The Philosopher’s Boxing Ring: Russell vs Copleston



Introduction

There is nothing more exciting than an argument between two philosophers on a subject they are passionate about. What is even more exciting is seeing who wins. This article will look at Russell and Father Copelston’s debate over the cosmological argument and who actually wins.

Background To The Debate

The debate in question occurred on the BBC radio channel in 1948 between Russel and Copelston over the cosmological argument. Copleston’s argument is a similar one to Leibniz’s cosmological argument. This can be shown in the following premises;

1. There are things within the world which have their cause external to themselves. 
2. The world is made up entirely of objects which do not posses their own cause (the world is made up of contingent objects.)
3. The world cannot be distinct from the objects which make it up.
4. Therefore, the world must have a cause outside of it.
5. That reason must be an existent being. 
6. This being must either have a cause within itself or have a cause outside of itself. 
7. The continuation of beings having a cause outside themselves would lead to infinite regress. 
8. This has to be false, as if their was an infinite regress, there would be no cause of the chain at all. This can’t be the case as the universe exists and their is a chain.
9. Therefore, we must come instead to a being which contains a cause within itself. This being cannot not exist.
Conclusion; This necessary being is God. Therefore, God must exist.

During the debate, Russell challenges this on 4 bases; 

1. He disagrees with a necessary being. 
2. He argues the argument is a fallacy of composition. 
3. He argues that not everything must have a cause. 
4. He rejects the need for an explanation for the universe. 

Despite the denial of the cosmological argument proving the existence of God being the accepted position today, this blog will demonstrate that both sides have good points as well as flaws. 

God As A Necessary Being

Russell’s first attack is on the concept of a necessary being. Copleston argues that there must be a being which has its cause within iteself as this is needed to start the chain of movers. However, Russell rejects the idea that necessary can be applied to a being. A necessary statement is one which can’t be contradicted. For instance, you can’t deny a batchelor is an unmarried man without it being contradictory. This contrasts to a being’s existence which can be contradicted. Russell claims we can imagine a being existing and not existing. This means “God’s existence” can be contradicted and  therefore, he cannot be a necessary being. 

However, this is a poor start from Russell. While reading up on this article, I did not completely understand how he was attempting to criticise the ontological argument on this basis. This is because Copleston is not making an assertion of an analytical statement where God’s existence is necessary. He is arguing that there must be something which has a cause within itself in order to begin the chain of movers. At this point in the argument, I think Russell mistakes Copleston’s argument for an ontological one. Copleston is not claiming that God’s necessary existence can be analysed out of a definition. Instead he is claiming that, from our empirical understanding of the world, there must be something which has a cause within itself in order to start the chain. It is from this which a necessary being is demonstrated, not from a definition. It is a side effect of the argument, not the premise it depends on. These are two completely different claims which Russell fails to acknowledge. On this basis, Russell cannot disprove the cosmological argument. 

Fallacy of Composition

Next, Russell challenges the idea that the world cannot be distinct from the contingent objects that makes it up. That is to say, the universe must be contingent because the objects that make it up are contingent. However, Russell argues that this is a fallacy of composition. This means that we are making an unjustified assumption that a property which all the objects have in a group apply to an entire group. 

This is the same argument that Hume makes against the cosmological argument. He uses the example of Inuits in New York. Imagine that 5 different Inuits happen to be in New York one day. Each of them do not know each other so have a different reason for being in New York. Hume argues that it would be a mistake to then move from these different reasons to claiming there is a general reason for all of them being in New York. This is the same with the universe. All objects in the universe are contingent, but have different things they depend upon. It is a mistake to then make the assumption the universe as a whole must depend upon something. If this is the case, then we cannot make the conclusion that the universe must depend on something else as well eg God. If we can’t make this jump, then we can’t use the example of contingent objects to prove that the universe must also be contingent and prove God’s existence. 

This is a much stronger argument from Russell as it attacks a leap which the cosmological argument depends on in order to prove God. If we cannot show the world must be contingent, then it limits the claims the cosmological argument can make. 

However, the damage which this premise can do is limited. Russell’s attack does not disprove that the world is contingent. Instead, it merely demonstrates that the cosmological argument cannot prove it is. This means that the argument can’t be disproven, it merely now depends on an if. If the world is contingent, then it must have a cause. While this limits how fair we can take the cosmological argument, it does not mean that it is completely redundant. 

This changes the argument to; 

1.. If the world is contingent, the world must have a cause outside of it.
2. That reason must be an existent being. 
3. This being must either have a cause within itself or have a cause outside of itself. 
4. The continuation of beings having a cause outside themselves would lead to infinite regress. 
5. This has to be false, as if their was an infinite regress, there would be no cause of the chain at all. This can’t be the case as the universe exists and their is a chain.
6. Therefore, we must come instead to a being which contains a cause within itself. This being cannot not exist.

Conclusion; This necessary being is God. Therefore, God must exist.

Not Everything Must Have A Cause

Russell then attacks the heart of the cosmological argument; the idea that everything has a cause. He uses quantum physics,  a science which was new at the time but now underpins all our technology, such as mobile phones. Within quantum physics, there is the Copenhagen Effect, otherwise known as quantum fluctuations. This is where sub-atomic particles appear and disappear with no explanation. These fluctuations would seem to have no cause, and we would certainly not class them as necessary beings. This then disproves premise 1. If we cannot infer everything has a cause, then we cannot assume that the universe has a cause. If it does not, then we have no need for an being and therefore, God is not needed.

This could be a very strong argument on Russell’s behalf. We can’t change the premises to fit this. If we did, then we are undermining the fundamental point of the argument, which is the empirical observation of the cause. 

However, Russell himself has made a mistake in logic here, as he has mistaken a lack of human knowledge for there not being a cause. We don’t have a full grasp on quantum physics. Even physicists admit this themselves. It may be the case that there is a cause for these that we are not aware of. It may even be God. This argument is strengthened further when considering what is most probable; some things occur without a cause or some things occur with a cause which we are not aware of.  Most people would go with answer two. This severely weakens Russell’s argument, as we can’t be certain either way. This prevents Russell from definitely disproving the cosmological argument. 

The Universe Needs No Explanation

At the end of the debate, Copleston asks Russell what is the purpose of the universe and why we are here. Russell responds to this by saying “the universe is just there, and that’s all”. The strength of this argument varies on how you see the world. For some people, the universe is crying out for an explanation. For others, there is no need for an explanation. The universe exists, and there is no need for an explanation by the use of God. It will depend on what side of the debate you fall on which will decide whether this is a persuasive argument, or whether it is like refusing to sit down to a game of chess. 

However, no matter what side of the debate you fall on, it does not attack the fact “everything has a cause”. This would persuade most to the side of the universe needing an explanation, instead of Russell’s argument of the world just is. When these two ideas are paired together, then it seems that Russell fails to use this criticism to disprove the cosmological argument. 

Who wins?

I would hate to ever wimp out of a decision, but, let’s face it, both sides have their flaws. Russell fails to disprove completely the idea of the cosmological argument. However, Copleston also has to give up the conclusiveness of the cosmological argument. I think Copleston comes out on top, as the probability of God’s existence based on the cosmological argument is higher than not. Despite this, we have to bare in mind that Russell is agnostic. His mission was not to claim that God does not exist, merely that the argument does not prove the existence of God. It is debatable whether he has achieved this aim and to what extent this achievement reaches. 


Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Student studying MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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