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Below is an excerpt from a debate between Bertrad Russell and Father F.C. Copleston in which they discussion the contingency version of the cosmological argument. (The whole thing can be found here along with audio.) The central question they are debating here is whether it is meaningful to ask about the cause of a series of contingent objects. Copleston argues that a series of contingent objects cannot cause itself anymore than one contingent object. Copleston thinks existence of the world requires an explanation beyond the world or outside of the world, but Russell doesn’t see the need for any such explanation, for him the world is “just there.”

Copleston: Well, my point is that what we call the world is intrinsically unintelligible, apart from the existence of God. You see, I don’t believe that the infinity of the series of events — I mean a horizontal series, so to speak — if such an infinity could be proved, would be in the slightest degree relevant to the situation. If you add up chocolates you get chocolates after all and not a sheep. If you add up chocolates to infinity, you presumably get an infinite number of chocolates. So if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get contingent beings, not a necessary being. An infinite series of contingent beings will be, to my way of thinking, as unable to cause itself as one contingent being. However, you say, I think, that it is illegitimate to raise the question of what will explain the existence of any particular object?

Russell: It’s quite all right if you mean by explaining it, simply finding a cause for it.

Copleston: Well, why stop at one particular object? Why shouldn’t one raise the question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?

Russell: Because I see no reason to think there is any. The whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things; I see no reason whatsoever to suppose that the total has any cause whatsoever.

Copleston: Well, to say that there isn’t any cause is not the same thing as saying that we shouldn’t look for a cause. The statement that there isn’t any cause should come, if it comes at all, at the end of the inquiry, not the beginning. In any case, if the total has no cause, then to my way of thinking it must be its own cause, which seems to me impossible. Moreover, the statement that the world is simply there if in answer to a question, presupposes that the question has meaning.

Russell: No, it doesn’t need to be its own cause, what I’m saying is that the concept of cause is not applicable to the total.

Copleston: Then you would agree with Sartre that the universe is what he calls “gratuitous”?

Russell: Well, the word “gratuitous” suggests that it might be something else; I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.

Copleston: Well, I can’t see how you can rule out the legitimacy of asking the question how the total, or anything at all comes to be there. Why something rather than nothing, that is the question? The fact that we gain our knowledge of causality empirically, from particular causes, does not rule out the possibility of asking what the cause of the series is. If the word “cause” were meaningless or if it could be shown that Kant’s view of the matter were correct, the question would be illegitimate I agree; but you don’t seem to hold that the word “cause” is meaningless, and I do not suppose you are a Kantian.

Russell: I can illustrate what seems to me your fallacy. Every man who exists has a mother, and it seems to me your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn’t a mother — that’s a different logical sphere.

Copleston: Well, I can’t really see any parity. If I were saying “every object has a phenomenal cause, therefore, the whole series has a phenomenal cause,” there would be a parity; but I’m not saying that; I’m saying, every object has a phenomenal cause if you insist on the infinity of the series — but the series of phenomenal causes is an insufficient explanation of the series. Therefore, the series has not a phenomenal cause but a transcendent cause.

Russell: That’s always assuming that not only every particular thing in the world, but the world as a whole must have a cause. For that assumption I see no ground whatever. If you’ll give me a ground I’ll listen to it.

Copleston: Well, the series of events is either caused or it’s not caused. If it is caused, there must obviously be a cause outside the series. If it’s not caused then it’s sufficient to itself, and if it’s sufficient to itself it is what I call necessary. But it can’t be necessary since each member is contingent, and we’ve agreed that the total has no reality apart from its members, therefore, it can’t be necessary. Therefore, it can’t be (caused) — uncaused — therefore it must have a cause. And I should like to observe in passing that the statement “the world is simply there and is inexplicable” can’t be got out of logical analysis.

Russell: I don’t want to seem arrogant, but it does seem to me that I can conceive things that you say the human mind can’t conceive. As for things not having a cause, the physicists assure us that individual quantum transitions in atoms have no cause.

Copleston: Well, I wonder now whether that isn’t simply a temporary inference.

Russell: It may be, but it does show that physicists’ minds can conceive it.

Copleston: Yes, I agree, some scientists — physicists — are willing to allow for indetermination within a restricted field. But very many scientists are not so willing. I think that Professor Dingle, of London University, maintains that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle tells us something about the success (or the lack of it) of the present atomic theory in correlating observations, but not about nature in itself, and many physicists would accept this view. In any case, I don’t see how physicists can fail to accept the theory in practice, even if they don’t do so in theory. I cannot see how science could be conducted on any other assumption than that of order and intelligibility in nature. The physicist presupposes, at least tacitly, that there is some sense in investigating nature and looking for the causes of events, just as the detective presupposes that there is some sense in looking for the cause of a murder. The metaphysician assumes that there is sense in looking for the reason or cause of phenomena, and, not being a Kantian, I consider that the metaphysician is as justified in his assumption as the physicist. When Sartre, for example, says that the world is gratuitous, I think that he has not sufficiently considered what is implied by “gratuitous.”

Russell: I think — there seems to me a certain unwarrantable extension here; a physicist looks for causes; that does not necessarily imply that there are causes everywhere. A man may look for gold without assuming that there is gold everywhere; if he finds gold, well and good, if he doesn’t he’s had bad luck. The same is true when the physicists look for causes. As for Sartre, I don’t profess to know what he means, and I shouldn’t like to be thought to interpret him, but for my part, I do think the notion of the warld having an explanation is a mistake. I don’t see why one should expect it to have, and I think you say about what the scientist assumes is an over-statement.

Copleston: Well, it seems to me that the scientist does make some such assumption. When he experiments to find out some particular truth, behind that experiment lies the assumption that the universe is not simply discontinuous. There is the possibility of finding out a truth by experiment. The experiment may be a bad one, it may lead to no result, or not to the result that he wants, but that at any rate there is the possibility, through experiment, of finding out the truth that he assumes. And that seems to me to assume an ordered and intelligible universe.

Russell: I think you’re generalizing more than is necessary. Undoubtedly the scientist assumes that this sort of thing is likely to be found and will often be found. He does not assume that it will be found, and that’s a very important matter in modem physics.

Copleston: Well, I think he does assume or is bound to assume it tacitly in practice. It may be that, to quote Professor Haldane, “when I Iight the gas under the kettle, some of the water molecules will fly off as vapor, and there is no way of finding out which wiII do so, ” but it doesn’t follow necessarily that the idea of chance must be introduced except in relation to our knowledge.

Russell: No it doesn’t — at least if I may believe what he says. He’s finding out quite a lot of things — the scientist is finding out quite a lot of things that are happening in the world, which are, at first, beginnings of causal chains — first causes which haven’t in themselves got causes. He does not assume that everything has a cause.

Copleston: Surely that’s a first cause within a certain selected field. It’s a relatively first cause.

Russell: I don’t think he’d say so. If there’s a world in which most events, but not all, have causes, he will then be able to depict the probabilities and uncertainties by assuming that this particular event you’re interested in probably has a cause. And since in any case you won’t get more than probability that’s good enough.

Copleston: It may be that the scientist doesn’t hope to obtain more than probability, but in raising the question he assumes that the question of explanation has a meaning. But your general point then, Lord RusseII, is that it’s illegitimate even to ask the question of the cause of the world?

Russell: Yes, that’s my position.

Copleston: If it’s a question that for you has no meaning, it’s of course very difficult to discuss it, isn’t it?

Russell: Yes, it is very difficult. What do you say — shall we pass on to some other issue?

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