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Swinburne's Justification for Naivete

By Francois Tremblay

Posted August 22, 2004

Despite having written a great number of books, couching his arguments in lengthy prose, and being hailed by Leadership University as "perhaps the most significant proponent of argumentative theism today", I'm afraid to say that Richard Swinburne is the least sophisticated of all the theologians I have reviewed. As Richard Dawkins says in his review of Swinburne's book "Is There a God ?", "[i]f this is theology, perhaps Professor Swinburne's colleagues are wise to be less lucid". I will come back to Dawkins' article, but as for the quote, I have to agree that Swinburne is not difficult to understand, but that this makes his gross errors all the more clearer.

I have chosen to review Swinburne's article "The Justification of Theism", available on Leadership University at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth09.html, for two reasons. First, the topic of the article - defending theism - gives us confidence that he is going to present his best foot forward. Secondly, the article illustrates Swinburne's personal fallacies very clearly, as you will see.

"The Justification of Theism" is divided in five parts, the first part being an introduction to inductive arguments which for some reason Swinburne felt was necessary to include. Problematically, he does not describe inductive arguments at all, but rather the principle of parsimony. Why a prominent theologian would confuse the two is a mystery.

At any rate, I will review the other sections in turn.

II. Arguments from the Existence and Order of the Universe

Swinburne's mainstays, the category error and the argument from ignorance, are evident in both his arguments here. He starts with:

"My first phenomenon which provides evidence for the existence of God is the existence of the universe for so long as it has existed (whether a finite time or, if it has no beginning, an infinite time). This is something evidently inexplicable by science. (...) But what science by its very nature cannot explain is why there are any states of affairs at all."

And then :

"My next phenomenon is the operation of the most general laws of nature, that is, the orderliness of nature in conforming to very general laws.

(...)

But what science by its very nature cannot explain is why there are the most general laws of nature that there are; for, ex hypothesi, no wider law can explain their operation."

These two natural evidences, the existence of the universe and the laws of nature, form Swinburne's first argument. He goes on to explain that naturalistic explanations do not exist, but that there is a simple compatible explanation, personal creation.

Now, there is a simplistic category error that is common to theologians. Given that they close their eyes to the necessity of the universe, and believe in divine creation (implying contingency as a default), they cannot understand the naturalistic position placing the universe as first cause. This leads them to ask such futile questions as "why is there something instead of nothing" or, in this case, "why does the universe exist in a state of affairs X".

If the universe is the first cause, then we cannot ask such questions. The fact that there is something, and that the universe unfolds in a state of affairs X, is a necessary fact. It makes no more sense to contradict the rational worldview by demanding an explanation for the existence of the universe than it would make sense to contradict the theological worldview by demanding an explanation for the existence of God.

This category error is used here in the case of the existence of the universe. Swinburne is in error when he implies that the existence of the universe is in the category of issues that can have an explanation.

The argument from ignorance is even more manifest in the case of natural laws. Here Swinburne simply asserts that, because science cannot have an answer, the answer must be theological in nature. Depending on which context Swinburne is leaning on, his argument is wrong in two different ways:

* If he is referring to the existence of natural laws within the cosmological context, science does have an answer to that question. Big Bang cosmology tells us that the laws of nature were formed, along with the matter of which they are part, during the first moments. For instance, gravity was formed after one Planck time (10-43 seconds), and then the other forces, in what is technically called symmetry breaks in the early universe. Likewise, the attributes of the particles we know today arose for the latter's formation - quarks arose around 10-33 seconds, protons and neutrons around 10-5 seconds, and so on.

* If he is referring to the philosophical problem of the existence of laws themselves, the problem is not really difficult at all. It is called the problem of induction, and is derived from causality. Causality tells us that causes create effects according to their nature, and we know as a necessary fact that all existents have an identity. Finding the nature of these identities is the problem of science, and as I just noted, Big Bang theory already explained these facts.

Given that Swinburne's premises are clearly and completely wrong, we must reject the rest of his argument, which basically only repeats the facts of the matter and his fallacious application of the principle of parsimony. For instance :

"The hypothesis that there is a God is the hypothesis of the existence of the simplest kind of person which there could be.

(...)

He is a person of infinite power, knowledge, and freedom; a person to whose power, knowledge, and freedom there are no limits except those of logic. The hypothesis that there exists a being with infinite degrees of the qualities essential to a being of that kind is the postulation of a very simple being. The hypothesis that there is such a God is a much simpler hypothesis than the hypothesis that there is a god who has such and such a limited power."

There are many things wrong with the idea that God is the simplest personal hypothesis there is. For one thing, we cannot actually imagine how simple or complex a god can be, given that it is a meaningless concept in the first place, which exists in a meaningless substrate. True, the notion is conceptually simple, but that tells us absolutely nothing about how ontologically simple it is, which is the point of parsimony in the first place, let alone how coherent it is. In fact, strong-atheistic arguments show clearly how meaningless and incoherent the God hypothesis is, partly because of the meaninglessness I mentioned.

Secondly, inductive arguments clearly show that the more personal and powerful something is, the more complex it tends to be. Simple organisms are neither, and complex organisms, such as primates like us, tend to contain more personhood and power. If God is an ultimately powerful being, we should expect it to be extremely complex.

Finally, and decisively, the principle of parsimony does not apply to a hypothesis that cannot explain the facts. The "God hypothesis" cannot explain any fact, since as I pointed out it is meaningless, and neither is it a hypothesis, since there is no observation available to posit such a hypothesis. Science already explains the existence and nature of the universe well enough for us to reject the "God hypothesis" as explaining any observation.

III. The Argument from the Evolution of Animals and Men

Swinburne's arguments from ignorance continue in the next section, but here he uses biological evolution as evidence. In the first paragraph, he gives a surprisingly accurate (if simple) account of neo-Darwinian mechanisms. But then he asks once again:

"First, the evolutionary mechanism which Darwin describes only works because there are certain laws of biochemistry (animals produce many offspring, these vary in various ways from the parents, and so forth) and certain features of the environment (there is a limited amount of food, drink, space, and so on). But why are there these laws rather than other laws? Perhaps because they follow from the most fundamental laws of physics. But the question then arises as to why the fundamental laws of physics are such as to give rise to laws of evolution."

Why? Obviously, because they were the result of the Big Bang. Of course, the Christian can then ask why the universe had to arise in this specific way, but as I pointed out before, that is a category error. The universe as a whole is uncaused, and therefore not the kind of thing that can have an explanation, any more than God for the theist can have an explanation.

Biological evolution is treasured by atheists precisely because it explain part of reality, and thus pushes the God hypothesis one more step into uselessness. This is also derisively called the "god-of-the-gaps" method of justifying theism, because it uses an argument from ignorance to prove that there are things that a god is necessary to explain. But science can theoretically explain any natural phenomena, and even if it couldn't, we would have no basis whatsoever to posit a "God hypothesis", let alone consider it simpler.

Swinburne's second objection is even more bizarre :

"Secondly, Darwinian theory is concerned only with the physical characteristics of animals and men. Yet men have thoughts and feelings, beliefs and desires, and they make choices. These are events totally different from publicly observable physical events.

(...)

Yet brain events do cause mental events; no doubt there are regular correlations between this type of brain events and that type of mental event, and yet no scientific theory can say why there are the particular correlations there are, or indeed any correlations at all (why did not evolution just throw up unfeeling robots?)."

It is hard to interpret Swinburne's confusion here. Is he referring to the mind-body problem, or is he asking why evolution created beings with emotions, as the last part of the quote suggests? If the latter, he should know, since he wrote a good account of evolution earlier: the answer is that emotions provide evolutionary advantage. An emotion is a shortcut between a percept and a desirable response. Whether it is manifested in the fight-flight response to predators in different situations, esthetic and lust responses to desirable body types, the satisfaction we get from eating tasty food, all emotions evolved in response to specific optimization problems.

As for the mind-body problem, I would tend to agree with reductionists that the difference between the mind and the brain is an illusion, that mind activity is ontologically equivalent to brain states (i.e. identity theory). And every scientific study that gives us the specific locations in the brain of mental activity is a validation of mental reductionism. Swinburne's position can be dismissed as a use of the diaphanous fallacy (see my article "The Diaphanous Model of Awareness: Using Illusions as Arguments"), in that he is assuming that our subjective perception of the mind's qualities overrides scientific fact, and is indefensible in view of the research being done on the topic.

Maybe he can mount a better argument for the idea that God specifically manipulates our brain to bring about mental states, a ridiculous idea on the face of it, but he does not do so here. Why does Swinburne's god bother doing all this itself, is a theological mystery.

IV. Outline of Arguments from Miracles and Religious Experience

Swinburne proposes two more arguments based on supposed divine intervention in daily life. The first uses miracles. Now, he only proposes one miracle for us to examine: Jesus' resurrection. Probably in answer to the obvious retort that the Biblical Jesus did not exist, he states:

"There is no space to discuss here the historical evidence for the Resurrection (or any other reported miracle). My only point here is that in so far as there is good historical evidence of the physical resurrection of Jesus (as I believe that there is)... "

This is a disingenuous evasion at best. Swinburne must be aware of the controversy surrounding this "evidence", and yet does not even provide names or references, which would not have taken much space at all. As I point out in my article "The Jesus Myth", there is no such historical evidence, and the very existence of a historical Jesus (let alone a Biblical one) is to be gravely doubted. If this is Swinburne's sole miracle, we can safely dismiss this line of evidence.

His second argument is based on religious experience. Now, why should we trust religious experience ? In his justification, Swinburne is starting to sound like his peer Plantinga, whose naive view of interpretation I examine in "Plantinga's Basic Belief: Not Quite Basic". Basically, he also holds that appearances must be trusted unless shown otherwise:

"It is a basic principle of knowledge, which I have called the principle of credulity, that we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be, until we have evidence that we are mistaken. If it seems to me that I am seeing a table or hearing my friend's voice, I ought to believe this until evidence appears that I have been deceived. If you say the contrary-never trust appearances until it is proved that they are reliable, you will never have any beliefs at all. For what would show that appearances were reliable, except more appearances?"

As I pointed out against Plantinga, perception is certainly credible, in fact perfectly credible, but our interpretation of percepts is subject to human fallibility. If we applied Swinburne's criteria, and did not know about refraction, we would look at the "bent stick" experiment and conclude that the stick is indeed bent. After all, we "ought to believe this until evidence appears that [we] have been deceived".

In real life, we mediate this naive view with our rational and scientific understanding of reality, in order to draw proper conclusions. I know the stick is not bent because I know what refraction is and how it works. What I do not do, is immediately conclude that the stick is bent until further evidence appears to me.

You may think my example unfair, but Swinburne is not trying to convince us to believe that a stick in water is bent. He is trying to convince us of no less than religious experience being proof of a supernatural Creator! Such an interpretative claim is far, far more complex than the "bent stick" experiment.

For one thing, it implies that we actually accept that "religious experiences" are possible. The notion of a religious experience implies that we are perceiving God, or at least a non-material reality. But the problem with this kind of proposition is the same as proposing that miracles happen : to claim this implies that one has omniscient knowledge of all the laws of nature. Otherwise, one cannot claim that a god or non-material reality is a necessary explanation, or more probable explanation, for the experience we designate as "religious". And as neurological research on the "god module" has shown, purely physiological explanations are definitely present in the human brain. Whether we have a complete explanation or not, the notion of "religious experience" still demands omniscience, and therefore must be rejected as illogical unless better arguments are presented.

Also, to label religious experiences as proof for theism is problematic because the results are culture-dependent. As I point out in my article The Infallibility of Sense Perception, the "perception" of the presumed "divine sense" changes from person to person and from culture to culture, which indicates the presence of a subjective interpretation imposed on a simpler objective phenomena. Even if it was possible to have "religious experiences", we do not have such experiences.

Swinburne's "principle of credulity " is only a simplistic reformulation of the naive view of Reformed Epistemology. Both suffer from a complete lack of understanding of the difference between perception and interpretation, and of the complexity of the supposedly "basic" interpretations proposed by theists to prove God.

V. Mackie's The Miracle of Theism

Predictably, Swinburne only analyzes one atheistic argument, the Problem of Evil. In the article, he discusses three specific parts of J.L. Mackie's refutation of his position in "The Miracle of Theism". His position against the Problem of Evil seems to be of the same type than the arguments from ignorance we have seen previously.

I do not intend here to go through these three points, as I agree with his conclusion about the first, and have already answered the third. I will only here discuss the second, in which he disputes Mackie's claim that the Christian claim that it is probable that God created this universe lacks specificity, that is to say, that nothing in a god's nature implies that he creates this universe instead of any other, or even none. Swinburne replies to this:

"A perfectly free, omnipotent and omniscient being can only do what is best to do (or do one among many equally best actions). In so far as an agent believes that some action is the best action (that is, what there is most reason to do), he will do it (...). But we can see that it is a good thing that God should make a universe containing men, and (once we have thought about it-as I argued in The Existence of God) we can see that it is good that God should allow men to suffer to a limited extent for a short finite period for the sake of the greater goods which that makes possible -that is, the opportunity for free choice between good and evil, and the opportunity to show patience, courage and compassion. But there are surely certain evils, for example, undeserved suffering of infinite intensity or duration, which God would not be justified in bringing about for the sake of some greater good. Hence the hypothesis of God's existence has the consequence that there will not be such evils. This is not an additional "particularity" which we attribute to God, but follows from His essential nature."

To formalize this a bit, something that Swinburne seems to be loathe to do, he believes that the two following propositions answer the problem of specificity:

(1) "it is a good thing that God should make a universe containing men"

(2) "it is good that God should allow men to suffer to a limited extent for a short finite period for the sake of the greater goods which that makes possible" - a soul-building theodicy.

To this, we must answer that it is not at all obvious why it is a good thing for God to do anything. Insofar as inaction is perfectly justifiable for an infinite being, and would not entail any evil, it certainly seems a much more credible specific decision for a god to take than creating a universe, given that the latter can entail evil. And why God should create men specifically, instead of any other sentient species, is a mystery.

As for the soul-building theodicy, it does not show specificity, but rather tries to rationalize human evils, given that (1) leaves the possibility of evil wide open. But the soul-building theodicy is not an adequate answer. For one thing, the Problem of Evil does not hold as premise that there is gratuitous evil, but rather that evil exists, whether gratuitous or not. That is to say, omnibenevolence cannot effect evil. Swinburne reformulates this in terms of best action, but as I pointed out, there is already an alternative that requires no evil : doing nothing.  So there is no functional difference between either formulation.

Furthermore, there are possible states of the universe which include second-order goods and no first-order evils. God could, for instance, implant those second-order goods in the structure of the human brain, or even induce them itself. Or it could create a state of affairs where humans gain second-order goods through other means. If God is omnipotent, he can certainly create these state of affairs. Therefore the soul-building theodicy does not justify calling our current state of affairs an optimal creative decision.

Finally, he is plain wrong as regards to the absence of eternal suffering, since Christianity does propose such a thing - Hell. Unless Swinburne does not believe in the doctrine of Hell, he contradicts himself with such a proposition. And if he does not, then he would no doubt have mentioned it, since the counter-example is so obvious. Either way, it is the nail in Swinburne's theodicy-lined coffin.