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
"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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.