Bertrand Russell in his 1952 essay, Is there a God? demonstrated that there is clear evidence that the omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, god of traditional western philosophy doesn’t exist.
The argument he made wasn’t new. It can be found in the, allegedly ancient Greek, Epicurean paradox.
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
If evil exists, and there is evidence that it does, any God that exists must be, less than omnipotent, and/or less than omnibenevolent.
The god of traditional western philosophy therefore does not exist.
From this perspective, it is difficult to understand why Russell chose to conclude his argument with this rather weak conclusion.
My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true.
Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952
Why go for the, ‘no reason to believe,‘ option, when he could have gone for the option, not only is there no reason to believe, but there is good reason not to believe?
Perhaps it is because he understood, that his argument, like the Epicurean paradox isn’t an argument against the existence of God, merely a claim that he has been mislabelled. Any God that might really exist doesn’t meet the standards set by the philosopher’s definition, of maximal greatness. And is therefore not the god of traditional Western Theology.
There are ways of understanding the concepts of omnipotence, and/or evil that appear to falsify the Epicurean Paradox, but all of these arguments are like the paradox itself, arguments about definition, rather than fact. Why bother?
While it is peculiar that Russell claimed merely that there was no reason to believe that, for which there was very good reason not to believe; it is not at all strange that he should say that there is no reason to wish that such a monster as he describes , should exist.
This is not the God of the human heart, the God that is loved. That God, like Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord, in the BBC series Dr Who, is the God that, no matter what the appearances may be, cares about us, has our back.
Within Christianity, where you find the notion of God’s Omnipotence being pushed as a sign of orthodoxy, there you will also find that while the lip service is being offered to power, the adoration isn’t going there. It is bestowed on Christ, or on the Lady Mary.
Beings that the Bible tells us had the characteristics of that which, in the very last sentence of his famous essay, Bertrand Russell recognised as ultimate greatness; i.e. there were occasions when they were not subject to natural forces.
Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.
Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952
This abstraction of Russell’s, this Who’s the Daddy of Man, is every bit as much a supernatural being as the one he has spent the rest of the essay demolishing.
If you can find any part of humankind that is not subject to natural forces, then naturalism is falsified.
One of the things that I find interesting about Bertrand Russell’s, ” Is there a God,” and Richard Dawkins , “The God Delusion,” is that they both concentrate on disproving the existence of a god, that logically can’t exist. In Dawkin’s case he ends up arguing not that the impossible god doesn’t exist, but that his existence is just very improbable. From the point of view of a theist this argument is just funny. This is just a version of the ontological argument. If that which exists beyond the universe is infinite, and if there is any probability of this god existing at all, then Richard Dawkin’s has proved that the existence of the Impossible is certain.
Many of us experience life as though we are, at least on occasion, interacting directly with a consciousness not our own. I am not necessarily adverse to Richard Dawkin’s hypothesis, that this is just the imaginary friend experience carried on beyond childhood.
This certainly seems the most probable explanation. but then as discussed earlier, probability arguments don’t really work, when you are dealing with a possible infinity.
Consciousness, and by that I don’t mean information processing, but the ability to feel: pleasure, pain, emotion, is peculiar. I know that it is something that can be achieved in a machine, because I am a biological machine, and yet I don’t understand how it is done. I am amazed to be living on a planet, where the dust has given rise to this mystery.
Consciousness is so amazing that it doesn’t strike me as necessarily ridiculous to believe that the universe, or even the multiverse is part of a process aimed at its reproduction. Nor does it strike me as necessarily impossible that this feeling of other consciousness, that some of us experience, has a reality that extends beyond the human.
However I do think it is reasonable to look for evidence, before jumping to the conclusion that this is either true or untrue. The rational position is strict agnosticism, because while we have reason not to believe in celestial teapots – we know what china teapots are, and how unlikely it is that one, could not only get into orbit, but also survive in the extremes of outer space ; we don’t even understand how consciousness is created in ourselves.
It has occurred to me that the position of any God who wanted to prove that he wasn’t a figment of our imagination or part of a con , might be similar to that of a time travelling alien out to save the world.
In the Alternative Universe of, “Is There a Teapot?” the holy scripture is the, “Book of River Song.” And the contents of “River Song,” prove the falsity of the alternate Bertrand Russell’s claim the one that is equivalent to our Bertrand Russell’s, “there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology.”
In ironical voice, where he mocks the over certainty of the adoctorists, Russell says that there is no reason to believe any of the teachings of River Song.
This is of course not true. For instance the book states that the earth had a beginning (Beginnings Chapter 1 verse 1) and that there is more than one universe, i.e. the host of the heavens. (Beginnings Chapter 2 Verse 1) It would be very strange if a book containing as much information as River Song was not in agreement with modern knowledge in some places, even if entirely by accident.
Linda Bailey Is there a Teapot? June 2013
In this universe the same holds true, there is good scientific reason to believe that the earth had a beginning, and this was true even in 1952, when “Is there a God,” was written, and there is reason to believe that there is a multiverse i.e.more than one universe. And in our universe Genesis 1:1 tells us that the earth had a beginning and Genesis 2:1 talks about a plurality of heavens. (N.B. The word that is translated as heaven in Genesis 1:1 in the King James Bible, is identical to the word that is translated as heavens in Genesis 2:1. The Hebrew word is in the plural.)
Of course as in the alternative universe, these two correlations are compatible with coincidence. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
It would take a lot more co-incidences between ancient scripture and modern science, to leave coincidence an improbability.
In the alternate universe of “Is there a Teapot?” The first chapter of their holy book, Beginnings Chapter 1, a fusion of Genesis 1, and our scientific story of the earth’s history, provides these co-incidences by matching exactly the scientific discoveries of their scientists with the ancient scriptures.
There are reasons, apart from the fact that I have a clear recollection of having made it up, for believing that this alternate universe does not exist.
Firstly, if scripture is to be passed through time, it requires its first hearers, and at least some of every succeeding generation, to hold it in enough reverence to ensure that it is copied and passed on. This is extremely unlikely to happen if it portrays a world that is vastly at odds with that which the first generation, and to a lesser extent subsequent generations believe to actually exist.
Secondly it is likely that a science, that served only to confirm scripture would be regarded as a minor branch of teapotology, their equivalent of theology, and held in no great esteem. It would be unfit to independently verify anything.
This is not true in our universe, where some religious fundamentalists attempt to gain respectability for their interpretation of scripture, covering it with a great big fig leaf labelled Scientific Creationism.
It isn’t just fundamentalists who have attempted to force a correlation between scripture and science, a point made by Stephen Gould in “Bully for Brontosaurus,” in a chapter entitled Genesis and Geology.
Gladstone, based on his reading of Genesis made a probability argument for the existence of God. He argued that the appearance of animals in Genesis: first the water population, then the air population, followed, by the terrestrial population, and lastly man – is what the fossil record shows. He argued that this was such a great coincidence that it could only be achieved by the writer of Genesis being gifted beyond belief, or divine intervention.
This argument doesn’t say a lot for Gladstone’s maths. When ordering 4 different objects or pieces of information, there are only 24 different permutations. If in an exam you were asked to place 4 events in temporal order, you would have a 1 in 24 chance using straight forward guesswork of getting the answer correct. This is more probable than throwing a double 6 in a dice game, not something that is generally thought of as proof of divine intervention.
Of course there is a 23 in 24 chance of getting the order wrong, and Huxley didn’t waste too much time in proving that the order that Gladstone was suggesting was incompatible with the findings of what was then modern science.
Huxley pointed out that there is clear evidence from the fossil record and from the morphology of birds and bats that terrestrial animals existed before the animals of the air.
He also argued that Gladstone should have included the plants in his argument. (When you are ordering 5 pieces of information, there are 120 different permutations. There is only a 1 in 120 chance of getting the temporal order correct by chance.)
Huxley wanted the plants included in the argument because he had noted that the description of the plants given in Genesis 1:11-12, the fruit trees, and other plants with enclosed seeds, identified them as angiosperms, the flowering plants. These appear late in the fossil record, but are the first living organisms to be listed in Genesis.
Modern Scientific evidence shows that flowering plants diversified during the Cretaceous period, the last portion of the age of dinosaurs. And that there is some evidence that they may have been in existence throughout the age of dinosaurs.
In fact had Gladstone had access to modern scientific knowledge, been a bit better at statistics, and had gone for Genesis ordering correctly the times for the diversification of modern type lifeforms rather than first appearance of water, air and land animals, he could have argued that there was only a 1 in 120 chance of the following correlation happening by chance.
The flowering plants, which Genesis records as sprouting forth in the latter half of Day 3, scientific evidence shows as diversifying in the latter part of the age of dinosaurs, the Cretaceous.
The age of dinosaurs ended with a mass extinction, which modern science links to an asteroid collision with the earth around 65 million years ago.
The next readily identifiable creature mentioned in Genesis is the whale. The word which is translated as whale in the King James Bible, is more literally translated as great sea monster. These appear in Day 5 in Genesis. The first whales appear in the fossil record around 55 million years ago. This coincides with the diversification of modern bird groups. Winged fowls are mentioned as multiplying in day 5 of the Genesis account.
The rise of widespread grassland about 15 million years ago, resulted in a burst of animal diversification, a proliferation of grazing animals, predators and the bi-pedal apes – our ancestors and related species. This happened after the origin of whales, in the same temporal position as Genesis describes the earth bringing forth, the living creature, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth. Another co-incidence.
Modern man, the not very modestly self-identified Homo sapiens, is a late appearance on the scene of life, according to both palaeontologists and Genesis.
And if you take into account the non-biological events mentioned there are still more co-incidences.
The flowering plants arose during the age of dinosaurs, the Mesozoic Era. The period prior to the start of the age of dinosaurs, the Permian, had seen the formation of the supercontinent Pangaea. When tectonic plate activity had resulted in smaller continents coalescing into one large continent, with one would suspect the mother of all continental weather systems – a dry land. This was surrounded by one ocean Panthalassa. Or as Genesis 1:9 has it all the waters of the earth gathered into one place and the dry land appeared.
It is surprisingly easy to correlate the events of Genesis 1, with the findings of modern science. Something I had fun with when I wrote, Beginnings Chapter 1.
It answers a question, that I asked of God, when I was teenager. If you wanted us to believe that you created the world that really exists, why didn’t the Bible get it right. I hadn’t at the time figured out that he hadn’t written the book himself.
The Genesis account was capable of telling the people for whom it was originally written that God had created the real world. It is still capable of telling us that God made the world that really is. That makes it a fairly amazing piece of writing.
What it cannot do is prove the existence of God. There is no matter of fact that could make this a necessary conclusion. Even an inability to think of another explanation, would not prove that such an explanation did not exist.
To go from believing to not believing in God, or vice-versa is a paradigm shift. Not a matter of merely thinking one less or one more thing about reality, but a total change in the way you view reality. A paradigm shift is, and I sympathise with those atheists who object to the phrase, always “a leap of faith.”
Douglas Adam’s provided a much better metaphor in his Dirk Gently novel, “The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.” It’s like, ‘a turn through half a molecule,’ everything is the same, and yet everything is different. A metaphor that works both ways.