The Fine-Tuning Argument for the existence of God has been acknowledged as one of the most powerful arguments for theism. Proponents of this argument, also known as the teleological argument note that our universe is “spooky.” So many facets of our universe appear designed. It is startling to me to read about many of these in literature and realize that the very fingers of God seem apparent in these qualities of our universe. The way that these pieces fit together should not be viewed as independent variables. Any theory which seeks to explain the features of our universe must take into account the full range of factors.
The Argument Stated
The fine-tuning argument for the existence of God can be stated fairly simply:
1) The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design
2) It is not due to physical necessity or chance
3) Therefore, it is due to design (Craig 1, 161 cited below)
The first premise turns on the notion of “fine-tuning”–something which is widely acknowledged to exist. It is the explanation of this fine-tuning that becomes controversial. Before trying to offer a way forward in this controversy, it will be prudent to list some of these evidences for fine tuning. Finally, before diving it it should be noticed that this argument can be seen probabilistically: that is, one should view it in light of which is more probable- are the properties we observe more probable in a universe that came about by chance, design, or necessity?
Various Evidences for Fine-Tuning
There are any number of independent, fine-tuned factors which make our universe capable of sustaining life. Without these factors in place, our universe would be uninhabited, and we would not exist.
If the entropy in our universe were high, then the energy required for life to function would be distributed in such a way as to make the complexity required for life impossible. In order to determine the likelihood of a life-permitting range for a universe, Roger Penrose calculated the total entropy in our universe as “equal to the total number of baryons (protons and neutrons) in the universe… times the entropy per baryon… which yields a total entropy of 10^123.” This means that our universe falls within a range of accuracy regarding entropy of one part in 10 to the 10th to the 123rd power, 10^10^123. As Penrose put it, “the Creator’s aim must have been… to an accuracy of one part in 10^10^123” (quoted in Spitzer, 58).
The Existence of Matter
The very existence of matter is something which cries out for explanation. Why? Well, to put it as simply as possible, the basic particles of matter, quarks and anti-quarks form via pair production. They annihilate each other.
However, during the Big Bang, a slight asymmetry in this pair production resulted in approximately 1 extra particle of matter for every 10 billion produced.
It turns out that this 1 in 10 billion ratio of “leftover particles” happens to be the exact amount of mass necessary for the formation of stars, galaxies, and planets. As much as 2 in 10 billion, and the universe would have just been filled with black holes. As little as 0.5 in 10 billion, and there would not have been enough density for galaxies to form. (Bloom, cited in Rodgers).
The Nuclear Binding Force
If the nuclear binding force were much about 2% stronger, then the universe would form mega-elements which would make life impossible. Our universe would be filled with black holes and neutron stars. Furthermore, if it were weaker by about 5%, we would eliminate a large portion of the periodic table…. in fact, it would reduce it so much as to make the universe composed entirely of hydrogen (Bloom, cited in Rodgers).
Water is required for life. Don’t take my word for it: just look into the works of those who are working on investigating the origins of life, people like Iris Fry or Paul Davies. Yet water itself has a number of very unique properties. Water is a simple compound to form, but it is enormously versatile and unique. For example, it takes up more space a solid than as a liquid, which is extremely strange. This allows there to be liquid water that doesn’t freeze from the bottom of the oceans. If water froze from the bottom, it would turn planets like Earth into a frozen wasteland because the water would never melt–there wouldn’t be enough energy to melt all the ice. Furthermore, the chemical structure of water suggests that it should be a gas as opposed to a liquid at the temperatures that it remains a liquid. Water being liquid at its temperature range also makes it optimal for life, because the temperature that other compounds would be liquid would be prohibitive for life. Water also has an unusual specific heat, which means that it takes a lot of energy to change its temperature. Water also becomes more dense when it is liquid than when it is solid, which is highly unusual.
Water also has high adhesion which is critical for plants to grow. They rely upon capillary action with cohesion to grow upwards. This would be impossible if water were less cohesive. Water is a universal solvent, which is important for life because life relies upon a medium for chemistry to occur. If the medium were gas, the interactions would be too far apart, while if it were solid the interactions would occur to slowly or there wouldn’t be enough movement within the substance for chemical interactions needed for life to occur. Perhaps most “spooky” of all, a more recent discovery hints that water has quantum effects which cancel each other out, reducing the effects of quantum indeterminacy on the covalent bonds in water. This allows for water to have many of the properties outlined above.
There is no set number to assign to this chemicals of water, but it should be seen that property after property regarding water lines up exactly with the needs for life.
For a more in-depth discussion of the “spooky” properties of water, see the RTB Podcast on the topic.
If gravity were increased by a significant margin, complex life could not exist due to their own weight. Even if life only came to be in water, the density of such life would have to be high simply to resist gravitation, which would again make complex life impossible. The lifespan of stars would also be reduced if gravity were increased by about a factor of 3,000 (or more). Robin Collins, in noting gravity as fine-tuned, argues:
Of course, an increase in the strength of gravity by a factor of 3,000 is significant, but compared to the total range of strengths of the forces in nature… this still amounts to a… fine-tuning of approximately one part in 10^36 (Collins, 190, cited below).
There are more of these requirements for fine tuning found in a number of the sources I cite below. But even looking at those I have outlined here, the possibility for our universe to exist as a life-permitting universe is absurdly low. It is so small that it baffles the imagination.
The Fine-Tuning is Neither Chance nor Necessity
Robert Spitzer outlines the argument which leads from these constants to design:
1) The values of universal constants… must fall within a very narrow, closed range in order to allow any life form to develop
2) …the possible values that these universal constants could have had that would have disallowed any life form from developing are astronomically higher (falling within a virtually open range)
3) Therefore, the odds against an anthropic condition occurring are astronomically high, making any life form… exceedingly improbable. This makes it highly, highly unlikely that the conditions for life in the universe occurred by pure chance, which begs for an explanation (Spitzer, 50, cited below)
Thus, the argument turns on this contention: is it reasonable to think that the fine-tuning we observe in our universe is based merely upon chance? Now it is important here to realize that any of the three proposed explanations for the fine-tuning of our universe must carry the burden of proof for their position. That is, if someone puts “chance” out there as the explanation for the fine-tuning in the universe, they must defend their position as being more probable than the hypotheses of necessity and design.
Therefore, it is not enough to simply say that “anything is possible.” The key point is that any theory must take into account the full range of intersecting evidences for fine tuning. To make the inference for design, furthermore, is not a failure to attempt explanation. Instead, it is itself an explanation. The argument is that design is the best way to explain the evidence for fine-tuning in the universe.
William Lane Craig notes that it is important to take into account that the probability in play in the teleological argument is epistemic probability. That is, is it reasonable to believe that our life-permitting universe occurred merely by chance (Craig 2, 169)? Again, turning to Spitzer’s contention above and taking into account the enormously huge range of possibilities that turn against a life-permitting universe, one has to take into account the fact that it is almost infinitely more probable that a universe would be lifeless than to be one that has life. Yet Spitzer’s point is also that there is a “closed range” for values which are life-permitting. That is, there is only a limited set of values which will allow for their to be life. Yet the range of values which are life prohibiting is essentially open–that is, it is infinite. Therefore, the fact that our universe exists and is life permitting makes it reasonable to believe that it was designed. Design is the only explanation which can account for the full range of the evidence, for it explains why our universe would fall within a specific set of parameters which all must be aligned in order to meet the end of life. In the set of possible worlds, purposeless chance would give us an extraordinarily higher probability of having a lifeless universe, while necessity fails to provide any explanation at all. Only design provides a reason to believe that a life permitting universe would be the one to be brought into existence.
One may object by saying “well of course, but our universe is life permitting, so it appears that we hit the jackpot.” It should be seen now that that just begs the question. The person who makes this argument is in fact assuming that chance is the explanation without providing any evidence to think this is the case. Again, when one considers how vastly improbable our universe is, the most reasonable conclusion is that it is not, in fact, a random occurrence. As John Bloom put it, it would be like throwing a dart from outer space and hitting a bullseye on the surface of the earth that is smaller than a single atom. In other words, it is statistically impossible.
One may also object by noting that all universes are equally improbable, so our universe had to have some values. But again this misses the point. The argument is not that our universe is improbable, but rather that our universe, as life-permitting, is part of a limited set of possibilities against the much larger realm of possible worlds. In other words, the fact that our universe is life-permitting rather than life-prohibiting is what is surprising–not the brute fact of its existence. Although the fact of the universe’s existence is itself something in need of explanation.
Yet what about necessity? Is it possible that our universe simply has the constants that it has due to some kind of necessity? Here, mere physical necessity will not do as an explanation. For something which is physically necessary is not metaphysically necessary. That is, something can happen due to laws of nature and the like, while not being something required by logical necessity. Thus, it seems the burden of proof in this case is upon the one claiming that the universe is metaphysically necessary to show their case to be more reasonable than the chance and design hypotheses. Frankly, I think that the prospect is quite bleak.
We have noted a number of scientific evidences for the fine-tuning of the universe. These form our data set that any theory needs to explain. Chance has been found epistemologically wanting. It is simply not reasonable to say that chance is the explanation. Necessity seems to fare no better. There is no way to account for the necessity of the universe, and in fact our universe seems to be apparently contingent. Therefore, the most reasonable explanation for the apparent design in our universe is to infer that there is, in fact, a designer. Our universe is not so much spooky as it is spectacular.
Evidence for God: A Fine-Tuned Universe– Matt Rodgers gives a great summary of a talk by John Bloom I attended as well. This post gives a really concise summary of a number of the evidences for fine-tuning.
The Teleological Argument– I present Robin Collins’ version of the fine-tuning argument and briefly defend it against a few objections. The Past, Probability, and Teleology– I answer a few objections to the teleological argument.
What about the multiverse? I have answered a number of issues related to the multiverse in my previous posts on the topic.
Max Andrews offers a discussion of the multiverse and the fine-tuning argument, wherein he notes that the existence of a multiverse does not undermine the argument.
Sources and Further Reading
John Bloom, “A Fine-Tuned Universe.” Lecture given at the EPS Apologetics Conference, 2012.
Robin Collins, “Evidence for Fine Tuning” in God and Design (London: Routledge, 2003),178-199.
William Lane Craig 1, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
William Lane Craig 2, “Design and the Anthropic Fine-Tuning of the Universe” in God and Design (London: Routledge, 2003), 155-177.
Fazale Rana, “Science News Flash: ‘Water Fine-Tuned for Life'” (October 27, 2011). Reasons to Believe.
Matt Rodgers, “Evidence for God: A Fine-Tuned Universe.”
Robert Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
The argument from religious experience (hereafter referred to as “argument from RE”) has seen a resurgence in scholarly work. Keith Yandell, Richard Swinburne, Jerome Gellman, Kai-man Kwan, Caroline Franks-Davis, Paul Moser, and others have contributed to the current discussion about the topic.
One thing which has disappointed me on more than one occasion is the dismissive attitude that some Christian apologists show towards the argument from religious experience.
What reasons are there for apologists to adopt such a stance? Well it seems possible that some of them simply haven’t studied the argument enough to consider its plausibility. I admit that before interacting with the argument, I was skeptical of the possibility for its having any value. But I want to suggest another possibility: apologists tend to favor arguments which can be presented and defended in a debate format or which are useful in short conversations with others. I’m not suggesting this as an attack on my fellow Christians, merely as an observation. And this is not a bad thing; it is indeed greatly useful to have arguments which can be presented quickly and defended easily when one is trying to present a case for Christianity to others.
The problem is the argument from RE requires a great deal of epistemological background in order to get to the meat of it. The authors listed above each develop a robust epistemology to go with their argument. This seems to put a limit on the usefulness of the argument; if it must be conjoined with a broad discussion of epistemology, then how can one present it in such a way that those who aren’t professional philosophers (or at least interested in the topic) can understand? It is to this question I hope to present an answer.
Formulations of the Argument
There are two primary ways the argument from RE can be formulated (Caroline Franks Davis suggests a number of ways the argument can presented in The Evidential Force of Religious Experience, 67-92). The first is the personal argument; the second is the public argument. Now I have seen very few versions of the former in the literature. The personal argument is essentially an argument from RE which centers not on trying to demonstrate the existence of God to others, but rather upon justifying one’s own belief that such an experience is genuine. In other words, the personal argument from RE focuses upon defending one’s own conviction that a religious experience is veridical.
Paul Moser, in his work The Evidence for God, suggests one possible way to formulate this argument [he does not refer to it in the same terminology as I use here]:
1. Necessarily, if a human person is offered and receives the transformative gift, then this is the result of the authoritative power of… God
2. I have been offered, and have willingly received, the transformative gift.
3. Therefore, God exists (200, cited below).
This argument is one example of what I would call the personal argument from RE. It focuses on one’s own experience and uses that to justify one’s belief in God. [It seems Moser could be arguing for this as a public argument as well, but a discussion of this would take us too far afield.]
A public argument from RE is generally formulated to establish the belief in God (or at least a transcendent reality), just as other theistic arguments are intended. It will best function as part of a “cumulative case” for the existence of God. One example of an argument of this sort can be found in Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief:
If a person, S, has an experience, E, in which it seems (phenomenally) to be of a particular object, O… then everything else being equal, the best explanation of S’s having E is that S has experienced O… rather than something else or nothing at all (46, cited below).
Readers familiar with the literature on RE will note the similarities between this and Richard Swinburne’s principle of credulity. The basic idea is that if someone has an experience, then they are justified in believing they had that experience, provided they have no (epistemic) defeaters for that experience.
Brief Epistemological Inquiry
I’ve already noted the intricate ties the argument from RE has with epistemology, and a quick introduction to the argument would be remiss without at least noting this in more explicit detail. The core of establishing the argument from RE is to undermine methodological/metaphysical naturalism. Thus, a robust defense of the argument from RE will feature building up a case for an epistemological stance in which theistic explanations are not ruled out a priori.
A second step in this epistemological background is to establish a set of criteria with which one can judge and evaluate individual religious experiences. Caroline Franks Davis’ study (cited below) is a particularly amazing look into this tactic; she explores a number of possible defeaters and criteria for investigating REs. These range any where from hallucinogenic drugs to the multiplicity of religious experience.
The Force of the Evidence
One concern I had when I was exploring the argument from RE is that it would not have very much force. Upon investigating the topic, however, I can’t help but think the force of the argument is quite strong. Swinburne seems correct when he writes, “[T]he overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experience of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favour of the existence of God” (Swinburne, Is There a God?, 120, cited below). The important thing to remember is that an overwhelming number of people from all stations of life and cultures have had experiences that they deem to be “spiritual” or hinting at “transcendence.” Denying universally all of these experiences as genuine would seem to require an enormous amount of counter-evidence.
A Suggested Version for Quick Discussion
So what to do with this background knowledge? It seems to me it is possible to at least sketch out a version of the argument from RE for a brief discussion, with a defense. Further reading is provided below.
The Argument Stated
1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.
2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences of a transcendent realm.
3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.
The argument made more explicit
The reason I suggest this as the way to use the argument from RE in a brief discussion is because it can more easily form part of a cumulative case and requires less epistemological work to justify it. The first premise is, in general, a principle of rationality. While there are many who have attacked Swinburne’s principle of credulity, it does seem that we generally affirm it. If I experience x, then, provided I have no reasons to think otherwise, I should believe that x exists/was real/etc.
The second premise is the result of numerous studies, some of which are cited in the works cited below. To deny this nearly universal experience is simply to deny empirical evidence. People like William James have observed this transcultural experience of the transcendent for hundreds of years.
Thus, it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.
The conclusion may come as something of a letdown for some theists. But I would like to reiterate that this is a version of the argument intended for use in a brief conversation. There are versions of the argument in the cited literature below which defend theism specifically and engage in synthesis of these experiences into the theistic fold. What I’m trying to do here is make the argument part of the apologist’s arsenal. If we can use the argument merely to open one up to the reality of the transcendent, then perhaps they will be more open other theistic arguments. As part of a cumulative case, one can’t help but shudder under the overwhelming weight of millions of experiences.
The argument from religious experience has enjoyed a resurgence in scholarly popularity. A number of books from publishers like Oxford University Press, Cornell, and Continuum have reopened the argument to the scholarly world. It is high time that Christian apologists put in the work needed to utilize these arguments in everyday, accessible apologetics. The argument formulated above is just one way to do this, and Christians would do well to explore the argument further. The experience of God is something not to be taken lightly; Christians throughout our history have had such experiences and been moved into intimate relationships with God. We should celebrate these experiences, while also realizing their evidential value.
Further Reading and Works Cited
The following books are all ones I have read on the topic but do not present a comprehensive look at literature on the subject.
Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989). One of the best books on the topic, Franks Davis provides what I would see as a nearly comprehensive look at the epistemic defeaters to consider with the argument from RE.
Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1997). Gellman provides a robust defense of the principle of credulity.
Paul Moser, The Evidence for God (New York: NY, Cambridge, 2010). This work is not so much about the argument from RE as it is an argument showing that any evidence for God is going to be necessarily relational. I highly recommend it.
Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?(New York, NY: Oxford, 2010). This is an introductory work to Swinburne’s theistic arguments. It has a chapter on the argument from RE that provides an excellent, easy-to-read look at the issues surrounding the argument. I reviewed this book here.
There are a number of other fantastic books on the topic as well. Swinburne’s The Existence of God has a chapter that remains a classic for the defense of the argument from RE.
William Alston’s Perceiving God is perhaps one of the best examples of a robust epistemology built up around RE and realism.
Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience is a extremely technical look at many of the issues, and I found it particularly useful regarding the notion of “ineffability” in RE.
Kai-man Kwan’s Rainbow of Experiences, Critical Trust, and God is a very recent look at the argument which again features a large amount of epistemological development.
Nelson Pike provides a unique look at the phenomenology of RE and a synthesis of theistic and monistic experiences in his work Mystic Union.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
“In order rationally to believe that there is a God, despite [evil], we need either strong positive evidence for the existence of God, or a record of discovering with respect to many apparent bad states that a theodicy works with respect to them, or a theodicy for each kind of bad state which seems to count against the existence of God.”
The problem of evil is considered by many to be the greatest challenge to theism. Richard Swinburne offers a defense against this problem in his work Providence and the Problem of Evil.
Swinburne first develops an account of goods within creation. His account includes beauty, actions, thoughts and feelings as various goods. Given the existence of God, he also argues that worship is a great good. Human freedom is necessary for many goods. With freedom, humans can bring about all types of great goods. The freedom of persons also allows for great evils. These goods are not just goods for people, but they are states which God would be expected to desire to bring about. By developing this account, he is able to turn towards various types of evils.
First, there are moral evils. Moral evils are essentially those bad states of affairs which persons bring about. Swinburne argues that some moral evil is going to be necessary, because it is simply a fact that there are good states of affairs which are logically incompatible. Second, there is natural evil—evils which occur without direct causation by persons.
These sections of the book are largely made up of background, yet Swinburne interweaves his theodicy into the chapters on evil. Central to Swinburne’s account is the idea that for every evil, there is some reason that it occurred. There is, in other words, no evil which is superfluous, no evil which is gratuitous. For every evil mentioned, Swinburne provides a possible reason for God’s allowing it to occur. What reasons could God have for allowing evils like the holocaust, or animal pain? Swinburne sums up his view concisely as follows:
“Every moral evil in the world is such that God allowing it to occur makes possible… the great good of a particular choice between good and bad… Every pain makes possible a courageous response… and normally the goods of compassion and sympathetic action… And all animal pain gives knowledge and opportunity for compassion to animals and humans if they know of it.”
Swinburne’s view is that for every evil, there is a reason. The reason can be knowledge: when people (or animals) observe animals dying in forest fires, they learn to flee from the fires, and thus save themselves and others. Choice is a great good, but in having choices, people can choose to bring about great evils. Horrendous evils like the Holocaust are not just the result of choices in the present, but are the consequences of a long series of evil choices.
Importantly, Swinburne also argues that God is under no obligation to make everyone’s life equally good. “[I]f [God] gives to some ten good things, and to others twenty good things, no one is wronged; nor has he failed to be perfectly good. He has been generous, and, more so, he has made it possible for us to be generous.” God’s providence is good to everyone. There is a level of inequality in the gifts received—but to any and all, gifts are given. The way people choose to use their gifts is what leads to extreme inequities.
Finally, Swinburne argues that God has the right to allow evil, largely due to the extreme dependence people have upon him. Not only that, but God has brought about a world in which every person has the possibility of the nearly infinite good of being with God forever. Thus, Swinburne concludes that God has provided people with a choice between the good and rejection of the good. The responsibility for that action is upon the person, not God.
Throughout Swinburne’s account are several theses many readers may find implausible. He rejects original guilt [he does not deny that there was an original sin and instead holds to an Eastern Orthodox view–thanks to a reader of the original review (linked below) for this point] and denies that God knows the future free actions of creatures. These theological points do not undermine his main theses, however. It is undeniable that Swinburne has provided a lucid account of a “greater good theodicy.” He does provide possible reasons for allowing any type of evil to occur.
The key point of divergence with readers will be whether they are willing to accept these reasons in conjunction with his later conclusions. God has reasons for allowing every evil, and he provides for people to have extraordinarily good lives with the afterlife, but there remain those who will reject these goods. Swinburne’s account is cumulative: the reasons provided for allowing evils do not stand on their own. Rather, they stand together and in unison with God’s providence and direct goodness to all persons through maintaining the world, creating them, and providing them with choices.
Those interested in the problem of evil would do well to read Providence and the Problem of Evil. Usage of the “greater good theodicy” is on the wane. Many theists today only provide versions of the “free will defense” in relation to the problem of evil. In doing so, they cast aside a powerful philosophical tool for theism. While the “greater good theodicy” will not convince everyone, it can at least provide a strong cumulative case when joined with other defenses against the problem of evil.
 Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York, NY: Oxford, 1998), 29.
 See Swinburne’s thoughts on this on pages 4ff.
 He also believes that we have strong positive evidence for the existence of God, but he focuses upon theodicy in this work. See his The Existence of God for a case for the existence of God based on positive evidence.
This review was originally posted at Apologetics315 here: http://www.apologetics315.com/2011/11/book-review-providence-and-problem-of.html
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
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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“Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy” by Richard Swinburne is one of those rare books which forces one to think about and analyze every argument it contains, whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions. It addresses claims of revelation. Can it be true that a religion’s books or creeds contain truth?
The book starts off with a section on “Meaning” which analyzes terminology, presupposition, analogy and metaphor, and genre in turn. This section is fantastic reading for the philosopher of religion as it takes some higher notions found in philosophy of language and applies them to religious studies. The chapter on presupposition was the first part I found particularly striking. It is here that Swinburne first begins to lay the groundwork for his overarching argument about the Christian Revelation and Scripture. He argues that presuppositions are not contained in the message conveyed in spoken or written word. He writes, “In order to separate statement from presupposition, we must ask, whatever the speaker’s actual beliefs, are there any common beliefs of the clture presupposed in the utterance which can be siphoned off, leaving what the culture would naturally suppose to be its message intact?” (30). This “siphoning” of meaning is necessary because “[a]lthough speakers may use declarative sentences for many different purposes… the paradigm job of such sentences is to convey information, to ad to the hearer’s stock of beliefs” (29). Swinburne offers the following example to demonstrate his argument. Suppose a Roman historian wrote that “The divine Augustus traveled to Brindisi.” This sentence is not intended to convey the information that Augustus is divine. That Augustus is divine is presupposed by the author of the sentence. Rather, the sentence is intended to tell the reader that Augustus traveled to Brindisi (29). Swinburne also outlines and describes various genres and how they can relate to a religious revelation.
The next part of the book argues for four possible tests to determine whether a divine revelation has occurred. These tests are 1) whether the content is the “kind of thing which God would have chosen to reveal to humans” 2) “whether the method of expression is one to be expected of God, 3) whether “the church has developed the original revelation in a way which plausibly brings out what was involved in it …”, and 4) “whether the interpretations provide the sort of teaching which God would have chosen to give to humans” (107-108). He argues convincingly for each of these tests applying to the Christian Revelation.
The third part of “Revelation” examines the Christian Revelation specifically. Swinburne argues that Jesus and His message were the “original revelation” provided to believers (145ff). It is in his discussion of the Church and the Bible, however, wherein he forwards his most controversial claims.
The Church, argues Swinburne, is responsible for more than simply establishing the canon of Scripture. He argues that the Church has a central place alongside Scripture in the Christian Revelation, for without the church, interpretation could not happen. The creedal statements central to Christian faith may not have been derived had it not been for the Church (see page 189ff). Further, the Church acts as a method for assessing “rival interpretations” of various Scriptural truths (200). It is undeniable that Swinburne advocates the Church as a high authority–perhaps even on a higher level than Scripture, for he argues that many conflicting interpretations of Scripture can receive almost equal footing on Scripture alone, so the Church is required to determine which of these should be approved (again see p. 200 for an example of this). Swinburne’s view of the Church is one of the most important things in this book, in my opinion, for the Christian to read and digest, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees. For one’s view of the authority of a church body is vastly important with regards to how one views other doctrines. As Swinburne writes, “Which doctrines are to count as central Christian doctrines… depend[s] very much on which ecclesial bodies we judge to be part of the Church. The wider our Church, the fewer such doctrines there will be” (214). This is undoubtedly true, for if one takes only the Roman Catholic Church, for example, as a valid ecclesial body, then one’s net of central Christian doctrines can include everything sanctioned by the Roman Catholics. But let us say that one takes both the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic church to be authoritative, or perhaps they take the Orthodox, Roman, and Reformed churches as authoritative. Well then it seems that only those doctrines which all these bodies agree on can be regarded as central, or essential to, true faith. For if one church contains a doctrine which the others do not, it cannot be regarded as absolutely essential if the other churches are still legitimate. If it were essential and the other bodies disagreed, then those other bodies would not be legitimate, by the criterion of not agreeing on an essential Christian doctrine.
This then provides a valuable springboard for thought about central Christian teaching and what doctrines and ecclesial bodies one regards as valid or central. Swinburne’s discussion on this topic cannot be downplayed. He goes into various criteria which can be used to determine whether a Church body is legitimate. These arguments are incredibly in-depth and interesting. His arguments force the reader to consider his ideas.
The Bible is the final major topic Swinburne addresses in “Revelation.” Here we see all the groundwork laid in Part 1 come into play. What do genre, presuppositions, etc. tell us about the meaning and interpretation of Scripture? This section is another which the Christian would do well to ponder. Swinburne argues that we must take Scripture as being entirely true, but he qualifies this claim by arguing we must also realize what Scripture is–a collection of books written with divine approval but by human hands. Thus, he argues, we should take great care to realize the difference between presupposition and message, history and allegory, etc. While I do not agree with Swinburne on every point, I find his insights particularly interesting. He notes that “[t]he falsity of the presuppositions does not, therefore… affect the truth-value of a sentence which uses them” (244). This kind of argument can be of direct worth to the apologist, for example. He utilizes Genesis 8:2(“The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained” ESV) as an example: “The sky has no windows out of which the rain comes, but the quoted sentence is just the author’s way of saying, within the presuppositions of his culture, that the rain ceased” (244-245). This is a different approach apologetically than the one I would tend to favor, which would argue that the word “window” is used here in a metaphorical or analogous way.
Swinburne’s high view of the church is necessary alongside his view of Scripture. Swinburne writes that “The slogan of Protestant confessions , ‘the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself’, is quite hopeless” (255). For it is the Church which determines acceptable interpretations of Scripture. He writes that “Scripture belongs to the Church” (256). Reading and interpreting Scripture requires a guide. This guide “…is the Church’s theological definitions and other central teaching, its tradition of the proper way to interpret the Bible, and its tradition of how particular passages should be interpreted” (256).
Swinburne’s final chapter seeks to discuss and interpret moral teaching found in Scripture.
Swinburne’s central argument is strong. God has given us a Revelation and has given us the tools to discover what it means. This Revelation is found in Scripture and historically in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is the nuances of Swinburne’s argument which make the book so wonderfully useful. I found myself at times nodding, agreeing with everything Swinburne wrote. At other times I shook my head, jotting rebuttals alongside his text. But the vast majority of the book found me engaged on a new level with topics I thought I had addressed and laid to rest. While I disagree with details of Swinburne’s argument (i.e. he accepts the JEDP view of Scripture, denies the historicity of the person of Jonah, etc.), I found his core arguments compelling. We do need to remember the genre(s) we read as we read Scripture. We need to realize that the ultimate author of Scripture is God, but that Scripture was written within a set of presuppositions distinct from our own.
Swinburne’s analysis of the authority of the church was equally compelling. While he holds a higher view of church authority than I do, his view intertwines the Church with Scripture in compelling ways which absolutely must be considered.
It has been over a month since I finished this work by Swinburne, yet I have found myself consistently turning back to it, and even while writing this review, I found myself contemplating his arguments and drawing truths from him while still disagreeing with him on other areas. I reiterate that I find this work absolutely essential reading for the Christian philosopher. It will challenge and reward the reader in ways that may be entirely unexpected.
Swinburne, Richard. Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. 2nd Edition. Oxford. 2007.
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I’ve been pondering the possibility for analytic philosophy to explore Christian Doctrine. Clearly, the prospects aren’t terribly dim, for some (such as Alvin Plantinga and, to a greater extent, Richard Swinburne) have done this exact thing. I think it is important to utilize philosophy and theology in a mutually beneficial relationship, and I personally find the results when this happens to be singularly beautiful.
Why undertake this project? First, because I’ve seen a number of objections to core Christian theology which have been disturbing to me. This includes challenges to the doctrine of the Trinity, redemption/atonement, baptism, etc. Second, because I think it is necessary–or at least expedient–to outline doctrines in forms that can be analyzed. Objections to Christianity often come in the form of “X doctrine of Christianity is unintelligible, so it’s false.” If it can be demonstrated that X is intelligible, then such objections fail.
Is such a defense Scriptural? I believe so. Paul often utilized philosophy in his witnessing (see Acts 17:28 for an example). He argued from Scripture, but also utilized philosophical insights to witness to the Greeks. Not only that, but Jesus instructs us to love God with all of our mind (Mark 12:30).
How might such a defense look? It will look AWESOME. Okay, seriously, it will look something like this:
Sin (hereafter s) is broadly defined as any act which distances one from God. Now, on Christianity, s is that for which we must be atoned, for all have committed at least one act that can be classified as s. However, all who commit such acts are to be held accountable. But before God, who can stand (Psalm 130:3)? Therefore it must be an act of God to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
I put that together just now for the sake of an example, but I’ll be going into more depth as I explore various Christian doctrines in light of analytic philosophy and Scripture.
I’m excited for this project, though I must admit it will likely take quite a bit of time to put anything together for it, as one must not only utilize analytic philosophy, but also doctrine and exegesis for this kind of project.
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