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.

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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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