Can you please explain Copleston's contingency argument and moral argument for the existence of
God. I also need to know Russell's views on the subject.
and Danny asked:
I was just wondering, who won the Russell—Copleston debate?
Copleston describes a 'contingent' being as, "a being which has not in itself the complete reason for
its existence." e.g. The existence of any human being cannot be explained without reference to their
parents, and, of course, food and air. A 'necessary being,' on the other hand, means "a being that
must and cannot not — exist." The validity of his argument rests on the truth or falsity of these two
We know then that there are at least some beings in the world which do not contain in themselves the
reason for their existence. Copleston goes on to describe the world as "simply the real or imagined
totality or aggregate of individual objects, none of which contain in themselves alone the reason for
their existence." He claims that this collection of objects constitutes the world and that it is a fallacy to
think of the collection of objects and ' the world' as two separate entities, just as the human race is not
something separate from its members. He concludes that as no known object contains within itself
the reason for its own existence, the totality of objects must have a reason external to itself. That
reason must be an existent being. This being is either itself the reason for its own existence or it is
not. If it is not then we go into an infinite regress, i.e. a series of beings each dependent for its
existence on a previous being — a series that goes on for ever. In order to avoid this, Copleston
claims, we must conceive of a being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that
is to say, "which cannot not — exist."
Copleston made use of Leibnitz's argument from contingent to necessary being, based on the
argument for sufficient reason, simply because it seemed to him a brief and clear formulation of what
is the fundamental metaphysical argument for God's existence. Take the proposition, "If there is a
contingent being then there is a necessary being." He considered that the proposition hypothetically
expressed is a necessary proposition. But claimed that the proposition is a necessary proposition only
on the supposition that there is a contingent being. If there is a contingent being it follows of necessity
that there is a necessary being. The necessary being is God.
Copleston goes on to claim that cause is a kind of sufficient reason: only contingent beings can have
cause, God is his own sufficient reason; and he is not cause of himself. By sufficient reason in the full
sense, Copleston proposes an explanation adequate for the existence of some particular being. He
concludes that an adequate explanation is a total explanation to which nothing further can be added.
He goes on to say, "what we call the world is intrinsically unintelligible, apart from the existence of
God." "Why shouldn't one raise the question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?"
"Why is there something rather than nothing?" Seeking the support of scientific investigation,
Copleston asserts that experiments are conducted on the assumption of intelligibility and order in
nature. The physicist presupposes that there is some sense in investigating nature and looking for the
causesof events. The metaphysician is as justified as the physicist when he seeks reasons and
causes of phenomena. It all seems to assume an ordered and intelligible universe.
In the 'moral argument,' Copleston expresses the belief that all goodness reflects God in some way
and proceeds from Him, so that, in a sense, the man who loves what is truly good, loves God, even if
he does not refer to God. He understands that the question of God's existence could be approached
by way of consideration of moral obligation. He makes the assertion that, " The vast majority of the
human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong." The vast
majority seems to have some concept, some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere.
Copleston held the opinion that "the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and
obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground of value and of an
author of the moral law." He understands that if there is a moral order bearing upon the human
conscience, it would be unintelligible apart from the existence of God.
The possibility of criticising accepted moral codes in society presupposes that there is an objective
standard, "that there is an ideal moral order, which imposes itself." Copleston believes that the
recognition of this ideal moral order is part of the recognition of contingency. "It implies the existence
of a real foundation of God."
He presses the point that moral values are intrinsic, he thought it impossible to pass on true morality
from one person to another, e,g. parents to children, as there are no words to convey intrinsic moral
feelings. He states that a person has a consciousness of obligation and of moral values. He
concludes that "it is only the existence of God that will make sense of man's moral experience and of
Russell's views are in direct opposition to Copleston's. He does not accept the connotations
associated with the word 'contingent.' He also does not accept the notion of a 'necessary being.' He
claims that the word 'necessary' is a useless word, except as applied to analytical propositions. He
questions the meaning of 'existence,' He claims that a subject named can never be significantly said
to exist, but only a subject described. He considers the word 'universe' is a handy word in some
connections, but does not think it stands for anything that has a meaning.
Russell also considers that there is no reason to claim that there is an overall cause for all things.
"The whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things." He considers
that the universe, whatever it is, is just there and that's all; according to him there are no grounds
whatsoever for believing the world has a cause.
His consideration of morals is also out of line with that of Copleston. He believes that account must
be taken of the probable effects of any actions in considering what is right. There is no way in which
he could attribute Divine origin to the matter of moral obligation, in view of the extensive variation of
moral understanding throughout the world. Some moral acceptance he deemed as abominable, e.g.
the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people, which they believed to be morally sustainable.