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Remembering Arthur Balfour, Friend of Science and Friendly Opponent to Atheist Bertrand Russell

Mike Keas


This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I — and this past week provided a terrible reminder that conflicts stirred by the war remain with us. In Israel, a pair of Palestinian Muslims turned a Jerusalem synagogue at morning prayers into a bloodbath, a reminder to Israelis (as if one were needed) of their vulnerability to terrorists fanatically opposed to the existence of the state. Observers with a long memory may have recalled how a 1917 promise by the British Empire to aid settlement of the Holy Land made possible the establishment of a Jewish state. In Israel, the famous Balfour Declaration, penned by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, is intensely honored along with its author to this day.

However, while the name of Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) lives on most famously for his connection to British Middle East policy, his contributions to philosophy are fascinating and important, and should not be forgotten.

Balfour was a statesman, Prime Minister (1902-1905), and philosophical defender of Christianity and its harmony with science. His thought can be appreciated by contrasting him with one of his most formidable contemporary counterparts, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), famed philosopher and author of pithy essays such as "Why I Am Not a Christian." Timothy Madigan, Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. John Fisher College, and officer in the Bertrand Russell Society, recently celebrated the Russell-Balfour comparison in the pages of Philosophy Now ("The Paradoxes of Arthur Balfour"):

In many ways, Balfour was a sort of anti-Bertrand Russell. Both were related to British Prime Ministers (Russell’s grandfather served in that post from 1846-1852 and 1865-1866). Both wrote works in philosophy and religion, came from aristocratic backgrounds, attended Cambridge (where they studied with the famed Utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick, later to become Balfour’s brother-in-law). And both were noted for their biting sense of humor and skill as debaters. But unlike Russell, Balfour was a strong supporter of Christianity, an arch-traditionalist, a defender of the British Empire, and president for many years of the Society for Psychical Research, something the skeptical Russell would have had no tolerance for.

Balfour’s participation in the Society for Psychical Research should be understood in its historical context. Other early SPR members included the prominent physicists Sir William Barrett and Lord Rayleigh. William Barrett, who was the principal founder of the SPR in 1882, enjoyed a long career as a professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin (1873-1910), and was knighted in 1912 for his scientific work. Barrett was no crackpot. Likewise, fellow SPR enthusiast Lord Rayleigh is remembered for legitimate achievements, notably being awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physics. One ought not to ignore Balfour’s weighty arguments against naturalism simply because of his SPR affiliation.

Timothy Madigan continues his Balfour-Russell comparison:

Russell and Balfour knew each other, and although never friends, had a cordial relationship. Russell puckishly remarked that whenever a crank contacted him with a desire to talk about supernatural matters, he would tell them that Balfour was the expert on that topic and would be a better person to consult — a very convenient way of getting rid of annoying people! And when Russell was arrested in 1918 for opposing the First World War, Balfour, then the powerful Foreign Secretary, helped to arrange for better prison quarters for him, including having access to books and writing materials (which among other things allowed Russell to compose his books Political Ideals: Roads to Freedom and Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy).

What is most interesting is that early in their lives both men were torn between pursuing careers in politics or in academic philosophy. Russell chose the latter, but remained passionately committed to political activism (thrice running unsuccessfully for Parliament), whereas Balfour, with much heaviness of heart, chose to devote himself to political office. Originally elected to Parliament in 1874, he confided to his sister that if he was not re-elected he would "leave politics for philosophy." But he was successfully returned to office, and thereafter remained in political service until the end of his life, while still finding time to be, among other things, Rector of St Andrews and Glasgow Universities, Chancellor of Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities, President of the British Association, Fellow of the Royal Society and of the British Academy, and both Gifford and Romanes Lecturer.

The Encylopaedia Britannica states well what Balfour is most remembered for accomplishing:

His most important action occurred on Nov. 2, 1917, when, prompted by the Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, he wrote to Baron Rothschild, head of the English branch of the Jewish banking family, a letter that contained the so-called Balfour Declaration. This declaration, pledging British aid for Zionist efforts to establish a home for world Jewry in Palestine, gave great impetus to the establishment of the state of Israel.

In the same year that Balfour was elected British Prime Minister (1902), he also published the last revision to his often reprinted book The Foundations of Belief, which contained his argument against naturalism. By "belief" Balfour meant simply "what a person thinks is true about reality," whether such a belief is the result of direct experience (I see a tree), or the conclusion of a philosophical, religious, historical, or scientific argument. C. S. Lewis acknowledged Balfour’s Gifford Lectures, published as Theism and Humanism (1914) — which further developed the line of reasoning in The Foundations of Belief — as among the ten most important books to have influenced Lewis’s thought. Indeed, Lewis’s argument against naturalism echoes Balfour’s own.

Balfour understood the anti-rational implications of naturalism (and Darwinism). He argued that the assumptions of naturalism (including in its Darwinian manifestation) lead to conclusions about the origin of rationality that undermine rationality itself, and thus undermine any alleged scientific support for naturalism. In contrast, theism — including the idea that humans bear the divine image — grounds human rationality quite well. This negative and positive argument is similar to Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (and argument for theism) found in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011).

The following is from Balfour’s The Foundations of Belief, pages 279-283.

Consider the following propositions, selected from the naturalistic creed or deduced from it:

(i.) My beliefs, insofar as they are the result of reasoning at all, are founded on premises produced in the last resort by the collision of atoms.

(ii.) Atoms, having no prejudices in favour of truth, are as likely to turn out wrong premises as right ones; nay, more likely, inasmuch as truth is single and error manifold.

(iii.) My premises, therefore, in the first place, and my conclusions in the second, are certainly untrustworthy, and probably false. Their falsity, moreover, is of a kind which cannot be remedied; since any attempt to correct it must start from premises not suffering under the same defect. But no such premises exist.

(iv.) Therefore, again, my opinion about the original causes which produced my premises, as it is an inference from them, partakes of their weakness; so that I cannot either securely doubt my own certainties or be certain about my own doubts.

This is scepticism indeed; scepticism which is forced by its own inner nature to be sceptical even about itself; which neither kills belief nor lets it live. But it may perhaps be suggested in reply to this argument, that whatever force it may have against the old-fashioned naturalism, its edge is blunted when turned against the evolutionary agnosticism of more recent growth; since the latter establishes the existence of a machinery which, irrational though it be, does really tend gradually, and in the long run, to produce true opinions rather than false. That machinery is, I need not say, [Natural] Selection, and the other forces (if other forces there be) which bring the organism into more and more perfect harmony with its ‘environment.’ Some harmony is necessary so runs the argument in order that any form of life may be possible; and as life develops, the harmony necessarily becomes more and more complete. But since there is no more important form in which this harmony can show itself than truth of belief, which is, indeed, only another name for the perfect correspondence between belief and fact, Nature, herein acting as a kind of cosmic Inquisition, will repress by judicious persecution any lapses from the standard of naturalistic orthodoxy. Sound doctrine will be fostered error will be discouraged or destroyed; until at last, by methods which are neither rational themselves nor of rational origin, the cause of reason will be fully vindicated.

Arguments like these are, however, quite insufficient to justify the conclusion which is drawn from them. In the first place, they take no account of any causes which were in operation before life appeared upon the planet. Until there occurred the unexplained leap from the Inorganic to the Organic, [Natural] Selection, of course, had no place among the evolutionary processes; while even after that date it was, from the nature of the case, only concerned to foster and perpetuate those chance-borne beliefs which minister to the continuance of the species. But what an utterly inadequate basis for speculation is here! We are to suppose that powers which were here evolved in primitive man and his animal progenitors in order that they might kill with success and marry in security, are on that account fitted to explore the secrets of the universe. We are to suppose that the fundamental beliefs on which these powers of reasoning are to be exercised reflect with sufficient precision remote aspects of reality, though they were produced in the main by physiological processes which date from a stage of development when the only curiosities which had to be satisfied were those of fear and those of hunger. To say that instruments of research constructed solely for uses like these cannot be expected to supply us with a metaphysic or a theology, is to say far too little. They cannot be expected to give us any general view even of the phenomenal world, or to do more than guide us in comparative safety from the satisfaction of one useful appetite to the satisfaction of another. On this theory, therefore, we are again driven back to the same sceptical position in which we found ourselves left by the older forms of the positive, or naturalistic creed. On this theory, as on the other, reason has to recognise that her rights of independent judgment and review are merely titular dignities, carrying with them no effective powers; and that, whatever her pretensions, she is, for the most part, the mere editor and interpreter of the utterances of unreason.

I do not believe that any escape from these perplexities is possible, unless we are prepared to bring to the study of the world the presupposition that it was the work of a rational Being, who made it intelligible, and at the same time made us, in however feeble a fashion, able to understand it. This conception does not solve all difficulties; far from it. But, at least, it is not on the face of it incoherent [as is the case with naturalism]. It does not attempt the impossible task of extracting reason from unreason; nor does it require us to accept among scientific conclusions any which effectually shatter the credibility of scientific premises.

If the Judeo-Christian God exists, and if we are made in his image, then a predictable and knowable universe is to be expected. Such is not the case given naturalism, as Arthur Balfour argued over a century ago. The Judeo-Christian tradition also has inspired the balance of humility and confidence in human knowledge characteristic of the most successful scientists. Balfour reflects this perspective in his lectures and books. Bertrand Russell, allegedly a champion of reason over superstitious Christianity, never acknowledged the force of Balfour’s arguments for the reason-undermining implications of naturalism — Darwinian or otherwise.

Dr. Keas, a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science & Culture, is Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the College at Southwestern.

Image: Portrait of Arthur Balfour by Lawrence Alma-Tadema/Wikipedia.

Michael Newton Keas

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
After earning a Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of Oklahoma, Mike Keas won research grants from such organizations as the National Science Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. He experienced some of the last historic moments behind the Berlin Wall as a Fulbright scholar in East Germany. Keas serves as lecturer in the history and philosophy of science at Biola University and on the board of directors of Ratio Christi, an alliance of apologetics clubs on college campuses. He has written numerous articles, including “Systematizing the Theoretical Virtues” in the top-tier philosophy journal Synthese. This essay analyzes twelve traits of reputable theories, and has generated dialogue across many fields. With a quarter-century of experience teaching science and its history to college students, Keas is qualified to lay out the facts to show how far the conventional wisdom about science and religion departs from reality. He has done so in the ISI book Unbelievable: 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion.