Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Book Review: Is There A God? by Richard Swinburne.

Since Is There A God? kept appearing as source material in the recent philosophical literature I've been reading (some reviewed here), I thought it about time I went to the source.

Too, I wanted to read it as a prelude to Richard Swinburne's follow-up, Was Jesus God? (2008) (which I'm reading now).

Formerly the Nolloth Professor of Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford, Swinburne's "big idea" in Is There A God? is applying "Ockham's razor" (p. 31) to argue that theism is more reasonable than atheism to explain our existence (or the earth's or the universe's) because it's the simplest explanation. "The thesis of this book is that theism provides by far the simplest explanation of all phenomena. Materialism is not...a simple hypothesis, and there is a range of phenomena which it is most unlikely ever able to explain. Humanism is an even less simple hypothesis than materialism." (p. 41.)

Theism's persuasively simple, according to Swinburne. "Theism claims that every other object which exists is caused to exist and kept in existence by just one substance, God. And it claims that ever property which every substance has is due to God causing or permitting it to exist. It is a hallmark of a simple explanation to postulate few causes. There could be in this respect be no simpler explanation that one which postulated only one cause." (p. 43.)

In addition to offering affirmative evidence of God's existence, Swinburne attempts to answer objections. First, in dealing with evolution, he more than acknowledges it; he essentially appropriates it. Swinburne writes: "And, as we now know, humans and animals did come into existence through the gradual process of evolution from a primitive soup of matter which formed as earth cooled down some 4,000 million years ago. In that process natural selection played a central role. Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) taught us the outlines of the story, and biologists have been filling in the details ever since. The clear simple modern presentation in Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker (1986) is deservedly popular." (p. 58; emphasis supplied.) I doubt Dawkins thought he would be cited approvingly in a book arguing for theism.

Swinburne continues: "So, in summary, the Darwinian explanation of why there are the complex animal and human bodies there are today is that once upon a time there were certain chemicals on earth, and, given the laws of evolution..., it was probable that complex organisms would emerge. This explanation of the existence of complex organisms is surely a correct explanation, but it is not an ultimate explanation of that fact." (p. 60; emphasis supplied.) Thus, Swinburne incorporates Darwinism, and then simply adds a step of regress to place God at the beginning of the process. Here, Swinburne partially undermines his simplicity argument, since he's adding steps (and complexity) into the creation process. Swinburne likewise paints himself into a corner for his later book with respect to the Trinity (but that will have to wait for the review of Was Jesus God?).

Second, Swinburne deals with the "problem of evil" (also known as the problem of suffering or the problem of pain) in Chapter 6, entitled "Why God Allows Evil". To his credit, Swinburne does not posit the ubiquitous "free-will defense" and leave it at that. He attempts to grapple with "natural evil" (i.e. events that cannot be explained by human choices, called "moral evil") such as natural disasters. Some may not find his explanations satisfactory, but Swinburne does provide a lucid theodicy for both types of evils.

The book curiously ends with dissatisfaction--from the author. Swinburne laments: "I reach the end of this book with some dissatisfaction. I am well aware of objections other than the ones which I have discussed which can be made to almost every sentence which I have written... I am also aware of counter-objections which can be advanced to turn against every objection to my views, and also of the need for qualifications and amplification of most of the assertions in this book. Argument and counter-argument, qualification and amplification, can go on forever." (p. 140.)

This apologetic tone seems unnecessary and defensive. Either Swinburne could have expanded the book to deal with more objections (it was only 139 pages before this epilogue) or have stated its limited scope or purpose at the outset. Nevertheless, I can see why Swinburne's book has been cited because it represents a straightforward and thought-provoking assertion and defense of theism. Recommended for those interested in this genre.

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