This is the last post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or they don't apply to any form of theism. I have now reached Russell's conclusion, so it is time for me to conclude this series as well.
I'll start by citing a few things that Russell wrote in his conclusion.
We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties and its ugliness; see the world as it is and not be afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.
A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence.
I would agree with these words far more than Bertrand Russell might suspect, only I use them to take me to the opposite conclusion. I would disagree that terror comes from the world; more a sense of wonder, awe and excitement. But otherwise, yes, we should look at the world as it is, both its good and bad. We do need knowledge, kindness and courage. I partially agree with his idea that our intelligence should by free and unfettered. I would make one exception, which I think that Russell would agree with: our minds must be bound by the search for the truth, wherever it leads us to. We ought not be completely free to believe what we will; that way just leads to confusion, lies and intellectual anarchy. Instead seek the truth (which first means that we should accept that there is a truth, which takes us into another set of murky waters).
I agree that we should not hanker after the past for its own sake. That's why I prefer to describe myself as a classical Anglican rather than a conservative Anglican. My goal is not to conserve, but to confess the truth. With regards to the theology, my studies suggested to me that the classical Anglican doctrinal documents come closest to that, ahead of the other movements of the reformation (though I have great sympathy for the Ausberg and Westminster confessions) and the counter-reformation, and far ahead of modern expressions of Christianity, including contemporary Anglican liturgies and expressions of doctrine. Why confess those doctrines, and the early Church writings and Biblical texts they are built on? Because to my mind they are best expression of the truth of Christian doctrine. That is where the evidence has led me. That I regard them as the best does not, of course, mean that I regard them as perfect or incapable of improvement. I just don't see that anyone has improved on them in the centuries since, and most attempts have been considerably worse.
Of course, with regards to Christian doctrine, the passing of history offers no real advantage; the primary sources of Christianity date from the first century, with the secondary sources into the fifth or sixth. By that time, the major theological questions were settled; all that was left to do was book-keeping and quibbling over the minor details of wording. (The reformation, of course, at its best, was not something new, but the removal of extra crud and dirt that had accumulated over the centuries. Though that's just me as a Protestant speaking. I'm sure the Roman Catholics disagree.) Everybody since then has had the same sources available, and the same ability to read the texts. It is not surprising that somebody would come up with some close to optimal formulations well before we were born, nor that the controversies of that time haven't been resolved.
The situation of science, of course, is different. Scientists are continually challenged by new information coming from experiment. We haven't yet performed the definitive experiment; we are not yet in a position where all that is left is minor book-keeping and tidying up. In Biblical terms, science is still in the era of the Maccabees (it has taken longer partly because science is a lot harder than theology, and there is a lot more to discover). There is still much to do. And so, science continues to progress dramatically. It is a great mistake to transplant ideas of progress from one field to another when they are at different levels of maturity.
So now Russell will accuse me of being a slave to ignorant men. Certainly there are historical writers who have inspired me. And that is good; if everyone started from the beginning each time, and kept their own findings a secret, then like the alchemists of old, we will never come to very much at all. Everybody builds on past thinkers. I have mine; a modern philosopher might revere Hume or Kant or Wittgenstein in a similar way in which I view the Anglican formularies: not the final word in every subject, but a good firm starting point from which to explore further. The problem is not building our beliefs on men from the past, but on ignorant men from the past. So now we need to decide who was ignorant and who wasn't.
That's easy. All of our ancestors, whether to us they were a intellectual hero or a villain, were ignorant about many things. And we are no better today. Everyone has far more ignorance than they do knowledge. For example, I know a bit about physics, and a bit about the philosophy of science, and a bit about mathematics, but I don't know the first thing about the lizards endemic to Papua New Guinea. I could take the trouble to learn, but then I would never have the time to become an expert on the rock composition under the Sea of Azov. What dilemmas we all face! Some people have some knowledge in some fields, but large-scale ignorance elsewhere. Once we get beyond individuals and into the species as a whole, then certainly there is a lot of true knowledge, but that is more than balanced by the even larger amount of false beliefs and myths permeating our culture. It is not always easy distinguishing one from another. Thus if we try to design a future through our intelligence which will far surpass the past, we will almost certainly fail. We might, if we correctly read the runes of history, correct the mistakes of the past. So we will fall right into the mistakes that our ancestors could foresee and were trying so hard to avoid.
So let us change the question. Who lacked ignorance about the things that matter to us? Now we have narrowed it down, we stand a chance of finding someone who can help. When I want to understand science, I won't turn to a sixteenth century theologian, because they were largely ignorant of it. Neither would I turn to Bertrand Russell, whose only advantage over them was his superior knowledge of mathematics. I would not even turn to a single leading scientist, if what I want to know is on the cutting edge of research, because then each person would have a different opinion. I would need to question numerous scientists of differing opinions, and judge between them as best as my ignorance allows. If I want to understand the difference between Ambrose of Milan and Hosius of Corbora, would I turn to a twentieth century atheist who knows little of the subject; or a sixteenth century theologian steeped in the historical texts of Christianity, probably as much as anyone today? I'm not saying that understanding Ambrose's thought is more important than understanding modern science, merely that we should pick between our sources depending on their expertise and on what we want to learn from them.
Equally, I might choose between Peter the fisherman or Bertrand the philosopher. Now there is no question that Bertrand has far more knowledge in general than Peter, and understands things that Peter could only dream of. But that doesn't mean that Peter knows nothing that Bertrand doesn't. Peter almost certainly, for example, knows far more about the fish of the particular lake he lives by, and how best to catch them. Peter will have better knowledge concerning his friends, and teachers, and the events that he has witnessed; while Bertrand might well be wholly ignorant, knowing only third hand accounts he glanced over thirty years prior and which he doesn't believe. If we want to know about one of Peter's friends, then we should ask Peter, because in this case it is Peter who has the knowledge and Bertrand the ignorance.
Bertrand Russell was an expert on set theory. But if the question is not mathematical, but about how to build a human society, then why should we not take Ambrose, with his deep understanding of human nature, as one of our guides? After all, he has a clear advantage over our contemporaries, in that he is not blinded by those same prejudices of our own age that blind us.
So when it comes to questions of religion, why should we trust a man who was so ignorant of religion that he would write something like The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotism. Really? Does Russell have a telescope into pre-history so that he can see that? Indeed, why does he think that there is a single conception of God? Once we get beyond the ideas of omniscience and omnipotence and so on, then there is a huge degree of variation. Some gods are like Oriental despots. But others aren't; for example the Christian God is based on the idea of a loving father and husband (though I hasten to add that the two images aren't used at the same time). In Christianity, the one thing God isn't is despotic.
When it comes to questions of philosophy, once again we have to judge between the ignorant and the knowledgeable. All the philosophers, of course (except maybe Socrates) claimed to have some knowledge. Clearly, since they all say contradictory things, most of them were wrong. So we have to judge between them.
The process of logical reasoning, moving from premise to conclusion according to certain well defined rules. There are then three questions to ask
- Are the premises sound?
- Is the process of reasoning sound?
- Do the philosophers accurately depict the opposing arguments of their opponents?
One would hope that the best philosophers would start their argumentation from modern physics, or at least principles that underlie and are consistent with modern physics. And here lies the first problem. Almost every major philosopher has had no understanding of contemporary physics. The reason for this is simple. Quantum mechanics, when it reaching a mature state after the 1920s, took everyone by surprise. It was developed in response to experiment, and is so counter-intuitive (because it obeys rules very different from those we would naturally induce from observation) that it remains just about impossible to imagine. Then, from the late 1930s, the people trying to merge special relativity into the quantum framework thought of the right approach. This led to quantum field theory. The kinks were worked by the mid-1950s, and it then became widely accepted, and the final details fell into place in the 1970s. Quantum field theory requires a whole different way of thinking about the world. The old ways are totally inadequate. Most people treat field theory as though it were a slightly modified version of quantum mechanics. I disagree, and consider the differences between them to be of fundamental importance. But once again, it is very difficult for our imaginations shaped by a macroscopic world and tuned by a prejudice created from classical mechanics to visualise the main ideas of field theory. Just when a part of it starts to look like it might make sense, then another consequence comes along and leaves our imaginations completely befuddled. That's because our imaginations are limited to best survive in an environment that seems to operate in a very different way. But we can understand field theory through our intellects and in particular a mathematical representation.
Today field theory is at the centre of both fundamental physics, and the branch of physics that studies solid materials. That might seem a little bit abstract and distant. For example, we can think about a lump of steel. It has various properties which can be treated exceptionally well using Newtonian and Maxwellian physics (where our imaginations are not misleading); and this is all an engineer needs to know. It reflects light in a particular way; has a certain electrical resistance; a certain tensile strength. So does that not mean that the Newtonian description is adequate?
But why does this type of steel have those properties? Here we have to go down to the level of the individual atoms, and in particular their energy bands. And why does those atoms in that crystal structure have those energy bands? The answer is given by quantum field theory. And it has to be quantum theory. If the atom were governed by classical mechanics, then nothing we see around us could exist. Classical mechanics is not incoherent, but it is ultimately inconsistent with even the most basic observations we make of nature (such as the existence of solids with different properties: in classical physics, the electrons would collapse into the nucleus of the atom, and everything would just be one big inert blob).
Now, if nobody could see quantum field theory coming, and nobody did see it coming until experiment started to force physicists towards it, and it requires a whole new way of looking at the world, then clearly no philosopher before the 1950s could have used it to develop or test their metaphysics. And few philosophers since then have understood it. In short, almost every philosopher in history has been ignorant of what ought to be the foundation of their discipline. And this includes Immanuel Kant with his particularly proud protestations of knowledge; it include David Hume, from whom Bertrand Russell drew most of his ideas about religion from, and it includes Bertrand Russell himself, who, directly or indirectly, at least in part inspired most of today's atheists.
Aristotle and the medieval philosophers are often ridiculed by more recent philosophers because they had no knowledge of modern physics. And that is perfectly fair: they didn't. And thus we are right to treat them with scepticism, until somebody does the work and shows their compatibility with quantum field theory. But exactly the same argument has an even greater force against the major enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Kirkegaard, Satre, Marx, Wittgenstein, Mill, Bertrand Russell himself, and so on. Except for their work on the foundations of mathematics and logic (which, in the order of knowledge, is more fundamental than physics) their work was based on what is now outdated ideas. So we have a conundrum. Why, when people are so quick to jettison Aristotle, are they so slow to jettison Immanuel Kant or Bertrand Russell's non-mathematical works, when they are in just the same position? Indeed, those, such as Descartes and Kant, who based their philosophy on pre-Newtonian mechanics or Newtonian mechanics, are in the worst position of all. They built their systems on and tested them against an understanding of physics that has turned out to be completely and utterly wrong.
So in terms of ignorance about what matters to us, the enlightenment philosophers are right up there with the cavemen. Indeed, they might well be further from the truth than the cavemen, since the caveman didn't really go anywhere, while the philosophers went a long way in the wrong direction. When dealing with them, first we have to contend with a lot of wrong notions before we even start pointing them in the right direction.
Why is this important? Because most of contemporary society's values; it views on morality, psychology and society in particular, are derived from modern philosophy. It is a world-view that started in the philosophy department, spread across the university, and from there to our politicians, teachers, doctors, clergy, writers and journalists; and from them to everyone. It took over a hundred years for it to reach the ploughmen and road-sweepers, but it has, and it is a family of world-views built on an outdated physics or maybe the rejection of an outdated physics. That's not to say that it is wrong, only that we shouldn't be so confident that it is right.
So now we come to the classical philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and their medieval successors. I'll focus on Aristotle and the medievals. Now it would seem at first sight that these are in an even worse position that the modern philosophers; they did not even have mathematical physics (which was first developed in its modern form by Thomas Bradwardine in the fourteenth century, after the time of these philosophers). Indeed Aristotle himself vigorously opposed Pythagoras' and Plato's suggestion that reality was inherently geometrical. He preferred instead preferred to think about physics in terms of causality. But we now know that a mathematical representation is the key to unlocking physics. So in this respect, Aristotle's thought was wrong and needs to be abandoned.
But, there is another point to consider. The key to Aristotle's philosophy is first of all his logic (which, despite some minor mistakes and omissions, has nothing that can't be easily corrected or which affects his wider work) and secondly his metaphysics. Everything else in Aristotle's thought depends on these two. Thus, unlike Kant and Descartes, Aristotle didn't base his philosophy on an incorrect physics. He derived an incorrect physics from a) his philosophy; b) some input from poorly designed experiments; and c) some incorrect ideas about the nature of matter taken from his predecessors. I should say that his experiments were poorly designed by today's standards; in Ancient Greece they far surpassed and were far more meticulous and imaginative than anything anyone else was doing. So that his physics was wrong doesn't necessarily mean that his philosophy was wrong.
This is in contrast to people such as (for example) Immanuel Kant. At key points, Kant drew on (what was to him) contemporary physics to provide inspiration. Kant's ideas are based on an incorrect understanding of physics as premises. Aristotle's ideas were used as one of several premises (including that geometry wasn't helpful) to develop his physics.
But if Aristotle didn't derive his philosophy from physics, where did he get his ideas from? Aristotle's philosophy was based on some fundamental ideas concerning the nature and possibility of change. For example, if we leave an unripe banana on the windowsill, it will change from green to yellow to brown, yet all the time remain the same banana. So this means that the object of the banana can exist in various different states. Initially it is actually a banana in a green state, and has the potential to become a banana in a yellow state or in a brown state. Then, when it ripens, it will be in a yellow state actually and could potentially be in a brown state. All these states (and more, including the steps between them) belong to the banana, but at any given moment of time, one of these states has to be actual, and the others remain potential.
This idea of each object having multiple different states, some actual at a given moment of time and some potential, has a distinct similarity to how contemporary physics think about the microscopic world. That was recognised early on, for example by Werner Heisenberg, one of the great physicists of the early twentieth century. The idea of distinct states of being or potentia is also a concept completely alien to almost all enlightenment philosophy; yet it is fundamental to modern physics.
Heisenberg didn't take the idea any further than comparing quantum states with Aristotelian potentia. But the idea of actuality and potentiality is only the starting point of Aristotle's philosophy. Everything else that followed is a consequence of that idea. So it might be interesting to mathematicize Aristotle's metaphysics, combine it with some true premises concerning the nature of matter, and see what we get. We might come to nothing. Even if we do come to something, what we are left with will almost certainly not be a pure Aristotelian philosophy, but something heavily modified, maybe beyond recognition. But we won't know that until we try.
Bertrand Russell was right in many ways. We need a fearless outlook. We need a free intelligence, bound only to the search for the truth. We need to be unfettered by the ignorant men of the past. But the problem is in identifying which men were ignorant and which had a kernel of knowledge. It turns out that the men Russell thought were knowledgeable in fact turned out to be ignorant; and the men Russell thought were ignorant have turned out to be far wiser and more knowledgeable than he had recognised.
We should not forget that atheists, just as much as theists, have their own dogmas which fetter their thoughts. Atheists can't rightly describe themselves as free thinkers. Nor can they describe themselves as exclusively scientific, since atheism (whichever brand it is) is primarily a metaphysical rather than a physical position. Theism is perfectly compatible with modern science; I would say more so than atheism. Nor can anyone else once they have chosen a position. An atheist will come into philosophy class, be presented with the various different streams of contemporary thought, pick the one that seems best to them, and go with it wherever it leads them. Once they make that initial choice, their thoughts are constrained just as much as any theist. The only person who is truly free is the man who accepts no principles at all; but he is like a ship without an anchor: he will never make port at any destination, let alone the place we ought to be heading for.
Bertrand Russell is a good example of fettered atheist thought. He claims to be a free thinker, but then unthinkingly spews out David Hume's version of the cosmological argument, as though it was one which any theist would attempt to defend. He spews out the standard attack of the natural law argument, unaware of the best forms of that argument. Press another button, and you get the standard view of nineteenth century academia on the superiority of humanism over Christian morality, with no pause to question the primary sources to check whether those opinions were historically sound or philosophically defensible. There is no evidence that he understands natural law theory, and how it alone avoids Hume's and Moore's dilemmas, let alone is able to refute it. At the very least, we should see an acknowledgement that the sort of arguments that he raises have had attempts at answering them and some evidence that he has read beyond atheist sources to find the replies to atheist objections. No, Russell showed no evidence of being a free thinker. He was as enslaved as the rest of us.
We are all fettered. The question is are we or are we not fettered to a master who is taking us in the right direction.
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