Monday, May 27, 2013

Philosophy of Religion, Part 2: Swinburne's Induction

This is the second post about my Philosophy of Religion class. The readings I will discuss today were theologian Richard Swinburne's "The Existence of God" and A. C. Grayling's "Why I Am Not a Believer."

I won't talk much about Grayling's paper, as it is the usual atheistic rant against religion in its many forms. Without context, I wouldn't have been able to distinguish the essay from a passage of "The God Delusion." I was disappointed that our instructor did not select a reading which responded directly to arguments of the sort made by Swinburne. But maybe this was the point. As Grayling writes,
"Part of the sleight of hand at work here becomes obvious when one notes the great difference between what ordinary votaries of a religion believe and what their theologians and high priests say."
 The God that Swinburne defends bears little or no resemblance to the God of religious dogma which people really seem to want to believe in. Without the additional filter of religious tradition, his conception of God is virtually irrelevant to daily life, and might as well lead to a humanistic ethical outlook.

But what is Swinburne's conception of God (as presented in the essay), and how does he arrive at his conclusion? He acknowledges that a deductive inference of God's existence, in which the conclusion is mandatory given the premises, will not hold water. "It is most implausible," he says, "to suppose that such a statement as 'there is a physical universe but no God' ... contains any internal contradiction." Instead, Swinburne uses what he calls an "inductive inference". (Well, "induction" seems to imply an inference to the continuation of a pattern that has happened in the past; it might be better to characterize his argument strategy as "inference to the best explanation," for it is hard to establish a pattern when you only have one universe to reason from). He lays out four criteria that make for good induction, given a hypothesis H and observed phenomena P:
  1. If H is true, then one ought to expect P
  2. If H is false, then P is very improbable
  3. H is simple (i.e., postulates "the existence and operation of few entities, few kinds of entities, with few easily describable properties behaving in mathematically simple kinds of way.")
  4. H fits with our background knowledge
Reasonable enough. Now, Swinburne constructs his argument from three pieces of evidence:
  1. Why a physical universe exists at all
  2. Why this universe obeys orderly physical laws, rather than seethes in chaos
  3. Why this universe is fine-tuned to allow the evolution of complex life

We do not have an explanation for these three phenomona, nor is it possible to attain one through science (even if we get our unified theory of physics, it can never explain why physics exists in the first place). However, Swinburne writes,
"...there is another kind of explanation of phenomena which we use all the time and which we see as a proper way of explaining phenomena. This is what I shall call the personal explanation.... Personal explanation involves persons and purposes. If we cannot give a scientific explanation of the existence and orderliness of the universe, perhaps we can give a personal explanation."
The personal explanation for the universe is, of course, God, which Swinburne defines as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent (his justification is that a God with no limitations is a simpler hypothesis than a God with some arbitrary limitation. I actually like this point, and will come back to it in a future post). This God brings forth the universe the way it is because He would want to create life; whereas if there is no God, there is no reason to suppose that anything would exist at all. God fits with our background knowledge because many people have had religious experiences (that is a topic which I shall cover in future posts). God is also simple because He does not have arbitrary limitations. Therefore, Swinburne concludes, all four conditions of the inference are met, so we should accept God as the best explanation for our world. (This is a highly condensed summary; I would suggest that you read the essay yourself to get a better understanding of what he wants to say).

Possible Objections
  1. The first criterion is not met: if there is an omniscient, omnipotent creator, why should we expect him to create anything at all? Should he not be self-sufficient? Swinburne claims that God would want to create conscious creatures - but as this seems difficult or impossible to justify a priori, it has the force of a bald assertion. Swinburne says something about an orderly universe being "beautiful" and intrinsically "good," but that is about all of an explanation he or anyone else can muster.
  2. The second criterion is not met: Swinburne argues that on the hypothesis that there is no God, we should not expect a universe to exist at all. Again, this seems to be more of an assertion that something which is justifiable: how could you know, a priori, that the universe is unlikely to come about without a personal explanation? Swinburne writes that "since there cannot be a scientific explanation of the existence of the Universe, either there is a personal explanation or there is no explanation at all." I am dubious; could there really be no alternate metaphysical explanation? (And why, for that matter, must we commit to any explanation in matters this incomprehensible?) If someone could propose other explanations of the universe that meet the four criteria, then the God explanation would fail to impress. For example, perhaps there is a law of logic which immediately entails the existence and properties of our universe.
  3. The third criterion is not met: personal explanations are not simple. I will discuss this in more detail below.
  4. The fourth criterion is not met: God does not fit with our background knowledge. In other words, we impeach the explanatory scope of the God hypothesis by drawing on other knowledge of the world, such as the existence of pointless suffering, and the failure of religious dogma. If God exists, we would not expect to see such things.
My Objection to all Teleological Inference

The essential property of God is not the fact that He (or She) is the metaphysical ground of reality; rather, it is the fact that He is personal (for we might imagine that the metaphysical ground of reality is impersonal, and therefore not something to bother worshipping). Swinburne argues that agency is a completely valid means of explanation:
"We often explain some phenomenon E as brought about by a person P in order to achieve some purpose or goal G.... this is a different way of explaining things from the scientific. Scientific explanation involves laws of nature and previous states of affairs. Personal explanation involves persons and purposes."
This is perfectly reasonable, as far as it goes. The fallacy lies in supposing that we can extract the personal from its physical embodiment in the universe, thereby using it to explain the universe. To do so is to make a category error. Agency does not simply correlate with physical brains; we have great reason to suppose that it is caused by the brain (e.g., brain damage reduces consciousness, drugs affect decision-making, etc.). If this is the case, then we do not know what it means for an agent to be simple or nonphysical. It does not help to say that God is merely agent-like, for it is difficult to pin down what this could possibly mean. We might as well say that the universe exists "by magic." Given this line of reasoning, it does not matter if we cannot explain fine-tuning or the orderliness of the universe by other means - whatever the case, we can be fairly certain that a "personal God" is not the explanation.

And Now for Something Slightly Different...

 Recursive Explanations
  1. Everything which exists either has an explanation distinct from itself, or it does not.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation distinct from itself, or it does not.
  4. Recursive explanations are absurd; i.e., we cannot have an infinite chain of explanations of explanations.
  5. Therefore, something must exist which does not have an explanation apart from itself.
  6. Occam's razor states that we should not multiply entities beyond necessity.
  7. It is not necessary to suppose that the universe has an explanation apart from itself.
  8. Therefore, to suppose that the universe has an explanation apart from itself is to multiply entities beyond necessity.
  9. Therefore, we should not suppose that the universe has an external explanation.
I do not presume that I have made some sort of knock-down argument against God, for I have not analyzed the chain of reasoning in detail. Rather, I had the idea on a whim, and decided to write it down. Maybe one could impeach premise (7) by citing the philosophical idea of contingent and necessary entities, and arguing that the universe is contingent. But I see no logical reason to suppose that the universe could not be a necessary entity.

Necessity of Existence
  1. Necessary entities exist by definition.
  2. Contingent entities do not exist in and of themselves, but if they do exist, they must be begotten by necessary entities.
  3. Necessary entities always beget other necessary entities.
  4. Therefore, contingent entities do not exist.
  5. Therefore, the universe is a necessary entity
I think (1) and (2) are philosophically correct, but I am not sure. I firmly stand by premise (3), though not everyone would agree (the main objection is that a necessary being could create a contingent being if it were an agent, and I have just argued against metaphysical agency).

Conservation of Existence
  1. Things which exist cannot cease to exist
  2. Things which do not exist cannot begin to exist
  3. Had the universe once been nonexistent, it could not, by premise (2), have begun to exist.
  4. Therefore, the universe must have "always" existed.
Philosophers might strongly object to premises (1) and (2) for various reasons (for one thing, what do the terms mean, precisely?). The argument is best viewed as a justification of the B-theory of time, or perhaps the B-theory of time as a justification for this argument. (The B-theory of time, or eternalism, states that the past and the future exist simultaneously, and that time is an illusion. Clearly, if the B-theory is not true, then certain object "begin to exist," like houses being built, for example.) At the very least, I find it intuitive that (1) and (2) would be true, though it could be argued that quantum mechanics undermines (2) (I'm not sure it does). There is also some discussion to be made of potential and actual existence (but why would reality, I wonder, make such a distinction?)

In any case, I'm cutting the discussion short here. The task of examining the above three arguments is left as an exercises to the reader. I make no promises that the arguments are worth anything.


  1. The second objection is probably the first I would make in an argument/debate; statements about the necessary functions or origins of a universe, following right behind claims that we have no idea what the necessary functions or origins of the universe are, are absurdly hypocritical. It's even worse that we try to assert probability, without experimental or theoretical backup, as entities within the universe itself; the anthropic principle applies just as much as it always has.

    I'm not a huge fan of the recursive argument you propose, since it's somewhat intuitive to ask about the "start" of a universe that seems to have a beginning (i.e. its seeming start if you reverse the Big Bang), and thus intuitive to ask about a "cause." It's not obvious that the regression stops at the universe; at least, I don't think Occam's Razor should be applied so liberally.

    On the other hand, I like your Necessity of Existence discussion.

  2. Indeed it is natural to imagine that the universe has a cause because it has a beginning. On the other hand, if the B-theory of time holds, then as far as I can understand, a cause is not at all necessary. It would be like saying that since a line segment has a beginning, it must be preceded by a cause.

    As for necessary and contingent entities, I would like to clarify the definitions. In modal logic, a necessary entity, by definition, exists in all logically possible worlds (so it must exist in the actual world), whereas a contingent entity exists in some logically possible worlds (so it may or may not exist in the actual world). So saying that there are no contingent entities is equivalent to saying that fundamentally, there is only one logically possible world. This may be even less obvious than the argument I defended above, and in fact, without some caveats, is probably not true. I would defend the necessary existence of the universe, but the contingency of some of its properties.