Religious experience – Russell and Copleston debate

A transcript of the 1948 debate between Russell and Copleston on religious experience.

Below is a transcript from part of the BBC Radio debate between Bertrand Russell and Father Frederick C Copleston on religious experience, in 1948.

Copleston: … Let’s. Well, perhaps I might say a word about religious experience, and then we can go on to moral experience. I don’t regard religious experience as a strict proof of the existence of God, so the character of the discussion changes somewhat, but I think it’s true to say that the best explanation of it is the existence of God. By religious experience I don’t mean simply feeling good. I mean a loving, but unclear, awareness of some object which irresistibly seems to the experiencer as something transcending the self, something transcending all the normal objects of experience, something which cannot be pictured or conceptualised, but of the reality of which doubt is impossible – at least during the experience. I should claim that cannot be explained adequately and without residue, simply subjectively. The actual basic experience at any rate is most easily explained on the hypotheses that there is actually some objective cause of that experience.

Russell: I should reply to that line of argument that the whole argument from our own mental states to something outside us, is a very tricky affair. Even where we all admit its validity, we only feel justified in doing so, I think, because of the consensus of mankind. If there’s a crowd in a room and there’s a clock in a room, they can all see the clock. The face that they can all see it tends to make them think that it’s not an hallucination: whereas these religious experiences do tend to be very private.

Copleston: Yes, they do. I’m speaking strictly of mystical experience proper, and I certainly don’t include, by the way, what are called visions. I mean simply the experience, and I quite admit it’s indefinable, of the transcendent object or of what seems to be a transcendent object. I remember Julian Huxley in some lecture saying that religious experience, or mystical experience, is as much a real experience as falling in love or appreciating poetry and art. Well, I believe that when we appreciate poetry and art we appreciate definite poems or a definite work of art. If we fall in love, well, we fall in love with somebody and not with nobody.

Russell: May I interrupt for a moment here. That is by no means always the case. Japanese novelists never consider that they have achieved a success unless large numbers of real people commit suicide for love of the imaginary heroine.

Copleston: Well, I must take your word for these goings on in Japan. I haven’t committed suicide, I’m glad to say, but I have been strongly influenced in the taking of two important steps in my life by two biographies. However, I must say I see little resemblance between the real influence of those books on me and the mystic experience proper, so far, that is, as an outsider can obtain an idea of that experience.

Russell: Well, I mean we wouldn’t regard God as being on the same level as the characters in a work of fiction. You’ll admit there’s a distinction here?

Copleston: I certainly should. But what I’d say is that the best explanation seems to be the not purely subjectivist explanation. Of course, a subjectivist explanation is possible in the case of certain people in whom there is little relation between the experience and life, in the case of deluded people and hallucinated people, and so on. But when you get what one might call the pure type, say St. Francis of Assisi, when you get an experience that results in an overflow of dynamic and creative love, the best explanation of that it seems to me is the actual existence of an objective cause of the experience.

Russell: Well, I’m not contending in a dogmatic way that there is not a God. What I’m contending is that we don’t know that there is. I can only take what is recorded as I should take other records and I do find that a very great many things are reported, and I am sure you would not accept things about demons and devils and whatnot – and they’re reported in exactly the same tone of voice and with exactly the same conviction. And the mystic, if his vision is veridical, may be said to know that there are devils. But I don’t know that there are.

Copleston: But surely in the case of the devils there have been people speaking mainly of visions, appearance, angels or demons and so on. I should rule out the visual appearances, because I think they can be explained apart from the existence of the object which is supposed to be seen.

Russell: But don’t you think there are abundant recorded cases of people who believe that they’ve heard Satan speaking to them in their hearts, in just the same way as the mystics assert God – and I’m not talking now of an external vision, I’m talking of a purely mental experience. That seems to be an experience of the same sort as mystics’ experience of God, and I don’t seek that from what mystics tell us you can get any argument for God which is not equally an argument for Satan.

Copleston: I quite agree, of course, that people have imagined or thought they have heard or seen Satan. And I have no wish in passing to deny the existence of Satan. But I do not think that people have claimed to have experienced Satan in the precise way in which mystics claim to have experienced God. Take the case of a non-Christian, Plotinus. He admits the experience is something inexpressible, the object is an object of love, and therefore, not an object that causes horror and disgust. And the effect of that experience is, I should say, borne out, or I mean the validity of th experience is borne out in the records of the life of Plotinus. At any rate it is more reasonable to suppose that he had that experience if we’re willing to accept Porphyry’s account of Plontinus’ general kindness and benevolence.

Russell: The fact that a belief has a good moral effect upon a man is no evidence whatsoever in favor of its truth.

Copleston: No, but if it could actually be proved that the belief was actually responsible for a good effect on a man’s life, I should consider it a presumption in favor of some truth, at any rate of the positive part of the belief not of its entire validity. But in any case I am using the character of the life as evidence in favor of the mystic’s veracity and sanity rather than as a proof of the truth of his beliefs.

Russell: But even that I don’t think is any evidence. I’ve had experiences myself that have altered my character profoundly. And I thought at the time at any rate that it was altered for the good. Those experiences were important, but they did not involve the existence of something outside me, and I don’t think that if I’d thought they did, the fact that they had a wholesome effect would have been any evidence that I was right.

Copleston: No, but I think that the good effect would attest your veracity in describing your experience. Please remember that I’m not saying that a mystic’s mediation or interpretation of his experience should be immune from discussion or criticism.

Russell: Obviously the character of a young man may be – and often is – immensely affected for good by reading about some great man in history, and it may happen that the great man is a myth and doesn’t exist, but they boy is just as much affected for good as if he did. There have been such people. Plutarch’s Lives take Lycurgus as an example, who certainly did not exist, but you might be very much influenced by reading Lycurgus under the impression that he had previously existed. You would then be influenced by an object that you’d loved, but it wouldn’t be an existing object.

Copleston: I agree with you on that, of course, that a man may be influenced by a character in fiction. Without going into the question of what it is precisely that influences him (I should say a real value) I think that the situation of that man and of the mystic are different. After all the man who is influenced by Lycurgus hasn’t got the irresistible impression that he’s experience in some way the ultimate reality.

Russell: I don’t think you’ve quite got my point about these historical characters – these unhistorical characters in history. I’m not assuming what you call an effect on the reason. I’m assuming that the young man reading about this person and believing him to be real loves him – which is quite easy to happen, and yet he’s loving a phantom.

Copleston: In one sense he’s loving a phantom that’s perfectly true, in the sense, I mean, that he’s loving X or Y who doesn’t exist. But at the same time, it is not, I think, the phantom as such that the young man loves; he perceives a real value, an idea which he recognises as objectively valid, and that’s what excites his love.

Russell: Well, in the same sense we had before about the characters in fiction.

Copleston: Yes, in one sense the man’s loving a phantom – perfectly true. But in another sense he’s loving what he perceives to be a value.







Past Questions

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