In a 1948 BBC broadcast, Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell debated the existence of God. The first part of the debate centered around the analytic/synthetic distinction and positivism, and at one point, father Copleston mentions:

We both know, at any rate, one very eminent modern thinker whose knowledge of modern logic was profound, but who certainly did not think that metaphysics are meaningless or, in particular, that the problem of God is meaningless.

Who was Copleston talking about? Wittgenstein? Gödel? Somebody else?

  • Wittgenstein certainly qualifies – MmmHmm Jan 6 '17 at 23:46

With a bit of googling the answer is, quite plausibly I think, A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947):

The "one eminent modern thinker" that Copleston refers to is Alfred North Whitehead, who co-authored with Bertrand Russell their monumental work on logic, Principia Mathematica, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1925-27). Whitehead was well-known for his metaphysical defenses of belief in God. (Footnote 5 from here.)

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    nice find there! that would also explain the past tense – MmmHmm Jan 7 '17 at 10:44
  • Since Whitehead was such a close collaborator with Russell, it would also explain why he would be a good example for Copleston to bring up, and also why Copleston felt confident referring to him in such an elliptical manner. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Jan 9 '17 at 17:28
  • I didn't know about Whitehead other than that he was co-author of the Principia -- after reading more about him, I agree with you that he is the most likely candidate. I find it interesting that Whitehead's concept of the divine is somewhat different than what Copleston (a Jesuit priest) would have believed in. – Alexander S King Jan 10 '17 at 2:14

Although the BBC Debate was broadcast in 1948 it was actually recorded in 1947... Whitehead died in December 1947 and I'm not sure this is actually post-dating Copleston's remark. Nevertheless, even if Whitehead was still alive (although dying) when Copleston spoke, he had retired and therefore might have been spoken of in the past tense for that reason)


Considering Russell's relationship with Wittgenstein, I'd imagine that is who Copleston is referring to more than Göedel or Frege. For example, Russell's thoughts on Wittgensteins mysticism:

I had felt in his book a flavour of mysticism, but was astonished when I found that he has become a complete mystic. He reads people like Kierkegaard and Angelus Silesius, and he seriously contemplates becoming a monk. It all started from William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, and grew (not unnaturally) during the winter he spent alone in Norway before the war, when he was nearly mad.

...it seems to warrant the "familiar" referencing. Or, "denoting" ;)

  • I also thought that Wittgenstein was the most likely candidate given his religiosity, but then wasn't he also the king of "metaphysics can't be expressed using logic"? – Alexander S King Jan 7 '17 at 4:00
  • @AlexanderSKing from Fania Pascal's "Wittgenstein: A Personal Memoir", "Wittgenstein was, and that he was above all a person in search of spiritual salvation." I suppose language has it's limits, no? – MmmHmm Jan 7 '17 at 4:13
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    Probably nothing, but Copleston uses the past tense "...whose knowledge of modern logic was profound". Wittgenstein was still alive and writing (to an extent) in 1948 so Copleston would have either been undermining his own argument by suggesting that Wittgenstein no longer had a good grasp of Logic, or was referring to someone else (or just made a mistake...as I say, probably nothing) – Isaacson Jan 7 '17 at 7:58

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