Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 81 (March 1998): 54-57.
Is There a God? By Richard Swinburne. Oxford University Press. 144 pp. $25 cloth, $9.95 paper.
Reviewed by Laura L. Garcia
Apologetics is experiencing a small revival these days, both within the academy and outside it, and Oxford professor Richard Swinburne has led the charge in the philosophical community with an outpouring of careful work over the last two decades. The project of natural theology, seeking what can be known of God by the light of reason alone, was abandoned and left for dead by many scholars in mid-century, assumed to be a victim of either positivism or epistemic relativism. Even those who continued to defend religious beliefs often contented themselves with showing that such beliefs are rational rather than that they are true. Swinburne insists on the stronger claim that theism is the most reasonable worldview in that it is more probable than any of its intellectual competitors.
Is There A God? provides a compact overview of Swinburne’s case for theism, drawing heavily on his previous more technical volumes on the subject, especially The Existence of God (1979) and The Evolution of the Soul (1986, 1997). He intends this more popular treatment as a response to recent best-sellers promoting naturalistic atheism, especially Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Swinburne’s background in the philosophy of science gives him an advantage in sorting out the legitimate science in these books from their questionable philosophical assumptions. Indeed, he turns the tables by arguing that scientific principles of reasoning point to theism as the best explanation of all the relevant data.
The three competing worldviews discussed in the book are materialism, theism, and humanism. Materialism attempts to reduce all explanations, even those involving persons and their plans and purposes, to inanimate causal explanations. Theism traces all explanations, even inanimate ones, to a personal explanation (in terms of God and his creative will). Humanism retains some personal explanations as ultimate (at the level of finite human agency) while leaving some inanimate explanations as ultimate also.
Swinburne offers four criteria, drawn from scientific reasoning, for choosing the best theory. First, the proposed law or theory leads us to expect many and varied events that we observe (and we do not observe any events whose nonoccurrence it leads us to expect). Second, it is simple. Third, it fits well with our background knowledge. Finally, we would not otherwise expect to find these events (there is no rival law or theory that predicts these events and that satisfies the first three criteria as well as the proposed theory does).
Applying these criteria to the three worldviews, Swinburne argues that theism wins because of its simplicity and its ability to explain data the other views leave unexplained. Though theism isn’t predictive of new data, it resembles evolutionary theory in leading us to explain observations already made. The simplicity criterion carries a heavy burden in Swinburne’s argument, as it recommends theism’s appeal to one being with simple (infinite) properties over materialism’s appeal to many ultimate particles with complex properties. But an even more crucial premise is Swinburne’s version of the principle of sufficient reason: "The human quest for explanation inevitably and rightly seeks for the ultimate explanation of everything observable."
Theism explains everything we observe, argues Swinburne, including "the fact that there is a universe at all, that scientific laws operate within it, that it contains conscious animals and humans with very complex intricately organized bodies, that we have abundant opportunities for developing ourselves and the world, as well as the more particular data that humans report miracles and have religious experiences." Materialism and humanism leave many of these data mysterious, accepting them as brute facts, and Swinburne insists that this is intellectually irresponsible, since "the whole progress of science and all other intellectual enquiry demands that we postulate the smallest number of brute facts." Swinburne departs from the received tradition of natural theology by denying that God is a necessary being, so on his view God’s existence is itself a brute fact. But if one brute fact is preferable to many, then theism still wins the explanatory sweepstakes.
The book is at its best in the middle chapters, which treat the existence and order of the universe as evidence for God and try to show that the existence of evil does not count against God’s existence. Discussions of miracles and religious experiences are so brief as to leave many unanswered questions. Swinburne does devote four pages to the miracles of Jesus as evidence for Christianity, a welcome departure from the noncommittal character of most philosophical work in this area. He makes some surprising claims in the chapter on human beings, arguing for a strong Cartesian dualism of soul and body for humans, but claiming that dogs and cats have immaterial souls as well. That argument assumes, however, that these animals have beliefs, which is doubtful at best.
Swinburne recognizes the limits of his case for theism in his epilogue: "I am well aware of objections other than the ones I have discussed which can be made to almost every sentence which I have written." But life is short, he reminds us, and so we must act on the best information available to us in spite of our lack of certainty. Swinburne tells us in the final paragraph that if theism is true, "God in his perfect goodness will want to make the best of us: make saints of us and use us to make saints of others." Statements of this sort don’t appear in analytic philosophy books every day. It’s refreshing to find a philosopher of Swinburne’s ability and erudition writing such a robust apologetic with no apologies.
Laura L. Garcia teaches philosophy at Rutgers University.