Can Bertrand Russell Really Have Been That Stupid?

I just read for the first time Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian.” He offers a number of arguments, but one of his first ploys is to attempt to disarm the First Cause argument for God’s existence.

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.

I can’t figure out if this is willful stupidity or just plain, everyday stupidity. Presumably it’s willful. At the very least it’s supremely stupid.

I’ve heard, and invented on my own time, plenty of arguments against the existence of God. The “problem of pain,” for instance, is a doozy (not irrefutable, mind you, but thorny nonetheless). And Russell himself has some other, more well-reasoned arguments in his essay. But I can’t understand how someone could make an argument that is so prima facie mindless. There are only two answers that I see: Russell really felt this was a solid argument and therefore has no concept of what God means, and therefore has disqualified himself as someone to be listened to on this topic by reason of complete ignorance; or Russell knew this was a dubious argument and asserted it anyway, in which case he has disqualified himself by reason of dishonorable tactics. He’s either a moron or a deceiver.

I imagine Bertrand Russell was an order of magnitude more intelligent that I am, and I’m sure he could run circles around me forever and a day when it comes to logic and learning. And yet I can see quite clearly that he is comically mistaken, at least on this question.

Of course, Bertrand Russell being stupid doesn’t prove the existence of God. That’s not my point. But Russell is often held up as one of the paragons of early 20th Century rationality and logical atheism. I’m not well read enough. Surely not all of them were this willfully dense?

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8 comments on “Can Bertrand Russell Really Have Been That Stupid?

  1. Proph says:

    It’s always been a source of amazement for me that so many atheists fundamentally misapprehend the First Cause argument as an argument for a temporal, rather than an ontological, cause. Even the modern atheists make this mistake, and are utterly resistant to correction.

    • outofsleep says:

      Yes, It does sometimes feel that it’s a willful misapprehension. I suppose if one does not want to think about something, one cannot be made to.

    • Wm Jas says:

      Maybe I’m showing myself to be as stupid as Russell here, but it doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re talking about temporal causes or ontological ones. Either way, the argument is the same: (1) Everything must have a cause; therefore, the universe must have a cause — but (2) not everything can have a cause, or there’d be infinite regress; therefore, whatever caused the universe does not itself have a cause.

  2. Avb says:

    Yes! Someone else thinks Betrand Russell is pretty stupid. I’m a self proclaimed Philosopher, and I’ve come across him a few times. Every single time I wanted to stab him.
    For example, when he is critising any abolsutes. E.g he says that what is good for one person or society, may not be good for another.
    This relativisic statement (and relativism in general) is not logical and is rather paradoxal. In his effort to disprove all dogmas, he produces his own dogma that no dogmas exist. In essence he fails to see that relativism in its purest form is illogical, because, that thing must be to be relative to something defined, something abolsute, in order to relative. If no absolutes exist there is nothing to be relative to.

    • todd says:

      “Yes! Someone else thinks Betrand Russell is pretty stupid. I’m a self proclaimed Philosopher, and I’ve come across him a few times. Every single time I wanted to stab him.”

      “The degree of one’s emotions varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts.
      Read more” Berty Russel

      “In his effort to disprove all dogmas, he produces his own dogma that no dogmas exist.”
      Only if you uselessly expand the definition of dogma to include everything in the known universe.

      “he produces his own dogma that no dogmas exist. In essence he fails to see that relativism in its purest form is illogical, because, that thing must be to be relative to something defined, something absolute, in order to relative. If no absolutes exist there is nothing to be relative to.”

      Jupiter is relatively small compared to the sun. At what size does a planet become absolutely large? Junior mistakes like this are why you need to self proclaim yourself a “Philosopher” Nouns are capitalized in English now are they?

  3. todd says:

    I’ll make it easy for you, OP. What caused the universe? God? What caused him? Nothing? Why not.

    Why should the first cause rule cease to be valid beyond the universe?

    • msvolosen says:

      The first cause argument does not claim at all that everything must have a cause. But that a first cause is needed for mutable, phisical universe only. Something that in its nature is immutable can not have a cause.

  4. Dave says:

    Because then it would, by definition, not be a first cause.

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