Philosophy anthology extract 4: Russell & Copleston


They agree on definition of God – a supreme being distinct from the world and creator of the world.

Copleston thinks God can be proven, Russell does not.

The question of whether God exists is extremely important for humans and their purpose.

Copleston claims that without God there is no morality, whereas Russell points to Moore’s intuitionism, which accounts for morality without God.

The argument from contingency

Copleston combines Aquinas’ 3rd way with Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason.

A contingent being is one which could either exist or not exist as it depends on something else for its existence. The reason for its existence is external to it.

P1 – There are at least some contingent beings in the world.
P2 – The world is just the totality of those contingent beings.
C1 – The reason for the extence of the world must therefore be a being external to it.
P3 – This being either is its own reason for its existence, or not. 
P4 – If not, then there is an infinite regress which can provide no explanation
C2 – The only valid explanation of the world, then, is that it was caused by a being which is its own reason for existence, i.e. a necessary being.

Russell’s 1st counter: ‘Necessary’ can only apply to analytic (true by definition) propositions, not beings. E.g. A batchelor is an unmarried man.

A being could only be necessary (must exist) if it is self-contradictory to deny its existence. Russell is implying that it’s difficult to see how it could be self-contradictory to deny the existence of any being. Leibniz said truths of reason are necessary, but not so with truths of fact. Russell is implying that existence would be a matter of fact and therefore not necessary.

Copleston responds that he actually rejects Leibniz’ views on this matter – he only accepts Leibniz’ argument regarding the idea of a sufficient reason.

Rusell: propositions involving necessity have to be analytic – i.e. true by definition – and therefore not truths about fact, i.e. about what exists. So, a proposition about God’s existence couldn’t be necessary.

Copleston: consider this proposition: “if there is a contingent being then there is a Necessary being”. For us to know whether there is a contingent being requires experience – and therefore the truth of this proposition does not seem a matter of definition (analytic) but of fact. So, this seems to be a proposition involving the term ‘Necessary’ that is not analytic. To know whether a contingent being exists requires experience of fact from which it follows with necessity that there is a necessary being.

Russell: the issue is that the terms ‘necessary’ and even ‘contingent’ when applied to beings have no meaning – in that Russell ‘can’t find anything that they could mean’. ‘Necessary’ only has meaning applied to analytic propositions.

Copleston: Russell is part of the movement in ‘modern logic’ to view metaphysical terms as meaningless (similar to Ayer). Copleston claims that this is an invalid way to reject metaphysics – because it doesn’t show that metaphysics is actually false.

Copleston arguably has misunderstood the goal of modern logic. Certainly Ayer would admit that calling God meaningless does not show God false – but that is Ayer’s point – we cannot judge God either true or false because we cannot find a thing that the word God seems to be about. Same goes for ‘necessary beings’ or ‘contingent beings’.

Copleston: modern-logic as a sole criteria for meaning is overly-restrictive – dogmatically insisting that a part of philosophy is the whole of philosophy.

However, this is what Russell and Ayer (and early Wittgenstein) tried to do – they really thought they could show most philosophy to be a meaningless waste of time. But it’s not dogmatic (taken on faith) – they had an argument – which is, if you claim to be talking about something, yet you cannot show or point (verufy) to what you are talking about – then we are not justified in thinking you are talking about anything.

Copleston: what about contingent beings? Russell surely has to accept that we experience contingent beings – for both he and Copleston depended on their parents. Regarding Necessary beings – Russell may object that there is no Necessary being, but surely he cannot claim that it is a meaningless term – that he can’t understand it?

Rusell claims that he doesn’t reject metaphysics as totally meaningless (He’s not a total verificationist like Ayer), but he still thinks that no one has managed to defend an ‘interpretation of those particular terms’. 

Russell proposes that this debate comes to the ontological argument and the idea that there is a being whose essence (defining attributes) include existence. Rusell draws on Kant’s critique – that the existence of a being is not a matter of what it is (naming its attributes) – because existence is not a predicate. Existence is a matter of fact, whereas matters of definition are analytic. You can’t say something exists by definition (i.e. necessary being) because existence is about fact whereas definition is about definition.

Copleston: Russell could say that the world might have no cause, but how can he say ‘the cause of the world’ is meaningless? If the cause of the world could be a necssary being, it has to be meaningful to propose such an idea.



after some back and forth

The fallacy of composition

It is a fallacy to assume that what is true of a thing’s part(s) must be true of the whole. It is possible for what’s true of the parts to not be true of the whole. If all you have knowledge of are properties of the parts of a thing, you cannot infer from that alone that the whole also has those properties. Bertrand Russell illustrated this by pointing out that just because every human has a mother, that doesn’t mean the human race has a mother.

In the case of the universe, Cosmological arguments rightly point out that the parts of the universe (at least those we have observed) have a cause or are contingent. However, it commits the fallacy of composition to assume that therefore the universe itself as a whole is contingent or has a cause.

Russell concludes that the universe is ‘just there, and that’s all’, i.e., it could exist without reason or cause or explanation. This has often referred to as the universe being a ‘brute fact’. It claims that due to the fallacy of composition, we have no basis for thinking that notions such as causation even apply to the universe. The universe could be necessary, in which case its explanation would be its necessary existence, or it could simply have no explanation.

Hume and Russell are not claiming to know that the universe has no cause or is not contingent. They are merely pointing out that it is invalid to argue from the parts of the universe having a cause to the universe itself as a whole having one. While the properties of the parts of something may possibly be the properties of the whole they aren’t necessarily so and it is the fallacy of composition to assume that they are.

This argument works best against cosmological arguments from contingency (Aquinas’ 3rd way & Leibniz’ PSR) because they assume that the universe as a whole is contingent. If the universe is not contingent then we don’t need God to explain its existence.

Aquinas’ 1st and 2nd way do not explicitly claim that the universe has a cause because its parts have a cause. They only argue that because we find motion and causation in the universe, their explanation must be an unmoved mover or uncaused causer.

One response is to try and argue that sometimes what is true of the parts is true of the whole, e.g., a brick wall. The bricks of a brick wall are made of brick, but so is the whole wall. In that case the parts are like the whole. The relation of the universe to its parts may be more like that brick wall to its bricks than the human race to its members.

However, while the universe and its parts might be like that of a brick wall to its bricks, it also might not! If not, then the cosmological argument fails.

Copleston responds to the fallacy of composition that arguments from contingency are not making the mistake of inferring a cause for the whole series from the fact that its members have a cause. The argument, going back to Leibniz, is that a series of contingent things must have an external cause. Copleston’s argument is as follows:

P1. A series is either caused or uncaused.
P2. If a series is uncaused, then the reason for its existence must be internal to it; its existence is necessary.
P3. A series of contingent things can’t be necessary. No amount of contingent things can be necessary, not even an infinite number of them.
C1. Therefore, a series of contingent things cannot be necessary.
C2. Therefore, a series of contingent things must have a cause.
C3. Therefore, there must be a cause of the series of contingent things which is outside the series.

Only a posteriori cosmological arguments commit the fallacy of composition by assuming that the universe has a cause when all we experience is that parts of the universe have a cause.

Those which are a priori may avoid this problem by claiming to be derived from necessary truths rather than experience.

Russell’s brute fact response to the cosmological argument and Copleston. Russell responds that there is an assumption made by arguments from contingency. Copleston, Leibniz and Aquinas all assume that a series must have an explanation at all.

The claim that contingent beings or series of contingent beings must have a sufficient explanation could be denied without contradiction. It therefore cannot be a necessary truth. A series (whether finite or infinite) could have no cause/reason/explanation at all. Russell points to Quantum mechanics as evidence for his argument:

“The physicists assure us that individual quantum transitions in atoms have no cause.”

Copleston responds that only some interpretations of quantum mechanics propose uncaused events. Copleston insists that science and philosophy is about looking for causes and explanations.

“I cannot see how science could be conducted on any other assumption than that of order an intelligibility in nature” – Copleston.

However, Russell responds that while a scientist may look for causes, they do not assume that there is one to find. Even if quantum transitions are only uncaused on some interpretations of quantum mechanics, the mere idea of it still shows that physicists are able to conceive of events that have no cause. It is therefore at least logically possible for events in nature to have no cause or explanation. So, a contingent series doesn’t need an external cause. The principle of sufficient reason cannot be a necessary truth. The universe could be one of those natural events that has no cause or explanation. Science should accept that possibility, since science should be open to whatever could be true.

Copleston attempts to show that Russell is assuming that there isn’t a cause and Russell attempts to show that Copleston is assuming that there is. Ultimately, defenders of the cosmological argument are the ones making the positive claim about reality, so they have the burden of proof. It looks like for cosmological arguments from contingency, the conclusion that God exists as the explanation/cause of the universe cannot be reached without assuming that the universe has an explanation/cause. In that case, the mere possibility of the universe being a brute fact is enough to undermine the cosmological argument. It’s not irrational to look for a cause, even a cause like a God, but since there might not be a cause it is irrational to think that there must be one.

Religious experience

Copleston argues that although religious experiences are not a ‘strict proof’ of God, the ‘best explanation’ of them is God. He describes religious experiences as:

“awareness of some object which irresistibly seems to the experiencer as something transcending the self, something transcending all the normal objects of experience, something which cannot be pictured or conceptualized, but of the reality of which doubt is impossible – at least during the experience.”

The best explanation is that there is “some objective cause”

Russell thinks it is difficult to argue from our mental states to something outside us. Especially with religious experiences that tend to be private (happening inside a particular person’s mind).

Copleston says he is defending mystical experiences, not visions. He references Julian Huxley who said mystical experiences are as real as fallign in love, and Copleston adds that we fall in love with somebody not nobody – implying that this suggests there really is a God.

Russell points out that in Japan people kill themselves over love for fictional characters in books. 

Copleston denies a resemblance between the influence of books and those of mystical experiences. The best explanation is not a “subjectivist explanation” (that the religious experience comes from the mind) except in cases where people are deluded or hallucinating. However in cases like St. Francis of Assisi there is an “overflow of dynamic and creative love” which is best explained by an objective cause.

Russell points out that all sorts of things are reported in religious experiences, including demons and devils.

Copleston points out that he’s not defending the vision aspect of religious experience.

Russell counters that people believe Satan speaks to them in their hearts – just like the mystics “assert God”.

Copleston says he isn’t necessarily denying Satan’s existence but nonetheless thinks experiences of Satan are different from mystical experience of God which is ‘inexpressible’ and involves love, not horror. As seen in the example of Plotinus, it can result in a life-changing positive effect.

Russell: “The fact that a belief has a good moral effect upon a man is no evidence whatsoever in favor of its truth”.

Copleston: good effects do not show its complete validity, but they at least count in favor of “some truth” such as the truth of the belief being positive.

“I am using the character of the life as evidence in favor of the mustic’s veracity and sanity rather than as proof of the truth of his beliefs.”

This seems irrelevant to considering an objective cause as the best explanation. It was a positive belief – that isn’t evidence that it’s objective.

Russell: “But even that I don’t think is any evidence. I’ve had experiences myself that have altered my character profoundly … for the good … but they did not involve the existence of something outside me.” A wholesome effect is not evidence for an experience’s truth.

Copleston: The good effect is still evidence for the veracity (accuracy) of the description of the experience. It is evidence that the person really had an experience which was positive. It’s not proving the experience is ‘true’. Copleston accepts that regarding truth, mystical experiences can be criticised.

Russell gives an example (Lycurgus) of ‘great’ people in history who have influenced the character of those who read about them – yet they might not have existed. “You would then be influenced by an object that you’d loved, but it wouldn’t be an existing object”

Copleston: agrees with Russell that people can be infleunced by fictional characters, however the mystic if influenced by an exeperience of ‘ultimate reality’ – which seems different. Copleston is implying that experiences of ‘ultimate reality’ are better explained by objective causes. Whereas influence from fiction is easily explained subjectively.

Russell: In the case of unhistorical characters in history, a person reading about them can love a phantom.

Copleston: In one sense that person loves a phantom, but really they love the ‘real value’ the unhistorical character represents and this value is “objective valid” and is what causes the love. Copleston is arguing that even in the fiction case we can show that an experience of love can result from something objective (an objective value) and thus this implies that the love experienced in mysitcal experiences could also result from something objective.

Arguably there are no objective values (emotivism/prescriptivism).