Bertrand Russell and "Ultimate Reality"

“Most philosophers, rightly or wrongly, believe that philosophy . . . can give us knowledge, not otherwise attainable, concerning the universe as a whole and concerning the nature of ultimate reality.”1


Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

At the beginning of 2015, I spent six weeks traveling through India. The Catholics are a tiny minority in a sea of over one billion people, most of whom are Hindu. But they have a significant cultural asset. They have established a network of schools which are the best in India. Because of that fact, 80 percent of the students attending those schools are Hindus. I met one of those students at a Catholic school I visited in Delhi. After I gave a short talk to an English class of 16 year olds, a Hindu teenager by the name of Samil stood up and asked if I could come up with a scientific proof for the existence of God.

Bertrand Russell & Countess Dora Russell

Bertrand Russell & Countess Dora Russell

He asked this question because he lived in a culture which had lots of religion and lots of science, but no coherent explanation of how the one related to the other. I discovered this during a trip to Mumbai where my guide, Fr. Cyril Fernandes (who had founded four Catholic schools himself), took me to that city’s temple of Ganisha. Fr. Cyril assures me that it’s famous, and if the crowd is any indication, what he said must be true. To get in you have to take your shoes off and get in line with the worshippers. Before we got to the big attraction, we had to pass by two big silver mice. The Hindus approach them with garlands which they put around the mice's necks. One man placed what looked like a saddle blanket or doily over a mouse’s back, bent down and whispered his prayers, which is to say his requests, into the mouse’s ear. The mouse is then supposed to scamper off and tell God what he just heard. So, instead of, “From your mouth to God’s ear,” it’s “From your mouth to the mouse’s ear to God’s ear.” His wife and children then did the same. 

The main show was a bit disappointing after that. The idol of Ganisha, the chubby fellow with the elephant’s head, was gold with a silver background, but disappointingly small, especially after I saw the three-story tall monkey god Hanuman in Delhi. The Hindu priest was bare-chested but wearing a saffron skirt. After taking the pilgrims’ offerings, he gave half of them back as a sort of quid pro quo

After visiting Ganisha’s temple, we went directly to the Nehru Science Center, something like the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago or the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. As we stood in line to get in, I contemplated a mural just inside the front door entitled “Cosmic Evolution,” which attempted to portray the history of the cosmos from the Big Bang to the present. The passive voice abounded. At the beginning of absolutely everything, we were told, “Atoms formed.” The extensive use of the passive voice in the mural was a dead giveaway to the fact that “cosmic evolution” was another word for an attack on causality. To say that “Atoms formed” was the scientific equivalent to saying, “Shit happens.” The shit in question, according to the Nehru Science Center’s cosmology, had uncanny similarities to the traditional Hindu cosmology, symbolized by the image of the earth resting on the back of an elephant and an elephant standing on a turtle. From that point on, it’s turtles all the way down for both Nehru and Ganeesh. 

The juxtaposition of the Hindu Temple and the Nehru Science Center on the Mumbai bus tour was instructive. The fact that India has gone from worshipping elephants, monkeys, and cobras to worshipping science, with no metaphysical experience in between, reminded me that G. B. Shaw described America as “a country that went from barbarism to decadence without finding civilization along the way.” So, India seems destined to become a country of cobra worshipping computer programmers. The Catholics could make a significant contribution through their educational system, but they seem disinclined to push the issue at the moment, perhaps because of India’s penchant for syncretism, perhaps because of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the forced conversions they are orchestrating among India’s Christians, or perhaps out of fear of losing their schools. During the course of my trip, I had a long philosophical discussion with another Catholic priest about Hindu philosophy. He says the Hindu concept of Maya, the world as a veil of illusion, is similar to Plato’s idea of the world of becoming, which is incomprehensible, as opposed to the forms or the world of being which is transcendent. Similarly, the Hindu concept neti neti—not this, not that—is not unlike the via negativa of the mystics. 

I’m sure there are similarities, but in spite of them India is the land of 33 million gods where Logos died a long time ago. So, I was not surprised when Samil asked me to prove the existence of God, which I did in the following way: Nothing comes from nothing; there is something; therefore, there was never nothing. This something could not bring itself into existence, because to do that it would have to exist before it existed, which is impossible. Therefore, something else had to bring it into existence. That something is what Aristotle called the uncaused cause and the unmoved mover. Aquinas ends his proofs for the existence of God by saying that this being all men call God. There was a moment of stunned silence (or incomprehension), and then Samil asked me if time travel were possible and I said, “Of course, I’ve come from the future. The sexual revolution that America experienced in the ‘60s is happening in India now.” More stunned silence.

One of the best-known expositors of the dichotomy between religion and science in the English-speaking world was Bertrand Russell. Russell believed in an “ultimate reality” and he believed that he could know it and convey it to his readers because he was a philosopher, and “most philosophers, rightly or wrongly, believe that philosophy . . . can give us knowledge, not otherwise attainable, concerning the universe as a whole and concerning the nature of ultimate reality.”2 Russell’s publisher felt the same way. On the frontispiece to An Outline of Philosophy, we read:

Throughout the book Russell attempts to reveal the sort of world in which, according to modern science, we really live and just how it differs from the world in which we seem to live. He makes clear the effect of modern scientific advance which has transformed our concept of the world; in this book the new world is presented with great clarity.3 

As that passage makes clear, understanding science, not philosophy, is essential if we would hope to get access to any ultimate reality. Russell’s American publisher, again, makes this clearer than Russell himself when he writes that it was his “conviction that Mr. Russell is the one scholar today who should undertake a revision of philosophy in terms of modern science.”4 Russell had corresponded earlier with the American behaviorist John B. Watson, because he, like Watson, was hoping to analyze “mental phenomena using only physical events as data,” because it “fit nicely with the direction of Russell’s own thinking on the nature of mind,”5 which was materialist in the philosophical sense of the term. Russell tries to appear even-handed in his discussion of the history of philosophy, telling us that Berkeley felt that ultimate reality was “an idea in the mind of God,” but the musings of bishops in the 18th century have been superceded by “sober science,” which tells us that “ultimate reality” is “a vast collection of electric charges in violent motion.”6 

Russell called his philosophy “logical atomism,” an idea he got from Lucretius, who also gave him his understanding of religion as “a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the human race.”7 Lucretius, like Democritus, his Greek predecessor, believed that “ultimate reality” could be reduced to atoms and the void. Russell begins his discussion of philosophy by taking a page from Descartes. Things are not what they seem. Instead of talking about wax, Russell talks about a table:

Naïve common sense supposes that “things” are what they appear to be, but that is impossible since they do not appear exactly alike to any two simultaneous observers. If we are going to admit that the object is not what we see, we can no longer feel that same assurance that there is an object; this is the first intrusion of doubt. However, we shall speedily recover from this set-back, and say that of course the object is “really” what physics says it is. Now physics says that a table or a chair is “really” an incredibly vast system of electrons and protons in rapid motion with empty space in between.8

According to his understanding of “logical atomism,” Russell believed that physics held the key to understanding ultimate reality, but he did so at a time when belief in atomism was becoming increasingly illogical. Under the scrutiny of German physicists like Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schroedinger, “the last vestiges of the old solid atom have melted away, and matter has become as ghostly as anything in a spiritual séance.”9 Russell, as a result, finds himself in a bind. He is a logical atomist living in a time when the “old conception of matter as an indestructible substance,”10 has been replaced by:

emanations from a locality—the sort of influences that characterize haunted rooms in ghost stories. . . . All sorts of events happen in the physical world, but tables and chairs, the sun and moon, and even our daily bread, have become pale abstractions, mere laws exhibited in the succession of events which radiate from certain regions.11 

You would think that a logical atomist would find this sort of revelation devastating, but Russell seems remarkably unmoved by a scientific discovery which is tantamount to announcing that he is no longer in contact with ultimate reality because truth, if by that we mean the correspondence of mind and thing (or reality) was never Russell’s main concern. Since “philosophical knowledge. . . does not differ essentially from scientific knowledge,”12 Heisenberg has created “an open world of free possibilities.”13 Russell was always more interested in freedom, a state which he defined as the ability to act without regard for the moral law. When it comes to that ultimate reality, Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy is even more useful than LaPlace’s determinism. 

Given his materialism, it comes as no surprise that Russell finds ethics repugnant. Russell deals with ethics in his Outline of Philosophy only because it “is traditionally a department of philosophy.” Left to his own devices, he would have omitted it, “but to prove this would take as long as to discuss the subject itself, and would be less interesting.”14 

Without any indication that he is changing horses in midstream, Russell uses the terms ethics and morals interchangeably so that he can then shift the argument away from philosophy and talk about revelation. Russell was familiar with the categorical imperative, which was Kant’s attempt to formulate an ultimate ethical principle on the basis of reason alone, but he chose not to discuss it even though he mentions Kant often, even if only to dismiss him as overrated. By ignoring ethics, which is to say, an examination of practical reason on philosophical terms, Russell can then dismiss it as coming from revelation, which is to say religion, which means that he automatically wins the argument because, as all intelligent people know, religion is no longer in contact with “ultimate reality.” More importantly, “the philosopher cannot but observe that there have been many revelations, and that it is not clear why he should not adopt one rather than another.”15 At this point, Russell zeroes in on conscience, which he again describes in religious rather than philosophical terms as “a personal revelation to each individual,” which “invariably tells him what is right and what is wrong.” He then goes on to dismiss conscience as something that is unreliable because it “varies from age to age.” And then, as an example of that unreliability, he mentions the Inquisition (although not by name) as a time when people were burnt at the stake for making mistakes in metaphysics:

Most people nowadays consider it wrong to burn a man alive for disagreeing with them on metaphysics, but formerly this was held to be a highly meritorious act, provided it was done in the interest of the right metaphysics. No one who has studied the history of moral ideas can regard conscience as invariably right. Thus, we are driven to abandon the attempt to define virtue by means of a set rule of conduct.16

The Good, according to Russell, is an “act toward which I feel the emotion of approval.”17 Emotions, needless to say, do not partake in “ultimate reality.” They are personal, idiosyncratic, and ultimately based on irrational cultural circumstances that change over time and according to the vagaries of geography. We know that “the rules of morals differ according to the age, the race, and the creed of the community concerned”18 because science, in particular the science of anthropology, has told us so. 

This means, of course, that the rules of ethics need to be corrected periodically in light of the ultimate reality which science confers on everything. That means that:

the received moral code, in so far as it is taught in education and embodied in public opinion or the criminal law, should be carefully examined in each generation, to see whether it still serves to achieve desirable ends, and, if not, in what respects it needs to be amended. The moral code, in short, like the legal code, should adapt itself to changing circumstances, keeping the public good always as its motive.19 

Lord Russell never gets around to telling us who should determine where the moral code needs amending, but it is clear that he—as both a philosopher in tune with the ultimate reality, as well as a pampered member of the upper classes in England, as well a habitue of the Bohemian demi-monde known as Bloomsbury—was the man for the job, and for the course of most of the 20th century he did just that, even if philosophy had to take a back seat to science to accomplish this. Knowledge, as Bacon told us, is power. This meant that those who possessed “science” possessed power. Truth was, therefore, the opinion of the powerful. That meant concretely that “the question of the goodness or badness of the world is one for science rather than for philosophy.” That meant that “the world is good if it has certain characteristics that we desire,” Russell claimed, without specifying who constituted the “we” in question. It wasn’t philosophers because “philosophy professed to be able to prove that the world had such characteristics, but it is now fairly evident that the proofs were invalid.”20 It wasn’t scientists either. It was philosophers of science like, well, Bertrand Russell. 

Philosophy had fallen on hard times because Heisenberg and Schroedinger had undermined the materiality of matter, which Russell erroneously associates with substance:

But the notion of substance, in the sense of a permanent entity with changing states, is no longer applicable to the world. It may happen, as with the electron, that a string of events are so interconnected causally that it is practically convenient to regard them as forming one entity, but where this happens it is a scientific fact, not a metaphysical necessity. The whole question of personal immortality, therefore, lies outside philosophy, and it is to be decided, if at all, either by science or by revealed religion.21 

But once again, who gets to determine the difference between scientific fact and metaphysical necessity, if not Bertrand Russell?

[…]

This is just an excerpt from Culture Wars Magazine, not the full article. To continue reading, purchase the October, 2019 edition of Culture Wars Magazine.

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End Notes:

  1.  Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Henry Hold and Company, no date), p. 40. 

  2.  Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Henry Hold and Company, no date), p. 40. 

  3.  Bertrand Russell, An Outline of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1927), frontispiece.

  4.  Bertrand Russell, An Outline of Philosophy (London and New York: Routledge, 1927), p. x.

  5.  Russell, Outline, p. x.

  6.  Betrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Company, no date). p, 24.

  7.  Bertrand Russell, “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” in Why I Am Not  Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 24.

  8.  Russell, Outline, p. 3. 

  9.  Russell, Outline, p. 78.

  10.  Russell, Outline, p. 78. 

  11.  Russell, Outline, p. 84. 

  12.  Russell, Outline, p. 239. 

  13.  Russell, Outline, p. 238. 

  14.  Russell, Outline, p. 180.

  15.  Russell, Outline, p. 182. 

  16.  Russell, Outline, p. 182. 

  17.  Russell, Outline, p. 181. 

  18.  Russell, Outline, p. 181. 

  19.  Russell, Outline, p. 183.

  20.  Russell, Outline, p. 239.

  21.  Russell, Outline, p. 240. 

  22.  Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 3.

  23.  Russell, Why, pp. 6-7.

  24. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXPdpEJk78E

  25.   https://youtu.be/hXPdpEJk78E?t=217

  26.  Russell, p. 7.

  27.  Russell, Why I am not a Christian, p. 7. 

  28.  Aristotle, Metaphysics (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1978), p. 36

  29.  Russell, p. 7. 

  30.  Aristotle, p. 68.

  31.  Aristotle, p. 68. 

  32.  Aristotle, p. 69.

  33.  Aristotle, p. 38. 

  34.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXPdpEJk78E

  35.  Russell, Why I Am not a Christian, p. 21. 

  36.  Russell, Why I Am not a Christian, p. 22.

  37.  Russell, Why I am not a Christian, p. 22. 

  38.  Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, p. 22.

  39.  Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), p. 9.

  40.  Russell, Religion and Science, p .9.

  41.  John Walbridge, God and Logic in Islam: the Caliphate of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 9.

  42.  Voegelin, Israel, p. 462.

  43.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_the_domestic_dog