Category Archives: Philosophy

William Lane Craig vs. Alex Rosenburg

As a quick break from my series on Bertrand Russell, I enjoyed watching the debate between Dr. Craig and Dr. Rosenburg this week. Obviously, my own views are much more in line with Craig’s, but I must say that I appreciate Rosenburg’s courage in accepting the strange conclusions which follow from scientism (even if I found him a bit caustic). He rightly sees that the popular belief that science describes all of reality has some very counterintuitive (I would say “incoherent”) results.

I may write up some of my thoughts on Craig in the future, but, as for Rosenburg, I doubt I can add anything of value to what Dr. Edward Feser has already written. This is also a series, but worth looking over if you’re interested in the debate over naturalism.

Why Russell was Wrong X: The All-Purpose Argument

10082300_All_purpose_Green_Though Russell does (unfairly) accuse Kant of bias, he also explains why he rejects Kant’s moral argument for God’s existence. Unfortunately, it turns out simply to be a repetition of the Euthyphro Dilemma addressed in Part IV of this series:

The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them.

So, again, the challenge is: “Is something good because God commands it (then the command is arbitrary), or does God command it because it is good (then God’s command isn’t the source of goodness)?”

I often wonder what the modern campaign against religion would do without the Euthyphro. It seems to be the stock response to any moral issue raised by the theist, and many seem at liberty to wildly misapply it.

In fact Russell does so here. But, rather than simply repeat the refutation I made earlier, I’d like to describe what is becoming my main issue: the fact that Russell offers no alternative vision of morality. If he did, it would been obvious that the Euthyphro can be used to “refute” any moral system, including his own.

There is no basis of morality, of which I cannot ask “Is a thing good because it fits that basis (then one’s choice of that basis is arbitrary), or is that basis good for some outside reason (then it is not the basis)?”. And this seems to be the fastest way to discredit the Euthyphro. If it applies equally well to every possible approach to ethics, it can’t possibly be a reason to choose secular ethics over theistic ones.

And this illustrates the problem with simply playing the critic – picking at others’ positions while offering no alternative for consideration. It quickly tempts one to grossly unrealistic demands.

The divine nature is actually the best answer (religious or secular) to the Euthyphro I’ve ever encountered. Because, within Christian tradition, the source of goodness something that is the greatest possible being by definition. Since, in Christianity, describing goodness turns out to be describing God, the dilemma simply doesn’t apply.

This is why this attack is much less effective against Christianity than it was in the polytheistic society in which Plato advanced it. This is why, in spite of what the New Atheists seem to think, the real issue raised by the Euthyphro is something much closer to an argument in favor of Christianity than one opposed to it.

Why Russell was Wrong IX: Only Theists are Biased?

accusationThis next section struck me as more than a bit judgmental:

Now we reach one stage further in what I shall call the intellectual descent that the Theists have made in their argumentations, and we come to what are called the moral arguments for the existence of God. You all know, of course, that there used to be in the old days three intellectual arguments for the existence of God, all of which were disposed of by Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason; but no sooner had he disposed of those arguments than he invented a new one, a moral argument, and that quite convinced him. He was like many people: in intellectual matters he was skeptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother’s knee.

It seems very simplistic simply to say that Kant settled the matter of the old arguments once and for all. I know of no expert on Kant who would say that.

In fact, Russell presents an odd dichotomy where he seems to trust Kant far more than anyone else I’ve read when Kant happens to be arguing against theism, but dismisses him as blindly indoctrinated when he argues in favor of theism. One should definitely react to these kind of bold, partisan declarations with more than a touch of skepticism. Why should we reject Kant’s theism as bias, but not Russell’s atheism?

If it is an irritation that Russell offers no answer for this in his speech, it is a major problem that the New Atheists have not done so in years of campaigning. They seem to assume that political anger at fundamentalist churches (which I largely share, incidentally), the wish to appear “too intelligent” for religion, and the human tendency to jump on the bandwagon with movements proclaiming trendy values aren’t irrational reasons to become an atheist. But these are hardly the only irrational reasons why a young person might be tempted to become an angry anti-theist.

Christopher Hitchens, in fact, proudly admitted that he never doubted his atheism. He claimed to have “tried”, but held that the idea of theism seemed too ridiculous for him to even seriously consider. In a group of thoughtful people, such an admission would have come at a great cost to one’s intellectual credibility, but his fans didn’t hesitate in cheering his bold declaration of personal bias.

None of this is to suggest that we should make the same mistake in the opposite direction. There are many reasonable atheists in the world, and unreasonable theists. But what one cannot say, and what the New Atheists’ passionate, and generally incoherent, rantings have so thoroughly disproved, is this strange idea that atheism is somehow inherently a mark of freedom from biased thinking.

Why Russell was Wrong VII: The End of the World as we Know it


Having advanced the (in my view, weak) argument that perceived flaws in creation shows us that there is no creator, Russell turns to what could be called the “ultimate” flaw in creation:

Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending — something dead, cold, and lifeless.

This is a very odd argument. Christianity has declared, since long before atheists ever did, that humanity’s time in this universe is limited. This is the doctrine of the new heavens and new Earth. It is the atheist who must grapple with the demise of humanity; on the Christian view, there is every reason to have hope.

But Russell is not alone in making this claim; I’ve heard this same argument from Christopher Hitchens (who may well have learned it from Russell). That these men think, millennia after the fact, that Christianity was caught off guard by the idea that creation will die (unless it is renewed by God) is very strange. It is the secularists of the Enlightenment (and their vision of unlimited progress) who’s achilles’ heel had been found.

Given the amount of cynicism in Russell’s speech, it is a little tempting to say that Russell tends to think anything is a point against Christianity so long as it is negative or hopeless. That is merely speculation but, in fairness to the idea, Christianity is an extremely optimistic philosophy. Those who understand Christian beliefs, if they reject them, tend to do so for the unabashed optimism of the Gospel.

Still, this objection clearly requires that we assume Christianity to be false at the outset to have any validity.

Though he doesn’t go so far as to see the logical response, Russell does acknowledge that some will be more, rather than less, apt to believe in God after hearing this. For the sake of keeping my posts shorter than I have been, I’ll address that issue next time.

Why Russell was Wrong VI: Sin Disproves God?

sinappleIn the last section, I praised Russell for avoiding the trap I’ve seen other atheists fall into: the idea that dealing with Paley’s “Watchmaker” argument for God is the central or only argument for theism.

If he succeeds there, however, he falls into another trap that is common to the New Atheists (most notably, Christopher Hitchens): The idea that a divine creator would have done a better job of designing the universe. Russell writes:

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?

First, I’m left wondering why Russell seems to assume that God is concerned with efficiency. Without limitation in time or resources, why should he be concerned to develop life faster than he has?

But, to take his more visceral comment, the quip about hate groups is far from alien to New Atheist writings, and one wonders what they mean. Is the fact that people are often evil evidence against God? The Biblical authors seemed well aware of what they called “the sinfulness of mankind”, and hardly took it as a reason to doubt God’s existence. Rather, theists have always taken it as a reason to believe in free will–and our poor use of it.

I hear these kinds of remarks often, and they undoubtedly cross the line from an awareness of evil to blunt cynicism–seeing only the evils of the world as if that is the totality, or at least the essence, of life.

Surely, Russell does not literally mean to suggest that there is nothing in this world better than the Nazis. But, if not, why does he speak as if they are the standard by which all creation should be judged? How does Russell know that God wouldn’t allow these groups the same freedom of will he allows the rest of us?

And, perhaps more to the point, what standard is he using for the goodness of all creation, if not God? As many have shown, it is difficult to even say that a thing is evil unless there exists a transcendent source of goodness (i.e. God). Evil, then, comes closer to proving God’s existence than disproving it.

A more robust theory of life will acknowledge the good as well as the bad. And it should be noted that Christian theism has done exactly that. It seems completely incredible that so many can criticize “religion” (by which they seem to mean “Christianity as its opponents understand it”) for failing to see the problems in this thing called “life”, while simultaneously complaining about the negativity of the doctrine of the falleness of creation.

And this seems to be exactly what Russell is doing: citing hate groups (sin) as evidence against Christianity while (elsewhere) maintaining that people can be good without God. This is trying to have it both ways; people can’t simultaneously be too good to need God and too evil for the atonement to redeem creation, which is what would have to be true for Russell’s attack on Christianity to have validity.

Why Russell was Wrong V: Let’s forget about Paley


Here, we get to Russell’s treatment of Darwinism. To be clear, I am discussing philosophy and theology–not science (as much as I adore science). I’ll not be speaking about the Evolution debate, which receives far more attention than I think due it. Instead I’ll focus on philosophical mistakes I’ve seen made in this debate.

Here, Russell criticizes Paley’s famous “Watchmaker” argument (which states that Creationism is true on the grounds that living things appear as designed as a watch does):

It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire’s remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation.

I’m often left wondering what so many of the disciples of Russell (Dawkins most of all) would do without Paley. Few arguments from design run counter to Darwin’s theory, and so don’t tend to validate the false “science or religion” dichotomy that drives their rhetoric.

To his credit, Russell does not fall into this trap. Many seem to think that, so long as a discovery of science can be made to counter a theistic argument, we can imply that future discoveries will do the same (so we needn’t waste our time with other arguments). At least, this seems to be the reason why Darwin’s name is so frequently mentioned on topics like cosmology.

For me, the most significant thing about Darwin in the context of a debate on God’s existence is the fact that opponents of theism have a hard time producing a more recent idea which runs counter to (their concept of) theism.

This seems rather like the Galileo argument, where a single person, who lived quite some time ago, is seen as proof of a larger pattern. This is doubly true when one studies closely enough to see that there is nothing about Darwin’s theories which can get the one to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist (nor anything about Galileo’s trial which reveals that “science” was being persecuted, but that is another topic).

If the practice of science in the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that it does not progress along a predictable course. To infer that science will ultimately establish atheism because of a single, questionable, example (as, say, Richard Dawkins does) is a hasty generalization fallacy, a non-sequitur, and a simple category error. Really, I’ve encountered few positions which pack logical fallacies as tightly as this one.

But, more simply, this is to pretend both that science is philosophy and that we know our future better than Paley knew his.

And this is what Paley did right: rather than try to predict what will be discovered some day, he worked with the information he had. It is sheer intellectual laziness to say that one isn’t going to accept a position until all the facts are in (as many seem to be doing as of late); all the facts will never be in.

I believe that we should trust science. What we should not trust, however, is some concept of what science will one day discover. This is doubly true in answering a question which is, manifestly, not a scientific one.

Why Russell was Wrong IV: The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Relative

moralContinuing on in my discussion of Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, we now get to an argument from morality. This is of particular interest in considering Russell as the intellectual grandfather of the New Atheists, in that it is a group of such strong moral pretensions.

As to the issue of morality, theists have often said that, while belief in God is not required to behave morally, the existence of God is required to explain how any objective morality could exist.

Russell’s response is, essentially, a version of what is typically called the Euthyphro Dilemma:

[B]ecause even supposing that there were [objective morality], you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those laws and not others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary.

So, is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because its good? Proponents of this argument would say that this shows that either God’s morality is arbitrary or God is irrelevant to what is moral. This seems a very good argument, so long as one does not consider it too closely.

I, of course, intend to do just that:

Monotheists have never maintained that God selects moral law the way a shopper selects a box of cereal in a grocery store. The first option can easily be set aside.

The second option can likewise be set aside, at least unless the atheist can give some argument in its favor (which Russell has not). Theists have no more maintained that there is some ethical standard, somehow existing above God, than that God arbitrarily decides on morality.

In fact, I have no idea where Russell gets this idea that most orthodox theologians claim that God’s morality is based in creating the best possible world. There is simply no standard of “best” until we already have a basis of moral law. Theologians, ancient and modern, understood this point–which is why none of them, so far as I can tell, ever took this position.

Rather, what Christian theism has always claimed is that the moral law flows from God’s nature. It is neither a whim nor something external to him, but God himself that is the standard of goodness. To ask whether something is good because God wills it or God wills something because it is good is completely wrong-headed. God wills the good because he is goodness itself.

In other circumstances, we understand this point. No one would ever ask if you look like your reflection because you had altered it to look like you (arbitrary) or because you had plastic surgery to look like it (you are subject to the reflection). Here, it is perfectly obvious that you look like your reflection because it is an image of your physical nature. Likewise, morality is a reflection of God’s ethical nature.

This also answers the question as to why God didn’t will some completely different set of morals. Any “God” who can will any set of morals has no set moral nature and, therefore, is not the God Christians actually believe in.

It is also very significant that proponents of this dilemma so rarely offer a foundation for morality of their own. On the contrary, I get a lot of claims of moral relativism, or simply refusals to take a position on morality, from those who claim to be morally indignant at God. This, of course, begs the question “why should those of us who don’t accept your relativistic (or unnamed), anti-theistic morals be concerned?”.

This is why Russell (like the New Atheists) needs to do more than criticize theistic moral systems; he needs (and they need) to present and defend a system as superior to theistic morality–that we might see if it is immune to the criticisms leveled here.

Russell closes the point with this:

The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.

Of course, I don’t think he’s shown anything like a definite fallacy in the traditional arguments. Really, this description reminds me of nothing so much as the New Atheists themselves. In this case, actual arguments have very quickly given way to political activism.

After all the bombastic claims of intellectual superiority, the scorn, the ridicule, and, yes, the blatant moral posturing, it’s become clear that the group is far more interested in which slogan is persuasive in a freshman dorm room than what is logically defensible.

In the form of the New Atheists, a devoutly secular form of Pharisee has come to roost in our culture. And I feel that Russell shares part of the blame for this.

Why Russell was Wrong III: Along Came Science

Carina-Nebula-250x230After making the (false) insinuation that theism is based on intellectual laziness, Russell moves on to discuss the Natural Law argument from a scientific perspective, in spite of the fact that this is a category error:

Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion.

Einstein’s contributions to physics are, to put it mildly, immense. What they are not, however, is an answer to the question of natural law. They do not explain why the universe, contrary to what most people expected, follows natural patterns. Rather, they describe one such pattern to a very high degree of accuracy.

Russell seems here to suffer from a misconception I mentioned in my previous post, which is to envision God as essentially a proto-scientific theory of the natural world which competes with modern scientific theories. Given this assumption, I’d completely agree that God is a silly proposal.

However, the abrahamic God has never been such a concept. The transcendent God proposed by western monotheism is not a scientific, but a metaphysical, claim. It is simply not a scientific hypothesis, and should not be treated as a competitor to General Relativity (or any other scientific theory).

The advance of science, therefore, is not a reason to reject the natural law argument. Rather, it is the success of science that is the primary support for the argument. As the original metaphysical grounding for modern science, God may well be the best explanation for why science works at all.

It was David Hume who, as a non-Christian, famously pointed out that modern people can offer no logical reason why science should work – even though it clearly does. The argument from Natural Law, then, is the position that Hume would have done well to look back to the original thing that made people think science would be worth investing their lives in (before it had proved itself): belief in a rational creator of the universe.

Russell then turns to the area of science which, on the surface, offers the strongest support for his position:

On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance;

This really seems to simply have replaced “laws of science” with “laws of chance”. Not only is quantum mechanics much less random than this implies, but this is completely beside the point in any case. The natural law argument does not preclude the idea that natural laws are statistical averages based on the properties of fundamental particles.

It’s fairly easy to see, actually, that the fact that we get a particular average for rolling double-sixes out of a pair of dice is precisely due to the structure of the dice. What is not so easy to see is that all of nature must have had a structure that makes it either consistent or intelligible, which is what Russell should be trying to prove.

This mistake, one suspects, is due to a failure on Russell’s part to realize that he’s not arguing against the God Christian theists actually believe in. The “God” he refutes is, again, basically a physical theory – a law of nature that explains gravity in the way that General Relativity does – rather than a metaphysical explanation as to why nature is consistent enough to have laws in the first place. The God he dismisses is actually a contradiction the God of the abrahamic faiths.

The fact that it was western monotheists who developed science goes completely overlooked by his reasoning here. If God were simply an answer to avoid real inquiry, science would never have been developed by believers in God. The natural law argument, in one sense, simply points out the importance of God to the foundations of scientific thinking.

And this is one thing, among many, that bothers me about the New Atheist project. After centuries of development of natural science by monotheists, committed to the idea that God would have created an ordered universe, a group of atheists seize on science as if it had been their idea all along. Slogans declare that, somehow, the view that helped to inspire science is somehow less scientific than the view that did nothing of the sort.

None of this means that atheists cannot be great scientists, but it should be clear by now that, in attacking the infamous “God of the gaps”, Russell is refuting a god that isn’t anything like the God that thoughtful Christians actually believe in.

Nor is he addressing the challenge leveled by the argument from Natural Law and acknowledged by Hume: secular views of reality give us no reason to think that science should work, whereas monotheism does.

Why Russell was Wrong II: Natural Law

bigstockphoto_Theory_Of_Relativity1Given the unfamiliarity of the natural law argument to most modern people, and the length of Russell’s discussion of it, I’ll be breaking my response into a few parts.

Briefly, the Natural Law argument proposes God as an explanation for the fact that nature behaves according to regular patterns (as opposed to the essentially chaotic universe most everyone thought we were living in before the rise of monotheism).

It shows something of the change in culture that Russell feels the need to deal with this, while contemporary atheists do not. In fact, most of them seem to think that order in nature, traditionally and correctly understood as a point in favor of the monotheist, lends itself to arguments against God’s existence.
Russell states:

People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for explanations of the law of gravitation.

The ease with which Russell, and many others, accuse theists of intellectual laziness has always astounded me. While there are many lay-people who tend to seize on a simple answer to complex questions, this is hardly limited to believers in God. Many atheists, for instance, insist that we should halt inquiry into the cause of the universe (simply acquiescing to ignorance) when considering the matter starts to point to God’s existence.

There are intellectually lazy, as well as thoughtful, people on both sides of the argument. To imply that one position is simply the result of laziness is completely out of touch with the facts.

As this keeps coming up, both in Russell’s statements and contemporary discussion, the point is worth some attention:

The Natural Law argument is, most emphatically, not the use of the phrase “God did it” to explain some gap in our current knowledge. Rather, it is attempting to explain why we can have scientific knowledge about the universe in the first place. It is not obvious that the universe should have particular patterns of phenomena, and a rational God is a good explanation as to why that might be.

As such, it is what we know about nature (how well science works) that is the basis of this argument, rather than anything that we do not know. Whether you are convinced by it or not, this is important to keep in mind as we consider Russell’s remaining objections to it.

This is even more important in our current cultural moment, in that so many of the opponents of theism understand God almost completely in terms of the “God of the gaps”, rather than the way God has traditionally been understood.

Why Russell was wrong I: The First Cause Argument

dominoesThe New Atheists are, in many ways, the intellectual children of Bertrand Russell. Out of respect for Russell, I hasten to add that theirs is a much more superficial position than his. Still, his speech “Why I’m not a Christian” is an almost perfect distillation of the New Atheist project. As such, I’d like to take a few posts to respond to it.

He begins, after his introduction, with the First Cause argument, which I will address in this post:

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;

Russell gives no reason here why “philosophers and the men of science” have discredited the notion of cause. There is, in fact, no philosophical or scientific reason why we should reject the concept of causation, and to do so would be to reject science itself.

It is, of course, possible that Russell is simply saying that modern academics have rejected the types of causation to which Aquinas appeals in his First Cause argument (teleology). But, again, this has neither been refuted in philosophy, nor disconfirmed by science. Moreover, none of the other major forms of the argument depend on teleology. If this is all Russell is saying, it is a non sequitur with respect to the overwhelming majority of first cause arguments.

Rather, all Russell is doing is repeating modern prejudices, which simply dismiss, rather than answer, the ideas he is rejecting.

Russell continues:

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.

This is a common, and rather obvious, mistake to make in response to the First Cause argument. Excepting your pastor Bob or the guy on the street, no defender of the argument has ever claimed that “everything must have a cause”. No version of it argument offered in the history of philosophy has rested on this idea. To argue against it is, at best, a straw man fallacy, and, at worst, an attempt at poisoning the well.

The reason why God is a better prospect than the universe for a causeless object is that God, unlike the universe, is not a contingent object (the Leibnizian version of the argument), that God, unlike the universe, is not an actualized potential (Thomsitic version), and that God, unlike the universe, did not begin to exist (Kalam version).

None of these, and none of the other versions not mentioned here, have ever been based on the idea that everything must have a cause. However, Russell’s entire objection is based on the assumption that all of them are based on it.

It might, perhaps, be excusable that Russell opened with this straw man objection in order to address less sophisticated versions before moving on to the actual first cause argument. However, he follows his discussion of the idea that everything has a cause with this:

Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

And then moves on to the next argument.
This reminds me of nothing so much as the New Atheist modus operandi. After having stomped upon the weakest version of an argument from the opposition (or, really, a caricature of its weakest version), is is declared that the general idea is so silly that we need not bother with the actual argument.

In fairness, this is probably not what Russell himself is saying. It is, however, what so many of his fans are doing on a consistent basis.

Rather, the First Cause argument begins with the simple observation that there are things in this universe (not ‘everything’ but simply most or all of the things we interact with on a daily basis) that cannot account for their own existence. While one such thing can cause another to come into being, such as a potter making a jar, there needs to be some terminus of existence.

Something must be holding up the whole system, or got it started in the first place. To claim that there is simply an infinite chain of such causes (“turtles, all the way down” as they say) makes no more sense than to say that an infinite chain of boxcars can pull a caboose down a railroad track without need of an engine on the front (because each boxcar is pulled by the one in front of it).

None of this requires that “everything must have a cause”, much as Russell seems to think it does.