Bertrand Russell and F.C. Copleston Debate the Existence of God, 1948

On Jan­u­ary 28, 1948 the British philoso­phers F.C. Cople­ston and Bertrand Rus­sell squared off on BBC radio for a debate on the exis­tence of God. Cople­ston was a Jesuit priest who believed in God. Rus­sell main­tained that while he was tech­ni­cal­ly agnos­tic on the exis­tence of the Judeo-Chris­t­ian God–just as he was tech­ni­cal­ly agnos­tic on the exis­tence of the Greek gods Zeus and Poseidon–he was for all intents and pur­pos­es an athe­ist.

The famous debate is divid­ed into two parts: meta­phys­i­cal and moral. In the meta­phys­i­cal part, which is pre­sent­ed here, Cople­ston espous­es what is known as the cos­mo­log­i­cal argu­ment for the exis­tence of God. Ele­ments of the cos­mo­log­i­cal argu­ment go back at least as far as Pla­to and Aris­to­tle, who held that the uni­verse required a “prime mover” out­side of itself. The ver­sion embraced by Cople­ston is derived from one of Thomas Aquinas’ five ways to prove the exis­tence of God. In his Sum­ma The­o­log­i­ca, Aquinas writes:

The third way is tak­en from pos­si­bil­i­ty and neces­si­ty and runs thus. We find in nature things that are pos­si­ble to be and not pos­si­ble to be, since they are found to be gen­er­at­ed and cor­rupt­ed. But it is impos­si­ble for these always to exist, for that which can not-be at some time is not. There­fore, if every­thing can not-be, then at one time there was noth­ing in exis­tence, because that which does not exist begins to exist only through some­thing already exist­ing. There­fore if at one time noth­ing was in exis­tence, it would have been impos­si­ble for any­thing to have begun to exist; and thus now noth­ing would be in existence–which is absurd. There­fore, not all beings are mere­ly pos­si­ble, but there must exist some­thing the exis­tence of which is nec­es­sary. But every nec­es­sary thing has its neces­si­ty caused by anoth­er, or not. Now it is impos­si­ble to go on to infin­i­ty in nec­es­sary things which have their neces­si­ty caused by anoth­er, as has already been proved in regard to effi­cient caus­es. There­fore, we can­not but admit the exis­tence of some being hav­ing of itself its own neces­si­ty, and not receiv­ing it from anoth­er, but rather caus­ing in oth­ers their neces­si­ty. This all men speak of as God.

Cople­ston adopts Got­tfried Wil­helm Leib­niz’s Prin­ci­ple of Suf­fi­cient Rea­son as a cor­ner­stone of his argu­ment. In his 1714 essay “The Prin­ci­ples of Nature and Grace, Based on Rea­son,” Leib­niz asserts that noth­ing can exist with­out a suf­fi­cient rea­son, includ­ing the Uni­verse. “This suf­fi­cient rea­son for the exis­tence of the Uni­verse can­not be found in the series of con­tin­gent things,” writes Leib­niz. “The suf­fi­cient rea­son, there­fore, which needs not fur­ther rea­son, must be out­side of this series of con­tin­gent things and is found in a sub­stance which…is a nec­es­sary being bear­ing the rea­son for its exis­tence with­in itself; oth­er­wise we should not yet have a suf­fi­cient rea­son with which to stop. This final rea­son for things is called God.”

Rus­sell takes excep­tion to Cople­ston’s use of Leib­niz’s con­cept of a nec­es­sary being. The term “nec­es­sary,” he argues, can only be applied to ana­lyt­ic propo­si­tions–propo­si­tions which are derived log­i­cal­ly and which would be self-con­tra­dic­to­ry to deny. An ana­lyt­ic propo­si­tion would fall under Leib­niz’s cat­e­go­ry of “truths of rea­son,” or a pri­ori truths. Yet Cople­ston admits his argu­ment is based on a pos­te­ri­ori grounds, or what Leib­niz called “truths of fact.” Rus­sell first poked holes in Leib­niz’s ver­sion of the cos­mo­log­i­cal argu­ment near­ly half a cen­tu­ry before his debate with Cople­ston. In A Crit­i­cal Expo­si­tion of the Phi­los­o­phy of Leib­niz, pub­lished in 1900, Rus­sell says of the cos­mo­log­i­cal argu­ment:

It has a for­mal vice, in that it starts from finite exis­tence as its datum, and admit­ting this to be con­tin­gent, it pro­ceeds to infer an exis­tent which is not con­tin­gent. But as the pre­miss is con­tin­gent, the con­clu­sion also must be con­tin­gent. This is only to be avoid­ed by point­ing out that the argu­ment is ana­lyt­ic, that it pro­ceeds from a com­plex propo­si­tion to one which is log­i­cal­ly pre­sup­posed in it, and that nec­es­sary truths may be involved in those that are con­tin­gent. But such a pro­ce­dure is not prop­er­ly a proof of the pre­sup­po­si­tion. If a judge­ment A pre­sup­pos­es anoth­er B, then, no doubt, if A is true, B is true. But it is impos­si­ble that there should be valid grounds for admit­ting A, which are not also grounds for admit­ting B. In Euclid, for exam­ple, if you admit the propo­si­tions, you must admit the axioms; but it would be absurd to give this as a rea­son for admit­ting the axioms.

Per­haps the most mem­o­rable moment of the debate on the cos­mo­log­i­cal argu­ment comes near the end, when Rus­sell crit­i­cizes Cople­ston’s asser­tion that because every­thing con­tained with­in the Uni­verse is con­tin­gent, the Uni­verse as a whole must also be con­tin­gent. “I can illus­trate what seems to me your fal­la­cy,” says Rus­sell. “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.” For Rus­sell it was enough to accept that the Uni­verse sim­ply exists. Or as David Hume points out in his Dia­logues Con­cern­ing Nat­ur­al Reli­gion, if there must be a nec­es­sar­i­ly exis­tent being, why can’t it be the Uni­verse as a whole?

The audio ver­sion of the debate above is abridged. To read a tran­script of the entire debate, click here to open the text in a new win­dow.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Face to Face with Bertrand Rus­sell: ‘Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish’

Three Pas­sions of Bertrand Rus­sell (and a Col­lec­tion of Free Texts)

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Comments (10)
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  • James Patrick Brennan says:

    Excel­lent and thanks for mak­ing it avail­able. I believe in an exter­nal, pow­er­ful and unseen Force and I would think this Force is best rep­re­sent­ed through Moth­er Nature, in all her glo­ry. I do not believe that ado­ra­tion of this Force is required.

  • daniel sainty says:

    I don’t believe in God. But Bertrand Rus­sel­l’s exis­tence was almost proof enough.

  • Ben Farmer says:

    @Bruno: This argu­ment to me seems to ignore the time evo­lu­tion of the Uni­verse. Sure, every­thing in the Uni­verse today, and by exten­sion the whole, is con­tin­gent on past states of the Uni­verse. But I see no rea­son to believe that there does not exist some state of the Uni­verse in the past which is itself nec­es­sar­i­ly exis­tent. Such a sit­u­a­tion seems far more plau­si­ble to me than the propo­si­tion that this state can only be rea­son­ably described as a “being”.

  • Richard Cunning says:

    The link to the tran­script is faulty; please check it out and pro­vide the direct link. Thanks.

  • Huseyn Qurbanov says:

    Log­i­cal­ly com­plete cos­mo­log­i­cal con­cept. /due to lack of knowl­edge of the Eng­lish lan­guage was not able to cor­rect the trans­la­tion Imple­ment­ed by Google/
    In order to present the unlim­it­ed space orig­i­nal­ly Ele­men­tary:
    1. vari­ety (homo­ge­neous) сom­plet­ed — enough to pos­tu­late the pres­ence in it of two ele­ments with SIMPLE and COMPLEX /closed sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly man­i­fest­ed the essence/
    2. het­ero­ge­neous com­plet­ed — enough to pos­tu­late the pres­ence in it of one more ele­ment — the Most High and Almighty God — with open exhib­it­ed sys­temic nature.
    Not hard to imag­ine that even at the low­est pos­si­ble deploy­ment intan­gi­ble com­po­nents the nature of God — the Spir­it of God — for the lev­el of the orig­i­nal down­ward­ly direct­ed con­tin­u­ous deploy­ment the mate­r­i­al com­po­nent of the essence of God, there is a cur­tail­ment of SIMPLE and COMPLEX /i.e.. their decay occurs due to block­ing of ori­gin upward­ly direct­ed con­stant­ly deploy com­po­nents of their intan­gi­ble essences/, as the max­i­mum pos­si­ble het­ero­ge­neous nature of God to the min­i­mum pos­si­ble num­ber of cell uni­for­mi­ty (№1h) and God on the basis of the mate­r­i­al com­po­nents of the min­i­mum pos­si­ble №1 deploys het­ero­ge­neous to its essence as pos­si­ble numer­i­cal ele­ment uni­for­mi­ty (№2H). The process of clot­ting №2H begins at a cer­tain point in time God begins at the end of its deploy­ment. Cur­tail­ment of the Spir­it of God to the lev­el of ini­tial deploy­ment again unfolds №1H — God’s poten­tial for trans­for­ma­tion into a №1H in №2H and №1H in №2H lim­it­less!

  • Huseyn Qurbanov says:

    Cos­mo­log­i­cal con­cept which is com­plete from log­i­cal point of view

    Ini­tial com­po­si­tion of bound­less space from the point of view of ele­ment:

    1.It is suf­fu­cient to declare exis­tence of two ele­ments, SIMPLE and COMPLEX, pos­s­esing closed sys­temic appear­ance in order to imag­ine dif­fer­ent (homoge­nous) and com­plet­ed one.
    2.It is suf­fi­cient to declare exis­tence of Lord and Almighty in oth­er ele­ment, pos­s­esing non-closed sys­tem­at­ic appear­ance in order to imag­ine it as dif­fer­ent and incom­plete as het­eroge­nous (in oth­er words: var­i­ous type).

    It is not dif­fi­cult to pre­sume that sim­ple and com­plex com­pres­sion is hap­pened in pos­si­ble min­i­mal widen­ing from per­ma­nent widen­ing lev­el, first, incli­na­tion to descend­ing, from mate­r­i­al com­po­nent of God from non-mate­r­i­al com­po­nent of Divine Spirit/separation hap­pened as max­i­mum pos­si­ble diver­si­ty (1H) on essence of God on min­i­mum pos­si­ble numer­ic homo­gene­ity regard­ing with block­age of start of non-mate­r­i­al com­po­nents, per­ma­nent­ly widen­ing, inclined to their increase of essence/God widens min­i­mal pos­si­ble homo­gene­ity as max­i­mum pos­si­ble numer­ic diver­si­ty (2H) to His essence on the basis of 1H mate­r­i­al com­po­nents. Clos­ing process starts only from time, known to God, start­ing from com­ple­tion of 2 H open­ing process. Clos­ing process reopens accord­ing to ini­tial open­ing lev­el of Divine Spir­it 1H-1H process of God to 2H process and con­ver­sion pos­si­bil­i­ties of 2H process to 1 H process!

  • adeee says:

    very detailed response helped me with­my debate in phi­los­o­phy

  • Ejikeme says:

    Rus­sell is say­ing that the high­est we can go is the uni­verse. Assert­ing the exis­tence of a Nec­es­sary being, when one knows only of con­tin­gent beings, is an unwar­rant­ed jump. This is because in ana­lyt­ic propo­si­tion, which Rus­sell believed in, the con­clu­sion must flow from the premis­es.

  • Silas says:

    The move­ment from the gath­ered con­tin­gent beings in the uni­verse to the asser­tion of the con­tin­gency of the whole uni­verse can­not be a fal­la­cy. Assum­ing I have a wall made of bricks which is not paint­ed, assum­ing I ask you what is the colour of the wall, will the colour of the wall not be the colour of the bricks and will the wall not be a brick wall? The same thing applies to the uni­verse, the uni­verse is build on con­ti­gent beings so it becomes a con­tin­gent uni­verse just as the wall is made of bricks and for that mat­ter becomes a brick wall.

  • Gary says:

    It’s a dis­grace there must be a mis­for­tune before the best in indi­vid­u­als will at long last sparkle.

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