BERGSON AND RUSSELL: TWO POSITIONS ON BEING AND NOTHINGNESS
TWO POSITIONS ON BEING AND NOTHINGNESS
D. R. Khashaba
Bertrand Russell and Henri Bergson were veritable antipodes. Russell early shed off his youthful Platonism in favour of a thorougoing empiricism. Bergson discarded his early interest in mathematics, turning to psychology, then progressing from biology to high mysticism. The contrast is clearly illustrated in their respective approaches to the notions of being and nothingness.
In “Why I Am Not A Christian”(1) Russell shows the inanity of the First-Cause argument for the existence of God. He says, “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God …”. The argument from First Cause does not tell us anything about the nature of the First Cause: call it God or Nous or Big Bang, that, in itself, does not tell us anything about the character or nature of that First Cause.
Thus far I go fully along with Russell. But when he goes on to say, “There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed”, I think Russell is wrong in implying that these two alternatives stand on an equal footing. I find the suggestion that the world could “have come into being without a cause” simply unintelligible. If we begin with nothing, I find it utterly inconceivable that anything should then have come to be.
To my mind, being – that there should have been anything rather than nothing – is the ultimate mystery. It is unexplainable and that’s that. The idea of God does not explain it. If we begin by assuming the existence of God, then that may explain the existence of our actual world, but it leaves the being of God unexplained; so we are back where we were.
It is true that Russell goes on to say, “There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. ”That I accept. But Russell immediately adds, “The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.” I do not feel easy about that. It damps the sense of the mystery of being, and I believe it is this sense, when heightened, that gives birth to philosophic wonder, without which there is no genuine philosophy.
Now to Bergson. In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion Bergson writes, “We have shown elsewhere that part of metaphysics moves, consciously or not, around the question of knowing why anything exists — why matter, or spirit, or God, rather than nothing at all? But the question presupposes that reality fills a void, that underneath Being lies nothingness, that de jure there should be nothing, that we must therefore explain why there is de facto something. And this presupposition is pure illusion, for the idea of absolute nothingness has not one jot more meaning than a square circle.”(2) Let us just recall in passing that Plato also in the Sophist(3) says that absolute nothingness is unthinkable. But does not Bergson’s dismissal of the question deflate the sense of the mystery of being which I hold to be valuable? No. The human intellect inevitably poses the question Why and inevitably raises the chimera of Nothingness, and so we are not wrong when we say that for the human intellect Being will remain an ultimate mystery and that mystery unfolds in the profoundest reflections on the meaning and value of our own being.
(1) “Why I Am Not A Christian”, a lecture delivered by Russell to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall, on March 6, 1927, available online at http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html
(2) Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, translated by R. Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Brereton, with the assistance of W. Horsfall Carter, 1935, 1954, p.251.
(3) Plato, Sophist, 237b-239c.
D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, August 2007