Sunday, September 27, 2015

Here is a summary of the now classic dispute between Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell about the Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God.

I trust you will enjoy it.  The full text of the debate is available online,  A Debate on the Argument from Contingency....

These notes came from some source that I no longer can track down.  They are someone else's summary of the text of the debate.

‘A’ Level Philosophy and Ethics
The Cosmological Argument
Russell and Copleston
These notes are based on a transcript of the Radio Debate between F. C.
Copleston and Bertrand Russell broadcast by the BBC in 1948. All quotations are
taken from that transcript. The transcript can be found at
Copleston begins with a definition of “God”
Copleston: I presume that we mean a supreme personal being -- distinct
from the world and creator of the world.
He goes on to argue that without a God there would be no absolute
“good”, and that there would exist a state of “moral relativism”. Russell
disagrees with this – he argues that concepts of good and evil can exist
without there being a God to “guarantee” the concepts.
Copleston’s Argument From Contingency
1. There are some things in the world that do not contain in themselves
the reason for their existence.
Copleston: For example, I depend on my parents, and now on the air, and
on food, and so on.
2. Copleston defines the “world” as the sum total of things that exist and
that look beyond themselves for their existence.
3. Copleston reasons that to explain the reason for the existence of the
world, there must be something outside the world that created it.
Copleston: the totality of objects, must have a reason external to itself.
That reason must be an existent being.
4. If we try to argue that something created this “creator”, then we will
have an infinite procession of creators.
Copleston: But if we proceed to infinity in that sense, then there's no
explanation of existence at all.
5. So, Copleston concludes, we must argue for a being which is selfexistent.
Copleston: that is to say, which cannot not exist.
Russell’s Response
Russell starts by addressing the idea of Necessary Existence. He argues
that the term “Necessary” can only be applied to “analytic propositions” –
propositions that would be self-contradictory to deny (for example
“bachelors are married”). Russell therefore argues that the only way to
argue for the Existence of God would be if it could be shown that God’s
existence was self-contradictory to deny.
Russell is arguing that the debate has to be based on whether statements
about the existence of God are analytical.
He gives the following examples:
Irrational animals are animals
This is an analytical statement
This is an animal
This is not!
The Cosmological Argument – Russell and Copleston
Copleston and Russell then go on to argue about the nature of analytic
Analytic and Synthetic Statements
An analytic statement is a
statement that contains the
truth needed to verify it within
the statement itself.
A synthetic statement requires
external evidence for its
The great Scots philosopher David Hume argued that it was meaningless
to talk about anything that was not either a synthetic or an analytic
statement was sophistry and illusion.
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance,
let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning containing quantity or number?
No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning, concerning matter of fact or
existence? No. Commit it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry
and illusion.
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)
This means that any statement that cannot be proved true (or false) is
meaningless. Consider:
Bachelors are married Herbert is a bachelor
ò ò
You can check the truth of this
statement simply by defining
the word “bachelor”. Clearly the
statement is false! However, it
is a meaningful statement!
Go and find Herbert, and
research his background. You
can prove that Herbert is
unmarried. This “external”
evidence supports the
statement, and makes it
You will come across this principle when you come to look at the issue of
Religious Language (an A2 Topic).
Russell is basing his argument on this principle. He argues that Copleston
is wrong to apply the concept of “Necessary Existence” to objects – the
term can only be used in analytic propositions.
Copleston’s response to Russell’s response
In the first place, Copleston accuses Russell of rejecting an idea simply
because it doesn’t fit into his personal system. He accuses Russell of being
over-dogmatic in applying a single philosophical system to the whole of
Copleston defines a contingent being as:
Copleston: a "contingent" being is a being which has not in itself the
complete reason for its existence. You know, as well I 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.
And a necessary being as
Copleston: means a being that must and cannot not exist.
The Cosmological Argument – Russell and Copleston
He goes on to argue that questions about existent beings’ existence are
not meaningless. Since this is the case, then questions about the
existence of the cause of the world are just as meaningful.
Russell argues against this as follows:
§ “Does the cause of the world exist” is a meaningful question.
§ The answer “God is the cause of the world” uses “God” as a proper
“Herbert exists” cannot be an analytic statement, because the only way
that it can be said to be meaningful is by going to find Herbert. The
statement is therefore synthetic. Russell argues that “necessary
existence” can only apply to analytic statements. Copleston’s argument
that there must be a self-existent being that is responsible for the
creation of the world is therefore logically meaningless!
The argument then turned back to the idea of cause. Copleston defines
Gos as a non-caused being.
Copleston: God is His own sufficient reason; and He is not cause of Himself.
Copleston begins to consider the idea of infinite chains of cause and
If God made the world, who made God?
If the world is the sum total of all contingent beings, then something must
have caused each contingent being. This does not account for the
existence of the world itself – this would require a non-contingent being.
Copleston: if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get
contingent beings, not a necessary being.
In other words – to account for the existence of the contingent world,
you need to look beyond the contingent world. Simply to put cause before
cause in an infinite series would leave you with an infinite series of
contingent causes, and no explanation for where it all came from.
Russell does not see this at all. He does not see that it is necessary to look
for a cause for the whole world.
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.
I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all.
Russell illustrates his point through the example of parenthood. It is easy
to see how individual human beings have mothers and fathers (and
therefore causes!). The Human Race as a totality does not have a
Copleston responds by arguing that:
Copleston: 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.
The Cosmological Argument – Russell and Copleston
However, Russell argues that there is no need to look for a cause for the
whole world.
Copleston’s response returns to the idea of necessary existence. Either the
series of events is caused, or it is not caused!
If it is caused, there must be a
cause from outside the series.
If it is not caused, then it is
sufficient to itself (which is
Copleston’s definition of
“necessary existence”).
The chain of causes cannot be “sufficient to itself” because it is made up
of contingent parts. The sum total cannot exist independently of its parts,
so the total cannot be “necessary” when its parts are contingent.
Copleston therefore argues that there must be a separate necessary cause
for the contingent series of objects that make up our world.
Prof. Copleston argues that we observe a series of causes and effects.
This series of contingent events makes up the world that we understand
and observe.
He believes that it is legitimate to wonder where this world of contingent
events has come from. He does not accept that the cause of the world can
be found within the world itself – there must be a self-sufficient cause
outside of the world to be its cause.
Lord Russell disputes this on two grounds. In the first place, he argues
that Copleston is using faulty logical processes in his argument. He says
that self-sufficient existence can only be attributed as part of an analytic
statement, whereas Copleston attributes it as part of the synthetic
statement “God exists”.
Also, Copleston argues that because we observe chains of causes and

effects in the world, there must be a cause for the whole world.

No comments:

Post a Comment