The Moral Absolutism and Self-Defeat of Bertrand Russell

17 Sep

From Philosopher David Bradshaw:

The great atheist, Bertrand Russell, once offered this stirring exhortation:

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 outcomes 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 in the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”)

One has to agree with Russell that, when confronted with a hard, cold fact, the right thing to do is to face up to it.  If these things are as he describes them, then we ought to face reality and not beguile ourselves with fairy tales about God, eternity, faith, or love.
But is he right?  Notice the key word I have used in stating Russell’s view: ought.  On what grounds do I assert this “ought,” if the universe is as Russell describes it?  On what grounds does he assert it?  Surely not on the grounds that the truth will make us happy.  His whole point is that it is likely to make us unhappy, yet we ought to believe it anyway.  After all, he holds that the truth offers only “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.”  Apparently, somewhere among the accidental collocations of atoms that make up the universe, there is also a simple moral fact: we ought to face the truth even when it makes us unhappy.

The problem here goes to the very heart of the self-sufficiency of the scientific picture of the world.  Insofar as science attempts to tell us the way things are, it necessarily presupposes three things: (1) there is truth, (2) we are capable of knowing this truth, and (3) we ought to seek the truth and to form our beliefs in accordance with it.  Yet none of these things can be proven by science!  The attempt to use science to construct a picture of the world that excludes morality is therefore self-defeating.  And if morality cannot be excluded, what about God?

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