Monday, August 22, 2005

I have been reading Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God (Oxford, 2004) and have found it challenging, interesting but not entirely satisfying. Swinburne is a philosopher rather than a theologian and thus is trained within a tradition of Hume and Kant rather than Aquinas and Barth. This shows itself with his being very little interested in what God is like and far more concerned about arguing to Him. Theologians generally go the other way, granting a certain religious tradition and seeing where it leads them. Admittedly, Swinburne says more about what God is like and his actions in the world in other books so I cannot criticise him for staying focused in this one. Except that whether or not God exists has a huge amount to do with which God we mean. Discussion at Bede's dedicated yahoo group on omniscience has shown us this, if nothing else.

The arguments to God have been looked upon as a dead loss by most philosophers for some time now as they have realised that they do not work as proofs. Trouble is, philosophers have found they can't be sure of anything else either and so the question has shifted to what I have a justification for believing. Even this, as the problem of induction shows, is no easy question. Simon Blackburn, a typical enlightenment thinker, gives the impression in his Cambridge lectures on the theory of knowledge that the only thing he is sure about is that God doesn't exist. Meanwhile, Alvin Plantinga seems to be happy to assert that God's existence is a fact so basic that it doesn't even need to be justified.

What about Swinburne? He tries to built a probabilistic argument to God. He builds up his case by asking if the various arguments to God (cosmological, design, experience etc) add up to a probable case after taking into account the counter arguments (evil and hiddeness). He concludes that they do, just about and that our religious experience is the essential tipping point. I'd prefer to put it the other way around by asking if the design and other arguments mean we are justified in interpreting our religious experience as 'real'. Of course, I think they do but then they cease to be arguments to God and become arguments from religious experience. On specifics, I think Swinburne places too much emphasis on simple solutions always being the best ones. This is partly in reply to Dawkins' attack on Swinburne in this review that claims God is actually very complicated. Also, I fear Swinburne's defence of a dualistic soul is leaving hostages to fortune. That said, the point of the book is that taken together the arguments have a great force. This is undoubtedly try which is why atheologists have always tried to refute the arguments one by one. But if each is simply evidential, they can have a cumulative effect as each piece of evidence slots into place. Just how big that effect is depends more on the individual than the implicit strength of the arguments.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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