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

Russell: claims Copleston is committing the fallacy of composition. Just because every human has a mother, that doesn’t mean the human race has a mother. Similarly, just because all the parts of the universe have a cause that doesn’t mean that the universe itself has a cause.

Copleston responds that he does not see “any parity” between the argument from contingency and the fallacy of composition. 



Copleston insists that he’s not saying that every object has a cause therefore the whole series has a cause. He’s saying that a series of contingent things must have a transcendent cause.

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.


However, Russell’s ‘brute fact’ approach holds that there is an assumption made by arguments from contingency. P2 assumes that a series must have an explanation at all.

There are multiple ways of fleshing out Russell’s view. An infinite series could have no explanation at all. A finite series could come into existence without cause/reason/explantion.

Rusell points to Quantum mecahnics as evidence for the brute fact argument:

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

Copleston attempts to say that this is only so on some interpretations of quantum mecahnics not shared by all physicists. 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” – Copleton.

However, Rusell 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 mecahnics, that still shows that physicists are able to concieve of events that have no cause. It is therefore at least logically possible for events in nature to have no cause or explanation. In that case, for all we know, the universe itself, the whole series, could have no cause or explanation. Science should accept that possibility, since science should be open to whatever could be true.

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).