Sunday, December 16, 2012

Richard Swinburne On God

RICHARD SWINBURNE (born 1934), Oxford Professor of Philosophy, one of the most influential theistic philosophers

1. “The basic structure of my argument is this. Scientists, historians, and detectives observe data and proceed thence to some theory about what best explains the occurrence of these data. We can analyze the criteria which they use in reaching a conclusion that a certain theory is better supported by the data than a different theory – that is, is more likely, on the basis of those data, to be true. Using those same criteria, we find that the view that there is a God explains everything we observe, not just some narrow range of data. It explains the fact that there is a universe at all, that scientific laws operate within it, that it contains conscious animals and humans with very complex intricately organized bodies, that we have abundant opportunities for developing ourselves and the world, as well as the more particular data that humans report miracles and have religious experiences. In so far as scientific causes and laws explain some of these things (and in part they do), these very causes and laws need explaining, and God’s action explains them. The very same criteria which scientists use to reach their own theories lead us to move beyond those theories to a creator God who sustains everything in existence.” (Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?, Oxford University Press, 1996, 2, italics in original).

2. “What the theist claims about God is that he does have a power to create, conserve, or annihilate anything, big or small. And he can also make objects move or do anything else. He can make them attract or repel each other, in the way that scientists have discovered that they do, and make them cause other objects to do or suffer various things: he can make the planets move in the way that Kepler discovered that they move, or make gunpowder explode when we set a match to it; or he can make planets move in quite different ways, and chemical substances explode or not explode under quite different conditions from those which now govern their behaviour. God is not limited by the laws of nature; he makes them and he can change or suspend them – if he chooses.” (Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?, Oxford University Press, 1996, 5-6). 


  1. So "these very causes and laws need explaining" but the existence of God doesn't?

    It goes against Occam's Razor. It's just adding a layer and saying "God is the answer and he breaks every rule" instead of saying "I don't know, but if God could be the answer that breaks every rule then why not instead save a step and allow the causes and rules to be the answer that break every rule?".

  2. err... causes and scientific laws. you get what i'm saying.

  3. Well the ultimate goal of science is to find a theory of everything. Something that explains everything and itself no longer needs a cause and an explanation. What that something is and whether or not it exists is of course all speculation. One would think you can't just have a cause and effect relationship of things that's infinitely long. That would be nonsense. Perhaps God is the answer of everything by his very nature? Obviously no one knows but to me it seems like as good of a guess as any and perhaps better than most.

  4. Well if you want to call the mystery that started it all "god" then that's fine. But it doesn't lead us any closer to actually knowing. It's just saying, "I can imagine something that could have caused it all - it doesn't need a beginning, it always existed, and it caused everything... so there, problem solved!". But it doesn't solve the problem. It's just imagining a convenient solution.

    The God of religion is infinitely more complex than the universe. Wouldn't it be far less possible for a super-complex God to have 'just happened' than for a less-complex universe to have 'just happened'? How would does adding "god" to the equation gets us any closer to an answer?

  5. Well the same holds true for naturalism. It's saying "I can imagine that naturalistic causes did everything and that God is unnecessary." That world view doesn't necessarily get us any closer to the actual truth either and is just as much a position of speculation and belief as is the position of God being the ultimate answer.

    In a universe full of planets, black holes, life, consciousness, atoms, and quantum mechanics I don't think we should rule out any possibility just because it seems "too complex" for our minds. No doubt we humans are much more complex than a hydrogen or carbon atom from an exploding star but that doesn't mean we are too complex to be made up of them. And besides no one from the major monotheistic religions are arguing that God "just happened." If he does turn out to be the ultimate explanation that the theory of everything is hoping to realize someday then he wouldn't have an explanation for how he "came to be." He would be the uncaused cause for everything.

    Obviously there is no way of knowing at this point in time but it seems to be to be a decent inference to the best explanation.

  6. Yeah. I don't take naturalism to that degree. I don't know what caused the origin of the universe. And I don't think it's fair to speculate "magic" and then just run with it (in the same way that we shouldn't speculate with any other untested, evidence-lacking hypothesis, even if it's 'natural', and just run with it as fact).

    The point still stands: When explaining the origins of the universe, God is an extra and unnecessary step. If you say we need an uncaused cause, why make it "God"? Why not the original element whatever that may have been? If you need an intelligent mind (complex) to create the laws of the universe (less complex), why not just start with the laws of the universe since they're simpler? For anything that makes God 'necessary', it seems you can always apply those attributes to something simpler and more plausible.

  7. Yeah I know you don't, you have a pretty honest approach to the matter which is obviously good.

    I know I've said this before but I'm not convinced God is an extra unnecessary step. Especially if we include the possibility that the "original element" (or whatever we want to term it) could be considered god in a deistic sense. I mean does attributing intelligence to the eternal first cause make it somehow less probable? Why does it have to be unconscious and non-living? I'm just not convinced that physical laws alone can account for the existence of anything. After all they're called laws because they act in predictable ways on what already exists. It's like saying why include a baker if we can already account for the cake baking because it's being acted on by natural laws in the oven. Obviously the baker was still a necessary step in the process.

  8. Well of course the baker/muffin comparison to our universe isn't totally fair because it suggests that the universe required an intelligent mind to create it just like a muffin would require - which is speculative. But I know what you mean.

    It just seems odd to me to say, "I can't imagine how this amazing universe could just come into existence without a designer" - and then not question how such a designer, which is necessarily more complicated than the universe, could have come into existence without an explanation. If we're not going to have an explanation for something because it's too complex or lacks an explanation altogether ('uncaused'), why not stop where the evidence stops? No doubt there might be a multiverse or a never-ending list of designers who were created by more complicated designers or whatever... but we know we have the universe. We have empirical evidence of this. Why do we need to say "maybe there's an invisible designer too?" and then have that speculative possibility play a role in our day-to-day lives any more than the possibility of a multiverse or a super-god that created god or whatever else?

  9. Yeah fair enough. The explanation of course being that he/it/god is the something that is eternal. The interesting question is not how this being came into existence but how it is possible that it is eternal. For me that is the big mystery. The other question I guess is where exactly does the evidence stop? If famous atheist scientists like Dawkins can admit a "good case" can be made for a deistic god that would imply there is at least some evidence to infer a best explanation of a supreme mind or intelligence as the end cause for our universe. Of course you know my position on the matter and I'll never claim God or a god is for sure the ultimate source and hold that belief to be utter truth. But we can say "maybe there is an intelligent designer" because the things like life, consciousness, apparent design, fine-tuning, something having to be eternal etc. leave the possibility open. We can't say for sure there is a God but we can't rule it out either and thus all we can do is make an inference to the best explanation as best we can and keep and open mind.