bookmark_borderMust Atheists Have Deductive Proofs for God’s Nonexistence to Justify Atheism?

Yet another objection to the possibility of a sound argument for the nonexistence of a god can be found in the writings of Bertrand Russell. In order to understand the basis for Russell’s objection, we must first understand how Russell defined the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’:

An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism.[20]

On Russell’s view, while the agnostic is a person who holds that the existence of a god “is so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice” is “not far removed” from the atheist who holds that we can know that god does not exist, apparently they are removed far enough for Russell to insist upon the distinction. Yet what is the distinction in question here? If the agnostic who holds that the existence of a god “is so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice” is not an atheist, then, on Russell’s view, the atheist who holds that that same god does not exist must have a deductive proof for the nonexistence of that god.

To read more, see my essay, “Is a Sound Argument for the Nonexistence of a God Even Possible?

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Response, (Part III)

Ed, Russell’s argument is from Why I am not a Christian, which was a popular talk given to a general audience. As you say, almost certainly he was aiming at popular apologetics. He could, however, address the argument at a much more sophisticated level. I think his best response to cosmological arguments came in his classic debate with Frederick Copleston. Since I have written on this debate, I hope you will not mind if I quote myself at length:

“Copleston’s first argument was the “argument from contingency”:

…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…Therefore, I should say, since objects or events exist, and since no object of experience contains within itself the reason of its existence…the totality of objects, must have a reason external to itself. That reason must be an existent being…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 (Seckel pp. 124-125).

Russell starts by focusing on the idea of being that cannot not-exist…:

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 (Seckel, p. 125).

…A necessarily true proposition is what logicians call an “analytic” or “tautological” proposition. But the proposition “God exists” does not appear to be analytic or tautological; it does not appear contradictory to assert that God does not exist…
Copleston says “If there is a contingent being then there is a necessary being” is necessarily true, but is not a tautology (Seckel, pp. 125-126). He seems to mean that this proposition is necessary because to deny it is to deny an allegedly self-evident metaphysical principle. Though Copleston does not mention it by name, he apparently means the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR)… According to the PSR, nothing exists unless there is a sufficient reason for its existence. Further, everything that exists either is contingent, that is, it is not a sufficient reason for its own existence, or it is a necessary being, that is, it is its own sufficient reason for being. A contingent being, one that is not its own sufficient reason, therefore owes its existence to something else–ultimately to a necessary being (an unending chain of contingent beings that did not terminate in a necessary being would leave the whole chain unexplained, so the argument goes). Therefore, if we accept the PSR, the world, the totality of all physical objects, must either contain its own sufficient reason, or the world owes its existence to something else, a necessary being that is the sufficient reason for the world’s existence.
But why accept the PSR? Why not regard the world itself—or perhaps whatever cosmologists postulate as its initial state or condition (initial singularity, quantum vacuum, or whatever)—as an ultimate brute fact, i.e., as a primordial reality not explicable in terms of anything prior, deeper, or more basic? The motivation behind the PSR seems to be the demand that everything be intelligible. But if our explanations ultimately end with brute facts, then those brute facts will remain unexplained. It follows from the PSR that no particular contingent thing is satisfactorily explained until all contingent things are explained, and that the total explanation must appeal to something that is not contingent, something that is its own sufficient reason. Russell, however, rejects the PSR’s demand for total explanation:

RUSSELL: 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 are looking for something that can’t be got, and which one ought not to expect to get (Seckel, p. 129).

Russell’s remarks prefigure philosopher J.L. Mackie’s later critique of the PSR:

The principle of sufficient reason expresses a demand that things should be intelligible through and through. The simplest reply to the argument that relies on it [the PSR] is that there is nothing that justifies this demand, and nothing that supports the belief that it is satisfiable even in principle…Any particular explanation starts with premises which state “brute facts,” and though the brutally factual starting-points of one explanation may themselves be further explained by another, the latter in turn will have to start with something that it does not explain, and so on however far we go. But there is no need to see this as unsatisfactory (Mackie, 1982, pp. 85-86; emphasis in original).

In short, there just is no basis for saying that nothing is adequately explained until everything is. As Mackie notes, explanation is always in terms of something, which, at least temporarily, remains unexplained, but this implies no inadequacy in our understanding. Further, it is doubtful that the demand for total explanation is even in principle satisfiable because it is not clear what it is for anything—including God—to be its own sufficient reason. Copleston says that God’s self-sufficiency means that he “cannot not-exist (Seckel, p. 125),” and that God is a “…being the essence of which is to exist (Seckel, p. 128),” but what do these cryptic comments mean? How is it that God’s existence could be uniquely self-sufficient in a way that no other putative ultimate reality could be? Further, isn’t saying that God’s essence is to exist really just asserting that, after all, God’s existence is logically necessary?”

I am quoting from my chapter “Bertrand Russell” in Icons of Unbelief, edited by S.T. Joshi, Greenwood Press. The “Seckel” references are to the Russell/Copleston debate printed in Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, Al Seckel, editor, Prometheus Books.
It seems, then, that Russell, in his debate with Copleston did clash with the claims of the argument from contingency and did not just talk past it. Russell rejects the PSR. He also denies that anything can be its own sufficient reason. I think that these are precisely the lines that have to be drawn in the sand in confronting arguments from contingency.
Ed, let me conclude by saying how much I have gained from our exchanges on these points. I also look forward to future discussions. I deeply regret that our initial encounters were tainted by ill-conceived and intemperate remarks I made some years ago. Let me state clearly that in the course of our conversation I have come to respect your views and your very considerable skill as a philosopher. However, because of your graciousness in being willing to set aside bad feelings and enjoy an enriching intellectual exchange, I have come to respect you even more deeply as a person.

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Third Question

Ed, your third question and accompanying commentary was this:

In response to a reader’s comment, you wrote:
I think Bertrand Russell’s beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good: “If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God.” Exactly.
Now, your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with me that this is not in fact a good objection to arguments for a First Cause, because it attacks a straw man. Specifically, Lowder has said:
[N]o respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, “everything has a cause.” Yet various new atheists have proceeded to attack that straw man of their own making. I remember, when reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, where he attacked that straw man and cringing. There are many different cosmological arguments for God’s existence and none of them rely upon the stupid claim, “everything has a cause.”
You won’t find that mistake made by Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, or (if we add a theistic critic to the list) Wes Morriston.
End quote. Now it would seem that what Lowder calls a “mistake” is one that you, Keith Parsons, have made. But is Lowder wrong? If he is, please tell us exactly which theistic philosophers who defend First Cause arguments – Avicenna? Maimonides? Aquinas? Scotus? Leibniz? Clarke? Garrigou-Lagrange? Craig? — actually ever gave the argument Russell was attacking.

My response: In effect, I responded to this in a reply I made to Jeff. Let me quote that:

“What about Russell’s claim, to which Ed adverts, that (paraphrasing): “If everything has a cause, then God has a cause. On the other hand, if something can exist without a cause, then it might be the universe rather than God.” Does this attack a straw man? Well, as usual, it depends on how we read it. Is Russell charging that theists make the following argument?
If everything has a cause, then there has to exist something without a cause.
Everything has a cause.
Therefore, something (i.e. God) exists without a cause.
I think it is safe to say that you will not find such an argument outside of the paper of a “C” student in Phil. 101. The conclusion contradicts the second premise and the first premise is necessarily false since the antecedent contradicts the consequent. If Russell is caricaturing theistic philosophers as the authors of this or a similarly bad argument, he is indeed attacking a straw man.
Once again, however, I think that there is a good idea here that can be turned into a much more challenging argument. I would propose the following quasi-Russell argument
(QRA):
QRA: If everything has an explanation, then God has an explanation, or, if it is possible that something does not have an explanation, then the universe might be that unexplained “something.” Symbolically, I would represent this argument as follows:
[□(∀x)Hxe → □Hge] v [◊(∃x)~Hxe) → ◊(x = u)]
I think Ed would have no problem with the left disjunct and would argue that God has an explanation in the sense that he is self-explanatory.
I would opt for the right since I consider brute facts to be possible, and that the universe (or, rather, its primordial state or fundamental aspects) can be brutally factual.”

The problem here, of course, involves the word “cause” which even philosophers often use imprecisely. The notion of “cause” has also changed over the history of Western philosophy. Penelope Mackie gives a succinct statement of some of those changes in here essay “Causality” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

“In modern philosophy (as in modern usage in general) the notion of cause is associated with the idea of something’s producing or bringing about something else (its effect); a relation sometimes called “efficient causation.” Historically, the term ‘cause’ has a broader sense, equivalent to ‘explanatory feature.’ This usage survives in the description of Aristotle as holding ‘the doctrine of the four causes.’ The members of Aristotle’s quartet, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause correspond to four kinds of explanation. But only the efficient cause is unproblematically a candidate for a cause that produces something distinct from itself.”

My hypothesis is that Russell, an author of two comprehensive histories of philosophy, was using “cause” in the broader, historical sense that was much closer to “explanation” than to “efficient cause.” This was certainly the sense I intended when I endorsed Russell’s comment. In that case, I don’t think Russell’s statement, or my endorsement, was quite the straw man Jeff decries!