An old debate on God

This is the complete transcript of a 1948 debate between philosopher Bertrand Russell and the Jesuit priest and historian (of philosophy) Frederick Copleston. They are debating the “Existence of God.” An audio recording of a part of the debate – “the argument from contingency” – is available from the Internet Archive.

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  • Varuna  On April 14, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    I have a book called “The Existence of God” in which every possible argument – ontological, cosmological, teleological – is made by philosophers ranging from Plato to A J Ayer (including a transcript of the interview you mention with Russell). To even attempt to read this book is to come to the conclusion that philosophy is impossibly obscure for all but the serious student of philosophy. The interview with Russel is one of the few readable pieces. If i am asked to explain why I am an atheist – I only say that I can’t believe, that I lack the mysterious faith that makes people believe, that i find the idea of a god absurd, that it is a laughable oversimplification of all the wonder and mystery and beauty of the world. If anyone has made a simple, straightforward argument against the existence of god, I’d be interested to hear it.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 14, 2009 at 2:42 pm

      # “If anyone has made a simple, straightforward argument against the existence of god, I’d be interested to hear it.”
      I don’t know of any simple arguments against the existence of God. Only the refutations/ dismissal of the regular ones – the complexity argument, the watchmaker argument, Copleston’s “there has to be a first cause” argument and so on. Most of what is listed here.

      Nathaniel Branden is supposed to have said this-

      Existence is the first cause. The universe is the total of that which exists. Within the universe, the emergence of new entities can be explained in terms of the actions of entities that already exist. All actions presuppose the existence of entities. All causality presupposes the existence of something that acts as a cause. To demand a cause for all of existence is to demand a contradiction: if the cause exists, it is part of existence: if it does not exist, it cannot be a cause. Nothing cannot be the cause of something. Nothing does not exist. Nothing is not just another kind of something–it is nothing. Existence exists; you cannot go outside it, you cannot get under it, on top of it or behind it. Existence exists–and only existence exists; there is nowhere else to go. The universe did not begin–it did not, at some point in time, spring into being. Time is a measurement of motion. Motion presupposes entities that move. If nothing existed, there could be no time. Time is ‘in’ the universe; the universe is not ‘in’ time.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On April 14, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    yawn! i cannot dare read any further. i once had a debate on the internet about the existence of god. “god exists” or “god doesn’t exists” – both are equally difficult to prove. if you think you have mastered the art of arm-twisting a believer to not believe in any celestial being then you can join the madness here.

    no need to register, you can post in anonymous mode. and ask them about ayesha for me.

    • Varuna  On April 14, 2009 at 3:41 pm

      It’s true. It’s impossible to make an argument one way or the other. Best to give up all those confounding words and simply believe or not believe. I read the watchmaker’s argument and was not convinced.

      • K. M.  On April 14, 2009 at 8:20 pm

        It’s impossible to make an argument one way or the other.
        That is enough to prove that the existence of God is an arbitrary claim – i.e, its truth or falsehood has no consequences. If it had consequences, the claim would not be impossible to prove (or disprove)

        By the way, Aristotle, I started reading that transcript and gave up at the point Russell started talking about the analytic-synthetic dichotomy.

        • Aristotle The Geek  On April 14, 2009 at 8:55 pm

          “By the way, Aristotle, I started reading that transcript and gave up at the point Russell started talking about the analytic-synthetic dichotomy.”
          I think you will find that there are very few philosophers that will pass the Rand test, the great Aristotle included. The best way to go about it is – read everything, don’t adopt anything until you find it coherent. That’s what I tend to do. Opinions can always be revised when more information is available.

        • Aristotle The Geek  On April 14, 2009 at 9:15 pm

          From the section on “the moral argument”-

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

          R: 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.

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

          R: By my feelings.

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

          R: 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.

          C: 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.

          R: 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 mistake.

      • Aristotle The Geek  On April 14, 2009 at 8:48 pm

        # “It’s impossible to make an argument one way or the other.”
        That’s partly true. But the fact is you can only prove the existence of something, not the non-existence of something (I don’t mean that you can’t prove that a man doesn’t have eight fingers – here the absence is proof indeed. But this is not what the “proof of God” is about). The set of all existent entities, whatever their quantum – they may number in the zillions, is a finite set. Not the case with the set of non-existent or imaginary entities. No?

        For example, how can you prove that a sixteen-headed omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient supernatural donkey that plays a piano – or a harp – somewhere in deep space doesn’t exist? Or a race of aliens with tomatoes for heads? I could go on adding one more head to the donkey in question and we have an infinite series of triple-o entities that you have to prove don’t exist.

        If someone says God exists, he has to “prove” He exists. He can’t demand that I prove that He doesn’t exist.

        # “Best to give up all those confounding words and simply believe or not believe.”
        That is not a good idea because you no longer go by reason, but by faith. And faith is not a strong foundation to build a life. This is not to say that a belief in God is always detrimental – it depends on what kind of God it is that you believe in – an Aristotelian God lost in self-contemplation, or someone who created the universe and then disappeared, or someone who throws down commandments and consigns people to hell, or someone who bitches about infidels etc etc. You have had many “good” believers, Voltaire and Jefferson for example, and many “bad” non-believers (the communists).

        The mere belief in God is enough to affect your life in a way it would not otherwise. That’s why Pascal’s wager is not as innocent as it appears.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On April 14, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    but why discuss whether micky mouse exists or not. the good one’s believing in such things are the spiritual types who mind there own fu@king business. it’s the religious one’s who set fire to your homes. and you can’t reason with someone who’s already made up his mind.

    those who manage to snap back into reality become infidels. where does this all lead to? the southern commies are crazy to think atheism will solve things. the argument is, who are the one’s likely to be convert to atheist beliefs? would a muslim choose to be an infidel?

    they began setting the stage centuries ago and now it’s finally set. and you can’t go back now.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 15, 2009 at 12:27 am

      # “and you can’t reason with someone who’s already made up his mind.”
      That’s true. But for someone who’s straddling the fence, such a discussion can help.

      # “would a muslim choose to be an infidel?”
      There are a few. Remember that most Muslims are just like those from any other religion – as crazy if things go that way; its the 18th century Middle Eastern perversion, if you can call it that, that’s the main problem today.

  • Varuna  On April 15, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    The problem with belief in god is that it can be dangerous. Non-belief, on the other hand, never is, and non-believers rarely try to impose their non belief on believers. While the average person who worships may generally be quite harmless, there is a very real danger of such a person being swayed – if it comes to that – in the name of god and religion to, let’s say, hate a bunch of people for their separate religious beliefs. The extreme believers – Hindu, Muslim, Christian etc – have through history waged war in the name of god. In fact many if not most of the evils in this world are a result of this belief in god.That is why the idea of god is dangerous.

    • Really  On June 6, 2009 at 5:17 pm

      Marx, Lenin and Stalin were all non believers in God. In fact all (particularly Lenin) were avowedly atheists and killed people who did not share their atheistic views. Therefore Varuna’s suggestion that non belief is never dangerous is false.

      • Aristotle The Geek  On June 6, 2009 at 9:45 pm

        The question is whether atheism – non-belief – has something in it that makes people kill the religious, or others for that matter – something inherent. It doesn’t. Most “faiths” do, however. That is the difference.

        In any case, Marxism/ Communism is no different from any other religion. It simply replaced God with society, and killed in its name – not just the religious, but all “class enemies.”

        Many philosophers, and even physicists have had views on “God” and I recently came across one by theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg. While pontificating on the creation of the universe, the discussion naturally includes God, and therefore, evil. This is what he says-

        …I think that on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful.

        This is much too big a question to be settled here. On one side, I could point out endless examples of the harm done by religious enthusiasm, through a long history of pogroms, crusades, and jihads. In our own century it was a Muslim zealot who killed Sadat, a Jewish zealot who killed Rabin, and a Hindu zealot who killed Gandhi. No one would say that Hitler was a Christian zealot, but it is hard to imagine Nazism taking the form it did without the foundation provided by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. On the other side, many admirers of religion would set countless examples of the good done by religion. For instance, in his recent book Imagined Worlds, the distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson has emphasized the role of religious belief in the suppression of slavery. I’d like to comment briefly on this point, not to try to prove anything with one example but just to illustrate what I think about the moral influence of religion.

        It is certainly true that the campaign against slavery and the slave trade was greatly strengthened by devout Christians, including the Evangelical layman William Wilberforce in England and the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in America. But Christianity, like other great world religions, lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries, and slavery was endorsed in the New Testament. So what was different for anti-slavery Christians like Wilberforce and Channing? There had been no discovery of new sacred scriptures, and neither Wilberforce nor Channing claimed to have received any supernatural revelations. Rather, the eighteenth century had seen a widespread increase in rationality and humanitarianism that led others—for instance, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan—also to oppose slavery, on grounds having nothing to do with religion. Lord Mansfield, the author of the decision in Somersett’s Case, which ended slavery in England (though not its colonies), was no more than conventionally religious, and his decision did not mention religious arguments. Although Wilberforce was the instigator of the campaign against the slave trade in the 1790s, this movement had essential support from many in Parliament like Fox and Pitt, who were not known for their piety. As far as I can tell, the moral tone of religion benefited more from the spirit of the times than the spirit of the times benefited from religion.

        Where religion did make a difference, it was more in support of slavery than in opposition to it. Arguments from scripture were used in Parliament to defend the slave trade. Frederick Douglass told in his Narrative how his condition as a slave became worse when his master underwent a religious conversion that allowed him to justify slavery as the punishment of the children of Ham. Mark Twain described his mother as a genuinely good person, whose soft heart pitied even Satan, but who had no doubt about the legitimacy of slavery, because in years of living in antebellum Missouri she had never heard any sermon opposing slavery, but only countless sermons preaching that slavery was God’s will. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.

        If I were to sum it all up in one word, it would be – dogma.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On April 15, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    i want to know the name of the guy who superimposed abrahamic history on dharmic lands. were already seeing the consequences of distorted history. where oh where have the hindu taliban gone?

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