Philosophy of Religion

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The Cosmological Argument: Russell vs. Copleston

In 1947 there was an interesting debate between Bertrand Russell and F. C. Copleston which centred on the cosmological argument. Copleston (1907 – 1994) was a Jesuit priest who was professor of History of Philosophy at Heythrop College, London. Russell (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher and atheist who was a well-known critic of religious belief and Christianity.

There are two main points from the debate that should be noted:

  1. Why should we accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason? Does there really have to be a reason for everything? The Principle of Sufficent Reason is closely related to the idea of contingency. If all things are dependant, then there must be a necessary being to provide a reason for all this dependency. This necessary being, God, is therefore in a special category of His own. The question that Russell raises, however, is where does this ‘special category’ come from? Why should we accept that there must be such a category?

    Russell held that there was no reason for the universe’s existence and it was therefore pointless trying to find a reason for it. Of course, this is a denial that there has to be a reason for everything and, you may argue, seems a rather un-philosophical conclusion to reach.

    Copleston likened Russell’s approach of denying the problem to saying ‘ If one refuses to even sit down at the chess board and make a move, one cannot, of course, be checkmated.

    Copleston and Russell have to agree to disagree.

  2. The second point is the move from the dependency of individual beings to the dependency of the whole universe. Russell says, “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…” For Russell, to talk of the cause of the universe as a whole is meaningless. For example, I may be able to explain the reasons why a number of people read this book (i.e. what causes you to read this book). Person one may be reading it to help him to pass his exam; Person two because she is interested in the subject; Person three because he bought it by mistake, thinking it was a thriller, but decides to read it anyway; and Person four because she is the wife of the author and feels it is her duty to do so. These seem like fair enough reasons, but would it then be fair for you to say, “Yes, but what is the one cause for all of these people to read the book?” Must we then assume that there is one cause over and above the causes for each individual?

The Australian philosopher Paul Edwards develops Russell’s illustration of his readers with his own illustration of five Inuit who visit New York. Each is given a different explanation of why they each Inuit is in New York: the first wanted warmer weather, the second is the husband of the first, the third is the son of the first and the second, the fourth is responding to an advertisement in the New York Times asking for Inuit to appear on television, and the fifth has been hired by a private detective agency to keep an eye on the fourth. Although an individual explanation can be given why each Inuit is in New York, it does not make sense to then ask the one reason why the group as a whole are in New York.

Russell and Copleston end up talking in circles. Great radio!

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