Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bertrand Russell's "critique" of the cosmological argument

This is why Russell's "Why I am not a Christian" is sometimes considered the best piece of Christian apologetics ever written. If the atheists can't do better than this, they're in trouble.

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 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.


Unknown said...

Is he serious? I'm not great on history of ideas; were there really no good arguments around when Russell wrote this to the effect that the universe specifically must have a cause, or at least must have begun to exist? Or does he not think they're worth stating, let alone refuting? Or is he just ignoring them, assuming an immensely credulous readership?

There's nothing quite like the "who made God?" retort for making my eyes roll. Just read Exodus 3.

Mark K. Sprengel said...


I don't know if there were better arguments in Russell's time, but I do know that the premise, at least now, is that all things which begin to exist have a cause. However, I've also seen atheists who don't get beyond what Russell is saying, which most grade school kids come up with, and think it's a total knock out of the cosomological argument. Some try to say that God is uncaused is an assumption of the cosmological argument, rather than a conclusion.

Anonymous said...

I find the Russellian line absurd, but I don't know of any conclusive refutation. My favourite response to this line of thought comes from G.K. Chesterton.

"It is absurd for the Evolutionist to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything." (from St Thomas Aquinas)

Unknown said...

Exactly. Because this

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

seems crazy. Are we really to suppose that everything just came to exist, uncaused? I find the infinite past defence less ridiculous, although I still think there are good arguments for the finitude of the past.

ChrisB said...

I know this post is old, but for the sake of posterity:

In Russell's defense, he hadn't heard of the big bang theory. He lived under the belief that science had proved the universe was eternal. We now know that is untrue and are left with God as the uncaused.

Anonymous said...

In Chesterton's defence, he wrote prior to most of Russell, so hadn't heard of the Big Bang theory either.


Anonymous said...

This does not detract from his case, even is Russell believed in an eternal universe. Not necessarily a universe that has lasted forever, but one that has a big bang, interim, big crunch etc ad infinitum. The universe simply is 'brute fact', as we all know, we should also consider Hume's objections state, is there such a thing as cause and effect? Some matter, such as quarks contravene this.

H.S.Pal said...

“Tegmark's Ensembles
Tegmark has recently proposed what he calls "the ultimate ensemble theory" in which all universes that mathematically exist also physically exist (Tegmark 1997). By "mathematical existence," Tegmark means "freedom from contradiction." So, universes cannot contain square circles, but anything that does not break a rule of logic exists in some universe.”
(From: The Anthropic Coincidences:
A Natural Explanation
Published in The Skeptical Intelligencer, 3(3, July 1999): pp. 2-17.
By Victor J. Stenger)

So here we see that as per Tegmark mathematical existence implies physical existence. From the following equation of special theory of relativity
t1 = t (1-v2/c2)1/2
one can see that if one can move with the speed of light, then he will be immortal. Because when v = c, then for any value of t, value of t1 will always be zero. Even if value of t is an eternity, till then value of t1 will be zero. So in one frame of reference whole of eternity may pass, but in another frame of reference not a single moment will elapse. Whoever will be in this second reference frame, will be immortal. Because even in the whole time span of an eternity he will not be older by a single second. So from this equation we see that immortality has got mathematical existence. But as per Tegmark mathematical existence implies physical existence. Therefore we can conclude that immortality has got physical existence also. This means that there is an immortal being in this universe.

Unknown said...

this is just a piece of the essay. this part he is just explaining why he doesn't accept god as a necessary creator. the essay may not be great, but there's nothing in this section worth complaining about if you read the whole thing.