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.

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5 Responses to Bertrand Russell and the limitations of reason

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » The Limitations of Reason

  2. Jeff Carter says:

    I do indeed go on to address Prof. Dennett in “The Embarrassment of the Logical Positivists” – in the sense that he was a student of both Gilbert Ryle and W.V. Quine, both physicalists and physicalism was coined by one of the Logical Positivists. The Positivists continued the string of failures started by Moore and Russell.

    I have concluded my series with 12-parts, but that in turn will become foundational to my response to Loftus’ “Why I Became An Atheist.” If you have no background in philosophy – and especially if you consider yourself a rationalist – I urge you to read the series and wake up to what you’re really up against. Reason is highly overrated and the course of western philosophy admits this.

  3. Ike says:

    I feel too uneducated to leave a comment, but I think it is interesting that Scripture does not acknowledge atheism.

  4. me says:

    I wasn’t familiar with Pigliucci (what a name!), but here – and the book he’s discussing – are in agreement with what I’ve said. By the way, he seems to have a bit of disdain for the philosophical tendencies of scientists (“Indeed, this is the option adopted by many philosophers, and would be the one probably preferred by scientists, if they ever gave this sort of thing a moment’s thought.”).

    I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that evolutionary scientists tend to get a bit riled when people start applying probability to the theory. To say that God is as improbable as fairies is ridiculous, and isn’t supported by any real analysis.

    Again, the problem with Dawkins and Company “holding the Creator to the same high standards of demonstration as they do the Krebs cycle” is that their own method can’t meet that same standard of demonstration. Plus, they constantly mix apples and oranges (which is okay in a fruit salad, by the way…). Another problem with these guys is that they hold themselves out to the public as authoritative, when it’s obvious by any rational examination that they are not.

    By the way, I’ve just started reading “Descarte’ Bones” – subtitled “a Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason.” The author, however, starts with an apparent anti-faith bias, so I’m not sure how accurate his analysis will be.

  5. So you haven’t been acquainted with Massimo Pigliucci?

    Here’s Rationally Speaking and a discussion on the very issue of the problem of induction.

    Now where we go with induction and the whole idea of verifiability. The New Atheists, which is an old term, balance the likelihood of God’s existence at a high rate of improbability; at the same probability as fairies in the garden.

    I’ll never pretend to be as versant in philosophy as you are. I took it at a 101 level and a 300 level in college. I contend you are comparing apples to oranges, though. The largely public books of the New Atheists and the four horsemen, are largely countering the pseudo-philosophies of the major religions which insist that there is a detectable influence of the metaphysical on the physical nature of life.

    They are using science to peel away the layers of the onion, as it were, of the awkward “proofs” of first, those who would deliberately misuse the concepts of science to prove the existence of God, and those who would insist on using such arguments as the Prime Mover (in whatever form) arguments. They are holding the Creator up to the same high standards of demonstration as they do the Krebs cycle and found it lacking.

    If you want a higher discussion of it, something that will address your questions of the philosophy of this whole debate then there are modern philosophers who will answer your questions much better than what people term the “New Atheists.”

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