The purpose of Is There a God? (hereafter ITG) is to summarize and outline a large portion of Richard Swinburne’s corpus of work in a condensed form. Does it work? Fabulously. Swinburne, in the space of 125 pages, manages to sum up many of his books in easy to comprehend, interesting, and thoughtful bits of knowledge.
ITG starts off with a chapter aptly titled “God.” In this chapter (modeled after his longer work, The Coherence of Theism), Swinburne outlines the properties and concept of God. It should be noted that Swinburne’s view of God differs from classical theism in two major ways. First, Swinburne’s conception of God does not involve knowledge of the future. His reasoning is that it is logically impossible to know that which does not yet exist (the future), so God is omniscient, but does not know the future. Going into great detail for an argument against that notion would take me too far away from this review, but suffice to say that I find the argument wrong for at least two reasons: 1) There are many coherent ways to envision the future as possible knowledge; 2) A timeless view of God would definitely entail foreknowledge, because all time would be equally present to such a deity. Second, Swinburne’s view of God differs in that he believes God’s existence is contingent, not necessary (he does believe that God is necessary in the sense that his existence does not cease–the necessity/contingence is the difference between modern and Aristotelian contingency–thanks to Tim McGrew and Chris Reese for pointing this out). Again, I disagree, but I find Swinburne’s view coherent.
Swinburne then turns in chapter two to the nature of explanation and argues that we often take personal explanations as valid even within scientific inquiry. Further, he puts much weight upon the simplicity of a theory, which leads into his third chapter, which argues for the simplicity of theism as an explanation for much of our known data. These chapters sum up his work in The Existence of God.
Swinburne then turns to other arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument and the teleological argument. In chapter 6, he provides a theodicy–an explanation of evil on theism. While I’ve read some pretty harsh critiques of Swinburne’s view on the problem of evil in the past, I found his argument here very compelling, personal, and interesting. His argument is largely a “greater good” type of argument–evils allow for things like heroism–but it is the most compelling version of such a theodicy I have read. I’m still not sure about whether I would incorporate this argument into my own apologetic, but I find Swinburne’s account compelling. (More on this topic can be found in his Providence and the Problem of Evil.)
The last chapter of ITG deals with Swinburne’s discussion of miracles and the argument from religious experience. Swinburne has been hugely influential in the field of arguing for the existence of God from religious experience, and this chapter sums up his argument. He argues that “we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be (in the epistemic sense) unless and until we have evidence that we are mistaken” (115). He then goes on to apply this to theistic experiences and concludes that “the overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experiences of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favor of the existence of God” (120). (Swinburne’s arguments here are developed in his book, The Existence of God.)
I find two downsides to ITG. First, the concise nature of the work means that those interested in his arguments will need to go beyond the book to fully explore the issues. However, this is barely a downside because that is exactly what the book is meant to be: an introduction.
The second is that Swinburne doesn’t offer a very comprehensive “Guide to Further Reading” in his chapter of the same title. For example, about the question for the existence of God, Swinburne only offers two books arguing against God’s existence for further reading. Furthermore, the two books he suggests are heavy philosophical texts not at all comparable to ITG. I would have liked to see Swinburne offer some suggestions for equally philosophical explorations on the positive side of the theistic question. (I recommend the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology edited by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland and God and Necessity by Stephen Parrish as two “heavier” books on the side of theism.)
Richard Swinburne’s Is There a God? is a fantastic introduction to his huge body of work. His tone is constantly amiable. Reading the work, one may feel as though they are in a conversation with Swinburne himself, which means it feels like one is in the presence of one of the most important Christian theologian/philosophers of our era. I cannot recommend it highly enough either for an introduction or a review of Swinburne’s corpus.
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