Russell and Copleston

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Précis of radio debate on the Cosmological Argument between Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell (1947).

In 1947, two great philosophers took to the airwaves to debate the existence of God. The debate that took place has become one of the most famous moments in radio history. The two philosophers were Fr. Frederick Copleston S.J., a Jesuit priest and later principal of Heythrop College and Bertrand Russell, veteran CND campaigner and one of the most important philosophers of all time.

The specification expects you to show knowledge of how Copleston and Russell debated the value of the Cosmological argument for the existence of God. Copleston was trying to defend the argument, Russell was trying to criticise it. This handout explores how each philosopher builds their argument.

Frederick Copleston’s argument.

Before Copleston gets going with the Cosmological Argument, he uses two other arguments to suggest the existence of God in his introduction. These are: • God provides the universe with a purpose to work towards (the Teleological Argument). • God provides absolute moral values. Without God, we would only have moral relativism.

Copleston then gets going with the Cosmological Argument. He uses the first three of Aquinas’ Five Ways, but changes them slightly to make the argument better:

1. There are contingent beings in the universe (things that need to look outside themselves to explain why they exist). 2. The world is the totality (all) of these contingent beings. 3. There is no world apart from the contingent beings and things that make it up. (e.g. there is no human race separate from the human beings that make it up. 4. The totality of objects (the world) must look outside itself for an explanation of why it exists, because nothing in the world can explain its own existence (is uncaused). 5. There must be a being that contains within itself the reason for its own existence. This being cannot not exist. 6. There...
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