People I respect keep telling me there is marvelous work being done in the area of theology. I have never encountered it, and not for lack of looking. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether perhaps I am just reading the wrong things. The religion and theology section of my university’s library is quite large, and the percentage of it I have read is quite small. So I am open to the possibility that the really good arguments are in the books I have not read.
As it happens, Jerry Coyne has been wondering the same thing. A philosopher correspondent of his selected two books for him to read. The correspondent suggested that theology is the wrong place to look for discussions regarding God’s existence, and that the analytical philosophy of religion provides more nourishing fare. The two books were The Existence of God, by Richard Swinburne, and Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience by William Alston. Coyne’s correspondent writes,
Either work may well irritate you or leave you dissatisfied in various ways. But I predict that if you approach it with an open mind, it won’t elicit the sort of commentary that other believers’ works have occasioned in your posts. Instead, I expect you will manage more respect — thereby achieving (in my opinion at least!) a deeper respectability.
I have not read Alston’s book, so I will have to add it to my list. I am familiar with Alston from his writing on the problem of evil. He argues that human epistemic capabilities are so limited, especially when compared to God’s infinite wisdom, that we should not expect to comprehend why God would allow intense pain and suffering. The question is simply too complex for our limited understanding, in rather the same way that quantum physics is too complex for a dog. Suffice it to say, I do not believe atheists have much to fear from such arguments.
I have read my share of Swinburne, however, including The Existence of God. I fear he had the opposite effect on me from what Coyne’s correspondent described. It is not anything I learned from the fundamentalists that has driven me to my generally negative opinion of theology and the philosophy of religion. It is people like Swinburne who did that.
On the other hand, I read The Existence of God several years ago, so perhaps it is time to revisit it. So here is the first of what will be a very occasional series analyzing Swinburne’s arguments. I warn you in advance that I may lose interest in this part way through, but let’s have a go at it anyway.
Chapter One is mostly a groundlaying chapter. It’s most important statement is probably this:
I take the proposition `God exists’ (and the equivalent proposition `There is a God’) to be logically equivalent to `there exists a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal, is perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things.’. I use `God’ as the name of the person picked out by this description. I understand by God’s being eternal that he always has existed and always will exist. (p. 8)
Swinburne goes on to elaborate further regarding what he means by this terminology, but I will take his intention as sufficiently clear.
Much of the chapter is given over to logical preliminaries. Swinburne distinguishes first between deductive and inductive arguments. He notes that his case for the existence of God is primarily inductive. He then draws a further distinction between P-inductive and C-inductive arguments. The former are those whose premises render the conclusion probable, while the latter are those whose premises render the conclusion more likely than it would have been otherwise.
His main thesis is that the classical theological arguments, such as the cosmological and ontological arguments, are good C-inductive arguments. In each case the evidence cited makes God’s existence more likely than it would be without that evidence. He implies, but does state explicitly, that he regards the sum total of these C-inductive arguments to be a strong P-inductive argument. He also considers the argument from evil and concludes that it does not constitute a strong C-inductive argument against God.
For me, the big red flag goes up when he starts using the notation of probability theory to express his ideas, as he does here. I will withhold final judgment until I see Swinburne’s specific application of it later in the book, but I know from sad experience that such formalism often serves as a way of lending phony precision to bad arguments.
The problem comes when we try to apply Bayes’ Theorem to a quantity like, “The probability that God exists, given certain evidence and background knowledge.” Swinburne notes that in using probabilistic formalism he does not mean to suggest that we can necessarily assign specific numbers to any particular probability. It is often enough to be able to compare probabilities without assigning specific numbers. That is fine as far as it goes.
But part of applying Bayes’ Theorem to a statement such as the one above involves assigning some prior probability to God’s existence. I am not sure what basis we have for making such an assignment, but I would note that it is not even clear that God as Swinburne describes Him is even within the realm of possibility. That is, a notion like “Mind without body,” might well be, so far as we know, a contradiction in terms. We certainly have no experience with such a thing. Every mind with which we are familiar is embodied. Moreover, God is said to be able to alter natural laws with an act of His will, and to have perfect foreknowledge of all that is to occur. Can such things be? No intelligence with which we are familiar can do anything remotely like what Swinburne describes.
For these reasons, and others I could mention, the God hypothesis should be given such a low prior probability that truly extraordinary evidence is needed to render it plausible. When you then factor in the evidence against God (as Swinburne defines Him) from the problems of evil and divine hiddeness, I’d say Swinburne as his evidential work cut out for him.
A theist might reply that if I am comparing theism to the atheistic alternative then it is not enough just to say theism has a low prior probability. After all, perhaps atheism ought to be given an even lower prior probability. That is, rival explanations must compete with one another. That one might seem to have a low probability is not a reason for rejecting it if all the alternatives have even lower probabilities.
It is a fair point, but I would note that non-God based understandings of the universe have been adequate for explaining virtually everything in our daily lives. The protestations of theists notwithstanding, there just does not seem to be anything in our regular experience that cries out for an explanation as extraordinary as the one Swinburne advocates. Even the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants now seems like a complete non-issue in light of the many plausible multiverse theories coming from physics. You might argue that the multiverse is speculative, and indeed it is. But it has a solid grounding in physics and does not ask me to hypothesize into existence anything that is utterly contrary to all experience. It asks only that I look around me and suppose that there is far more of the same.
Is Swinburne up to the challenge? I doubt it, but let us wait and see…