This is the script for my YouTube video: Critique of Richard Swinburne’s Argument for God.
Today’s video might seem a little dry, as we will necessarily rummage through the desiccate ashes and bones of medieval metaphysics which form Richard Swinburne’s thinking. I think it’s worth the effort, however, because it gives us a realistic measure of the quality of modern theistic philosophy. Many apologists admit, when pressed, that Plantinga is disappointing and William Lain Craig is a dishonest rhetorician, but Swinburne! Now there’s our real philosopher!
In 2016, Swinburne contributed to the Philosophy Society Lecture Series at the University of Edinburgh where he gave a full exposition of his argument for the existence of god. The video of this talk, which is linked to below, gives us a perfect means to critically examine this argument.
Swinburne considers himself a natural theologian. That is: he claims to employ the scientific method of induction from observed phenomena to arrive at the most probable explanation for these phenomena. His inductive method builds upon cumulative probabilities of succeeding phenomena to arrive at the most probable.
I’ll ask your forgiveness for starting with a necessarily lengthy clip of his setup of his explanation because it is important to our understanding the rhetorical trick that this will enable:
In setting up his argument he presupposes two critical factors, the first of which we see here as the presupposition of a personal rather than inanimate (or scientific) explanation. In describing these two types of explanatory hypothesis he implies the only essential difference between them is that personal substances have conscious intent where inanimate substances have essential but unconscious liability toward an action. Since his hypothesis is the existence of god supported by observation, he would necessarily need to show that intent is the best explanation of observed phenomena, thus his is a personal explanatory hypothesis. Of course, if he fails at some point to justify this claim of intent, he is then merely concluding god through prior supposition of god. Accordingly, he will later attempt to prove conscious intent through the claim of intelligent design, an argument that itself presupposes intent, as we will see, and thus fails to escape circular reasoning.
He then proposes four criteria for determining the truth of an explanatory hypothesis:
1. We must have observed many phenomena which it quite probable would occur and no phenomena which it quite probable would not have occurred.
This is just saying that any explanation would have to be compatible with observed phenomena.
2. It must be far less probable that a phenomenon would occur in the normal course of things if the hypothesis is false.
As you will see when we get to his actual argument, he runs into to trouble with this criterion because he resorts to wild claims about probability that we can’t possibly know. We will also see the problems of the fallacy of argument from rarity, and that metaphysical conjecture can be made to fit any set of observations because it isn’t constrained by reality.
3. The hypothesis must be simple, that is it must postulate the existence and operation of few substances and few kinds of substances with a few easily describable properties behaving in mathematically simple kinds of ways.
I said earlier that Swinburne had two critical presuppositions, the first being a personal explanation. This supposition of simplicity is that second and where we will see Swinburne get into real trouble. We need to spend some time on this criterion because his entire argument rests completely on this single claim, which he emphasis at multiple times in his presentation. If this claim remains unjustified, his entire argument collapses. In fact, his entire philosophical approach in general rests on the claim to simplicity, as he wrote in 1997 in Simplicity as Evidence for Truth:
I seek…to show that—other things being equal—the simplest hypothesis proposed as an explanation of phenomena is more likely to be the true one than is any other available hypothesis, that its predictions are more likely to be true than those of any other available hypothesis, and that it is an ultimate a priori epistemic principle that simplicity is evidence for truth (Swinburne 1997, p. 1).
- Swinburne, R., 1997, Simplicity as Evidence for Truth, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.
But is the simplest hypothesis really more probable to be true? Is it really an a priori epistemic principle, or an anachronistic Christian claim? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses this and then quotes the analytic philosopher, J.J.C.
For these reasons, few philosophers today are content to rest with a theological justification of simplicity principles. Yet there is no doubting the influence such justifications have had on past and present attitudes to simplicity. As Smart (1994) writes:
There is a tendency…for us to take simplicity…as a guide to metaphysical truth. Perhaps this tendency derives from earlier theological notions: we expect God to have created a beautiful universe (Smart 1984, p. 121).
- Smart, J.J.C., 1984, “Ockham’s Razor,” in Principles of Philosophical Reasoning, ed. Fetzer, 118–28.
This traces the general acceptance of this principle of simplicity back to early Christian philosophers and theologians, who derived this principle from the idea that the Christian god is innately rational and thus created a rationally understandable simple universe.
In fact, Swinburne will go on to ground simplicity in the nature of god in this argument, but what are we to do if observation confirms a universe that isn’t simple or beautifully unified?
The problem grows more acute when the hypothesis posits a purely metaphysical being, such as god. The theist can claim any powers and attributes necessary to build a just-so explanation of phenomena because he is not constrained by reality. We could never test god to see if he exists or if he has these claimed qualities customed tailored to fit the phenomena. But in the end, our understanding of phenomena improves over time, leaving the theist’s god explaining a world wrongly portrayed. And that is another of Swinburne’s downfalls.
But focused solely on the applicability of the simplicity principle, we can look back to the controversy over a geocentric universe versus a heliocentric universe. Both Ptolemy and Copernicus devised rational systematic explanations that accurately predicted the appearance of the night sky. Some Christians came to grudgingly accept Copernicus over time on the basis that his explanation was simpler as the mathematical calculations needed to explain simpler planetary movements. But in reality, Ptolemy certainly had the simpler explanation with one focal point around which the entire cosmos orbits, whereas we now know that there are innumerable suns with orbiting planets. Many orbital focal points instead of one. The much more complicated system of many orbital focal points proved to be true.
In the late 19th Century atomic theory was thought to be the simple and fundamental explanation that correctly predicted chemical reactions, with atoms seen as the smallest indivisible elements of the universe. A few decades later Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg upended that simple notion with quantum mechanics, which showed not only a highly complicated subatomic structure, but events that defied time, space, and causality. It was criticized for some time on the bases that it was too complicated and irrational to be true, as with Einstein’s famous comment that god does not play dice with the universe. He, along with Podolsky and Rosen, wrote a paper claiming the Copenhagen Interpretation must be incomplete because nature exists as a unification of simple natural laws. It is often said that Einstein was the last physicist who could honestly claim a simple rational universe. In the 1960’s, John Bell proved conclusively that Quantum Mechanics is true despite its irrational defiance of time, space and deterministic causality. Nevertheless, there still are some physicists chasing the dream of a grand unification theory, but the more we learn the dimmer that hope becomes. Poincare, Wigner, and Gödel have demonstrated that fundamental reality is noncomputable, rendering the applicability of mathematics approximate, and rational systems provisional and tightly bounded by time, space, and chosen events. The universe inexorably rebels against any attempt to describe it in terms of any one theory or set of calculations. Newtonian physics failed to describe events at the macro level while quantum mechanics cannot account for gravity central to the general theory of relativity.
Decades later, Hawking retorted that god not only plays dice with the universe, he sometimes even hides the dice.
But if the universe is irrational at its most fundamental level, the antiquated Christian claim of simplicity is invalid and any argument solely resting on that claim will founder.
4. Must fit within our knowledge of how the world works in wider field (our background evidence)
This simply means that the hypothesis must conform to other knowledge outside the scope of the proposed hypothesis. Again, this is a dubious criterion in that what we have shown above guarantees contradictory hypothesis, such as general relativity and quantum theory, because of the limitation in space, time and chosen events producing only approximate, limited, and provisional explanations. It also becomes moot, in that Swinburne claims it unnecessary to demonstrate given the infinite scope of his claimed god leaving no wider field.
We can now examine his actual argument. He presents four phenomena which he believes are best explained by a personal god:
1. The existence of a physical universe
2. From its conformity to simple natural laws
3. That such laws lead to human and animal bodies
4. And from those bodies to bodies of reasoning humans who choose between good and evil.
His method is now to subject each of these four phenomena to the four criterion he proposed above. We will look at his argument now one step at a time:
Personal argument: God is one person with intent, omnipotent and omniscient capable of any rational act, that is without logical contradiction
This is a curious argument. First of all, we need to ask why an omnipotent being would be constrained by logic. If he is capable of creating anything at all, he certainly would be able to create a livable world unconstrained by logic. And when he goes on to further explain that the logical design of nature enables man to understand this world, he necessarily limits the omniscience of god to that of mere mortals. But there is a deeper problem. As quantum physics, as well as Wigner, Poincare, and Gödel demonstrated, the world itself is not rational, implying that nature’s powers exceed god’s, as his power is limited to rational acts.
Without irrational desires but driven by reason alone, therefore perfectly free
This is another odd claim which goes back to the Christian notion that senses are sinful and reason is pure. He seems to have adopted Kant’s notion of Transcendental Reason as the key to free will as it allows us to override the worldly urges of the senses. But are urges and emotions not also good? What about the emotion of awe when we experience the sublime? Is love not stronger than pale reason? And if god created the world according to his rational intention, how did emotions get here to begin with? It would seem to me that a better explanation is that esthetic experience allows us to perceive the deeper mystery of reality that reason conceals. There is profound knowledge to be gained esthetically in great works of art, literature and music. This would be a mode of knowledge available to man, but not to a purely rational god. Here again, the experience of man entails more ability than the claimed omnipotent god.
Everlasting as eternal within time
He binds god to the flow of time because he can’t make sense of imagining it any other way. This again is hugely problematic in that not all of physical reality exists in time. Contemporary physics is homing in on the observation that time is emergent from the vibratory clock of mass. This implies there is no time in a universe at the time of inflation, i.e. the big bang or for some time after when the universe has cooled enough for particles to form, and in particular, to interact with the Higgs field. All mass emerges from such interaction with the Higgs field. That would imply that time would also not pertain and the lowest quantum field level. Likewise, when the universe has reached the point of expansion where all mass is too distant to interact, it entirely would return to the state of cold timelessness. In addition, we know from relativity that there is no universal or cosmic flow of time, but an infinite number of local times. What Swinburne proposes here is nonsense based on Medieval ignorance. But once again, we see physical reality with greater power than a supposedly omniscient god because it is free from a temporal flow in which Swinburne’s god is bound.
Here he tries to demonstrate that one omnipotent and omniscient god is the simplest personal explanation. Critically absent, however, is the comparison to an inanimate explanation of the cosmos. If we were to ignore the contradictions and false assumption of simplicity inherent in his exposition and simply take it on its own terms, his principle of simplicity would lead him to this problem: His explanation of the physical world explained by an immaterial god outside of our world requires two substances: the observable inanimate and the unobservable person of god. By the way, in other writing Swinburne tries to defend the dual substance claim of Cartesian Duality. An inanimate explanation derived solely from power and liability would not only go far in resolving the aforementioned conflicts but be simpler by containing only one substance.
He goes on to other claims that seem counter to his notion of omnipotence, such as god’s inability to effect past events, which appears possible in the physical world through wave collapse of light received from billions of years ago. But quibbling over these issues is probably unnecessary at this point and would distract us from his fatal problem stemming from his simplicity principle. In fact, he leaves this obvious problem unspoken and instead turns to the issues of probability to show there must be intention in the creation of the universe.
He gives a lengthy exposition of criterion 1 – that an omniscient god would want to create only good, and goes through a sequence of things that ends with man as a conscious substance with free will. It is in his exposition of criterion 2 that he pivots to his problematic claims of probabilities.
Criterion 2 If no god it is immensely improbable that these four phenomena would occur
Increasing improbabilities building up Fine tuning.
For particles to just happen after the big bang,
That they would behave in the ways of relativity and quantum theory
That the universe should have given rise to human bodies
Consciousness totally improbable without a creator (impossible)
He, of course, is using the all-too-familiar intelligent design argument from fine tuning. This argument has been thoroughly debunked from two different directions, but theists continue to employ it anyway. I had a go round with William Lain Craig on this topic when he attempted to rebut an article I wrote on fine tuning with his usual strawmanning, false assertion of facts, and personal insult. When I critiqued his attempted refutation he stopped responding.
The first refutation of intelligent design focuses on theist claims of probabilities. Here, Swinburne moves through his four chosen phenomena claiming increasing and compounding improbability at each step and concluding with consciousness being total improbable, which is to say impossible, through chance. The problem here is there is no possible way to determine any of these probabilities, although theists have claimed to do so.
Physicists themselves disagree about the probabilities of the development of our constants. It all comes down to the degrees of freedom imbedded in the cosmos, which nobody can know for sure. Some, such as Einstein, argue that the universe is totally deterministic, i.e. with zero degrees of freedom, and therefore its evolution, including conscious humans, was 100% certain. Others, such as Penrose, calculate infinite degrees of freedom, rendering our universe incalculably improbable. What theists fail to mention, however, is that Penrose also claims that there are infinite rebirths of universes that make all permutations inevitable, including our own. The truth is that we can have no real knowledge of the probabilities because we cannot know the physical state before the initial inflation of our universe. All we know is that our physical laws developed only after inflation, leaving us with no information about the prior physical state. This fact also undermines theists attempts to misuse Bayesian Analysis to calculate the improbability of our human existence because Bayesian Analysis requires things to be compared to share common laws and data sets. The pre-inflation state of reality would impact the degrees of freedom in our universe. Since we cannot know the physical state prior to inflation, there can be no legitimate use of Bayesian Analysis.
The second line of refutation focuses on the illusion created by the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle merely states that we perceive this particular, and maybe improbable universe, because this is a universe that allows our possibility. The illusion of intelligent design can only arise if we start off with the supposition of intent – as Swinburne does with his personal explanatory hypothesis. Such assumption creates a bias toward intent as illustrated in the lottery analogy. In a given lottery where some number held by a contestant will be drawn, we can imagine several million ticket holders. The chances of any one of them is too improbable to reasonably consider, according to the logic of adherents to Intelligent Design. Yet somebody has to win. Looked at from the perspective of a winner with bankrupting medical bills, children to feed, and no job, this can easily appear to be a gift from heaven. What else could possibly explain the answer to their prayers since every minute movement of the numbered balls had to be exactly right, with no deviation at all, to result in this one impossibly improbable winner. But that is simply looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Somebody had to win, which means that improbability does not preclude any one winner, no matter how great that improbability. Likewise, we are here and conscious, no matter how improbable, because that is just how the numbered balls tumbled this time. No further explanation is necessary, and once again, the inanimate explanation is not only true, but simpler than Swinburne’s explanation if we were to grant that criterion.
The important point is that, once again Swinburne has to assume a personal creator with intent in order to conclude a personal creator with intent.
He then goes on at length about multiverse theory. I should qhickly add that multiverse is not the only theory posed by physicists, but he focuses only this. He tries to counter the increasing probabilities of our conditions by various hypothesis of physics by pushing his assumption of intent all the way back to god at the beginning creating a multiverse that eventually leads to us. Again, this contradicts his simplicity theory, which is already strained in all the excess creation in our known universe, where we account for only the tiniest speck of existence. But now he throws in the infinite complications of infinite universes, all just to arrive at us. He also seems to imply there are no observed reasons in this universe to postulate a multiverse. Many theists believe that multiverse theory came about to counter Intelligent Design. The case is just the opposite: multiverse theory stems directly from the calculations of string theory, which while speculative, do have a basis in observed particle events. Theists’ renewed attention to Intelligent Design came after multiverse theory existed.
Now let’s look at his summation of the first three criteria one at a time:
Moderately probable they would occur if there is a god.
If we assume he means god as rational, good, omniscient, omnipotent,, and temporarily bound, it would be surprising that he would create a world fundamentally irrational and complex, with humans and the inanimate universe possessing powers god himself doesn’t have, such as the ability to emote, to think irrationally, possibly to change the past, and for the universe to not be temporarily bound.
And certainly not occur if there is not a god.
This claim is arrived at through the misapplication of probabilities and in denial of evidence of physical explanations. His presupposition of personal god conceals the possibilities for physical explanation of consciousness, for example, for which quantum mind theory is beginning to develop possible explanations, and the originating inflation of our universe as a mere alteration of physical state, for which various plausible explanations based on physical observations have been shown to be possible.
A simple hypothesis and simpler than otherwise could be constructed.
We have shown that simplicity is not a valid criterion, and even if it were there is more complexity in a dual substance explanation than in a single substance inanimate explanation.
I conclude that Swinburne’s argument is based on an obsolete Medieval Christian notion of a rational god who created an orderly world; a notion which is contradicted by our observations of the universe itself. It uses circular reasoning by assuming this medieval notion of god to reach the conclusion of god through misuse of probability; and is filled with many contradictions of the principle of simplicity even if we were to grant his claim of a rational and orderly universe.
I would welcome anyone onto this channel for a discussion who thinks I have unfairly portrayed Swinburne’s argument or have failed to refute it.