Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

Materialists Don’t Believe in Matter


“We only know the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to – as to this, physics is silent.”

-Bertrand Russel

To say that color, sound, taste, etc, as common sense understands these things, is not a property of material objects (but only exist in our minds), and that all there really is to matter is what physics tells us about it, is to (implicitly) reject materialism.

The reason is fairly simple: To say that matter doesn’t actually have these other properties (that scientists set aside when doing experiments) is just another way of saying that these properties are immaterial. Once one has done that, one is committed to some kind of cartesian dualism (whether one likes it or not).

This is for the very simple fact that science doesn’t operate without the sensations of the mind that materialists dismiss as not being part of matter. Theories, or any kind of explanation, cannot exist without reference to these properties. If one is going to say that these aren’t part of matter, then say that nothing more than matter exists, one dismisses science.

The only way to dismiss the cartesianism that materialists passionately mock is to find a way of saying that these extra traits, which are ignored by physics, are actually properties of matter after all.

Of course, many materialists think they have this answer in neuroscience. They seem to think that science will one day explain how these ideas arise from the brain. Personally, I’m convinced that neuroscience will one day explain much about the causal processes in the brain. But it simply cannot explain things that, as a science, it is forbidden to take into account.

Which is exactly where this started. And we can’t solve a problem using the same method that created the problem in the first place. Science (neuroscience as much as any other) ignores qualia (sensations as common sense understands them). It can record what brain-processes tend to be associated with people claiming (verbal behavior) to experience particular qualia. It cannot describe them. It leaves that to writers and other artists.

But there is always the option that Russell suggests: putting these extra things back into our concept of matter, and to quit demanding that the picture of reality given to us by physics is exhaustive.

After all, that demand is philosophical, not scientific. No scientific test on it has ever been (or could ever be) done on it. Those who demand that scientific evidence should be required before forming a belief should definitely reject this claim that there are no properties of matter other than what physics studies.

The trouble with this is that it means the abandonment of materialism. Once one is willing to accept that the properties of matter revealed by experience offer us information about the physical not offered by science (and, indeed, which science depends on), one is moving back toward a premodern view of the world–and all the arguments for theism that go with it. But that is the only way to believe in matter without believing in a cartesian view of the soul.

In general, passionate materialists respond to this argument as they do to many others: by appealing to the unknown. Who knows what the answer is, but they are “okay with not knowing”, and apparently are confident that the answer will be a better fit with materialism than the alternatives.

Personally, I don’t see a logical difference between being okay with not knowing, in this sense, and appealing to magic. But, on a more personal level, this makes a certain amount of sense. All roads before us, if one follows the path of logic, lead to theism.

The only way to maintain one’s atheism, in this case, is to stand at the intellectual crossroads and be “okay with not knowing”.

The Naturalist’s Fairy Tale

don-quixoteBertrand Russell, like the New Atheists, supports much of his attack on Christianity with an almost total ignorance of the history of science:

In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts.

It seems that it can’t be pointed out often enough that science and theology are different subjects. At least, the New Atheists seem to have so much confidence in the idea that science is theology (and metaphysics) that they feel no need to give any reason for the strange conclusion that science answers questions about God’s existence.

But it’s not only theology of which such people are ignorant. Any real respect for history would at least acknowledge the facts of past as it actually occurred. Far from forcing itself onto Christianity, the earliest science was developed by Christians, and sponsored by the Church.

Almost no culture has believed that the universe would have regular patterns which could be observed by the kinds of experiments science uses as its stock and trade. The west is so saturated in science that we never think to question this fact, and, therefore, never notice that most of us can offer no reason why reality would be this way.

Naturalists, for instance, can give no explanation as to why the universe should have this surprising consistency. David Hume famously pointed out that belief in science, as far as the naturalist can see, is based on a logical fallacy.

It was Christians, and other monotheists, who invested the effort in developing modern science because they held the conviction that a rational creator would make an ordered universe.

For Russell to claim, four-hundred years after the fact, that the Christians who invented, supported, and sponsored science somehow have a less scientific worldview than those atheists who blindly trust this inexplicable Christian invention is simply astonishing.

None of this precludes the idea that naturalists can be great scientists; the tools of science can be used by anyone. But to say that the success of science somehow refutes the belief that predicted it would work strikes me as deeply irrational thinking.

Rhetoric First, Reason if Time Permits

witch_hunt_accusation_crucible_jpgIn the following passage of “Why I’m not a Christian”, Bertrand Russell provides what may be the most sweeping and speculative generalization he makes. It is hard to see how anyone who has had a religious experience could fail to see the problem with this:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.

This is a beautiful rhetorical flourish to place near the climax of his speech. However, it is also false, judgmental, and irrelevant.

It is clear enough that it is false. I’ll not spend time on that. But I will say that anyone who is willing to make such grandiose declarations as this, without any real support at all, has no right to cast his side as the supporters of scientific and rational thought (as Russell does). Indeed, many of the New Atheists seem to have trouble understanding the difference between wild accusations and scientifically gathered data.

Such a harshly judgmental attitude based largely or wholly on ignorance is commonly called prejudice. And there seems to me to be something about this subject which causes people to speak boldly (and prejudicially) outside their areas of expertise. Richard Dawkins can often be found giving us amateur philosophy when he should be giving us professional science. It it strange, then, that Russell here gives us amateur psychology instead of professional philosophy.

And, most significantly, his claim is completely irrelevant to the question of God’s existence. Even if it were true that all spiritual experience is simply a fear reaction (though it isn’t remotely), this is not a logical reason to believe that God does not exist. It does nothing at all to establish that one shouldn’t be a Christian.

Personal Feelings Trump Divine Revelation

6_satan-cast-outThough Bertrand Russell makes very standard  (if extremely overstated) accusations of Christianity’s past, he also makes a comment about the present that I find at least as strange.

I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.

Supposing that in this world that we live in today an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church says, “This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must endure celibacy or stay together”.

Russell promises us that there are many more examples that he could have named. Of course, this really does nothing to prove that the negative examples outweigh the positive ones. Rather, this is simply a case of anecdotal evidence. Russell would be right to dismiss my argument if I claimed that Richard Dawkins’ rather callous position on the sexual abuse of children proves that secularism is evil, and his claim here is no different.

The New Atheists, for all their professed commitment to science, are even more prone to this mistake than Russell. In fact, they rarely seem at all interested in actual studies on the matter of religion. After all, these studies contradict, rather than support, their position.

Of course, this all assumes that the Catholic church is clearly in the wrong. While I can empathize with Russell’s concern, his objection seems to be based on a few assumptions, the most pertinent of which is the idea that a marriage relationship is based on sex, rather than the sex being based on the relationship. At least, singling this out as his choice example of the “principle enemy of progress in the world” seems to imply that a celibate marriage is an affront to basic human rights–even more, apparently than the subjugation of impoverished nations by wealthy countries (which seems to bother neither him nor the New Atheists).

Even if one disagrees with the Catholic position, then, he has hardly made a case that religion is the greatest force of evil in the world. Rather, it seems simply a complaint that religious institutions don’t agree with Russell’s personal scruples.

In fact, he says so almost directly:

There are a great many ways in which, at the present moment, the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering.

On what grounds, one wonders, can Russell claim to judge the morality of a religion? What is considered “unnecessary” depends on what one accepts as moral. While it is obvious that some things are unnecessary from a secular, western, caucasian, post-enlightenment cultural view of reality, no religious group is obligated to agree with that position. And it seems entirely odd that Russell should think his culture should trump all other views.

As such, it isn’t possible to even make this complaint without being guilty of what one accuses the church: declaring that everyone should accept one’s own moral system.

Lying in the Name of Reason

blind-to-truthIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian“, the philosopher Bertrand Russell is completely willing to state wild fiction as if it were sober truth:

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world.

If this were true, historians would report that the nineteenth century deists led the abolitionist movement, rather than Christians. We’d find that charities in our present time would be overwhelmingly secular, rather than overwhelmingly religious. We’d find that the early Christians were less, rather than more, open to racial mixing than the pagans. We’d also find that no real social progress was made until secularism became a notable force in society, rather than finding otherwise.

That such a blatantly, factually false statement can be made (and continues to be made) by persons who claim to base their positions on facts and reason is something of a scandal. As much as cultural stereotypes lend enough rhetorical plausibility to this claim, no one doing so can be relying on science or following the evidence where it leads.

But, even granting the highly dubious claim that churches are inherently resistant to change in the moral consensus (which seems to be Russell’s position), three issues remain:

First is the question of whether “opposition” can be assumed even when it is a tiny minority of churches. That seems to be Russell’s basis for making this claim, but this would definitely open him up to accusations based on the behavior of a tiny minority of atheists.

Second is the fact that Russell offers no standard of “progress”. He needs to explain why his view of progress is superior to the view of the churches he criticizes. He does not do so here, and I’ve not heard an answer to this problem from the New Atheists.

And third is the simple point that there is no logical way to get from “churches have impeded progress” to “Christianity is false”. If anger at the wrongs of churches is truly a reason why Russell rejected Christianity, then he is simply admitting to a certain amount of irrationality. Christ is not judged by the actions of the church. Rather, we are judged by him.

Only the Most Fashionable Myths Allowed

greekgoddessFailing to make a case that religion is bad for people in the present, the New Atheists often turn to (their version of) history. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell does the same:

You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs.

The mention of this complete falsehood makes it all but required that theists point out the mass slaughter committed by officially atheist governments. Richard Dawkins, however, waves the atrocities of Communism off as “old hat” (apparently much “older” than the Crusades, which he cites against religion).

Others try to claim that the gulags were “a breakdown in rationality”, which is not nearly so true as they think. The Communists were being rational, assuming one grants the lack of a God and the absolute power of the state. But, even if one accepts the “breakdown of rationality” theory, all this shows is that secularism does not automatically encourage rationality (which directly contradicts the New Atheist platform).

There are still others (such as Christopher Hitchens) who claim that these governments were religions unto themselves. But, if one can call Stalin’s governing religious, one can certainly call the New Atheist movement a religion in the same sense.

And, of course, Russell has conspicuously overlooked the Reign of Terror in his own warped version of history.

In fact, the idea that periods of great belief in God were somehow particularly cruel rests much more heavily on the Enlightenment era propaganda that helped to fuel the Reign of Terror than actual historical fact. The idea that the peoples of the middle ages, for instance, were simply barbaric makes for excellent movies, but doesn’t reflect reality.

By my reading, the historian finds the New Atheists as exasperating as the theologian and the philosopher. Once one understands more than the glib caricatures popular culture gives to various historical periods, it becomes obvious that their view is a secular myth, rather than reality.

The New Atheists’ version of history, then, affirms their beliefs, but doesn’t fit the facts. For a group that is constantly (and wrongly) accusing others of venerating myths, this is a deep problem with their platform.

“Reject This Idea, Because I can Make Unfair Accusations About It.”

Handling-the-Stress-of-RejectionIn arguing against religion, Bertrand Russell turns to the claim that religion should be supported on the grounds that it encourages good behavior.

Initially, I found myself ready to agree with Russell, as I thought he’d make the perfectly valid point that a belief system isn’t true simply because it gets people to behave. Instead, he said this:

One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.

That is the idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked.

While I’d quickly agree with anyone who claimed that religious people are not nearly so good as we know we should be, studies on the effects of religion have not turned up anything like what Russell and others claim. Quite the contrary, it has more often been a positive influence on believers and communities.

This is especially problematic for the New Atheists, who tend to put such stress on trusting and respecting science. The fact that the findings of the relevant sciences run counter to their arguments here does not seem to have phased them. In fact, many of them seem to have developed a selective deafness on this point.

But, of course, none of this addresses the question of whether God exists.

Saying that we should reject God’s existence on the grounds that Russell (or anyone else) can make the unsupported claim that religion makes people bad should not make anyone question religious belief. In my view, there is only one interesting thing about this idea: that it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone that it is a worthless argument.

Random Moral Pronouncements

judgenot-thumbIn his speech, “Why I’m not a Christian” Bertrand Russell rejects the idea that Christ was the greatest of moral teachers:

I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.

The most obvious question one can raise here is to request a standard by which Russell presumes to judge the great moral teachers of history. Of course, he does not say that he is doing this, but is simply stating his opinion. But if he expects anyone to accept his claim as more than an irrational quirk of his own personality, a standard would be required.

I mention this because it is so similar to the New Atheists’ modus operandi. This particular group is quick to make sweeping (and caustic) moral pronouncements while consistently refusing to give any defense of such statements. This is, of course, doubly problematic in that they so often criticize others for failing to give reasons for what they believe.

But, as for Russell, it is clear from his speech that he judges Christ to be inferior because of Christ’s commitment to justice, rather than simply gentleness and compassion.

It seems odd, then, that appreciation for gentleness and compassion is probably the largest change in moral thinking that Christ’s teaching made to the ancient world. This also reminds me of the New Atheists, who’s references to the “historical atrocities of religion” very often reveal a deep ignorance of actual history.

All this may be beside the point, however. None of this counters the argument that Christ, if he were a lunatic or a charlatan, wouldn’t have been both a great moral teacher and willing to die for that teaching.

This means that Russell’s personal ranking of moral teachers can be set aside. The classic “lord, liar, lunatic” apologetic doesn’t actually require that we begin by agreeing that Christ is undisputedly “better” a moral teacher than Buddha or Socrates (though he was). It merely requires one to accept that he was a great moral teacher (in order to scratch of the “liar” and “lunatic” options). And Russell himself affirms the greatness of Christ’s moral teaching.

So, though I thought it worth questioning Russell’s conclusion, there was no valid point being made against the truth of Christianity by comparing Christ to Socrates in the first place.

Russell XXI: Mercy Without Justice?

33-justice-for-allThere is quite a bit of talk of Hell in Russell’s speech. By my estimation, he includes nearly as much as is in the entirety of the Bible. It is a bit odd, then, that he criticizes the Bible for going on too much about Hell.

Then [Jesus Christ] says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty.

I’ve already discussed the idea that Hell is a natural consequence of abandoning the source of all goodness. Still, I think something should be said for punishment.

As much as I commend Russell’s commitment to compassion, the scorn he casts on the idea of Hell seems to cross the line into a disrespect for justice. The New Atheist writers tend to do the same (with far more ease). And it strikes me that most people in history have had a very high view of justice. Though we from the modern west have lived more comfortable lives than the overwhelming majority of people in history, I think we can empathize with the idea that the unfairness of this world should be set right.

That is why I find it more than a little distasteful that a privileged white male from a rich nation would scorn the idea that oppressive people should be punished.

Those people groups who are complicit in oppression are always less likely to value justice than those who live under the boot of it. And, much to my dismay, I’ve run across many that confidently declare that it is simply a lack of education that keeps the poor from embracing moral relativism–apparently oblivious to their own cultural lenses.

To the end that one hears cries for justice with sympathy, I think, one begins to see the genius of the Bible. It acknowledges the world’s desperate need for justice, while simultaneously pointing out the need for mercy–that none of us could endure true judgement. If God doesn’t care about justice, what hope is there for correcting the oppression in the world? But, if God does seek justice, what hope is there for us?

A philosophy that can endure across time and cultures must, of necessity, be one that can offer powerful resources to cope with suffering, unfairness, and loss as well as success, power, and comfort. This is one of the great strengths of Christianity and, I think, one of the great weaknesses of the worldview put forward by the New Atheist writers.

Where the Christian Gospel builds up the weak with the idea that one is a forgiven child of God, New Atheism tends to embitter the strong with the idea that one is an innocent victim of fools in an unjust world.

Russell XX: “I Don’t Think I Like Your Tone”

keep-calm-and-be-politeIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, Russell makes a point of his distaste for the tone of certain passages:

It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

While one couldn’t accuse this speech of hypocrisy in criticizing harsh tones, the New Atheists have made harshness their calling-card. It is odd, then, that arguments about the “horrors” of guilt-inducing passages are still popular.

But, if it really is the New Atheists’ intent to convince religious people that our source of hope in life should be scornfully dismissed as an unparalleled evil, then it is their intent to invoke horrible feelings of guilt and shame in countless individuals.

Such people could, I suppose, make the case that guilt over what one has done is sometimes appropriate, but this would serve at least as much to defend the offending passages of the Bible as anything they have written.

Of course, I’m not convinced that these passages are so offending. Russell has given us no good reason to think that “an unspeakable amount of misery” has been caused by this teaching. Religious young people consistently show higher self-esteem than their secular counterparts. I’d wager that, among more significant reasons, this is because it is impossible to be disturbed by a correct understanding of the quoted passage.

It seems to be a pattern that any passage in the Bible which can be reinterpreted to sound evil will be used as “proof” that religion of any kind is evil. A real desire to understand is, of course, conspicuously absent from such tactics.

As for Russell, I’d merely suggest that what counts as the proper tone in twentieth century British academia may not be the same as what was proper in first century rural Palestine. It seems deeply culturally narrow, almost to the point of imperialism, to dismiss a moral teacher from another continent, and another millenium, based on a personal reaction to tone.