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Is There a God?

David Hall reviews Is There A God? by Richard Swinburne.

Richard Swinburne, Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford, has been arguing for the existence of God since the appearance of his book The Coherence of Theism in 1977. In all that time little in his position seems to have changed, despite the fact that it has been attacked in detail and at length numerous times (see J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, 1982; A. O’Hear, Experience, Explanation and Faith, 1984; K.M. Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof, 1989; M. Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, 1990). The present slim volume is little more than an expanded version of the even slimmer booklet Evidence for God, produced in 1986 for the Christian Evidence Society. Both these small works are non-technical versions of the arguments Swinburne presented at length in The Existence of God (1979), which requires a knowledge of probability calculus, Bayes’s Theorem and the fundamentals of inductive logic for full comprehension.

Professor Swinburne is clearly a clever man and one gets the impression that he has chosen the topic of God’s existence as a means of carving out an intellectual niche for himself wherein he can display his ingenuity in devising arguments for what most of his peers regard as a lost cause. This seems particularly to be the case in view of the peculiar version of the God hypothesis that he chooses to defend. Like all the other Gods that are believed in, Professor Swinburne’s seems to be largely a creature of his own invention.

Chapter 1 is devoted to defining God as understood by Swinburne, and begins by claiming that his God is God as understood by Western religion in general, the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is not long, however, before it becomes apparent that this is not really so.

In accordance with tradition Swinburne’s God is a person with powers, purposes, and beliefs, omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free. Omnipotence is qualified by the stipulation that it does not encompass the doing of the logically impossible, and this is quite in keeping with tradition. But Swinburne also seeks to qualify omniscience by stipulating that God does not know what it is logically impossible to know, and this is a considerable departure from tradition.

What Swinburne considers it logically impossible for God to know are the future free actions of human beings. So we have the peculiar picture of an ‘omniscient’ God who presumably knows the fate of the physical universe a billion years from now, but does not know today whether you or I will commit murder tomorrow. One cannot help feeling that this is a post-Holocaust discovery about the nature of God. It has been asked what ultimate purpose an infinitely good God could possibly have that would justify creating or sustaining a universe in which the Holocaust would occur. The answer is now available that he didn’t know it would occur so he can in no way be blamed.

The ignorance of Swinburne’s God about the future free actions of human beings stems largely from the fact that he is a God eternal in the sense of being everlasting inside time, not above or beyond it. This, again, is a considerable departure from the majority view of God in the Western theological tradition, which considered God to be eternal in the sense of being outside time altogether. A God inside time leads to all kinds of embarrassing questions about the origin of time and the origin of the world. Is time a co-eternal with God? If God, time, and the world are all co-eternals, why suppose that any one gives rise to any other? If God created the world in time, what was he doing in time before he created it? Why did he create it when he did? What will he do when he brings it to an end? None of these questions are of course raised by Swinburne and have only really been faced up to by Process theologians such as Charles Hartshorne.

Swinburne believes in the existence of this God because he finds it the best explanation for everything that exists: ”we find that the view there is a God explains everything we observe, not just some narrow range of data” (p.2). This means he is unperturbed by the thought that an explanation that explains everything is practically equivalent to no explanation at all. A God that ‘has the whole world in his hands’, is simply an emotionally reassuring way of admitting that things simply are the way they are; if an explanation quite literally explains everything nothing can ever count as evidence against it.

By adopting this posture a spurious opposition is set up between a personal God who brings about the universe by deliberate design, and an atheist materialism whose only available explanation is atoms in a void coming together by ‘coincidence’. As if it is impossible to be an atheist without being a materialist, and as if there are no plausible alternative metaphysical explanations of the universe other than that of the Western religions. The definitive reply here is that of Strato of Lampsacus (died 269BC) who presumed a naturalism that refused to countenance any explanation of things in the universe by anything outside the universe. This does not entail that the universe consists of nothing but mindless matter. Mind itself, however it may be construed, is just as much in the universe as anything else. The idea that if reductive materialism does not explain everything there must be a God in Swinburne’s sense is quite unwarranted.

It is difficult to see what advantage there is in positing a God outside the universe who creates and sustains it, rather than regarding the universe itself as the terminus of explanation. The whole idea that the world needs something to sustain it in existence through time is simply a hangover from Aristotelian physics. If God can exist through time without anything further to sustain it, why not the universe? Swinburne protests that his God is not a ‘God of the gaps’ (p.68), but as regards the currently fashionable debate about the origin of consciousness his God is precisely a God of the gap between the physical brain and subjective awareness. ”God being omnipotent, is able to join souls to bodies. He can cause there to be the particular brain event-mental event connections which there are” (p.90). So whatever the problems in consciousness studies that baffle current science and philosophy the answer is that God does it that way and that’s that. How is this significantly different from saying the universe does it that way and that’s that?

If God is indeed the creator and sustainer of the universe one is prompted to enquire what it is for. Since God is, by Swinburne’s definition, a person with desires and purposes, he must have some aim in mind in embarking on and sustaining the enterprise. All that we are offered by way of explanation is that the universe gives rise to freely-acting human beings. Why an omnipotent God needs such infinitely vast means in terms of time and space in order to produce such a short-lived and puny result is hard to understand. Why, indeed, would a freely-acting human being be worth the creation of any universe at all, especially when it entails the possibility of the instantiation of the evils we all know, evils that would not have existed at all had the infinitely good God remained just that and refrained from creation? An answer to this question, of which Swinburne cannot avail himself, is that of axiarchism. This is the idea that it is objective value, rather than a personal God, which has a creative capacity and thus brings the universe into existence. The universe would then exist because it is on the whole better, more valuable, that it does than that it does not, despite the evil it contains (See J.Leslie, Value & Existence, 1979).

Swinburne’s chapter on ‘Why God Allows Evil’, presents a nauseating spectacle of specious reasoning. In explanation of moral evil his basic argument is that: “Being allowed to suffer to make possible a great good is a privilege, even if the privilege is forced upon you.” (p.102). And the ‘great good’ that this suffering makes possible is that it is the means whereby the one who inflicts the suffering has: “the opportunity to make a significant choice between good and evil which otherwise he would not have had.” (p. 106). So the greatest privilege that God bestows upon his chosen people is that it gives the rest of us the choice of whether or not to be Nazis. How purblind of the six million not to realise how favoured they were. For anyone unconvinced by this reasoning there is the old stand-by that the good God provides a compensatory blissful afterlife for those who suffer most; unfortunately this boon was not revealed to the chosen people but to their persecutors. A final evidence of God’s compassion and generosity is that no matter how terrible anyone’s suffering might be it is apparent that “one human can hurt another for no more than eighty years or so.” (p. 106). As for the suffering of the animal creation we can comfort ourselves with the thought that “it is most unlikely that they suffer nearly as much as humans do” (p. 110).

Despite the problem of evil, Swinburne argues throughout that the world as we find it is precisely the kind of world we would expect if it was created, or at least maintained in existence, by an infinitely good, omnipotent, omniscient, and freely-choosing personal God. It is hard to credit that this is anything more than a deliberately adopted false naivety, guaranteed to make him a cynosure in the philosophy of religion. But we are forced to give him the benefit of the doubt when we learn his view of Christianity: ”My own view … is that none of the great religions can make any serious claim on the basis of particular historical evidence for the truth of their purported revelations, apart from the Christian religion” (p. 128). If a man is naive enough to believe that, he is obviously naive enough to believe anything.

This book is further evidence that intelligence and academic ability are no guarantee of sound judgement in religion, as the number of fundamentalists with degrees in the sciences well illustrates. The reasons people give for their beliefs are always after the fact of belief itself, which comes upon them in ways they hardly know.

© David Hall 1996

Is There A God? by Richard Swinburne is published by Oxford University Press and costs £7.99 for the paperback. ISBN: 0-19-823545-3

David Hall is a painter and freelance writer on philosophical and religious subjects. He read Art History & Religious Studies at London University and lives in St. Albans

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