Thursday, December 18, 2008

Russell's Why I am not a Christian

A well-known essay attacking Christianity. It has always struck me loaded with straw men. Try, for example:

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God. That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality that it used to have; but apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man, and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question, Who made me? cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, Who made God?" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant, and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

Please, Bertrand, can't we do better than this? Cosmological arguments always tell you what needs a cause. Contingent things. Things that begin to exist.

20 comments:

Clayton said...

Victor,

I don't see that Russell failed to take account of this point:
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.

You say, "Cosmological arguments always tell you what needs a cause. Contingent things. Things that begin to exist". He doesn't think that cosmological arguments show both that all contingent things need causes _and_ the world is such a contingent thing. He doesn't think that cosmological arguments show that everything that has a beginning needs a cause _and_ the world had a beginning. Now, you might disagree with _this_ point, but I don't think Russell is guilty of quite the strawman you've suggested.

Gordon Knight said...

If the world is a necessary being, then the world is God--as Spinoza realized.

The conclusion of the cosmological argument is that there is a necessary being. The exact character of that being requires further argument.

In other words, the CA gets you part of the way to a personal God, but not all the way.

Clayton said...

Gordon,

That's pretty quick. It seems there are lots of entities that exist necessarily that theist and atheist alike will agree is not divine--numbers and properties seem like good examples. There's no obvious connection between something existing as a matter of necessity and having the attributes distinctive of being God. But, even if this is wrong, the point is that this issue takes us well beyond the cosmological argument. It is now far from obvious that the original criticism of Russell was apt.

Gordon Knight said...

what is distinctive about God is that God is a particular that also exists necessarily.

Those other examples that you give are of "abstract" objects. they are good examples to use to demonstrate that the notion of a necessarily existent being is not incoherent, but they are also not in quite the same category as the being that the CA tries to demonstrate.

Steven Carr said...

Things that begin to exist need a cause.

Could we have a proof of this please?

'It is obvious' is not a proof.

Steven Carr said...

RUSSELL
There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause...

VICTOR
Cosmological arguments always tell you what needs a cause. Contingent things. Things that begin to exist.

CARR
Russell may be right or wrong, but surely he is addressing exactly the argument that Victor makes.

Unless there is some vast philosophical difference I am unaware of between 'begin to exist' and 'come into being'

Timothy David said...

Steve, when do things that begin to exist, begin to exist without a cause? If there was no cause for their existence, how did they begin to exist?

It seems to me that the burden of proof is on the person who says that things that begin to exist begin to exist without a cause. Can you give us an example of an uncaused thing beginning to exist?

Steven Carr said...

DAVID
It seems to me that the burden of proof is on the person who says that things that begin to exist begin to exist without a cause.

CARR
No it isn't.

The burden of proof is on people who sit at their computer desk and imagine they can tell us how the world started without doing any empirical research.

Wait until the LHC starts up, and we might get some data.

Randy said...

Gordon,
what is distinctive about God is that God is a particular that also exists necessarily.


You might be interested in looking into B. Rundle's "Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing".

He maks a fairly persuasive case for matter as the necessary being rathr than a particular being like the Christian God.

He doesn't subscribe to the materialist view that everything is matter, but rather that there could not be anything without there also being matter.

Timothy David said...

You didn't answer my question, Steve. Can you give me an example something, of anything that begins to exist, beginning to exist without a cause? If we didn't believe that there was a cause for things that begin to exist, then we wouldn't bother launching the LHC at all.

Matthew said...

"It has always struck me loaded with straw men."

That's the first thing I was thinking when I read the title. Coincidence?

Matthew said...

"Wait until the LHC starts up, and we might get some data."

The LHC may tell you how protons decay, not how things will begin to exist without cause.. No one even dreams to look beyond the Planck-time.

Gordon Knight said...

Randy, I know that book! Unfortunately I don't remember the argument too well, though I recall not being convinced (the whole idea of "matter" befuddles me, in any event)

Eric said...

Russell's biggest error seems to be that he's talking about a different conception of causality from the one classical theists have stressed, and has thus collapsed, without warrant, all cosmological arguments into the (primarily, though not exclusively) 'deistic' version in which god is understood as a first cause, rather than a sustaining cause.

Aquinas, for example, stated explicitly that his arguments didn't presuppose a first cause in time; that is, he acknowledged that the universe may be eternal, and noted that this in no way affected his arguments. The 'causes' in Aquinas' cosmological arguments are 'essentially ordered,' which is to say they operate simultaneously, not one upon another moving backward in time (which would be an 'accidentally ordered' series of causes).

Clayton said...

what is distinctive about God is that God is a particular that also exists necessarily.

It seems plausible to think that the same could be said for numbers.

Those other examples that you give are of "abstract" objects. they are good examples to use to demonstrate that the notion of a necessarily existent being is not incoherent, but they are also not in quite the same category as the being that the CA tries to demonstrate.

I don't see why that matters. As a matter of simple logic, the existence of these sorts of examples show us something significant. If Spinoza assumes a premise of the form:

(1) All necessary beings are divine beings.

We have a case to call that into question.

If Spinoza assumes only that some are while conceding that some are not, Russell can say that the world is a non-divine and necessary thing. Nothing internal to the cosmological argument rules out that response. Nor does it rule out a response on which as a matter of necessity something exists whilst denying that there is any object such that it exists necessarily. So, there's a hole in the thing pretty close to where Russell said there would be.

On to Tim. Tim wrote:
Steve, when do things that begin to exist, begin to exist without a cause? If there was no cause for their existence, how did they begin to exist?

It seems to me that the burden of proof is on the person who says that things that begin to exist begin to exist without a cause. Can you give us an example of an uncaused thing beginning to exist?


I don't want to get into a protracted debate about burdens of proof, but remember that Russell is responding to people who claimed to have given a proof. If he can show that the denial of the proof's conclusion is logically consistent with the premises given, that is just what it is to prove that an alleged proof is no such thing.

Anyway, on to the metaphysics. There are supposed to be examples from quantum mechanics, but if that doesn't move you, why can't Russell just say (as he suggests) the world? Is there some apriori principle that rules out things beginning to exist without a cause? He doesn't seem to think so.

Now, _you_ might think so, but look what you are committed to if you reason from the premises:
(2) The world had a beginning.
(3) Everything that has a beginning has a cause.

You are committed to saying that the world was brought into being by a cause even though literally nothing happened before that event that we pick out by means of the noun phrase 'the world's beginning'. To speak of what happens before this is like speaking of what happens north of the north pole. It is utter nonsense. So, you can consistently endorse (2) and (3) but you can do so only if you deny that the world's cause preceded it temporally and deny a claim many regard as a platitude about causation. You can say things like 'Well, to me God exists outside of time' and then you have adopted the view that God creates without standing in any temporal relations to the world. Can you think of examples where causes stand in no temporal relations to their effects?

Gordon Knight said...

I thought the traditional argument from contingency did not require that the world has a beginning. Even if the world goees on forever, we can still ask the question what is the explanation for this particular infinite series of events?

Another unique thing about the first cause is that it is, well, a cause, unlike most abstract necessary beings.

But see John Leslie on the claim that the universe comes into existence simply because of an abtract moral truth -in _Value and Existence_

Clayton said...

I thought the traditional argument from contingency did not require that the world has a beginning. Even if the world goees on forever, we can still ask the question what is the explanation for this particular infinite series of events?

We started with a discussion of the cosmological argument. That's misleading because there's a family of arguments here. If you want to talk about arguments from contingency, that's fine. Some cosmological arguments are arguments from contingency, but the context should make it clear that Russell wasn't interested in these arguments. His interest seems to be in arguments that sought to establish God's existence by first establishing that the world had a beginning.

If we're going to shift attention to arguments from contingency that do not assume that the universe had a beginning or first moment, I thought Hume did a pretty good job demolishing the arguments from contingency and used essentially the same move Russell did. If the universe lacked a beginning, for every event there is a previous event that explains why it occurred. And, as Hume pointed out, if you asked me how 20 grains of sand came to be here and I told you how each of the 20 came to be here, it wouldn't obviously make sense to ask how the 20 got here. I'd say the same for the series as a whole. If you think that the series as a whole needs explanation, I'd ask why. If you say 'Oh, because it's contingent', I'd ask 'Why think that?' You might say because its parts could have been different. I'd say 'Bad answer. It exists necessarily but has its parts contingently'. If you say 'I could conceive of the series not existing', I'd say 'I could conceive of God's non-existence'. If you say 'But conceivability doesn't enail possibility', I'd say that the same secret spring that allows theists to say that God exists necessarily even though we can imagine God not existing is a spring that you cannot say that the universe lacks. What's left of the argument from contingency after Hume?

Gordon Knight said...

I have never been persuaded by Hume's critique, and the example you give is disanalogous to a continuous *series* of causes
Its not A causes B; C causes D; F causes G; Its A causes B which causes D which causes F which causes G.

There is an old time analogy (I forget who first gave it) of a car crash--one car hits another, that is an okay explanation, but obviously incomplete, we want to know why the first car hits the second car--and so on.)

"everything that begins to exist" has a cause is, I think, an assumption of the Kalaam cosmological argument, but not Thomas'. Since it seems that the universe could have existed forever, the Kalaam versions of the argument don't seem as plausible to me (w/o further argumentation for the controversial premise.

Just about every interesting philosophical argument has controversial premises. The virute of the CA is that its premises are, in all other contexts, granted by most to be reasonable

Compare this argument to those weird arguments people give for the "external world?"

people are more disposed to accept the latter, because they already accept the conclusion. A first cause, being controversial (and in some quarters downright scandalous) is held to a higher standard)

Clayton said...

I have never been persuaded by Hume's critique, and the example you give is disanalogous to a continuous *series* of causes
Its not A causes B; C causes D; F causes G; Its A causes B which causes D which causes F which causes G.


Why would that matter? If you accept some sort of principle of sufficient reason that says that every thing that happens has an explanation, in an infinite series there is nothing that lacks an explaining cause.

Just about every interesting philosophical argument has controversial premises. The virute of the CA is that its premises are, in all other contexts, granted by most to be reasonable

But, I've granted the thing that is taken as uncontroversial in normal contexts. Among Hume's points is that the thing that is taken as uncontroversial does not support the theistic conclusion. The thing that is needed to establish the theistic conclusion is something _not_ accepted in normal contexts.

Gregory said...

How can anyone deny that:

"all effects have causes" (i.e. the causality principle)

A Kantian reply to the critics of causality would be:

The mind cannot help but think in terms of cause-and-effect relationships.

And linguistically, the "causality principle" statement is true by definition.

So, denying causality does not constitute a refutation of the cosmological argument.

And the "burden of proof" claim is self-referentially incoherent or meaningless since

1) it is, in itself, a claim

2) it is a claim that is not susceptible to proof or disproof.

3) skeptics who use this argument don't even bother to substantiate the "burden of proof" claim.

4) Antony Flew has....if my memory hasn't failed me....recently rejected this whole "burden of proof" argument.