Mar 12 2009

Bertrand Russell and the limitations of reason

If there is one thing that sets the so-called “New Atheists” apart from the old atheists, it is perhaps the general ignorance of philosophy, and specifically of the philosophical foundations for their own stated positions.  I will hear Hume quoted (for his atheism and specifically for his arguments against the Design Inference), while ignoring the fact that Hume’s arguments also challenge the concept of causality; for Hume, science and reason cannot ever be predictive.  I have also heard Bertrand Russell quoted, as perhaps the most well-known atheist of recent years, having authored Why I Am Not A Christian.    Russell, however, presents even more problems for the New Atheism.

I thought that I had mentioned the great series of posts, “The Limitations of Reason,” that have been appearing over at Sophie’s Ladder, but perhaps I haven’t. In any even, if you have any interest whatsoever in philosophy and epistemology, this series (now at 10 posts) provides a nice overview.  Number 10 in the series deals with Mr. Russell and his inability to refute Hume.

The New Atheists all tend to lean towards science and specifically evolutionary theories as the “answer” to Christianity and faith in general.  Daniel Dennett stands out somewhat as he is primarily a philosopher, an empiricist who focused on the phlosphy of the mind. I don’t know how he defends his epistemology, if he does. (Perhaps Sophie will address this at some point.)  Russell, however, would not have fit in at all with this group, though he may have wanted to.

Russell’s conclusions include, as quoted by Sophie:

“Although our postulates can … be fitted into a framework which has what may be called an empiricist ‘flavor,’ it remains undeniable that our knowledge of them, in so far as we do know them, cannot be based upon experience…In this sense, it must be admitted empirism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate….”

Thus, science is “at war with itself:  when it most means to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will.  Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false.  Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.”


“If we are to hold that we know anything of the external world, we must accept the canons of scientific knowledge.  Whether… an individual decides to accept or reject these canons, is a purely personal affair, not suscpectible to argument.”

Atheists tend to get upset when I point out that the validity of the scientific method cannot be substantiated by it’s own rules, and that their belief systems are based on choice.  Scientism, which places scientific knowledge above all else, and rationalism are therefore nothing more than other faith or belief systems.  John Loftus at least admits his thinking is based on  a set of foundational assumptions, though he doesn’t seem willing to discuss the validity of those assumptions.

To my knowledge none of the New Atheist discussions get to a foundational level, as Russell’s did. I am assuming this is because 1) they are unwilling to admit they have these assumptions (as science is supposedly totally objective), or 2) if they did, they may have to face Russell’s conclusions. Sophie concludes:

In the end, Russell’s movements through philosophy is an iconic testament to the futility of reason.   His beliefs that the objective world is encountered directly were soon shown to be false.  His attempts to establish mathematical logic were determined to be incomplete.  His attempt to refute Hume and establish inference were admittedly failures.   Yet, for all the crumbling of his towers, “rational” atheists still hold to his basic beliefs, which show that they themselves do not base their beliefs on rationality but cling to them because they desperately want them to be true – the very thing they accuse Christians of doing.