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 Religion and Metaphysics (1906)*

By Bertrand Russell

Review of Some Dogmas of Religion. By J. M. E. McTaggart. London: Edward Arnold, 1906

THIS book is at once a criticism of popular theology, and a plea for the study of metaphysics. Religion, it is argued, depends essentially upon dogma, and no dogma can be proved except by metaphysics. The negative part of this thesis is exemplified by an examination of current arguments on immortality, free will, and the existence of God. The positive part – the proof of dogmas by metaphysical reasoning – is not undertaken; for only systematic students can understand such arguments, and the book is primarily addressed to those who are not systematic students. The conclusion is, that only metaphysicians have a right to a religion, because there is no such consensus as would warrant others in accepting any opinion on authority. For the present, it is admitted, this conclusion is tragical; but it is permissible to hope that, hereafter, metaphysics, like science, may become sufficiently certain to be taken on trust by those who cannot themselves test its reasonings. Whether, if that should ever occur, it will not be hopes rather than fears that will be extinguished, is a question which Dr. McTaggart rightly does not discuss, since evidently its decision would require the gift of prophecy.

Religion is defined as “an emotion resting on a conviction of a harmony between ourselves and the universe at large” (p. 3); metaphysics, as “the systematic study of the ultimate nature of reality”; and dogma as “any proposition which has metaphysical significance” (p. 1). Religious dogmas are those which affect a man’s religious position. Some such dogmas are required for a “conviction of harmony between ourselves and the universe at large”; it is held that the minimum dogma on which, at our present level of civilisation, a religion can be based, is that the universe is good on the whole (p. 11). The notion that morality is sufficient for religion is discussed and dismissed; on the Stoic theory that virtue suffices for happiness, Dr. McTaggart justly observes: “A virtue which was so intense that it rendered us indifferent to the sufferings of others might be held to have passed into its opposite” (p. 23). The notion that Christ’s teaching is undogmatic is easily refuted. It is strangely difficult to read familiar words freshly. I confess I was staggered by the author’s statement that “The Sermon on the Mount .... contains dogma in almost every line. ‘Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted’ is not a moral precept at all. It commends nothing, it forbids nothing” (p. 25). But, surprising as this statement is, it seems undeniable. The narrower abusive sense which is now-a-days given to the word dogma by those who aim at broad-mindedness, is rejected – rightly, as it seems to me – as an innovation for which there is nothing to be said.

Before proceeding to more special questions, Dr. McTaggart considers, in his second chapter, some of the general arguments by which dogmas are advocated. The whole of this chapter is a masterpiece of lucid and trenchant argument. It begins with the case of the man who believes he has an immediate conviction, say of the existence of God, and it points out that this can be no ground for anyone else’s belief. As for the analogy of the blind man and the man who has sight, it may be met by the analogy of the physician and the man who sees snakes; either analogy is equally applicable. The argumentum ad horrendum (“if this were not true the universe would be unbelievably bad”) leads up to the argument that the truth of a doctrine is to be judged by its consequences, which, as is justly observed, itself has immoral consequences, and is therefore condemned by its own test. “The moral evil of the argument from consequences seems to me to be that it makes us imperious in the wrong place, where our imperiousness is arrogance, and, by an inevitable consequence, makes us humble in the wrong place, where our humility is mean and servile” (p. 66). For when something we should naturally think bad is undeniably real, we are led by the argument to suppose that after all it cannot be bad. Dr. McTaggart’s power of summing up an argument in an illustration is delightful. After discussing the contention that we ought to have faith because of the fallibility of our merely human powers, he says: “If I have only taken a hasty view by twilight of my neighbour’s garden, it would be rash of me to place much trust in my failure to see any lilies in it. But it would be even more rash if I proceeded from the untrustworthiness of my negative conclusion to a confident assertion that there were lilies in it, and that there were exactly seventeen of them” (p. 68).

The next chapter, on immortality, is rather more metaphysical than most of the book. It aims at showing that there is no reason to believe in a dependence of mind on body; and the argument used is the idealistic one, that mind is more real than body. Chapter 4, on human preexistence, points out, what is too often overlooked, that any argument for our existence throughout the future must be an argument also for our existence throughout the past. To most people, this constitutes a difficulty; but to Dr. McTaggart, as to Wordsworth, it is a confirmation. He admits that it involves the loss of memory at death, but he endeavours, by ingenious, though (to me) unconvincing arguments, to show that this hardly lessens the value of immortality.

He holds that the fact of love or friendship at first sight is best accounted for as the result of love or friendship in a previous existence. “The significance of this fact has been, I think, very much underrated .... It is rarely that the writings of a philosopher or a theologian find anything in a young man’s love for his sweetheart except a mixture of sexual desire and folly, or anything in a young man’s love for his comrade except folly pure and simple” (p. 121).1 I find it difficult to believe that the fact has any such importance as is here suggested. It would be interesting to make a statistical inquiry into cases of love at first sight, with a view to discovering how often it is determined by outward beauty, and how often by congeniality of character. For, on Dr. McTaggart’s view, character should be at least as important as looks in bringing it about; yet I doubt if this would be found to be the case.

Another argument for pre-existence which is urged is, that people seem sometimes to possess by nature qualities which others only acquire by experience, and that it is natural to suppose such qualities acquired by experience in a past life. An objection which immediately occurs to one is that such qualities are not perceptible in babies. “How provokingly close are those new-born babes,” as Shelley remarked on Magdalen Bridge. It is surely more natural to suppose that some people learn by experience more quickly than others, than to suppose that they bring with them a wisdom which they conceal or forget until a suitable age. Another objection, which Dr. McTaggart discusses at some length, is, that people inherit their characters from their parents, which seems incompatible with their bringing them from elsewhere. This argument is met by an analogy. People’s hats generally fit their heads, though they were made with no regard to those special heads, but selected, after they were made, as suitable to those heads. So people may have a natural affinity for parents like themselves. It does not do to press analogies; and this one certainly will not bear pressing. A man selects a hat which is shaped like his head, because that is the most comfortable sort. But a man who is selfish and tyrannical should, by the same rule, choose parents who are unselfish and gentle, and kind people ought to be much more prolific than unkind ones. We must suppose, in fact, if people have previously existed, that they are led by some mechanical necessity to be born of parents like themselves; for we cannot suppose that they would often come to this by choice.

There is next a chapter on free will, which produces on my mind the effect which determinist arguments always do produce: the whole thing seems irrefutable, and I cannot discover any ground for wanting more; and yet, somehow, there seems to be a problem still unsolved. I cannot state the problem; I can only say that I am not satisfied that there is no problem. The main difficulty, of course, concerns responsibility. Dr. McTaggart regards this as consisting in the fact that punishment and remorse may lead to amendment. I am not satisfied that this is what responsibility means; but I do not know what else it can mean.

An omnipotent God, Dr. McTaggart contends, cannot be personal and cannot be good. His argument on personality is rather difficult, and may, I think, be doubted. On goodness, the argument is familiar. But I think Dr. McTaggart asks too much of omnipotence when he demands that it shall be able to infringe the law of contradiction. There is a very prevalent use of the word “omnipotence,” in which it means only absolute power as to what things shall exist, without power over the laws of logic or arithmetic. Such a distinction is incompatible with Dr. McTaggart’s logic; but without it there is, as it seems to me, an unnecessary departure from common-sense. It would not usually be held a limitation in omnipotence to be unable to decree that something should both exist and not exist at the same time. This weakens the effect of his argument, and leaves it doubtful how far it would be valid with the more modest view of omnipotence.

A God who created the world, Dr. McTaggart holds, could not, even if he were not strictly omnipotent, be absolved of the guilt of having created evil. His argument on the point appears to me not conclusive; but it would require a treatise on logic and metaphysics to examine the matter fully. A God who found things already existing, and stands to the world in the relation of a director or schoolmaster, is held to be more possible; it is even admitted (rather hastily, as it seems to me) that his existence would be rendered probable by the argument from design, if the reality of matter were admitted.2 But there is reason to deny the reality of matter; and, even if the argument from design is allowed, the world is too full of evil to allow the inference that the author of the design must be good.

Dr. McTaggart’s reason for holding that the order in the universe does not imply a designer, if all reality is (as he believes) a society of spirits, is that, in that case, the order would be due to the harmony which would be an essential element in the nature of the universe. Allowing this, it seems to me that many other explanations, suitable to other views of the universe, can be suggested to account for its orderliness. And, in any case, there would appear to be a fallacy, namely this: the argument from design assumes it as antecedently unlikely that the universe should have been orderly, on the ground that we can imagine more disorderly universes than orderly ones. Now the numbers of both are infinite and (I think) equal; and there is no method of estimating the antecedent probability. Arguments from probability, in general questions, assume always, it would seem, a far greater knowledge on questions of probability than we in fact possess.

Dr. McTaggart’s conclusion as to the existence of God – a conclusion which is only strengthened if the above criticism is valid – is that, while a God who is good and created the universe is impossible, “when the non-omnipotent God is also taken as non-creative, there seems to me . . . only one reason why we should not believe in his existence – namely, that there is no reason why we should believe in it” (p. 260). He gives reasons for regarding this conclusion as not a depressing one. Theism, he says, is not an adequate basis for optimism, since evil exists, and we therefore cannot know that any evil is too bad to be permitted. I think his argument as to the effect on happiness of believing or disbelieving in the existence of God is vitiated by attributing too much logicality to the average man. Most people will accept fallacious optimistic deductions which have long been generally regarded as valid; but they will be less ready to accept such new fallacies as might be required to extract optimism out of a different creed. I cannot but think also that the author underestimates the loss incurred in losing the love of God. By love, he says, he means something quite different from reverence and admiration and gratitude; and, though the love of God must go, others remain to be loved (pp. 289-290). This view of the emotions is surely too atomic. A love which is mingled with reverence and admiration and gratitude, which has an object that is unchanging and sinless and always strong enough to help, is something different from any love which is possible towards a human being. Love of God may seldom be as vivid as love of human beings; but it is sustaining as no other love can be. Dr. McTaggart appears to value love of bad people as much as love of good people (p. 73, note); and this perhaps makes him not realise the restfulness of love of God to those who suffer from the imperfections of human beings.

The general conclusion arrived at is acknowledged to be mainly negative. Whatever criticisms have been suggested above (and none of these criticisms are very vital) are only such as would make this conclusion even more complete. Dr. McTaggart holds that the only way to reach positive conclusions is by metaphysics, though negative conclusions are possible without a positive metaphysical theory. I am not convinced that even negative conclusions are possible. That the reality of evil is incompatible with the omnipotence and goodness of God, for example, is certainly a view for which there is much to be said. But unless omnipotence is taken, as it is in this book, to involve power to infringe the laws of logic – e.g. to make a thing exist and not exist at the same time – I doubt whether the incompatibility can be strictly proved. It may always be possible that the evil is an essential ingredient in goods of such value as to make it better that they and the evil should both exist than that neither should. Conversely, the existence of good things does not prove that the world is not the worst possible; it may be that the good things only exist in order to afford opportunity for great evils in which they are essential elements. And, whether these doubts can be resolved by positive metaphysics – whether the general nature of the universe as a whole is in any way accessible to human knowledge – is a question upon which it is very difficult for many philosophers to feel the confidence which is felt by those who in the main follow in the footsteps of Hegel.

The final statement of the practical outcome is as good as it could be. Since “no man is justified in a religious attitude except as a result of metaphysical study,” it follows that “whether any religion is true or not, most people have no right to accept any religion as true” (pp. 292-3). “The result may be evil; but that is unfortunately no ground for denying its truth. It is no more evil than cancer, famine, or madness; and these are all real” (ibid. ). In spite of some reasons for regarding the result as rather less bad than it appears at first sight, “we are here confronted with one of the great tragedies of life” (p. 297). But “is knowledge so easy to get that the highest and deepest of knowledge is likely to be had for the asking?” The principle that the kingdom of heaven is hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed unto babes “is sure to be popular, for it enables a man to believe that he is showing his meekness and humility by the confident assertion of propositions which he will not investigate and cannot prove” (p. 298). In contrast with this principle of indolence, the discussion ends with the noble words of Spinoza: “Omnia praeclara tam difficilia quam rara sunt.” 3

The book as a whole is so excellent, both in matter and in tone, that it is difficult to find appropriate words of praise. There is great need of popular exposition, on the part of philosophers, of such parts of their philosophy as can be read with interest and understanding by the nonphilosophical; and Dr. McTaggart has made a contribution to clear and unbiased thinking which cannot but be valuable to every reader.


*  Bertrand Russell, “Religion and Metaphysics,” The Independent Review 9 (Apr 1906), 109-16.

1  Hegel and the writer of the First Epistle of St. John are mentioned as honourable exceptions.

2  It is remarkable that, on p. 3, the existence of matter is given as an instance of a dogma having no religious significance, while on p. 245 it is contended that the existence of matter would make the existence of a directing person probable.

3  [“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” It is the last sentence of Spinoza’s Ethics.]