. rights for women and ethnic minorities, the special privileges given to the state religion, workers' rights, availability of public education and training. Both the early Soviet Union and Communist China had some policies that were progressive relative to the status quo and to other non-communist countries.
  • Communists shouted about and valorized progress, modernization, industrialization, and science. (And the Soviet Union did industrialize pretty quickly and produce fairly impressive science and technology.)   

Incidentally: Russell did visit the Soviet Union and came away with a negative impression. Keynes also visited and had a very negative impression. He was also in a position to evaluate Marx's economics. Here's Keynes' view of Leninism taken from Wikipedia:

How can I accept a doctrine, which sets up as its bible, above and beyond criticism, an obsolete textbook [Marx's Kapital] which I know not only to be scientifically erroneous but without interest or application to the modern world? How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, who with all their faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of all human achievement? Even if we need a religion, how can we find it in the turbid rubbish of the red bookshop? It is hard for an educated, decent, intelligent son of Western Europe to find his ideals here, unless he has first suffered some strange and horrid process of conversion which has changed all his values.

Keynes's view of Leninism seems similar to Russell's, and may have been influenced by it. Here's a quote from The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (published in 1920):

Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures. When Lenin wishes to prove some proposition, he does so, if possible, by quoting texts from Marx and Engels. A full-fledged Communist is not merely a man who believes that land and capital should be held in common, and their produce distributed as nearly equally as possible. He is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs—such as philosophic materialism, for example—which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty. This habit, of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters, is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful scepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook. I believe the scientific outlook to be immeasurably important to the human race. If a more just economic system were only attainable by closing men’s minds against free inquiry, and plunging them back into the intellectual prison of the middle ages, I should consider the price too high.

Economics was less developed and (possibly) fewer smart people had a basic grasp of the field. (Some good arguments against Marxist economics already existed but weren't widely known).

Interestingly, the oldest of the bunch, Bertrand Russell, had been writing criticisms of Marx as early as 1896. In his lecture "Marx and the Theoretical Basis of Social Democracy" he provides several arguments against Marxist economics, concluding,

We have now discussed all the most essential points in Marx’s economic doctrines, and have seen that none of them, as a theory of what is, or of what necessarily will be, will stand a thorough criticism.

Perhaps some of his work outside of (mathematical) logic was worth reading or hearing then.

Jason Crawford's recent post on 19th-century philosophy of progress seems relevant. Some quotes from it:

  • deep belief in the power of human reason
  • had forecast progress in morality and society just as much as in science, technology and industry
  • progress was inevitable
  • the conviction that “the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards

From this it doesn't seem surprising that smart people would have initially seen something like communism as the next step in the inevitable moral and social progress of humanity, powered by reason. Combine this high prior that communism would be good with lack of strong evidence of communism's problems (it probably looked pretty good from the outside, and any unfavorable info that did leak out, you couldn't be sure wasn't anti-communist propaganda)... and you almost don't need to invoke human irrationality to explain them being enamored with communism.

Maybe a more distal cause is that the Enlightenment was too successful, in that the values it settled upon through "reason", like freedom and democracy, turned out to work pretty well (relative to the old norms), which made people trust reason and progress too much, when in retrospect, the Enlightenment philosophers seem to have just gotten lucky. (Or maybe there are some deeper explanations than "luck" for why they were right, but it sure doesn't seem to have much to do with their explicit reasoning.)

That last point ("more distal cause") is a very interesting idea. Thanks!

Maybe they looked at a set of values (present) and decided that others might serve better. Having picked out a better set* might not have been super hard.

*in their context

This book has an interesting discussion about this phenomenon,

When reading the accounts of socialist pilgrims, one cannot help wondering how so many highly educated, highly intelligent, well-informed and well-meaning people can be so colossally and persistently wrong. Of course most of us are not experts on the economy, political system or social structures of a foreign country, and it is easy for an outside observer to come up with a wrong assessment. But socialist pilgrims were not just wrong in the way in which, say, a finance journalist who mistakes a short-lived boom for a genuine increase in prosperity, is wrong. Those pilgrims travelled to some of the most hellish places in the world and came back convinced that they had seen paradise.

Read chapter 10 for their explanation.

I'd be very interested in a quick summary of the explanation. 

It starts out bland and unoriginal. He lays blame on confirmation bias, citing Jonathan Haidt's social intuitionist model and Bryan Caplan's research on political irrationality,

Haidt shows that a lot of our moral and political reasoning is post-hoc rationalisation. Its primary purpose is not to arrive at a conclusion, but to justify a conclusion after we have reached it. We often arrive at a broad conclusion quickly and intuitively, and then selectively look for arguments to back it up retrospectively.

But why would people reflexively want to defend communism? Here he offers the explanation, borrowed from Friedrich Hayek and Peter Foster, that anti-capitalist thinking is natural. Intellectuals naturally gravitate towards any system that advertises itself as anti-capitalist, in a desperate hope that an effective alternative to the status quo has finally been found.

This still leaves an elephant in the room: why are our gut feelings so anti-capitalist? Why do we not start off with the hunch that capitalism might be a good thing? [...]

Hayek believed that anti-capitalist impulses were a legacy from a prehistoric age. Drawing on more recent insights from evolutionary psychology, Peter Foster (2014) has recently elaborated further on this idea. Foster’s argument could be summarised as follows.

Our minds, and especially our moral intuitions, have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, during which our ancestors lived in small tribes of hunter-gatherers. Our minds are therefore, in many ways, poorly adapted to a modern environment, and this is particularly true in the economic sphere. They are adapted to the economic life of a tribal society – not to an economy based on the division of labour and coordinated by anonymous mechanisms. 

In a hunter-gatherer tribe, all economic activity is purposeful and consciously directed. It is a group effort. The members of the tribe share common aims and means. There is not much of a division of labour, and certainly not between strangers. 

In this setting, intentions matter a great deal. Individuals who want to promote the welfare of the group end up promoting the welfare of the group; individuals who want to enrich themselves end up enriching themselves at the expense of the group. There is no ‘invisible hand’, which makes selfish individuals inadvertently promote the welfare of others. It therefore makes perfect sense for group members to police each other’s motives, to be highly sensitive to signs of selfish behaviour, and to punish the individuals who engage in it. 

In a hunter-gatherer society, economic activity is mostly a zero-sum game. The sharing of the spoils is an inherently political act, and the way the spoils are divided reflects power dynamics within the group, as well as moral judgements and notions of desert. The group must work out who ‘deserves’ how much. 

If Foster is right, our economic intuitions are a legacy of the tribal age. Most anti-capitalist arguments, then, no matter how much complex-sounding sociological jargon they may use, are really just sophisticated rationalisations of primitive urges. 

Of course, nobody would literally argue that we should organise a modern society in the same way as a hunter-gatherer tribe. We all know that a modern economy is infinitely more complex than a mammoth hunt. But, in essence, that is what socialism is: it is an attempt to turn economic life, once again, into a consciously directed group effort. The tribe gathers around the camp fire, its members work out what their common needs and priorities are, they agree on a way to fulfil them, and put it into action. The drafting of a Five-Year Plan, then, is just a more sophisticated version of the camp fire gathering. 

All of this is, of course, informed speculation, not hard science. Evolutionary psychology is not (yet) that far advanced. But whether anti-capitalism really is hardwired into us, or whether it has other origins, it is safe to say that anti-capitalism comes easily, effortlessly and naturally to us. It is a default opinion, which we can arrive at long before we give the issue much thought. We do not have to read the collected works of Marx and Engels first. Appreciation of the market economy, in contrast, is an acquired taste.

Interesting. One question is why people were attracted by non-capitalist economic systems. Another is why they were attracted by Marxism or by the Soviet Union. 

A third question is why they were disenchanted with capitalism. But it's not difficult to answer. ... there was the General Strike and the Great Depression.

Someone was bulverising their rejection of capitalism as self-serving, but the cracks in capitalism were obvious.

The conceptual reason why anti-capitalists are attracted to Marxism or the Soviet Union is probably fairly simple. Marx provided a cogent critique of the capitalist economic system, disseminating one of the most widely-read political documents of the 19th and early 20th century. The broader socialist tradition was happy to adopt his philosophy, as they believed it provided a solid scientific foundation for socialism more generally, and a reason for optimism. The Soviet Union was the first major socialist experiment. There had previously been attempts, such as the Paris Commune, but these were short-lived and had minor effects.

Therefore, it's no surprise why intellectuals favorable to socialism would have plenty to be excited about regarding the Soviet Union. That's when they finally got to see their philosophy in action.

But how could that be?

Shockingly easy: there was no information coming in and out of Russia that wasn't via courier (even mail was unreliable). The only way for information to get out was for someone to see something, and then survive leaving, and then tell people about it.

Also keep in mind the context: absolute monarchies routinely have bloody rebellions and purges; revolutions and civil wars are usually extended and bloody affairs. It wasn't until Lenin died and Stalin took over that it became clear a relatively stable government was murdering lots of people for increasingly bizarre reasons.

Russell, Keynes, Wittgenstein and Haldane all visited the Soviet Union. Needham spent time in China during the Sino-Japanese War and again after the communist revolution. So some intellectuals had access to first-hand accounts -- though I agree that the permission to visit and the experience itself was tightly controlled. There were also lots of Russians and Chinese in exile who intellectuals could talk to. 

Needham was fooled into believing the US had used biological weapons in the Korean War??

Not at all.  None of his detractors have withstood investigation, despite the combination of massive physical suppression of the Report, combined with a well-funded 'debunking' industry.

The accuracy of the ISC Report was confirmed on the basis of documents not available in 1952, by Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman in their book 'The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea' (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1998). See also Thomas Powell, "Biological Warfare in the Korean War: Allegations and Cover-up" (2019): http://sdonline.org/73/biological-warfare-in-the-korean-war-allegations-and-cover-up/

There were few more qualified researchers than Needham in 1951, and he was no fool. As a lifelong bench researcher, he knew and avoided the many pitfalls in his discipline, as a casual reading of his report demonstrates: 'The Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of Facts Concerning Bacteriological Warfare in Korea and China' (the ISC report). ISBN: 978-1-7358213-3-7
 

https://www.amazon.com/International-Scientific-Commission-Investigation-Bacterial-ebook/dp/B08VMWVT7W

In addition to the ISC Report, the Amazon edition, above, contains 200 pages on the war's origins  and its social impacts, together with testimony from nineteen pilots who flew the missions, from journalists who interviewed them, and from biowarfare experts.

Fully agree. Just created this account to chime in on how strange it appears for the author to describe someone as a ’polymath genius’ in biochemistry and sinology and to then claim that said individual was supposedly duped on a subject concerning biochemistry by a group of humans in the culture he most intensively studied.

It’s far more likely that the author himself was duped on this matter. (Along with the subset of the population less well informed than Needham, which is to say nearly everyone that superficially looked into the issue from a pro-American perspective )

Six geniuses and only three children between them. Should rationalist genes win?

Haldane wanted children but may have been infertile due to injuries suffered in WW1. IIRC Needham and his wife may also have had fertility issues. 

Curated. I like this piece though I fumble to express all the reasons why. In part it's nice to actually know something about these famous names. This collection of facts makes them seem more human and therefore allows me to related to them somewhat more. It's then further interesting to see what kind of men they were, and as it turns out, fairly eccentric ones for the times. It's probably not a coincidence, but of course actuality causalities are harder to define.

Interesting list. There was also Frank Ramsey

Who does Oxford have... Julian Huxley

I think Cambridge was much stronger than Oxford in STEM and philosophy until after WW2. Schrödinger was briefly at Oxford but they objected to his desire to live with both his wife and mistress. Outside of STEM, there was Tolkien, CS Lewis, and TE Lawrence.

Julian and Aldous Huxley were at Oxford and mixed with Haldane and Needham for sure. Haldane was an undergrad at Oxford and his dad a professor. 

Yes, I know less about Ramsey's life, but he was an incredible talent and interacted with Wittgenstein and Keynes. Paul Dirac and Ronald Fisher also spent part of their careers at Cambridge in this period but I know less about their lives. (There's also G. H. Hardy). 

He convinced Keynes that Bayesianism was correct! 

Do you have a citation or excerpt on this?

See here.

I think Ramsey is also the first (quantitative) longtermist ever (zero discount rate).

I didn't follow the links, but how did Bentham and Mill think about future utility?

Bentham was nonzero discount apparently (fn6). (He used 5% but only as an example.)

Mill thought about personal time preference (and was extremely annoyed by people's discount there). Can't see anything about social rate of discounting.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ramsey/#Life

Paragraphs 2 and 3 of the 'Life and works' section

I suspect it was more that the entire comment is very hard to parse

They spent significant periods working outside academia

That part seems interesting because usually I come across stuff about (some part of) their 'academic' work/accomplishments.


Also, there isn't a fact section for Keynes.

Keynes's involvement with the Versailles Peace Conference is quite well known. Russell was a famous public intellectual after leaving academia but I think is now better known for his earlier work in the foundations of mathematics and philosophy. Turing's codebreaking work is also well known.

I know less about Keynes. Feel free to suggest some.

Ramsey could be on the list too but I guess his tragically short life makes it hard to do some of the cells.

 

Maybe a bit off-colour to call the fact that three of Wittgenstein's brothers committed suicide 'delicious'...

I mentioned Ramsey in an another comment. Very brilliant polymath and likely would be included if he'd lived longer. 

https://aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/75411/was-ludwig-wittgensteins-aircraft-propeller-ever-built imaginative I suppose. Why is Wittgenstein thought to have contributed anything of worth? Yes, he was clever. Yes, some of his contemporaries praised him.

Dennett talks about Darwin’s theory of evolution being a “universal acid” that flowed everywhere, dissolved many incorrect things, and left everything we ‘thought’ we knew forever changed. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, with its description of language-games and the strong thesis that this is actually the only thing language is, was that for philosophy. Before PI it was reasonable to think that words have intrinsic meanings; after, it wasn’t.

Is this a rhetorical question? What kind of evidence are you looking for? 

At this point, it's more efficient to learn about Wittgenstein's contributions by reading more recent works. If you wanted some intro material on Wittgenstein's own work, you could try SEP, Grayling, or Soames [detailed historical development of analytic philosophy] but I haven't looked at these myself.  Also any discussions by Dennett of Wittgenstein on philosophy of mind, Kripke (or McGinn's discussion) on Wittgenstein on rule-following, discussion of family resemblance for concepts in various works. 

Wittgenstein had so many ideas and is such a difficult thinker that I think one ought to read him before secondary sources. Also he's a wonderful writer.