Richard Norman on Richard Swinburne

A reader alerted me to this article taking issue with Swinburne.

…serious arguments are what the religious believer needs to come up with, rather than evasive appeals to ‘faith’. If belief in God is a matter of ‘faith’ in contrast to reason, there’s nothing to distinguish it from mere wishful thinking.

Just so. And yet ‘faith’ is routinely used as a valor word, a virtue word, a self-righteous word, a self-flattering word. The nimbus around it almost always indicates ‘I have “faith” therefore I am better.’ That’s bad. Wishful thinking should not have an aura of superior virtue or depth. But it does. That’s bad.

Swinburne now offers two new versions of the argument from design, which shift the argument to another level. The first, which he calls the ‘argument from temporal order’, points to the fact that everything in the universe takes place with predictable regularity, in accordance with scientific laws…”To say that such laws govern matter is just to say that every bit of matter, every neutron and proton and electron throughout endless space and time behaves in exactly the same way…How extraordinary that is!”…What exactly is supposed to be ‘extraordinary’ about this regularity?

I’ll clear that up for you. Look, I’ll shuffle this pack of cards, then I’ll deal myself five cards, then I’ll point out how extraordinary it is that I got just those five cards and no others. It’s mind-boggling. God alone can explain it. See?

Our existence seems to call for some special explanation only if we assume that we human beings have a special importance and that a universe without us would be an impoverished universe which would have gone badly wrong. We may like to think that the purpose of the universe is to produce ourselves, but there’s no reason to suppose that that’s true. It’s just a reflection of our human perspective and our inflated ideas of our own importance.

Swinburne seems to have a really bad case of that, and of a surprising inability even to notice that he has it, or at least to acknowledge it. That’s part of what makes his arguments sound so…the way they sound.

Necessarily, if what we want to explain are the facts which science starts from, then science cannot itself explain them. But it doesn’t follow that, because there is no scientific explanation, there must be a personal explanation. The alternative is that there is no explanation at all (that is, we should reject the first premise). Swinburne thinks that this is unacceptable. He says: ‘To suppose these data to be just brute inexplicable facts seems…highly irrational.’ (p. 53) But all explanations have to come to an end somewhere. If you ask theists why there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent god, there is no further explanation they can give. If God is the explanation of everything else, then the existence of God has to be just a brute inexplicable fact. It seems to me to be a great deal more rational to accept, as our brute fact, the existence of a certain kind of universe. After all, we do have the best possible evidence that this universe, unlike God, actually exists!

Yeah but on the other hand if we’re going to stop with some brute fact or other, we might as well pick the one that loves us and makes us suffer pain so that other people can have sympathy for us – right? That being so much more consoling and all.

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