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A Debate on the Existence of God

Frederick Copleston versus Bertrand Russell, BBC Radio (1948). Reprinted in Al Seckel, ed. Bertrand Russell On God and Religion (Prometheus: 1986), pp. 123ff.

Copleston: 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”?

Russell: Yes, I accept this definition.

CoplestonWell, 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?

Russell: No, I should not say that: my position is agnostic.

CoplestonWould 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?

Russell: Roughly speaking, yes, though I should have to place some limitation on your last clause.

CoplestonWould 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?

Russell: 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.

CoplestonWell, 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?

Russell: That seems to me to be a very good plan.

The Argument from Contingency

CoplestonWell, 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.

RussellThis 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.

Copleston: 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.

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.

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.

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.

Copleston: Do you mean that you reject these terms because they won’t fit in with what is called
“modern logic”?

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.

Copleston: 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.

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?

Russell: 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.

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.

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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: I quite agree. Then I should say the same thing in another context in reference to a “necessary being.”

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.

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.

Copleston: 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.

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!”

Copleston: Yes, certainly if anybody saw God, he would see that God must exist.

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

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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?

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.

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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

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.

Copleston: 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?

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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?

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.

Copleston: 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

Russell: It’s quite all right if you mean by explaining it, simply finding a cause for it.

Well, why stop at one particular object? Why shouldn’t one raise the
question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?

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

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: Then you would agree with Sartre that the universe is what he calls “gratuitous”?

Well, the word “gratuitous” suggests that it might be something else; I
should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.

Copleston: 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

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

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.

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

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.

Copleston: Well, I wonder now whether that isn’t simply a temporary inference.

Russell: It may be, but it does show that physicists’ minds can conceive it.

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.”

Russell: 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.

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

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

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.

Copleston: Surely that’s a first cause within a certain selected field. It’s a relatively first cause.

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.

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?

Russell: Yes, that’s my position.

Copleston: If it’s a question that for you has no meaning, it’s of course very difficult to discuss it, isn’t it?

Russell: Yes, it is very difficult. What do you say — shall we pass on to some other issue?

Religious Experience

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.

Russell: 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.

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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: The fact that a belief has a good moral effect upon a man is no
evidence whatsoever in favor of its truth.

Copleston: 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

Russell: 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

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: Well, in the same sense we had before about the characters in

Copleston: 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

Russell: 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

Copleston: 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.

Russell: Yes, but that’s a point to be proved.

Copleston: Quite so, but I regard the metaphysical argument as probative, but
there we differ.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good
and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

Russell: 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.

Copleston: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish
blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what

Russell: By my feelings.

Copleston: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that
good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: Granted. But there’s no objective criterion outside feeling then
for condemning the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen, in your view?

Russell: 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?

Copleston: I would say because he is lacking in a thing which normally
belongs to human nature.

Russell: Yes, but if he were in the majority, we shouldn’t say that.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: They certainly were, I agree, very painful and unpleasant to all
the people in the camp.

Russell: Yes, but not only to the people in the camp, but to outsiders
contemplating them also.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: Well, do you accept any moral obligation?

Russell: 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.

Copleston: Well, do you think that the word “ought” simply has an
emotional connotation?

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.”

Copleston: 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….

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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.

Russell: 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.

Copleston: 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

Russell: 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.

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.

Russell: 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.