Bertrand Russell v. Frederick Copleston debate transcript and audio (Part 2)

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.
Therefore:
(3) The universe has a reason for its existence.
(4) If the universe has a reason for its existence then that reason is God.
Therefore:
(5) God exists.

_________________________

 FATHER COPLESTON
Well, you say, I believe, that it is bad grammar, or rather bad syntax to say for example “T. S. Eliot exists”; one ought to say, for example, “He, the author of Murder in the Cathedral, exists.” Are you going to say that the proposition, “The cause of the world exists,” is without meaning? You may say that the world has no cause; but I fail to see how you can say that the proposition that “the cause of the world exists” is meaningless. Put it in the form of a question: “Has the world a cause?” or “Does a cause of the world exist?” Most people surely would understand the question, even if they don’t agree about the answer.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
Well, certainly the question “Does the cause of the world exist?” is a question that has meaning. But if you say “Yes, God is the cause of the world” you’re using God as a proper name; then “God exists” will not be a statement that has meaning; that is the position that I’m maintaining. Because, therefore, it will follow that it cannot be an analytic proposition ever to say that this or that exists. For example, suppose you take as your subject “the existent round-square,” it would look like an analytic proposition that “the existent round- square exists,” but it doesn’t exist.

        FATHER COPLESTON
No, it doesn’t, then surely you can’t say it doesn’t exist unless you have a conception of what existence is. As to the phrase “existent round-square,” I should say that it has no meaning at all.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
I quite agree. Then I should say the same thing in another context in reference to a “necessary being.”

        FATHER COPLESTON
Well, we seem to have arrived at an impasse. To say that a necessary being is a being that must exist and cannot not exist has for me a definite meaning. For you it has no meaning.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
Well, we can press the point a little, I think. A being that must exist and cannot not exist, would surely, according to you, be a being whose essence involves existence.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Yes, a being the essence of which is to exist. But I should not be willing to argue the existence of God simply from the idea of His essence because I don’t think we have any clear intuition of God’s essence as yet. I think we have to argue from the world of experience to God.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
Yes, I quite see the distinction. But, at the same time, for a being with sufficient knowledge, it would be true to say “Here is this being whose essence involves existence!”

        FATHER COPLESTON
Yes, certainly if anybody saw God, he would see that God must exist.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
So that I mean there is a being whose essence involves existence although we don’t know that essence. We only know there is such a being.

        FATHER COPLESTON
Yes, I should add we don’t know the essence a priori. It is only a posteriori through our experience of the world that we come to a knowledge of the existence of that being. And then one argues, the essence and existence must be identical. Because if God’s essence and God’s existence was not identical, then some sufficient reason for this existence would have to be found beyond God.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
So it all turns on this question of sufficient reason, and I must say you haven’t defined sufficient reason” in a way that I can understand — what do you mean by sufficient reason? You don’t mean cause?

        FATHER COPLESTON
Not necessarily. Cause is a kind of sufficient reason. Only contingent being can have a cause. God is His own sufficient reason; and He is not cause of Himself. By sufficient reason in the full sense I mean an explanation adequate for the existence of some particular being.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
But when is an explanation adequate? Suppose I am about to make a flame with a match. You may say that the adequate explanation of that is that I rub it on the box.

        FATHER COPLESTON
Well, for practical purposes — but theoretically, that is only a partial explanation. An adequate explanation must ultimately be a total explanation, to which nothing further can be added.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
Then I can only say that you’re looking for something which can’t be got, and which one ought not to expect to get.

    FATHER COPLESTON
To say that one has not found it is one thing; to say that one should not look for it seems to me rather dogmatic.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
Well, I don’t know. I mean, the explanation of one thing is another thing which makes the other thing dependent on yet another, and you have to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire to do what you want, and that we can’t do.

        FATHER COPLESTON
But are you going to say that we can’t, or we shouldn’t even raise the question of the existence of the whole of this sorry scheme of things — of the whole universe?

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
Yes, I don’t think there’s any meaning in it at all. I think the word “universe” is a handy word in some connections, but I don’t think it stands for anything that has a meaning.

      FATHER COPLESTON
If the word is meaningless, it can’t be so very handy. In any case, I don’t say that the universe is something different from the objects which compose it (I indicated that in my brief summary of the proof), what I’m doing is to look for the reason, in this case the cause of the objects — the real or imagined totality of which constitute what we call the universe. You say, I think that the universe — or my existence if you prefer, or any other existence — is unintelligible?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
First may I take up the point that if a word is meaningless it can’t be handy. That sounds well but isn’t in fact correct. Take, say, such a word as “the” or “than.” You can’t point to any object that those words mean, but they are very useful words; I should say the same of “universe.” But leaving that point, you ask whether I consider that the universe is unintelligible. I shouldn’t say unintelligible — I think it is without explanation. Intelligible, to my mind, is a different thing. Intelligible has to do with the thing itself intrinsically and not with its relations.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, my point is that what we call the world is intrinsically unintelligible, apart from the existence of God. You see, I don’t believe that the infinity of the series of events — I mean a horizontal series, so to speak — if such an infinity could be proved, would be in the slightest degree relevant to the situation. If you add up chocolates you get chocolates after all and not a sheep. If you add up chocolates to infinity, you presumably get an infinite number of chocolates. So if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get contingent beings, not a necessary being. An infinite series of contingent beings will be, to my way of thinking, as unable to cause itself as one contingent being. However, you say, I think, that it is illegitimate to raise the question of what will explain the existence of any particular object?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
It’s quite all right if you mean by explaining it, simply finding a cause for it.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, why stop at one particular object? Why shouldn’t one raise the question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Because I see no reason to think there is any. The whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things; I see no reason whatsoever to suppose that the total has any cause whatsoever.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, to say that there isn’t any cause is not the same thing as saying that we shouldn’t look for a cause. The statement that there isn’t any cause should come, if it comes at all, at the end of the inquiry, not the beginning. In any case, if the total has no cause, then to my way of thinking it must be its own cause, which seems to me impossible. Moreover, the statement that the world is simply there if in answer to a question, presupposes that the question has meaning.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
No, it doesn’t need to be its own cause, what I’m saying is that the concept of cause is not applicable to the total.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Then you would agree with Sartre that the universe is what he calls “gratuitous”?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Well, the word “gratuitous” suggests that it might be something else; I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, I can’t see how you can rule out the legitimacy of asking the question how the total, or anything at all comes to be there. Why something rather than nothing, that is the question? The fact that we gain our knowledge of causality empirically, from particular causes, does not rule out the possibility of asking what the cause of the series is. If the word “cause” were meaningless or if it could be shown that Kant’s view of the matter were correct, the question would be illegitimate I agree; but you don’t seem to hold that the word “cause” is meaningless, and I do not suppose you are a Kantian.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
I can illustrate what seems to me your fallacy. Every man who exists has a mother, and it seems to me your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn’t a mother — that’s a different logical sphere.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, I can’t really see any parity. If I were saying “every object has a phenomenal cause, therefore, the whole series has a phenomenal cause,” there would be a parity; but I’m not saying that; I’m saying, every object has a phenomenal cause if you insist on the infinity of the series — but the series of phenomenal causes is an insufficient explanation of the series. Therefore, the series has not a phenomenal cause but a transcendent cause.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
That’s always assuming that not only every particular thing in the world, but the world as a whole must have a cause. For that assumption I see no ground whatever. If you’ll give me a ground I’ll listen to it.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, the series of events is either caused or it’s not caused. If it is caused, there must obviously be a cause outside the series. If it’s not caused then it’s sufficient to itself, and if it’s sufficient to itself it is what I call necessary. But it can’t be necessary since each member is contingent, and we’ve agreed that the total has no reality apart from its members, therefore, it can’t be necessary. Therefore, it can’t be — uncaused — therefore it must have a cause. And I should like to observe in passing that the statement “the world is simply there and is inexplicable” can’t be got out of logical analysis.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
I don’t want to seem arrogant, but it does seem to me that I can conceive things that you say the human mind can’t conceive. As for things not having a cause, the physicists assure us that individual quantum transitions in atoms have no cause.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, I wonder now whether that isn’t simply a temporary inference.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
It may be, but it does show that physicists’ minds can conceive it.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Yes, I agree, some scientists — physicists — are willing to allow for indetermination within a restricted field. But very many scientists are not so willing. I think that Professor Dingle, of London University, maintains that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle tells us something about the success (or the lack of it) of the present atomic theory in correlating observations, but not about nature in itself, and many physicists would accept this view. In any case, I don’t see how physicists can fail to accept the theory in practice, even if they don’t do so in theory. I cannot see how science could be conducted on any other assumption than that of order and intelligibility in nature. The physicist presupposes, at least tacitly, that there is some sense in investigating nature and looking for the causes of events, just as the detective presupposes that there is some sense in looking for the cause of a murder. The metaphysician assumes that there is sense in looking for the reason or cause of phenomena, and, not being a Kantian, I consider that the metaphysician is as justified in his assumption as the physicist. When Sartre, for example, says that the world is gratuitous, I think that he has not sufficiently considered what is implied by “gratuitous.”

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
I think — there seems to me a certain unwarrantable extension here; a physicist looks for causes; that does not necessarily imply that there are causes everywhere. A man may look for gold without assuming that there is gold everywhere; if he finds gold, well and good, if he doesn’t he’s had bad luck. The same is true when the physicists look for causes. As for Sartre, I don’t profess to know what he means, and I shouldn’t like to be thought to interpret him, but for my part, I do think the notion of the world having an explanation is a mistake. I don’t see why one should expect it to have, and I think you say about what the scientist assumes is an over-statement.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, it seems to me that the scientist does make some such assumption. When he experiments to find out some particular truth, behind that experiment lies the assumption that the universe is not simply discontinuous. There is the possibility of finding out a truth by experiment. The experiment may be a bad one, it may lead to no result, or not to the result that he wants, but that at any rate there is the possibility, through experiment, of finding out the truth that he assumes. And that seems to me to assume an ordered and intelligible universe.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
I think you’re generalizing more than is necessary. Undoubtedly the scientist assumes that this sort of thing is likely to be found and will often be found. He does not assume that it will be found, and that’s a very important matter in modem physics.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, I think he does assume or is bound to assume it tacitly in practice. It may be that, to quote Professor Haldane, “when I Iight the gas under the kettle, some of the water molecules will fly off as vapor, and there is no way of finding out which will do so,” but it doesn’t follow necessarily that the idea of chance must be introduced except in relation to our knowledge.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
No it doesn’t — at least if I may believe what he says. He’s finding out quite a lot of things — the scientist is finding out quite a lot of things that are happening in the world, which are, at first, beginnings of causal chains — first causes which haven’t in themselves got causes. He does not assume that everything has a cause.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Surely that’s a first cause within a certain selected field. It’s a relatively first cause.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
I don’t think he’d say so. If there’s a world in which most events, but not all, have causes, he will then be able to depict the probabilities and uncertainties by assuming that this particular event you’re interested in probably has a cause. And since in any case you won’t get more than probability that’s good enough.

    FATHER COPLESTON
It may be that the scientist doesn’t hope to obtain more than probability, but in raising the question he assumes that the question of explanation has a meaning. But your general point then, Lord Russell, is that it’s illegitimate even to ask the question of the cause of the world?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Yes, that’s my position.

    FATHER COPLESTON
If it’s a question that for you has no meaning, it’s of course very difficult to discuss it, isn’t it?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Yes, it is very difficult. What do you say — shall we pass on to some other issue?

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