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Landmark philosophy debate has an answer - 74 years later

Unthinkable: A novel theory of natural types may provide the key to Yuletide peace

It’s Christmas time and for many that means one thing: the Great Family Argument.

What will be the subject matter this year? The woke? Irish unity? Harry and Meghan? Or what used to be a staple explosive around Irish dinner tables on December 25th: God, and whether he/she/it exists.

The whole God debate has been doing the rounds for so long it’s hard to say anything new about it. However, this week’s Unthinkable philosophy column guest David Berman believes our response to the question can illuminate a fundamental division in human reasoning.

The professor emeritus at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), who has written books on subjects ranging from Bishop George Berkeley to the history of atheism, has been working for several years on what he calls a “dualist monist typology”. Philosophers have for centuries made a distinction between, on the one hand, dualists who believe mind and body are separate (typically allowing for the possibility of a soul) and, on the other hand, monists who believe only one type of stuff exists. Berman’s argument is that these are natural types – you are by nature either a dualist or a monist; you have no choice in the matter.


More recently, Berman has been expanding on the theory to explain how your dualist-monist type shapes your stance on everything from morality to faith. For an illustration of how this dichotomy plays out, look up the “Copleston-Russell debate” described by Berman as “justly famous as an important moment in the history of 20th century philosophy”.

The 1948 BBC radio debate between Bertrand Russell and Fr Frederick Copleston is the sort of thing you never hear on the Beeb any more, let alone RTÉ: two intellectual heavyweights slugging it out in a shamelessly highbrow contest. (Cue another Christmas argument: the Twitification of western culture.)

The debate examined whether arguments for God’s existence stood up. Predictably neither side backed down from their initial positions but the real drama came when discussion turned to the source of moral truth.

Berman corresponded with Copleston before the Jesuit priest died in 1994, and in a long letter in 1988 provided a detailed account to the TCD academic of what he saw as a crucial moment in his debate with Russell.

The atheistic mathematician upheld the case for secular moral principles but, according to Copleston, Russell off-airadmitted to finding himself in a quandary” as he worried about a humanist morality allowing for atrocities “if it could be shown that at some future date the human race would be benefited”. Then Russell confided “I cannot say this in public” and, according to Copleston, “modified what he had said”.

Berman explains: “The quandary was that Russell wanted to hold that the killing of the Jews at Auschwitz was absolutely wrong, but his moral theory did not allow him to hold this.”

In philosophy, Russell’s moral theory is known as “naturalist”, and Copleston’s as “non-naturalist”. Explaining the difference, Berman says: “Everyone believes that they experience pleasures and pains. But non-naturalists also believe that there are moral absolutes, such as what is ‘just’ in itself. But these are not natural and do not exist in the natural world, as pleasures and pains do. Plato thought they existed in a realm of ‘forms’, outside what he described as the Cave. But Russell thought such moral forms were fictions, like God – so the result of wishful thinking.

“Russell’s understanding of morality is that it can only be based on what we perceive and know exists, such as pleasure and pain ... [However] Russell thought that his naturalistic moral theory was unsatisfactory. For it needed some absolute value, but, as just mentioned, Russell thought they were fictions.”

How can Russell escape this quandary? Here, Berman steps forward 74 years after the BBC debate (better late than never, I guess), brandishing his theory of natural types: “I think that people are born either as monists or as dualists. Monists only experience and believe in the natural world, so natural things, such as they see, feel, hear and so on. Whereas dualists believe that they experience themselves as something else – what the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who was a strong monist, ridiculed as the ghost in the machine.”

With monists and naturalists lining up on one side (Russell) and dualists and non-naturalists lining up on the other (Copleston) there is scope for each to be right on its own terms, according to Berman. “I do think that both the naturalistic monist and the non-naturalistic dualist are right, but that neither one or the other can claim to have the overall truth such that it would exclude the other from being right and true.

“My solution, then, is that both theories are true and right but that everyone must become either a pure naturalist or non-naturalist, and not just in theory but in vivo, or life.” The key is being true to your type. The monist gains knowledge by sticking to naturalist moral philosophy and the dualist gains knowledge by sticking to non-naturalist. This is “the way to attain what Russell thought was unattainable, a satisfactory ethics”, Berman argues.

“Practically, then, our aim in this world should be to realise our nature or essence – whether naturalist or non-naturalist, and develop it, but also be sensitive to the opposed type, so never forcing it into conforming to our type.”

Whether or not you think Berman’s argument stacks up, it does reimagine knowledge in an intriguing way. In a situation where either Russell or Copleston must triumph it seems “philosophy cannot give any positive knowledge”. However, Berman’s theory holds that philosophy “gives twice as much as each of the opposed positions thought. For it shows that their own position is true, but also that the opposing or contrary position is true as well”. Accordingly, says Berman, “no great philosophers are rubbished. It is a win-win situation.”

Even if not entirely convinced, you could try out the argument on Christmas Day with the aim of achieving some short-term peace. For whatever the hot topic is this year, holding two competing positions in your head at once and considering the possibility that both are true can only ease the path from starter to dessert without a major bust-up.

Ask a sage:

What do you want for Christmas?

German philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) replies: “We are forgetting how to give presents ... Real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver. It means choosing, expending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of distraction. Just this hardly anyone is now able to do. At the best they give what they would have liked themselves, only a few degrees worse.”