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The Copleston and Russell radio debate (1947)

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The Copleston and Russell radio debate (1947)

1 …there has to be a sufficient reason for God’s choice…

2 Leibniz tried to avoid the problem of infinite regress by moving away from a possible series of events to a series of explanations. The Principle of Sufficient Reason states that, in the case of any positive truth, there is some reason for it, i.e. there is some sort of explanation, known or unknown, for everything. The world does not seem to contain within itself the reason for its own existence. Therefore God exists.

3 He was a Jesuit priest, philosopher and lecturer who took part in the famous radio debate discussed in this topic. He was also responsible for the writing of a comprehensive history of philosophy.

4 He was an aristocrat and a philosopher. He was also a logician, mathematician, historian and social critic, though he may well be best remembered as a pacifist who was arrested several times protesting against Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Like Copleston, he had an enormous influence on twentieth-century British philosophy.

5 Copleston makes use of Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason to explore the idea that in this world there are beings that do not contain in themselves the reason for their existence. Second, claims Copleston, the world is simply the real or imagined totality or aggregate of individual objects, none of which contains in itself alone the reason for its existence. We have then to look outside this world for a being that does not have to look for an explanation outside itself for its being. It is here that Copleston reaches the same problem with infinite regress as other versions of the Cosmological Argument. He speaks of a being that contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, which cannot not exist.

6 Russell famously replied that the universe is just there, and that’s all, which is often paraphrased as, the universe is a brute fact and does not need explaining. Behind what he is saying, though, is the ‘fallacy of composition’. This is based around the idea that it is a mistake to think that, if something is true of the parts, it is true of the whole. Russell’s example is that, just because all humankind has a mother, it is absurd to assume that the universe has a mother.

7 Russell challenges Copleston about his use of reason and explanation rather than cause. Copleston replied that ‘by sufficient reason in the full sense I mean an explanation adequate for the existence of some particular being…An adequate explanation must ultimately be a total explanation, to which nothing further can be added.’ Here we see him using the idea that scientists find the universe to be explicable and therefore it is fair to assume that the whole universe has an explanation. It is in a sense what scientists like Stephen Hawking mean by their search for a Grand Unification Theory.

8 This is the idea that, when science does not have an answer to a question, then some religious believers say this is where God comes in. The problem with this kind of philosophy is that, as scientists discover more and more about the universe, the ‘god who filled the gap’ gets smaller and smaller. It is this thinking that led the Oxford scientist Peter Atkins to say that it was the last refuge of the desperate to find God in the Big Bang.

9 Throughout the ages, scientists have sought to understand both where we are and why we are here. Often one answer leads to more questions. You might, for example, like the definition of the God of classical theism, but if all those attributes are true, how can God allow such suffering? In science, Newtonian mechanics seemed to explain how the universe functioned but, the closer scientists look at the tiny in the universe, the more questions they find and the less reliable Newton’s mechanics are. Often contradictory evidence can be found if we ask different kinds of questions, which is why philosophers spend so long researching the right kind of question. To say, as Intelligent Design creationists might, that God did this, is clearly never going to answer why and often does not begin to answer how.

10 Edwards attacks Copleston’s argument on a number of levels, but his most famous is probably the five Eskimos example, which is a direct challenge to the idea of sufficient reason. Edwards asks us to imagine an Eskimo deciding to move to New York because it has warmer weather. The second moves because he wants to be with the first one, who is his wife. The third is the child of Eskimos 1 and 2. The fourth one sees an advert for a post on TV and moves to New York to take up the position. The fifth is a hired private detective employed to watch Eskimo 4. Edwards argues that, if you ask each Eskimo why they are in New York, they will provide sufficient reason why they are there and there is no need to look for one sufficient reason why the whole group is there. So there is no need to look for an entire causal chain of events, because sufficient reason can be given for each individual event.

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