Bertrand Russell’s Search for God

Español: Bertrand Russell en 1970

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Bertrand Russell’s daughter, Katharine Tait, made the following poignant observations about her father and his lack of belief in God.  Although Russell’s own willful rebellion certainly played a role in his lack of belief, believers can learn an important lesson from his experience, and be reminded that our actions as those who represent Christ have a profound impact on those around us. 

“I could not even talk to him about religion. . . . I would have liked to convince my father that I had found what he had been looking for, the ineffable something he had longed for all his life.  I would have liked to persuade him that the search for God does not have to be in vain.  But it was hopeless.  He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding. . . . I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God. . . . Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it. . . . Nevertheless, I picked up the yearning from him, together with his ghostlike feeling of not belonging, of having no home in this world.”

— Katharine Tait, My Father, Bertrand Russell (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 189.

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Top Posts of 2010

Below are some of the Cloud’s top posts of 2010.  Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read, comment, or critique. May you know and love God more and more in 2011!

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Cambridge Change

king's college chapel, cambridge 1446-1515.

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“A thing changes in a sense associated with Russell (hence, at Cambridge) if it satisfies a description at one time that it does not satisfy at another.  However, some changes are ‘merely’ Cambridge changes: if you outgrow me, then I satisfy the description of being as tall as you at one time, and I do not satisfy the description at another.  So, by the Cambridge criterion, I have changed, but I need have undergone no robust or substantial change, for I may have stayed at exactly the same height.

“The term was introduced by P. T. Geach (Logic Matters, 1972); a possible application of the notion is to make the unchanging (substantial) nature of God compatible with his (merely Cambridge) changing relations to the temporal world.”

— Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), 51.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

By the early part of the twentieth century, the work of mathematical logicians such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead had honed the axiomatic method into an almost machine-like technique of producing mathematical theorems from carefully stated first principles (axioms) by means of clear logical rules of inference. In 1931, however, Kurt Gödel (1906–1978), an Austrian logician, uncovered a surprising limitation inherent in any axiomatic system intended to produce theorems expressing the familiar mathematical properties of integer arithmetic.

Gödel developed a method, whose reach was slightly extended by J. Barkley Rosser in 1936, that shows how, given any such (consistent) system of axioms, one can produce a true proposition about integers that the axiomatic system itself cannot produce as a theorem. Gödel’s incompleteness result follows: Unless the axioms of arithmetic are inconsistent (self-contradictory), not all arithmetical truths can be deduced in such machine-like fashion from any fixed set of axioms. This result, that here consistency implies “incompleteness,” has striking implications not only for mathematical logic, but also for machine-learning (artificial intelligence) and epistemology, although its precise significance is still debated. (continue article)

— W. M. Priestly, Encyclopedia of Science and Religion



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On Doing Your Homework before Critiquing

Several commenters were surprised by Michael Ruse’s judgment of the overall quality of the New Atheist’s argumentation, which I referenced in a recent post.  This was the meat of Ruse’s rebuke:

But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. . . . Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

Similarly, Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books surmised,

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

And Roman Catholic theologian John Haught observes in a Salon interview,

My chief objection to the new atheists is that they are almost completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world of theology. They talk about the most fundamentalist and extremist versions of faith, and they hold these up as though they’re the normative, central core of faith. And they miss so many things. They miss the moral core of Judaism and Christianity — the theme of social justice, which takes those who are marginalized and brings them to the center of society. They give us an extreme caricature of faith and religion.

Rather than spelling out the details here of where the New Atheists often go wrong—at least in relation to arguments for God’s existence—I highly recommend William Lane Craig’s recent article on that topic available here.  An informative (and technical) exchange between Craig and Daniel Dennett on arguments for God’s existence is available on audio here.

Speaking in a different context, but applicable to those authors mentioned above (who are obviously intelligent and capable, but lacking in this area), Ben Witherington writes:

Might I suggest that before you go pontificating on matters about which you are ill informed, that you do a little research first? . . . I suggest you . . .  [not write] again until you have something well-informed, carefully researched, peer-reviewed, and of general value to the public to say.

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Book Review – Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth


  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (September 29, 2009)
  • Official Logicomix Website
  • Amazon

The wedding of philosophical mathematics and a graphic novel seems an ideal marriage. What in other forms of media could be an overlong, tedious tale, can spring to life and breathe in an illustrated story. That’s my impression after reading Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. Logicomix tells the story of mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell’s decades-long search to establish an unshakeable foundation for mathematics in logic. Russell narrates his own life story and describes his quest, which began in childhood and continued well into his adult life. Along the way, he interacts with some of the greatest logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers of the early twentieth century—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Georg Cantor, G. E. Moore, David Hilbert, Kurt Gödel, Alfred Whitehead, and Gottlob Frege.

While the quest comprises the main storyline, the authors also shed light on Russell’s private life, which had its fair share of drama and conflict. Having a family history of mental illness, one of his greatest ongoing fears was losing his mind. (On a side note, nearly all of the thinkers mentioned above contended with a serious mental illness.) Russell was married four times, though the book only features his first two wives, and his well known affairs are hinted at. Though his contributions to mathematics and logic were considerable, he came to see his original quest as a failure, especially in light of Wittgenstein’s criticisms and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (which the authors explain in the text and in a helpful glossary of terms in the back).

At the same time, the authors suggest that Russell was admired for his pacifism, his endeavoring to apply reason and logic to every area of human activity, and his ideas, which influenced a younger generation of mathematicians such as Alan Turing, who helped break the German “Enigma” code in World War II and whose work importantly influenced the development of the digital computer.

An interesting and intentionally ironic literary device used by the writers is inserting themselves into the story, so that the reader follows the process (interspersed occasionally) of the writing of Logicomix along with Russell’s story. Logicomix is thus self-referential, which characteristic also lies at the heart of “Russell’s Paradox” (also nicely described in the glossary).

At the end of his life, the Russell of Logicomix arrives at the conclusion that much of human nature and behavior can’t be explained or captured by logic, and that no single system can encompass the multi-faceted nature of reality. He declares, “If even in logic and mathematics, the paragons of certainty, we cannot have perfect assurances of reason, then even less can this be achieved in the messy business of human affairs—either private, or public! . . . Wittgenstein has a point, you see: ‘All the facts of science are not enough to understand the world’s meaning.’” (p. 296).

While the authors admit that they have taken some liberties with the reconstruction of Russell’s life, the major characters “are based as closely as possible on their real-life counterparts” and no liberties were taken with “the content of the great adventure of ideas which forms our main plot.” (p. 315, 316). I was pleased to know this, since a mainly fictional account wouldn’t have interested me nearly as much.

Logicomix succeeds, in my view, in shaping a fascinating story out of complex and abstract ideas. The story is epic, recounting some of the most important events in philosophy and mathematics in the last century, while also capturing the very human face of that unfolding drama. Who said comic books couldn’t be educational?

Thanks to Bloomsbury USA for this review copy.

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Quotable – David Berlinski on Science, Meaning, and Purpose

“No scientific theory touches on the mysteries that the religious tradition addresses. A man asking why his days are short and full of suffering is not disposed to turn to algebraic quantum field theory for the answer. The answers that prominent scientific figures have offered are remarkable in their shallowness. The hypothesis that we are nothing more than cosmic accidents has been widely accepted by the scientific community. Figures as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Jacques Monod, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Dawkins have said it is so. It is an article of their faith, one advanced with the confidence of men convinced that nature has equipped them to face realities the rest of us cannot bear to contemplate. There is not the slightest reason to think this so.”

— David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, xvi


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Bertrand Russell on the Meaning of Life

Bertrand Russell 1950
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“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

— Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”

Given Russell’s worldview and presuppositions, his conclusions seem to be right on target.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, and regarded by some as the most important since Immanuel Kant. His early work was influenced by that of Arthur Schopenhauer and, especially, by his teacher Bertrand Russell and by Gottlob Frege, who became something of a friend. This work culminated in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only philosophy book that Wittgenstein published during his lifetime. It claimed to solve all the major problems of philosophy and was held in especially high esteem by the anti-metaphysical logical positivists. The Tractatus is based on the idea that philosophical problems arise from misunderstandings of the logic of language, and it tries to show what this logic is.

Wittgenstein’s later work, principally his Philosophical Investigations, shares this concern with logic and language, but takes a different, less technical, approach to philosophical problems. This book helped to inspire so-called ordinary language philosophy. This style of doing philosophy has fallen somewhat out of favor, but Wittgenstein’s work on rule-following and private language is still considered important, and his later philosophy is influential in a growing number of fields outside philosophy.

On religion and ethics:

Wittgenstein had a lifelong interest in religion and claimed to see every problem from a religious point of view, but never committed himself to any formal religion. His various remarks on ethics also suggest a particular point of view, and Wittgenstein often spoke of ethics and religion together. This point of view or attitude can be seen in the four main themes that run through Wittgenstein’s writings on ethics and religion: goodness, value or meaning are not to be found in the world; living the right way involves acceptance of or agreement with the world, or life, or God’s will, or fate; one who lives this way will see the world as a miracle; there is no answer to the problem of life–the solution is the disappearance of the problem.

(Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – knowledge by acquaintance / knowledge by description

Russell‘s distinction between ways of knowing. Only the objects of immediate experience are known by acquaintance, through our direct awareness of them. Other things are known only by description, through the mediation of our apprehension of true propositions about them. For example:

“I have a headache now.” may be known by acquaintance, but

“Aspirin will relieve a headache.” can be known only by description.

Despite its apparently narrow extent, knowledge by acquaintance is supposed to provide the foundation for knowledge by description.

(Via Philosophical Dictionary)

Knowing God by acquaintance is much different than knowing Him by description (propositionally).

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