I’ve been wanting to mutter a few words about this exchange between Dennett and Swinburne. Actually it’s Swinburne I want to mutter about.
…if there is a God of the traditional kind – omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and perfectly good – we have every reason to expect that he will bring about the existence of good things; and one especially good thing is the existence of embodied creatures such as ourselves who have a choice between good and evil and can influence the world and each other in various ways.
Why is that an especially good thing? Why is it a good thing at all? In what sense is it a good thing? Above all, to whom is it a good thing? I can see why it’s a good thing to us, that is to say, in our view: because it’s about us (‘such as ourselves’ – Daisy, he means you and me!). We think it’s an especially good thing that there should be embodied creatures who can influence the world and each other in various ways and compose music and invent new video games, because we are those very creatures (what a coincidence! these creatures Swinburne talks about turn out to be none other than human beings! what a small world, eh?). We think creatures that do things that humans do are an especially good thing because they do the things we do – so how could they not be? But Swinburne, I take it, is claiming to go beyond that merely parochial point of view, and talk about things more in general – and in that case I don’t understand what he’s getting at. What’s so good about it? Who is there to think it’s an especially good thing, other than more of us? I look around, I flip through the catalogue of other solar systems and galaxies, I ask flies and fir trees and bits of plaster, and I can’t find anyone else who thinks it’s an especially good thing. So what does Swinburne mean? Just – ‘we think it’s a good thing because here we are and our preference is to go on being here so we think it’s a good thing that we are here’? No, surely more than that. But what? Why is anybody or anything anywhere in the rest of the universe supposed to give the smallest tiniest damn whether we have a choice between good and evil or not? And if no one and nothing else does, in what sense is it an especially good thing?
And besides that – if there is ‘a God of the traditional kind – omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and perfectly good’, then why did it, why would it, create or arrange the emergence of creatures like us instead of better creatures? Why would it take so long to do it? Why would it waste so much material, create or generate so many stars and planets and so much space between them, just to get inadequate patchy bloodthirsty creatures like us? Why such a massive to-do for such a derisory product? Why not something better? Why all the extinctions? Why all the suffering? If we have ‘every reason to expect that he will bring about the existence of good things’, then why the hell didn’t he (and how does Swinburne know he’s a he, anyway?) bring about the existence of more of them? Why not lots and lots and lots more good things and much fewer bad ones? Why don’t we have every reason to expect that? I would really like to know. The whole idea seems remarkably lame, to me.
Mark Fournier has some comments on Swinburne in a similar (but different) vein. I love this bit:
All those billions of years, all of those trillions of stars, all that space, just so that the Almighty could gather to himself a handful of syncophants. Hardly seems worth the trouble, if you ask me. And why does a Being so Great crave the adoration of some great apes from the unfashionable arm of a rather low-rent galaxy?
Really. None of it seems worth the trouble, and wouldn’t you think the Being would want some more glam adorers?