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Russell-Copleston Debate: The God question in philosophy


By Tunji Olaopa

Many who are readers must have read that popular and much referenced collection of essays under the title Why I Am Not a Christian by the legendary British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Originally a talk given on March 6, 1927 at Battersea Town Hall, under the auspices of the South London Branch of the National Secular Society. As a youth, I must have read one of the essays in that collection and a 1948 BBC debate between Professor Bertrand Russell and Rev. Fr. Frederick Copleston more times than I could possibly count.

I have always been fascinated by philosophy and philosophers. I am particularly moved by the possibility of applying the human mind to the challenges of existence and of survival. And this is what specifically defined the fundamental essence of philosophy—the dominance of reason as the sole instrument for making sense of the universe and its laws. It is reason that brings together philosophy and science as the two leading lights of human knowledge. But then, it becomes inevitable that philosophy and science would have to fathom the mysteries and the mysterious that lie at the heart of the universe. And the more they reach into the inner recesses of existence, the more philosophers and scientists find out that there is still more that is unknown or even unknowable. And what constitutes the ultimate unknown than the idea of God?

And this is the core essence of the famous debate between Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and Father Frederick Copleston, the English Jesuit Catholic priest and philosopher. Russell was a non-believer and Copleston a religious believer. In 1948, both squared off in a BBC radio broadcast on the metaphysical and moral arguments for the existence of God. The debate is significant in the history of philosophy because it brought to contemporary light some of the fine points of the old debate about the existence of God, by two of the most important philosophers available then. Russell was a thoroughgoing empiricist and a scientifically minded philosopher. Copleston was not just a historian of philosophy who was opened to all the shades of philosophical and theological argument from the ancient to the modern; he was also a theologian and a priest. It was therefore an evenly matched philosophical duel between two heavyweights and on a matter that holds existential value for all of humanity.

Copleston offered a definition of God that most monotheistic believers in the world today will find most beautiful and most accurate of their belief. According to him, by God, “…we mean a supreme personal Being—distinct from the world and Creator of the world.” And the next issue is to clarify the philosophical status of the disputants. There is no argument about Fr. Copleston is a theist. And he needed to know where Russell stood, on atheism or agnosticism. Atheists believe that God does not exist. But Russell was too philosophically modest to hold such a difficult position. He claimed he was an agnostic, and agnosticism is the simple belief that we do not have sufficient evidence to believe that God exist. Now, the interesting thing about agnosticism is that it places the burden of proving that God exists on those who believe that he does. And this is one challenge I see with most of us Christian believers, indeed, too many are driven in conversation with unbelievers by passion without knowledge. And so, throughout the debate, Copleston had the burden of proof.

Copleston’s first argument is often called the argument from contingency. It is a very simple argument: God is the reason for everything that exist in the universe. And this is because everything that exist is contingent. To be contingent means everything in the world depend on another thing for existence. I could not have existed without my parents. The laptop could not have existed without the laptop makers. This means therefore that there must be a reason for the existence of the entire universe, external to it. And that being must have in itself the reason for its existence. Thus, only God exist necessarily all by himself. Russell disagreed. For him, only ideas and mathematical proposition can be necessarily true. Like 2+2=4. That God exist is a factual proposition, and hence it cannot be necessarily true. To say that God, who is a being, necessarily exist, for Russell, is a contradiction because all beings are contingent. Indeed, Russell, further argues, the universe is just there, and there is no need to look for any further explanation for why it is there.

The second part of the debate was established around what is called the argument from religious experience. The issue is whether different religious experiences that people have could count as proof of God’s existence. For Copleston, a religious experience is not just about having a good  feeling. Rather, it is 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…” Such an experience, Copleston argued, must be taken as an objective one. In other words, those who have these mystical religious experiences have an encounter with an objective reality that is the source of their experience. Russell would have none of this. This is because religious experience for him are essentially private to those who have them, and therefore they are subjective. They do not point to the existence of an objective reality. An objective experience is one that all those who have it can agree together on the elements of what they have experienced, like when ten people looking at a sea all agreed that what is before them is a large body of water. Some people can have religious experience borne out of hallucinations and delusions.

Copleston’s response to this argument is that an objective religious experience can be known by the positive effects it has on those who have had it. His example is that of St. Francis of Assisi whose religious experience turned his life around for good. Copleston claimed that such a significant transformation must have an objective cause. But, Russell retorted, there are mystics who also claim the experience of demons and devils. The question then is how do we separate between the experience of demons and of God? Furthermore, those who have mystical experiences, like the church fathers, often come to serious ideological blows about the content of what they experienced. This is the basis of most the fundamental theological schisms in the early life of Christianity. Meister Eckhart was excommunicated because of his mystical experience about union with God. For Russell, therefore, “the fact that a belief has a good moral effect upon a man is no evidence whatsoever in favor of its truth.” Indeed, there have been fictional characters, like Lycurgus, the Greek hero, in novels that have inspired people.

The third argument around which Copleston and Russell examined the existence of God concerns the possibility of objective moral values as constituting the proof of God’s existence. Copleston’s argument is 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.” Copleston was speaking the mind of many Christians who look up to God as the source of their moral values. It is bad to steal, for instance or to commit murder because God abhors stealing and murder. In fact, the Ten Commandment is a signifier of God’s moral code for humanity. If God does not exist therefore, everyone will behave as they like. This would be tantamount to moral relativism—saying that a culture’s moral code is as good as another culture’s moral code. Russell believed, on the contrary, that we can separate between the question of God’s existence and the existence of objective moral values. In other words, for him, we can argue for the existence of objective moral code that binds all humanity without assuming that God exists as the source of that moral code.

In the final analysis, it would seem that Russell, the philosopher, had the upper hand over. Copleston, the theologian. Russell had an answer, and a critical one at that, for all of Copleston’s cogent theological arguments that seem to establish the existence of God. Both philosophers depended on the platform of reason. And this raises the perennial question of whether reason has the capacity to explain what is not obvious to reason itself. If God is a theological category that, according to Wittgenstein, we do not have the capacity to speak of, then reason fails. God is essentially a factor of belief.

  • Prof Olaopa writes from National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.

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