Bad Philosophers

I recently read up on Russell’s Teapot. A super short version Russel gave was:

Nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice.

Upon further reading about it, I discovered that Russell was the first to formulate what might be called the Insufficient Evidence Argument against God’s existence. There are various wordy versions of it, but they can be sufficiently summarized as:

There isn’t enough evidence to prove God exists.

The clever thing about this argument, from the perspective of rhetoric, is that the only practical answer is “yes there is,” which is weak because it’s mere contradiction. A simple contradiction will end the conversation, and so it is generally bad form.

There is a more complex answer possible, but the problem is that it’s very complex. Specifically, it is possible to debate the standard of evidence. That is, to debate what is and what is not sufficient evidence to establish the truth of a proposition, such as, “God exists.” But while this is a viable line of argument, most people are simply not up to it. Whether it is too difficult for them, or they are simply not fitted to it by personality, this is solidly within the realm of epistemology, the branch of philosophy which studies knowledge. Now, as has been observed, if a man won’t do philosophy for himself, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a philosophy, it only means that he has a philosophy he hasn’t thought out for himself. The big question is, therefore, who has thought it out.

This brings me back to Bertrand Russell. Russell’s Teapot is a cleverly dressed up form of question begging. (I’m not sure what the name is for the practice of creating a clever metaphor in order to distract from the fact that you are begging the question; it’s basically asking somewhat to watch the straw man waving his hands while one begs the question.) The example discusses a proposition which no one ever had a reason to believe. This is a fair way of dismissing the Invisible Pink Unicorn, but has no relationship to historical religions. He’s using a fancy metaphor to distract from the fact that he’s refusing to consider the evidence for historical religions.

And the real problem I have is that Russell was certainly too well educated to have honestly claimed that there is no evidence for historical religions. Now, I do not know what the state of Bertrand Russell’s soul is; that gets to culpability for what he did, for which no one but God has sufficient knowledge. Certainly, I hope for Russell’s salvation as I hope for the salvation of all human beings. But it is possible to evaluate Russell’s actions, and I do not see any plausible case for him having been an honest man. This made me very suspicious of how he lived the rest of his life, in particular, I had the strong suspicion that he probably lived in conveniently immoral ways. So I looked up his biography on Wikipedia. (Not the most reliable source, to be sure, but it’s a start.)

So, after a little reading, it turned out that the man was an adulterer; he fathered children outside of both of his first two marriages. (I don’t know about his third marriage; I stopped reading at that point.) It would be silly to say that I was not shocked since I went into the article expecting to find something like that, but alas I did find something like that. Which got me to thinking about the relationship between atheism and immorality.

I am not, in general, sympathetic to the idea that atheists become atheists because they want to be immoral. First, it is not very true to my experience of atheists, some of whom are indeed as moral in their behavior as most religious people. Second, this is not very true to psychology. When someone wants to do something immoral, he will generally come up with some reasoning why this case is an exception to the general rule, he will not attempt to redefine morality. Bank robbers do not approve of stealing in general; at the very least they don’t approve of stealing from them or (typically) their families.

But Bertrand Russel was not an ordinary atheist; he was a very intelligent one. There are two main implications of that that are relevant to the present discussion, one contingent on the historical context of him being an university-educated Englishman born in 1872 and one contingent only on him being a fallen human being. In the first case, he lived at a time when there was still among the educated English some idea that they were at the dawning of the age of reason and that once God had been thrown off philosophy would be free to construct new and wonderful things that the age of superstition only hinted at. The second case concerns an odd mistake many people make with regard to the results of intelligence. It is often supposed that intelligent people are more likely to be correct than unintelligent people. It is true that they are more likely to understand things, certainly, but intelligence is not the same as wisdom, and intelligence does not guarantee a correct answer, only a complex answer. Intelligent people are quite likely to make mistakes. Indeed, their intelligence makes it more likely that they will be able to come up with convincing arguments for their mistakes. If you want a truly huge error, it actually requires an intelligent person to make it.

I will need to do more reading before I think it safe to conclude that Bertrand Russel was the father of the modern know-nothing atheism that talks about God as a sky-fairie. According to wikipedia he was influenced by David Hume, who didn’t really believe in knowledge (he said that all we thought of as knowledge was merely anticipated sense experience), so perhaps Hume was originated this line of thinking. I’ll need to do more investigation into Hume (I’ve only read about 30 pages or so of Hume’s work). But if Russell did inherit his know-nothing atheism, it is at least clear that he gave it a polished, modern expression it didn’t have before, and this brings me back to the question of morality and atheism.

For most atheists, I think that immorality is a side effect. Most will notice at some point that if God is dead, all things are permitted, and after all human nature isn’t good so there’s no real foundation for any sort of morality. Most atheists in my experience will wail about how morality doesn’t depend on God, and that they don’t need God to be good, but they then proceed to do approximately no moral philosophy of any kind except occasionally noting that some depravity which doesn’t cause bodily injury to anyone doesn’t cause bodily injury to anyone. In general if they don’t face temptation, they won’t give into it, and I suspect often enough how they were raised will even carry them through temptation. But their children tend to be in a bad place because they don’t raise their children the way that they were raised. (Why do so few people notice that degeneration tends to happen by generations? It’s right there in the word!)

I have a sneaking suspicion that this was not the case for Bertrand Russell, though. He was in the right time and place for God to have been in his way academically. God’s rules were in the way of where he wanted to put his genitals. And he was clever enough to come up with a convincing way to help him forget about God. This has the effect of simultaneously making that forgetfulness attractive because it proves his intelligence, but also significantly reduces the time and effort it takes to forget God. It is more tempting to do easy things than it is to do hard things. And once he came up with the clever arguments, people who were far less clever than he could use them. People often understand far more complicated things (especially when explained to them) which they couldn’t come up with on their own.

Worse for those repeating Russell’s arguments, the objections to an argument you understand but can’t make yourself are often unpersuasive because you (naturally enough) assume that the guy who came up with the argument could come up with a response, if he were around to do it. A person’s ability to see the brilliance of the one who made the argument he couldn’t have come up with himself supports regarding the creator of that argument as an authority. The less intelligent followers of someone like Russell have, in essence, little defense against him. This is (part of) why intelligent people have so much responsibility to use their intelligence well.

One thought on “Bad Philosophers

  1. Pingback: Missed One – Chris Lansdown

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