This paper will seek to analyze whether or not Fr Copleston scored a decisive knockout over Bertrand Russell in their famous debate over the existence of God. The next question we would have to ask ourselves is whether or not, the media would adhere to such a reality. Our culrure, educated and modern seems to take a more or less aggressive if not downright condescending attitude toward belief in God. Richard Dawkins, the internet atheist challenge as well as modern science has all too often forgotten that when debating an issue concerning God or a First Cause, this exercise requires not so much a physical endeavor, but instead must resort to using a metaphysical approach. Too often this same culture wrought with nominalism cannot adequately assign a name for the hybrid belief system that is ‘Atheist’ (False) or more precisely ‘Agnosticism.’ In today’s world, this agnostic position dressed up as so-called atheism seems to be ‘en vogue,’ and to paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI, only adds fuel to the dictatorship of relativism. Our world’s way to rationalizing is in crisis, in part due to there being a crisis in metaphysics. This reality is essentially what is causing the reality of God, the belief if you will, to be called into question. The thesis will highlight not just the deficiencies in contemporary thought, but will attempt a ‘tale of the tape,’ References which will be later expanded upon throughout this paper will be Fr Copleston’s usage of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s ‘Contingency’ argument which seemed to completely catch Russell off guard. To go one further, we can even go further back to Aristotle, and at one point again, which will later be expanded upon, Russell argues that it is useless to speculate about a ‘First Cause.’ Physicist vs Metaphysicist. To reiterate the thesis, is that did Copleston score a definitive knockout in his debate with Russell, and the answer is yes. What remains in this paper is to articulate how that got to be so. The breakdown will follow the Contingency argument, the Religious Experience argument, and finally the Moral argument.
The Players 2.
Bertrand Russell, a contemporary philosopher, versed in various schools of thought and famous for authoring, among other books, his Why I am not a Christian. In is within this book that Russell includes the transcript from the 1948 BBC(British Broadcasting Corporation) debate. Bertrand Russell, the child of an aristocratic family is credited as the founder of atomic propositons whereby this becomes evident in his debate with Fr Copleston.
Father Fred Copleston SJ,(Society of Jesus) a Catholic priest, specifically a Jesuit and convert from Anglicanism. Fr Copleston was a professor of the history of philosophy and lectured at Heythrop College in England. Besides his radio debates with notable philosophers, Fr Copleston also was a Thomist scholar who attempted to synthesize Thomas Aquinas 5 Arguments by separating and expanding upon them in an easier format so that a ‘lay’ person could understand. In this debate, although his thinking is very Thomist, his contingency argument comes from the mind of Leibniz and serves to be the determining factor in what many people see as a knockout of Bertrand Russell.
The Debate 3
The debate itself took place on the BBC radio in 1948, and transcripts can be found anywhere outlying the various topics. At the outset, Fr Copleston set the tone by defining what they both mean when they refer to God. In doing so, Fr Copleston SJ, determines the rules as how both men will proceed within the debate context, which in many respects was along the lines of a back and forth exchange and not much a structured ordered affair. The follow up was to determine what belief system he (Fr Copleston) was going up against, and after having come to a common definition of God, Russell also was asked whether he fell into the Atheist or Agnostic camp. Russell answered with the latter. Russell also fell right into the next issue with Copleston asking if Russell agreed that if God doesn’t exist, human beings and human history as we know would have no other purpose that essentially what they gave themselves. In this light, Fr Copleston, is drawing a clear line between something that is searching for a truth or a cause of things, as opposed to something that is subjectivist and therefore would have no reason to exist. Thus no God, no values! For this issue, Russell disagrees and believes that they can be logically distinct from each other. Following the fight analogy, Fr Copleston seems to be ‘jabbing’ and ‘hooking’ his opponent, thereby setting up his flurry of big punches, his rights, and his uppercut.
Father Copleston begins with the ‘Contingency’ argument right away and is into his assault early and fast, and explains to Russell that he wants to divide the argument, three ways, essentially using Leibniz’s argument as the cannon. (See Leibniz’s argument) Russell counters that he doesn’t know how to counter the argument but puts forth the idea of necessary being. That it can only be applied to propositions. For this we must know define what a proposition is and do the two players agree to the same definition. By Russell putting forth the idea of necessary being and having already been clarified at the onset of the debate, he must accept the Thomistic understanding, which is essentially where Fr Copleston is headed. Russell concedes that the Contingency argument cannot be debated at that time, and that it would be in their best interests to move onward. Round one, Copleston scores a knockdown on Russell.
The second issue to be brought up is the question of the ‘Religious Experience.’ Copleston begins by stating that he himself does not regard this particular point as a ‘proof’ for the existence of God, but seems to venture into the idea of Love in the agapic sense. Although Copleston readily admits that this can’t be used as an argument to prove God, it is important nonetheless to show that this round in my opinion goes to Russell. Copleston basically said that the basis of Religious Experiences can point to God, but again , he must rely contextually upon the notion of the Contingency argument, which is still leading the charge. Copleston begins the ‘Round’ with clarifying what he does not mean, and that is ‘not just feeling good.’ What happens next, is that Russell points and tears into Copleston reasoning by interrupting and equating the ‘feel good’ experience with Japanese novelists unable to feel good unless they have driven many people to suicide. In citing a statement as such, Russell plays into more of the psychological approach, and can lead to viewing God as the simplistic ‘pie in the sky.’ While Copleston claimed to not see the relevance between the two, and brought into the debate citing the experiences of someone such as St Francis of Assisi, that there was never a serious psychological consideration hampering his view that God (personal Love) must exist. Russell counters with citing many imbalanced people who ‘hear’ Satan speaking to their hearts and goes on to reassert again, that it is not the existence of God that he is questioning but merely the dogmatic definitions that have been formulated.
The third issue tackled within this debate was the argument from ‘Morality.’ In this respect, once again it can be safely said that the edge went to Fr Copleston. Essentially Copleston argues that mankind’s development of a moral code can be used as a proof for the existence of God. Russell, weakly counters that that is an assertion which cannot be proven. Russell believes that morality could have developed as part and parcel of the natural evolution of man. Therefore, his instinct for survival, (and good government?) would eventually create a moral law regardless of the existence of a God or not. In this light, Russell clearly shows that he is a relativist.
Early on, Fr Copleston, did not let up especially after having established the pace within this debate. One could easily see that it in many respects transcended the very idea of the simplistic God vs Evolution debate that saturates the modern subjectivist camp in every form of media, print or news program.
The Knockout/Tap out blow ‘Contingency’ Argument. 4.
Where Fr Copleston scored his knockout, or as is more accurate, where Russell seemed to abdicate by not being prepared for, or by simply dismissing it, is when Fr Copleston brought up the ‘Contingency’ issue, otherwise known as Leibniz’Cosmological argument. To leave out an explanation of the Contingency argument would presuppose that the reader already knows the theory. First we must define what exactly is ‘Contingency.’ From the latin, contingere (to happen). Therefore inside this logic, an event must be contingent if there is a chance that it might not have happened. This becomes evident when Russell states that it is useless to argue this point despite the claim from Fr Copleston that he accused Russell of not understanding the argument and that it is, in fact rooted in reason. This argument, to paraphrase protestant theologian, William Lane Craig reconstructs Leibniz argument basically into four categories., instead of the usual five.
a) Anything that exists has an explanation or cause for it, whether it be the subject in question or something outside of it, causing it.
b) Should the universe have an explanation, then that explanation would logically have to be God.
c) The universe does exist so therefore, we reaffirm the first part, (a)
d) Therefore the explanation of the universe, its ‘causality’ must be God.
Boxing has evolved in today’s understanding whereby ‘contact’ sports not only rely upon the knockout, but can also rely upon the ‘tap-out,’ whereby the opponent literally claims he’s had enough. Fr Copleston’s reference to contingency is in many respects this tap out that is insinuated. What was most interesting, is that the first actual right hook is thrown by Fr Copleston right at the beginning of this debate, whereby he proposes a definition of God thereby eliminating any chance of Russell attempting to create a straw man argument.
Too often we are presented especially in today’s high tech information age that belief in a Deity, a personal creator of some sort is at best superstitious while at worst dangerous. The American Political landscape is littered with political candidates who must present a position of whether or not they are ‘believers’ or not. Television has its share of controversy with satirists such as Bill Maher claiming to not to believe in the God who sits upon the clouds wearing a grandfatherly white beard and gently watching over all mankind. To the shock and dismay of such people, the Catholic does not profess this idea of God either. While Richard Dawkins is promoting his books and agendas, the secular press is busy readying the Theist’s defense with an apologetical strategy consisting of well meaning but intellectually inept characters representing a fideistic view of not just Christianity but of God as a whole. St Thomas Aquinas five proofs are not cited, not going further back is any consideration given to either Plato or Aristotle. Therefore the classic search for Truth, ‘Arche’ is not respected. Philosophy(Lover of wisdom) as a metaphysical(beyond the physical) exercise is not given any consideration. Why metaphysics? The answer is quite simple, because metaphysics, in its proper sense is not something esoteric, but is very much a proper science and can go where physics can’t. The same holds true for philosophy, which is in and of itself another proper science. Epistomology is the science of knowing things and knowledge can come through experience inside the arena of cause and effect. It is through this technique that Copleston TKO’s Russell in the debate, as he had no clue about what to do with the contingency argument.
unprepared to face up to a philosopher of the caliber of Father Copleston. Bertrand Russell would critique
metaphysics as a whole in his work ‘Mysticism and Logic,’ and in reality his inability to step up to Fr
Copleston due to his lack of metaphysical training was his own undoing. Any exercise in attempting to prove
the existence of God, can always make a person think of Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio and thus
through history show that there has never been a conflict between Faith and Reason. After going through this
debate, an argument can be made, that not only from the Contingency issue which made Russell more or
less ‘TKO’(Technical Knock Out) instead of a full blown knockout. To conclude, any debate between a
theist and an atheist (agnostic) presupposes both relativism, as well as chaos theory. If the world is not
ordered, then every other thing that hangs on everything else, (ie Contingency again) will naturally be called
into question. Something the so-called educated new-atheists have forgotten to think about. Every effect
has a cause, everything except for the uncaused cause must depend upon something else for its own
existence, it is not itself the cause of its own existence and it is precisely in this light that the atheist 'logic' falls
into an epic fail.
1. Capaldi, Nicholas, Kelly, Eugene&Navia, Luis E, Journeys Through Philosophy, New York, Prometheus Books, 1982
2. Fazio, Mariano, Labastida, Francesco Fernandes, A History of Contemporary Philosophy, Rome, Italy, Scepter Publishers, 2011
3. Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995
4. Kreeft, Peter, Summa Philosophica, South Bend, Indiana, St Augustine’s Press, 2012
5. Maritain, Jacques, The Degrees of Knowledge, Notre Dame Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 6th edition, 2002
6. Stevenson, Jay, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy, New York, Alpha Books, 2005
Transcript of the debate from BBC availiable at www.philvaz.com
 Fazio, Mariano, Lebatista, Francisco Fernandez, A HISTORY OF CONTEMPORARY PHILOSOPHY, Scepter Publishers, p174
 Honderich, Ted, THE OXFORD COMPANION TO PHILOSOPHY, Oxford, p608.
 Stevenson, Jay, THE COMPLETE IDIOTS GUIDE TO PHILOSOPHY, Alpha publishing, p331
 Reese, W.L. DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION, Humanities Press, p105.
 Reese, W.L. DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION, Humanities Press, p431
 Kreeft, Peter, SUMMA PHILOSOPHICA, St Augustine’s Press, p43.
Soooooooo,...Now all you guys know that I'm a Thomist! I've never hid it from anyone! Comes back to the old adage,..Why do I believe in God? Because its true!!!!!!! To my protestant or other non-Catholic/non Christian friends, Ask your self why I'm Catholic??? And your right, this isn't exactly Kirk Cameron and his bananas,..
St Thomas Aquinas,......................................................................ora pro nobis!