This post is the next in a series on why Bertrand Russell was not a Christian, or at least those arguments he put forward in his influential article Why I am not a Christian. So far, I have discussed the definition of a Christian. Now I want to turn to the next topic, namely the existence of God. Russell divided his discussion of this topic into an introduction, the first cause argument, Natural Law arguments, the argument from design, and arguments from ethics and justice. In this post, I will discuss his introduction.
Since there must always be motion without intermission, there must necessarily be something, one thing or it may be a plurality, that first imparts motion, and this first mover must be unmoved. Now the question whether each of the things that are unmoved but impart motion is eternal is irrelevant to our present argument: but the following considerations will make it clear that there must necessarily be some such thing, which, while it has the capacity of moving something else, is itself unmoved and exempt from all change, which can affect it neither in an unqualified nor in an accidental sense.…
The following argument also makes it evident that the first mover must be something that is one and eternal. …(Aristotle, Physics, Book VIII, about 330BC)
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.(Paul of Tarsus, to the Romans, Chapter 1, 58AD)
I answer that, Demonstration can be made in two ways: One is through the cause, and is called "a priori," and this is to argue from what is prior absolutely. The other is through the effect, and is called a demonstration "a posteriori"; this is to argue from what is prior relatively only to us. When an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause. And from every effect the existence of its proper cause can be demonstrated, so long as its effects are better known to us; because since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist. Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 2, Article 2, Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?, 1270AD)
You know, of course, that the Catholic Church has laid it down as a dogma that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason. That is a somewhat curious dogma, but it is one of their dogmas. They had to introduce it because at one time the Freethinkers adopted the habit of saying that there were such and such arguments which mere reason might urge against the existence of God, but, of course, they knew as a matter of faith that God did exist. The arguments and reasons were set out at great length, and the Catholic Church felt that they must stop it. Therefore they laid it down that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason, and they had to set up what they considered were arguments to prove it.(Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian, 1927)
I would like to suggest that various dogmas of Bertrand Russell are even more curious than those of the Roman Church. In this citation, we see two of them at work. The first is that the Church formulated its arguments for the existence of God in response to the attacks from the Freethinkers, by which I assume that Russell means the atheists and deists of Enlightenment Europe.
That statement is obvious nonsense. The three citations above by themselves demonstrate that the claim that the existence of God can be proved through reason built on premises derived from natural science and natural philosophy has been put forward by the Church since its foundation. Some of the arguments adopted by the Church were first put to paper before the Church even existed, for example by Plato and Aristotle. These arguments, if correct, demonstrated that there was at least one unmoved mover (I would say unmoveable mover), and they went on to demonstrate that this mover must be one, eternal, omnipresent, and so on. Not surprisingly, when the Jewish philosophers, again before the Church came into being, encountered these arguments, they identified Aristotle's unmoved mover or (later) Plotinus' One with their own monotheistic God. It is quite possibly these sort of arguments Paul was thinking of in the epistle to the Romans, and they were refined and perfected by various Jewish, Islamic and Christian philosophers over the centuries; Aquinas being one particularly prominent example.
In short, that the existence of God can be demonstrated by reason is not something that the Church insisted on in response to enlightenment thought, but something which the Church has held continually, since its foundation. It has never believed otherwise. Of course, natural reason (which takes as its premises observed truths concerning the natural world) can only take us so far, and many attributes of God are only knowable through divine reason (which takes its premise from revelation).
Now, it is certainly true that the Roman Church tried to instigate a revival of its own Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy in the late nineteenth century, in response to the various enlightenment philosophies. By this time, it was clear that modern philosophy led to deism and atheism. It was superficially attractive, and had gained ground in the universities, ground it has not relinquished to this day. It is, in the eyes of a Christian, completely and dangerously wrong, since its conclusions are in contradiction to the evidence. The evangelical protestants retreated from the attack by withdrawing to their empirical basis; the Roman Church at least tried to respond to a attack from reason through presenting a reasonable alternative.
Reason is the journey from premise to conclusion. Each form of modern philosophy is based on various premises. Classical philosophy is built on different premises. It is therefore easy to challenge modern philosophy. Simply say that the premises that it is built on are wrong, draw up some different premises, and come to some conclusions. Of course, the difficult part is proving that your premises are better than your rivals. And this is particularly challenging when your rivals refuse to listen to you, thinking that your arguments were defeated centuries earlier, and thinking that their premises are mandated by modern science. You respond that those defeats were based on misunderstandings, that your premises actually give a firmer ground to modern science. This is true; the Renaissance and early modern scholars got almost everything they wrote about medieval scholarship wrong. Modern science arose from medieval science which was inspired by medieval philosophy; most of the premises which modern science depends on were originally inspired by classical theology. But when your modern rivals take almost everything they know about medieval scholarship from the mistakes of those same Renaissance and early modern scholars, without bothering to take the time to check the Renaissance claims by going back to the original source, you have a difficult time even making them acknowledging your existence.
So although Catholic philosophy in itself was not formed in response to enlightenment attacks, there is a case that its late twentieth century revival was inspired in response. Does this justify Bertrand Russell's claim? I would say `No.' Russell's claim was that the arguments themselves were formulated in response to the Freethinkers; even a quick perusal of the historical record shows that their earliest forms are older than the Church itself.
The philosophical revolution of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries was initially framed by Christians in a Christian context. It was perhaps not clear at first that it would end up so fervently anti-Christian. There were hints even from the start, but, after being burned by Galileo, the Church was perhaps reluctant to not give the new way of thinking a chance. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was clear to anyone that modern philosophy was a dead-end as far as orthodox Christianity was concerned. So the Roman Church, realising that just saying `Its wrong' without proposing an alternative would not pass intellectual muster, started to re-promote the best philosophy it had: Aristotelian Thomism. This was done, I think, as much to protect believers from the incorrect ideas (as the Church sees them) of the enlightenment as to convince sceptics. Of course, it came to late to sway the minds of the disciples of the enlightenment. Modern philosophy, after all, was seen as 'scientific' while the alternative was seen as belonging to the pre-scientific dark ages.
Of course, we have to ask why the Roman Church was so convinced that the conclusions of modern philosophy were wrong that it felt compelled to revive its older philosophy. Here is Russell's second error, for he stated that the Church knew as a matter of faith that God existed. This might seem an inoffensive statement; I would agree myself with the words that Russell uses, but not his meaning. Russell defines the word faith in a way that is almost, but not quite, completely opposite to what a Christian means by the word. Thus the meaning he intends by those words is almost, but not quite, completely opposite to what I would mean if I made that same statement. Firstly, Russell's definition:
We may define "faith" as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of "faith". We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.
(Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics).
Variations of this definition are common among atheist literature. That it is almost completely opposite to what Christians mean when they use the term doesn't seem to have stopped them (many modern thinkers distinguish themselves in their complete inability to read and comprehend accurately what non-enlightenment scholars mean). This should be obvious from just reading the New Testament: the apostles and evangelists both spend time 1) putting forward the evidence for their position that Jesus is God (which implies the existence of God) on the basis of the miraculous signs, and confirmations both witnessed by themselves and performed through their own agency in front of those they were trying to convince; and 2) emphasising the importance of accepting what that evidence implied with faith. If faith meant belief without evidence there would be a clear contradiction here. The obvious conclusion is that faith, as a Christian uses the term, doesn't mean belief without evidence. (Though I note that a true atheist must believe without evidence, since no observed evidence can confirm an absence.)
What does the word mean, then? Since Bertrand Russell was arguing against the Romans, I will link to the best source of his time, the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Faith. This is too long to cite in full, so I would just summarise the key points. Note that as an Anglican, I would not completely agree with the contents of this article. The article places a greater emphasis on the points I list last, while I would start in the same place, but go in a different direction. But the article is close enough to what I think, and since Russell highlighted the Romans in particular, I will use the Catholic definition in my response. Note that this article was written by Catholics for Catholics, namely people already convinced by the evidence for God's existence.
- The original meaning of the Hebrew and Greek is a combination of belief and trust. In particular, one places faith in something which is proved to be steadfast, reliable faithful and trustworthy.
- Faith involves intellectual assent to some truth.
- Truth can be assented to either because it is self-evident; or because we can deduce it from self-evident truths or induce it from observation; or we can assent to it on the basis of some authority. Faith is related to the third of these.
- Analysis of evidence is necessary to accept any truth. There are three steps to any act of intellectual understanding, the object being understood, the understanding, and the evidence linking the two.
- Faith might be of various degrees of certainty, based on the authority on which it is built on. Our faith in a proven liar would be weak, since the evidence is that he is prone to break his word. Our faith in a scientific theory is stronger, since its reliability is backed up by numerous experiments, but only to the degree to which we can believe the theory to be true, and we are never quite 100\% sure, since there might be other theories, consistent with the raw evidence, which make different predictions for experiments not yet performed. Our faith in a particular 'scientific' philosophy is weaker still, since it is induced from the scientific theory, and therefore contains all the uncertainties of the theory, plus some more arising from our interpretation of it (induction can never bring certainty, because there could be several philosophies consistent with the theory, including those we haven't yet thought of; although it is still useful in that it can rule out the numerous philosophies which aren't). Divine faith, however, which arises with God as its source and God as its object, is fully secure, because God alone is completely trustworthy. This is obvious: to be trustworthy, one would need to be omnipotent and infallible in understanding, which leads us back to God.
- Divine faith is thus based on the most certain evidence of them all, namely the promises of God.
- The object of divine faith and our knowledge of those promises comes to us from revelation. If we accept that revelation, then our intellect compels us to accept the objects of faith. Our choices are to reject the revelation, or accept the propositions of divine faith as true even if we don't (yet) understand the theory linking those propositions together.
- Our acceptance of revelation as divine truth must be built on evidence that can only be divine in origin, such as that which is backed up by miracles.
I would personally emphasise more the idea that Faith is based on reason; drawing out and accepting an as yet untested conclusion based on evidence. For example, if the evidence implies that God is reliable, and that God promised X, then faith contains the process of reasoning that allows us to assent to the statement that X will occur.
Faith, then, as the Christian understands it, is to put one's trust in that which is trustworthy and establish their beliefs based on that trust. It is not contrary to evidence, but built on evidence; we need first of all to determine what is and isn't trustworthy. When an engineer or scientist assume the validity of some scientific theory in their work, they are using faith. They are trusting that the theory is correct, and formulating beliefs based on that trust. In particular, faith makes predictions based on what has already been encountered, and uses that to have confidence in what is not yet observed. In this sense, faith provides the conviction of things not seen.
A philosophy is only as good as its premises. There are numerous enlightenment philosophies, but they all have in common the denial of formal and final causality, that is that they deny that matter can exist in different states that are at least in part intellectually understandable, and that these states have natural tendencies towards particular ends. These assumptions, drawn from the mechanistic philosophy of science, in effect directly lead to atheism, since if the word 'God' is to mean anything, He has an intellectual understanding of matter, and directs it towards particular ends. The existence of formal and final causality are the key premises of classical philosophy, which is why theists prefer pre-enlightenment philosophy and reject enlightenment philosophy.
The enlightenment premises were originally drawn from the mechanistic philosophy of physics, which states that physical objects can be reduced to the sum of their constituents, locomotion, and which are bound to obey fixed deterministic laws which are universal (in that everything is subject to them) and independent of God (except, perhaps, as their author). Many people confuse this philosophy of science with science itself. That is the delusion which lies at the heart of the dominant forms of modern atheism (for example, those promoted by Bertrand Russell and his modern disciples such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on). In fact, almost every premise of this philosophy is directly contradicted by modern experiment.
Theists, on the other hand, believe that the universe is sustained directly by God, without needing the intermediary of the laws of physics. Physics is thus a description of how God maintains the universe in the normal course of events. This makes no difference to the various experimentally based mathematical theories described in the science textbooks and research papers: those are identical for the theist or the atheist. The difference is in the philosophy which is used to underlie those theories. Aristotelian/Thomists would add that this description makes use of secondary causes inherent in the nature of matter, and these secondary causes can be studied without direct reference to God. However, ultimately which of the possible final causes occurs is due to the free choice of God, and while one can study the effects of form and finality without reference to God, to understand why beings have those forms and final causes requires theological philosophy.
So what evidence is divine faith built on, and consequently the reason why the Roman Catholics reject secular enlightenment philosophy in favour of their own system? Ultimately, it requires miraculous confirmation; both historical miracles (with those of the New Testament given prominence), and those continuing to this day.
But once more, the "enlightened" thinker can't understand what the Roman Catholic means when he says these things. They take the same words, and draw out a very different meaning. To a large extent, this misunderstanding arises from the poor definitions used by the enlightenment philosophers. To the modern philosopher, a miracle is a breaking of the laws of physics. It should be obvious that this definition is impossible for a Christian to accept, since it is dependent on a mechanistic philosophy and understanding of physics which only arose in the fourteenth or fifteenth century (albeit with fore-runners among the ancient Greeks), and rejected by all Christians before then. Those earlier Christians still spoke of miracles, but used a different definition. A miracle is a sign which points to some aspect of God's character or nature and provides direct evidence for it(as opposed to the indirect evidence of general providence, which we have to pick through with reason). In my book, I define a miracle as an event which provides evidence that the source behind the evolution of the physical world is not wholly indifferent to mankind. Physical theory is the approximation that ignores the miraculous; physics plus miracles gives the complete account of God's sustaining of the universe.
There have been various objections raised to the miraculous, but these are based on premises which theists would reject. For example, Hume argued that we should reject evidence for miracles since the bulk of our experience is non-miraculous, so the probability of a particular event being an exception and miraculous is very low. There are numerous problems with Hume's argument (which are outlined in all the books which I assume that atheists ignore since Hume's argument keeps getting cited even though it has long been refuted), but the most telling to my mind is that to compare between one event and another one needs a theoretical model. Only models and theories make predictions which can be compared against observation. Observations cannot be compared directly; they are just two different points (or more accurately line segments) on a graph. Any curve connecting those points is a model. The atheist will take their own model of physics, extrapolate from the non-miraculous events agreed on by both themselves and the theist to the circumstances surrounding the miracle, and say `We don't expect a miracle there.' The theist, on the other hand, will take a different model, and because the model is different they will come to a very different conclusion when they extrapolate; they would say that a lack of a miracle is hugely improbable on account of the array of evidence supporting their own model (which includes all the same data that the atheist uses). Hume pre-supposes that we adopt a model that has the denial of the miraculous built into it. He doesn't conclude that miracles are impossible, he subtly pre-supposes it. And thus his argument is worthless.
By using the evidence of miraculous events to judge that Aristotelian philosophy is superior to mechanistic philosophy, the Roman Church is following the scientific method: using observation to judge between theories. By using their philosophy to dismiss certain bits of evidence, atheists are violating the scientific method. Such an action is unreasonable, and this is why theists are right to not take modern secular philosophy as a serious proposition.
In addition to this, I firmly believe that the developments in physics in the twentieth century undermine the mechanistic philosophy and favour the Aristotelian philosophy. If I am right, the 'scientific' philosophy of the atheists isn't even scientific.
So what relevance is all this discussion for Bertrand Russell's arguments against the existence of God? Russell was convinced by the truth of mechanistic enlightenment philosophy. By his own admission, he did not understand Aristotelian philosophy. He therefore judged arguments which were originally based on classical philosophy using contradictory presumptions taken from modern philosophy. In particular, as we have already seen, key definitions he used differed from those used by the Christians who formulated the arguments he opposed. He therefore badly misunderstood the arguments. He is not alone in this; the same can be said for most of the enlightenment philosophers, even the great ones such as Hume and Kant. This is not coincidental; Russell drew his formulation of the arguments from Hume, and Hume didn't understand classical philosophy at all. Many modern critics of theism turn to Kant as an inspiration, and Kant was equally ignorant of the classical arguments and definitions and equally misrepresented them. Russell was a great enlightenment philosopher, but a very poor at classical philosophy of religion. He formulates responses which assume one set of definitions and assumptions against arguments built on a different set of definitions and a smaller set of assumptions. This does not bode well. But to see how badly he got things wrong, we will have to wait until the next post.
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