Bertrand Russell v. Frederick Copleston debate transcript and audio (Part 1)

Fr. Frederick C. Copleston vs Bertrand Russell – Part 1

Uploaded by on Jul 15, 2009

BBC Radio Third Programme Recording January 28, 1948. BBC Recording number T7324W. This is an excerpt from the full broadcast from cassette tape A303/5 Open University Course, Problems of Philosophy Units 7-8. Older than 50 years, out of UK/BBC copyright.
Pardon the hissy audio. It was recorded 51 years ago after all. I tried to clean it up but I found that the voices were clearer without any filters. Meh.

This is an excerpt from the famous BBC Radio debate between Father Frederick C. Copleston and Bertrand Russell. In this section, they discuss Leibniz’s Argument from Contingency, which is a form of the Cosmological Argument. It differs from other Cosmological arguments (e.g. Kalam) in that it is consistent with an eternal universe, as it doesn’t appeal to first causes, but rather the principle of sufficient reason. It can be summarized in this way:

(1) Everything that exists contingently has a reason for its existence.
(2) The universe exists contingently.
(3) The universe has a reason for its existence.
(4) If the universe has a reason for its existence then that reason is God.
(5) God exists.


Fredric Charles Copleston, (1907 – 1994)          
A Jesuit priest and author of a nine-volume History of Philosophy

As we are going to discuss the existence of God, it might perhaps be as well to come to some provisional agreement as to what we understand by the term “God.” I presume that we mean a supreme personal being — distinct from the world and creator of the world. Would you agree — provisionally at least — to accept this statement as the meaning of the term “God”?

Yes, I accept this definition.

Well, my position is the affirmative position that such a being actually exists, and that His existence can be proved philosophically. Perhaps you would tell me if your position is that of agnosticism or of atheism. I mean, would you say that the non-existence of God can be proved?


No, I should not say that: my position is agnostic.

Would you agree with me that the problem of God is a problem of great importance? For example, would you agree that if God does not exist, human beings and human history can have no other purpose than the purpose they choose to give themselves, which — in practice — is likely to mean the purpose which those impose who have the power to impose it?

Roughly speaking, yes, though I should have to place some limitation on your last clause.

Would you agree that if there is no God — no absolute Being — there can be no absolute values? I mean, would you agree that if there is no absolute good that the relativity of values results?

No, I think these questions are logically distinct. Take, for instance, G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, where he maintains that there is a distinction of good and evil, that both of these are definite concepts. But he does not bring in the idea of God to support that contention.

Well, suppose we leave the question of good till later, till we come to the moral argument, and I give first a metaphysical argument. I’d like to put the main weight on the metaphysical argument based on Leibniz’s argument from “Contingency” and then later we might discuss the moral argument. Suppose I give a brief statement on the metaphysical argument and that then we go on to discuss it?

That seems to me to be a very good plan.



Well, for clarity’s sake, I’ll divide the argument into distinct stages. First of all, I should say, we know that there are at least some beings in the world which do not contain in themselves the reason for their existence. For example, I depend on my parents, and now on the air, and on food, and so on. Now, secondly, the world is simply the real or imagined totality or aggregate of individual objects, none of which contain in themselves alone the reason for their existence. There isn’t any world distinct from the objects which form it, any more than the human race is something apart from the members. Therefore, I should say, since objects or events exist, and since no object of experience contains within itself reason of its existence, this reason, the totality of objects, must have a reason external to itself. That reason must be an existent being. Well, this being is either itself the reason for its own existence, or it is not. If it is, well and good. If it is not, then we must proceed farther. But if we proceed to infinity in that sense, then there’s no explanation of existence at all. So, I should say, in order to explain existence, we must come to a being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, which cannot not exist.

This raises a great many points and it is not altogether easy to know where to begin, but I think that, perhaps, in answering your argument, the best point at which to begin is the question of necessary being. The word “necessary” I should maintain, can only be applied significantly to propositions. And, in fact, only to such as are analytic
– that is to say — such as it is self-contradictory to deny. I could only admit a necessary being if there were a being whose existence it is self-contradictory to deny. I should like to know whether you would accept Leibniz’s division of propositions into truths of reason and truths of fact. The former — the truths of reason — being necessary.

Well, I certainly should not subscribe to what seems to be Leibniz’s idea of truths of reason and truths of fact, since it would appear that, for him, there are in the long run only analytic propositions. It would seem that for Leibniz truths of fact are ultimately reducible to truths of reason. That is to say, to analytic propositions, at least for an omniscient mind. Well, I couldn’t agree with that. For one thing it would fail to meet the requirements of the experience of freedom. I don’t want to uphold the whole philosophy of Leibniz. I have made use of his argument from contingent to necessary being, basing the argument on the principle of sufficient reason, simply because it seems to me a brief and clear formulation of what is, in my opinion, the fundamental metaphysical argument for God’s existence.

But, to my mind, “a necessary proposition” has got to be analytic. I don’t see what else it can mean. And analytic propositions are always complex and logically somewhat late. “Irrational animals are animals” is an analytic proposition; but a proposition such as “This is an animal” can never be analytic. In fact, all the propositions that can be analytic are somewhat late in the build-up of propositions.

Take the proposition “if there is a contingent being then there is a necessary being.” I consider that that proposition hypothetically expressed is a necessary proposition. If you are going to call every necessary proposition an analytic proposition, then — in order to avoid a dispute in terminology — I would agree to call it analytic, though I don’t consider it a tautological proposition. But the proposition is a necessary proposition only on the supposition that there is a contingent being. That there is a contingent being actually existing has to be discovered by experience, and the proposition that there is a contingent being is certainly not an analytic proposition, though once you know, I should maintain, that there is a contingent being, it follows of necessity that there is a necessary being.

The difficulty of this argument is that I don’t admit the idea of a necessary being and I don’t admit that there is any particular meaning in calling other beings “contingent.” These phrases don’t for me have a significance except within a logic that I reject.

Do you mean that you reject these terms because they won’t fit in with what is called “modern logic”?

Well, I can’t find anything that they could mean. The word “necessary,” it seems to me, is a useless word, except as applied to analytic propositions, not to things.

In the first place, what do you mean by “modern logic?” As far as I know, there are somewhat differing systems. In the second place, not all modern logicians surely would admit the meaninglessness of metaphysics. We both know, at any rate, one very eminent modern thinker whose knowledge of modern logic was profound, but who certainly did not think that metaphysics are meaningless or, in particular, that the problem of God is meaningless. Again, even if all modern logicians held that metaphysical terms are meaningless, it would not follow that they were right. The proposition that metaphysical terms are meaningless seems to me to be a proposition based on an assumed philosophy.

The dogmatic position behind it seems to be this: What will not go into my machine is non-existent, or it is meaningless; it is the expression of emotion. I am simply trying to point out that anybody who says that a particular system of modern logic is the sole criterion of meaning is saying something that is over-dogmatic; he is dogmatically insisting that a part of philosophy is the whole of philosophy. After all, a “contingent” being is a being which has not in itself the complete reason for its existence that’s what I mean by a contingent being. You know, as well as I do, that the existence of neither of us can be explained without reference to something or somebody outside us, our parents, for example. A “necessary” being, on the other hand means a being that must and cannot not exist. You may say that there is no such being, but you will find it hard to convince me that you do not understand the terms I am using. If you do not understand them, then how can you be entitled to say that such a being does not exist, if that is what you do say?

Well, there are points here that I don’t propose to go into at length. I don’t maintain the meaninglessness of metaphysics in general at all. I maintain the meaninglessness of certain particular terms — not on any general ground, but simply because I’ve not been able to see an interpretation of those particular terms. It’s not a general dogma — it’s a particular thing. But those points I will leave out for the moment. And I will say that what you have been saying brings us back, it seems to me, to the ontological argument that there is a being whose essence involves existence, so that his existence is analytic. That seems to me to be impossible, and it raises, of course, the question what one means by existence, and as to this, I think a subject named can never be significantly said to exist but only a subject described. And that existence, in fact, quite definitely is not a predicate.

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