The seminal debate gook place in 1948, and has been a reference point for may speeches and debates ever since.
Transcript of the Russell/Copleston radio debate
A DEBATE ON THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
Bertrand Russell [hereafter R:] and F.C. Copleston [hereafter C:]
C: 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”?
R: Yes, I accept this definition.
C: 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?
R: No, I should not say that: my position is agnostic.
C: 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?
R: Roughly speaking, yes, though I should have to place some limitation on your last clause.
C: 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?
R: 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.
C: 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?
R: That seems to me to be a very good plan. THE ARGUMENT FROM CONTINGENCY
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: Do you mean that you reject these terms because they won’t fit in with what is called “modern logic”?
R: 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.
C: 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?
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: I quite agree. Then I should say the same thing in another context in reference to a “necessary being.”
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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!”
C: Yes, certainly if anybody saw God, he would see that God must exist.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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?
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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?
R: 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.
C: 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?
R: 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.
C: 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?
R: It’s quite all right if you mean by explaining it, simply finding a cause for it.
C: Well, why stop at one particular object? Why shouldn’t one raise the question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: Then you would agree with Sartre that the universe is what he calls “gratuitous”?
R: Well, the word “gratuitous” suggests that it might be something else; I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: Well, I wonder now whether that isn’t simply a temporary inference.
R: It may be, but it does show that physicists’ minds can conceive it.
C: 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.”
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: 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.
R: 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.
C: Surely that’s a first cause within a certain selected field. It’s a relatively first cause.
R: 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.
C: 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?
R: Yes, that’s my position.
C: If it’s a question that for you has no meaning, it’s of course very difficult to discuss it, isn’t it?
R: Yes, it is very difficult. What do you say — shall we pass on to some other issue?
C: Let’s. Well, perhaps I might say a word about religious experience, and then we can go on to moral experience. I don’t regard religious experience as a strict proof of the existence of God, so the character of the discussion changes somewhat, but I think it’s true to say that the best explanation of it is the existence of God. By religious experience I don’t mean simply feeling good. I mean a loving, but unclear, 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. I should claim that cannot be explained adequately and without residue, simply subjectively. The actual basic experience at any rate is most easily explained on the hypotheses that there is actually some objective cause of that experience.
R: I should reply to that line of argument that the whole argument from our own mental states to something outside us, is a very tricky affair. Even where we all admit its validity, we only feel justified in doing so, I think, because of the consensus of mankind. If there’s a crowd in a room and there’s a clock in a room, they can all see the clock. The face that they can all see it tends to make them think that it’s not an hallucination: whereas these religious experiences do tend to be very private.
C: Yes, they do. I’m speaking strictly of mystical experience proper, and I certainly don’t include, by the way, what are called visions. I mean simply the experience, and I quite admit it’s indefinable, of the transcendent object or of what seems to be a transcendent object. I remember Julian Huxley in some lecture saying that religious experience, or mystical experience, is as much a real experience as falling in love or appreciating poetry and art. Well, I believe that when we appreciate poetry and art we appreciate definite poems or a definite work of art. If we fall in love, well, we fall in love with somebody and not with nobody. R: May I interrupt for a moment here. That is by no means always the case. Japanese novelists never consider that they have achieved a success unless large numbers of real people commit suicide for love of the imaginary heroine.
C: Well, I must take your word for these goings on in Japan. I haven’t committed suicide, I’m glad to say, but I have been strongly influenced in the taking of two important steps in my life by two biographies. However, I must say I see little resemblance between the real influence of those books on me and the mystic experience proper, so far, that is, as an outsider can obtain an idea of that experience.
R: Well, I mean we wouldn’t regard God as being on the same level as the characters in a work of fiction. You’ll admit there’s a distinction here?
C: I certainly should. But what I’d say is that the best explanation seems to be the not purely subjectivist explanation. Of course, a subjectivist explanation is possible in the case of certain people in whom there is little relation between the experience and life, in the case of deluded people and hallucinated people, and so on. But when you get what one might call the pure type, say St. Francis of Assisi, when you get an experience that results in an overflow of dynamic and creative love, the best explanation of that it seems to me is the actual existence of an objective cause of the experience.
R: Well, I’m not contending in a dogmatic way that there is not a God. What I’m contending is that we don’t know that there is. I can only take what is recorded as I should take other records and I do find that a very great many things are reported, and I am sure you would not accept things about demons and devils and what not — and they’re reported in exactly the same tone of voice and with exactly the same conviction. And the mystic, if his vision is veridical, may be said to know that there are devils. But I don’t know that there are.
C: But surely in the case of the devils there have been people speaking mainly of visions, appearance, angels or demons and so on. I should rule out the visual appearances, because I think they can be explained apart from the existence of the object which is supposed to be seen.
R: But don’t you think there are abundant recorded cases of people who believe that they’ve heard Satan speaking to them in their hearts, in just the same way as the mystics assert God — and I’m not talking now of an external vision, I’m talking of a purely mental experience. That seems to be an experience of the same sort as mystics’ experience of God, and I don’t seek that from what mystics tell us you can get any argument for God which is not equally an argument for Satan.
C: I quite agree, of course, that people have imagined or thought they have heard of seen Satan. And I have no wish in passing to deny the existence of Satan. But I do not think that people have claimed to have experienced Satan in the precise way in which mystics claim to have experienced God. Take the case of a non-Christian, Plotinus. He admits the experience is something inexpressible, the object is an object of love, and therefore, not an object that causes horror and disgust. And the effect of that experience is, I should say, borne out, or I mean the validity of th experience is borne out in the records of the life of Plotinus. At any rate it is more reasonable to suppose that he had that experience if we’re willing to accept Porphyry’s account of Plontinus’ general kindness and benevolence.
R: The fact that a belief has a good moral effect upon a man is no evidence whatsoever in favor of its truth.
C: No, but if it could actually be proved that the belief was actually responsible for a good effect on a man’s life, I should consider it a presumption in favor of some truth, at any rate of the positive part of the belief not of its entire validity. But in any case I am using the character of the life as evidence in favor of the mystic’s veracity and sanity rather than as a proof of the truth of his beliefs.
R: But even that I don’t think is any evidence. I’ve had experiences myself that have altered my character profoundly. And I thought at the time at any rate that it was altered for the good. Those experiences were important, but they did not involve the existence of something outside me, and I don’t think that if I’d thought they did, the fact that they had a wholesome effect would have been any evidence that I was right.
C: No, but I think that the good effect would attest your veracity in describing your experience. Please remember that I’m not saying that a mystic’s mediation or interpretation of his experience should be immune from discussion or criticism.
R: Obviously the character of a young man may be — and often is — immensely affected for good by reading about some great man in history, and it may happen that the great man is a myth and doesn’t exist, but they boy is just as much affected for good as if he did. There have been such people. Plutarch’s Lives take Lycurgus as an example, who certainly did not exist, but you might be very much influenced by reading Lycurgus under the impression that he had previously existed. You would then be influenced by an object that you’d loved, but it wouldn’t be an existing object.
C: I agree with you on that, of course, that a man may be influenced by a character in fiction. Without going into the question of what it is precisely that influences him (I should say a real value) I think that the situation of that man and of the mystic are different. After all the man who is influenced by Lycurgus hasn’t got the irresistible impression that he’s experience in some way the ultimate reality.
R: I don’t think you’ve quite got my point about these historical characters — these unhistorical characters in history. I’m not assuming what you call an effect on the reason. I’m assuming that the young man reading about this person and believing him to be real loves him — which is quite easy to happen, and yet he’s loving a phantom.
C: In one sense he’s loving a phantom that’s perfectly true, in the sense, I mean, that he’s loving X or Y who doesn’t exist. But at the same time, it is not, I think, the phantom as such that the young man loves; he perceives a real value, an idea which he recognizes as objectively valid, and that’s what excites his love.
R: Well, in the same sense we had before about the characters in fiction.
C: Yes, in one sense the man’s loving a phantom — perfectly true. But in another sense he’s loving what he perceives to be a value.
THE MORAL ARGUMENT
R: But aren’t you now saying in effect, I mean by God whatever is good or the sum total of what is good — the system of what is good, and, therefore, when a young man loves anything that is good he is loving God. Is that what you’re saying, because if so, it wants a bit of arguing.
C: I don’t say, of course, that God is the sum-total or system of what is good in the pantheistic sense; I’m not a pantheist, but I do think that all goodness reflects God in some way and proceeds from Him, so that in a sense the man who loves what is truly good, loves God even if he doesn’t advert to God. But still I agree that the validity of such an interpretation of a man’s conduct depends on the recognition of God’s existence, obviously.
R: Yes, but that’s a point to be proved.
C: Quite so, but I regard the metaphysical argument as probative, but there we differ.
R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.
C: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?
R: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.
C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?
R: By my feelings.
C: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?
R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.
C: Well, let’s take the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen. That appears to you as undesirable and evil and to me too. To Adolf Hitler we suppose it appeared as something good and desirable, I suppose you’d have to admit that for Hitler it was good and for you it is evil.
R: No, I shouldn’t quite go so far as that. I mean, I think people can make mistakes in that as they can in other things. if you have jaundice you see things yellow that are not yellow. You’re making a mistake.
C: Yes, one can make mistakes, but can you make a mistake if it’s simply a question of reference to a feeling or emotion? Surely Hitler would be the only possible judge of what appealed to his emotions.
R: It would be quite right to say that it appealed to his emotions, but you can say various things about that among others, that if that sort of thing makes that sort of appeal to Hitler’s emotions, then Hitler makes quite a different appeal to my emotions.
C: Granted. But there’s no objective criterion outside feeling then for condemning the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen, in your view?
R: No more than there is for the color-blind person who’s in exactly the same state. Why do we intellectually condemn the color-blind man? Isn’t it because he’s in the minority?
C: I would say because he is lacking in a thing which normally belongs to human nature.
R: Yes, but if he were in the majority, we shouldn’t say that.
C: Then you’d say that there’s no criterion outside feeling that will enable one to distinguish between the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen and the behavior, say, of Sir Stafford Cripps or the Archbishop of Canterbury.
R: The feeling is a little too simplified. You’ve got to take account of the effects of actions and your feelings toward those effects. You see, you can have an argument about it if you can say that certain sorts of occurrences are the sort you like and certain others the sort you don’t like. Then you have to take account of the effects of actions. You can very well say that the effects of the actions of the Commandant of Belsen were painful and unpleasant.
C: They certainly were, I agree, very painful and unpleasant to all the people in the camp.
R: Yes, but not only to the people in the camp, but to outsiders contemplating them also.
C: Yes, quite true in imagination. But that’s my point. I don’t approve of them, and I know you don’t approve of them, but I don’t see what ground you have for not approving of them, because after all, to the Commandant of Belsen himself, they’re pleasant, those actions.
R: Yes, but you see I don’t need any more ground in that case than I do in the case of color perception. There are some people who think everything is yellow, there are people suffering from jaundice, and I don’t agree with these people. I can’t prove that the things are not yellow, there isn’t any proof, but most people agree with him that they’re not yellow, and most people agree with me that the Commandant of Belsen was making mistakes.
C: Well, do you accept any moral obligation?
R: Well, I should have to answer at considerable length to answer that. Practically speaking — yes. Theoretically speaking I should have to define moral obligation rather carefully.
C: Well, do you think that the word “ought” simply has an emotional connotation?
R: No, I don’t think that, because you see, as I was saying a moment ago, one has to take account of the effects, and I think right conduct is that which would probably produce the greatest possible balance in intrinsic value of all the acts possible in the circumstances, and you’ve got to take account of the probable effects of your action in considering what is right.
C: Well, I brought in moral obligation because I think that one can approach the question of God’s existence in that way. The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong. The vast majority I think has some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. It’s my opinion that the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground of value and of an author of the moral law. I do mean by “author of the moral law” an arbitrary author of the moral law. I think, in fact, that those modern atheists who have argued in a converse way “there is no God; therefore, there are no absolute values and no absolute law,” are quite logical.
R: I don’t like the word “absolute.” I don’t think there is anything absolute whatever. The moral law, for example, is always changing. At one period in the development of the human race, almost everybody thought cannibalism was a duty.
C: Well, I don’t see that differences in particular moral judgments are any conclusive argument against the universality of the moral law. Let’s assume for the moment that there are absolute moral values, even on that hypothesis it’s only to be expected that different individuals and different groups should enjoy varying degrees of insight into those values.
R: I’m inclined to think that “ought,” the feeling that one has about “ought” is an echo of what has been told one by one’s parents or one’s nurses.
C: Well, I wonder if you can explain away the idea of the “ought” merely in terms of nurses and parents. I really don’t see how it can be conveyed to anybody in other terms than itself. It seems to be that if there is a moral order bearing upon the human conscience, that that moral order is unintelligible apart from the existence of God.
R: Then you have to say one or other of two things. Either God only speaks to a very small percentage of mankind — which happens to include yourself — or He deliberately says things are not true in talking to the consciences of savages.
C: Well, you see, I’m not suggesting that God actually dictates moral precepts to the conscience. The human being’s ideas of the content of the moral law depends entirely to a large extent on education and environment, and a man has to use his reason in assessing the validity of the actual moral ideas of his social group. But the possibility of criticizing the accepted moral code presupposes that there is an objective standard, and there is an ideal moral order, which imposes itself (I mean the obligatory character of which can be recognized). I think that the recognition of this ideal moral order is part of the recognition of contingency. It implies the existence of a real foundation of God.
R: But the law-giver has always been, it seems to me, one’s parents or someone like. There are plenty of terrestrial law-givers to account for it, and that would explain why people’s consciences are so amazingly different in different times and places.
C: It helps to explain differences in the perception of particular moral values, which otherwise are inexplicable. It will help to explain changes in the matter of the moral law in the content of the precepts as accepted by this or that nation, or this or that individual. But the form of it, what Kant calls the categorical imperative, the “ought,” I really don’t see how that can possibly be conveyed to anybody by nurse or parent because there aren’t any possible terms, so far as I can see, with which it can be explained. it can’t be defined in other terms than itself, because once you’ve defined it in other terms than itself you’ve explained it away. It’s no longer a moral “ought.” It’s something else.
R: Well, I think the sense of “ought” is the effect of somebody’s imagined disapproval, it may be God’s imagined disapproval, but it’s somebody’s imagined disapproval. And I think that is what is meant by “ought.”
C: It seems to me to be external customs and taboos and things of that sort which can most easily be explained simply through environment and education, but all that seems to me to belong to what I call the matter of the law, the content. The idea of the “ought” as such can never be conveyed to a man by the tribal chief or by anybody else, because there are no other terms in which it could be conveyed. It seems to me entirely….
R: But I don’t see any reason to say that — I mean we all know about conditioned reflexes. We know that an animal, if punished habitually for a certain sort of act, after a time will refrain. I don’t think the animal refrains from arguing within himself, “Master will be angry if I do this.” He has a feeling that that’s not the thing to do. That’s what we can do with ourselves and nothing more.
C: I see no reason to suppose that an animal has a consciousness or moral obligation; and we certainly don’t regard an animal as morally responsible for his acts of disobedience. But a man has a consciousness of obligation and of moral values. I see no reason to suppose that one could condition all men as one can “condition” an animal, and I don’t suppose you’d really want to do so even if one could. If “behaviorism” were true, there would be no objective moral distinction between the emperor Nero and St. Francis of Assisi. I can’t help feeling, Lord Russell, you know, that you regard the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen as morally reprehensible, and that you yourself would never under any circumstances act in that way, even if you thought, or had reason to think, that possibly the balance of the happiness of the human race might be increased through some people being treated in that abominable manner.
R: No. I wouldn’t imitate the conduct of a mad dog. The fact that I wouldn’t do it doesn’t really bear on this question we’re discussing.
C: No, but if you were making a utilitarian explanation of right and wrong in terms of consequences, it might be held, and I suppose some of the Nazis of the better type would have held that although it’s lamentable to have to act in this way, yet the balance in the long run leads to greater happiness. I don’t think you’d say that, would you? I think you’d say that sort of action is wrong — and in itself, quite apart from whether the general balance of happiness is increased or not. Then, if you’re prepared to say that, then I think you must have some criterion of feeling, at any rate. To me, that admission would ultimately result in the admission of an ultimate ground of value in God.
R: I think we are perhaps getting into confusion. It is not direct feeling about the act by which I should judge, but rather a feeling as to the effects. And I can’t admit any circumstances in which certain kinds of behavior, such as you have been discussing, would do good. I can’t imagine circumstances in which they would have a beneficial effect. I think the persons who think they do are deceiving themselves. But if there were circumstances in which they would have a beneficial effect, then I might be obliged, however reluctantly, to say — “Well, I don’t like these things, but I will acquiesce in them,” just as I acquiesce in the Criminal Law, although I profoundly dislike punishment.
C: Well, perhaps it’s time I summed up my position. I’ve argued two things. First, that the existence of God can be philosophically proved by a metaphysical argument; secondly, that it is only the existence of God that will make sense of man’s moral experience and of religious experience. Personally, I think that your way of accounting for man’s moral judgments leads inevitably to a contradiction between what your theory demands and your own spontaneous judgments. Moreover, your theory explains moral obligation away, and explaining away is not explanation.
As regards the metaphysical argument, we are apparently in agreement that what we call the world consists simply of contingent beings. That is, of beings no one of which can account for its own existence. You say that the series of events needs no explanation: I say that if there were no necessary being, no being which must exist and cannot not-exist, nothing would exist. The infinity of the series of contingent beings, even if proved, would be irrelevant. Something does exist; therefore, there must be something which accounts for this fact, a being which is outside the series of contingent beings. If you had admitted this, we could then have discussed whether that being is personal, good, and so on. On the actual point discussed, whether there is or is not a necessary being, I find myself, I think in agreement with the great majority of classical philosophers.
You maintain, I think, that existing beings are simply there, and that I have no justification for raising the question of the explanation of their existence. But I would like to point out that this position cannot be substantiated by logical analysis; it expresses a philosophy which itself stands in need of proof. I think we have reached an impasse because our ideas of philosophy are radically different; it seems to me that what I call a part of philosophy, that you call the whole, insofar at least as philosophy is rational.
It seems to me, if you will pardon my saying so, that besides your own logical system — what you call “modern” in opposition to antiquated logic (a tendentious adjective) — you maintain a philosophy which cannot be substantiated by logical analysis. After all, the problem of God’s existence is an existential problem whereas logical analysis does not deal directly with problems of existence. So it seems to me, to declare that the terms involved in one set of problems are meaningless because they are not required in dealing with another set of problems, is to settle from the beginning the nature and extent of philosophy, and that is itself a philosophical act which stands in need of justification.
R: Well, I should like to say just a few words by way of summary on my side. First, as to the metaphysical argument: I don’t admit the connotations of such a term as “contingent” or the possibility of explanation in Father Copleston’s sense. I think the word “contingent” inevitably suggests the possibility of something that wouldn’t have this what you might call accidental character of just being there, and I don’t think is true except int he purely causal sense. You can sometimes give a causal explanation of one thing as being the effect of something else, but that is merely referring one thing to another thing and there’s no — to my mind — explanation in Father Copleston’s sense of anything at all, nor is there any meaning in calling things “contingent” because there isn’t anything else they could be.
That’s what I should say about that, but I should like to say a few words about Father Copleston’s accusation that I regard logic as all philosophy — that is by no means the case. I don’t by any means regard logic as all philosophy. I think logic is an essential part of philosophy and logic has to be used in philosophy, and in that I think he and I are at one. When the logic that he uses was new — namely, in the time of Aristotle, there had to be a great deal of fuss made about it; Aristotle made a lot of fuss about that logic. Nowadays it’s become old and respectable, and you don’t have to make so much fuss about it. The logic that I believe in is comparatively new, and therefore I have to imitate Aristotle in making a fuss about it; but it’s not that I think it’s all philosophy by any means — I don’t think so. I think it’s an important part of philosophy, and when I say that, I don’t find a meaning for this or that word, that is a position of detail based upon what I’ve found out about that particular word, from thinking about it. It’s not a general position that all words that are used in metaphysics are nonsense, or anything like that which I don’t really hold.
As regards the moral argument, I do find that when one studies anthropology or history, there are people who think it their duty to perform acts which I think abominable, and I certainly can’t, therefore, attribute Divine origin to the matter of moral obligation, which Father Copleston doesn’t ask me to; but I think even the form of moral obligation, when it takes the form of enjoining you to eat your father or what not, doesn’t seem to me to be such a very beautiful and noble thing; and, therefore, I cannot attribute a Divine origin to this sense of moral obligation, which I think is quite easily accounted for in quite other ways.
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