Mark Vernon, former priest and current agnostic, had a piece on his website a while back addressing Swinburne's (pictured, right) argument for the existence of God. Swinburne's argument is a a variation on the traditional God as the "uncaused cause" argument, with a twist in appealing to the "simplest explanation is the best explanation" rule. But whether we argue forward from the Big Bang/creation or argue back from the world to a singularity/moment of creation, we keep running into this concept of a singularity/God who needs no explanation or cause about which it is extremely difficult to speculate, since by definition it is not subject to the traditional laws of cause and effect. If simple explanations are indeed better explanations, does the existence of God hold up as a more acceptable theory for why we are here? Is probability even relevant in discussing the existence of God?
"The theism hypothesis is that God wills to create something that is good. We are it - inasmuch as we can choose what is good, that is act morally. Alongside the moral universe, the inanimate universe governed by laws of nature is the evidence, as well as being the environment necessary for the existence of creatures with the capacity to do good. And the thesis is simple, though it explains something that is very complicated. It involves postulating one 'thing' (God) with two infinite properties (omnipotence and omniscience) and one absence of a property (not subject to the irrational).
Thus, theism counts as the most probable explanation for the universe, Swinburne contends. And it comes with a simplicity which is more than most scientific hypotheses can claim. For example, even the Big Bang singularity, which might seem very simple, is more complicated (given that cosmologists still hold to it, which is debatable). It must come with all sorts of initial conditions that explain all sorts of finite things, like fine-tuning. Having an agent with infinite powers acting for the good is simpler.
If you want to probe a little further into Swinburne's argument you come up against Bayesian probability. And there are objections to his way of proceeding here. We've already noted the issue of God being a necessary being and so outside the laws of probability with respect to existence. Alternatively, there is an objection which points out that Bayesian techniques require assessing how probable God is by comparison with all other hypotheses. Since there are theoretically an infinite number of such hypotheses, many would say this is not possible to do. So this is another reason why it is just a bit silly to talk about the probability of God as an explanation. Having said that, one retort is that such a difficulty is also the case for scientific hypotheses. But in the case of scientific hypotheses we evoke the criterion of simplicity to clear away most of the infinity of hypotheses that are complex. And this, Swinburne would say, is precisely what applies in the case of God too. Humean sceptics might come back again and say there is absolutely no reason to accept the criterion of simplicity, whether referring to God or science. And after all, is not the world in fact pretty complex, and only in pretty rarified circumstances, tidily subject to simple laws? And so the argument goes round and round.
So what to make of all this? Well actually, I suspect that the main objection to the hypothesis of God as an explanation for the existence of the universe, is nothing to do with simplicity, but is to do with the existence of evil. Seeking an objective proof for the existence of God seems to exacerbate this problem since developing a theodicy to account for evil requires one to make cool calculations about how much evil there is and whether that is justified by the amount of free will humans must exercise to be human, or by the good that evil can occasion in, say, human sympathy. Doing so just seems to make the problem of evil worse, implying that God is the sort of being who works according to such cool calculations in the face of sentient suffering.
The explanation of the universe as the physicist's Theory of Everything, or TOE, can therefore seem to be more appealing. Given that physicists believe in TOEs these days, which again is debatable, a TOE actually shares many of the properties of God, which is why people like Hawkings have talked of knowing the mind of God, except for one crucial issue: TOEs don't care about the universe, which the God hypothesis does. It is this property of care that give rise to the problem of evil. So arguably a more intellectually satisfying hypothesis, though a more impersonal one, is a TOE. Having said that, TOEs do have a problem accounting for the whole of the universe as we see it, namely the personal element of caring consciousness.
Probably - no pun intended - the only way around these issues is to ask yourself what you find more personally satisfying. If you find appealing the idea that mind or intelligence is the most fundamental thing in the universe, you are likely to warm more to God-like explanations, or at least Platonic ones (and the latter are increasingly respectable, at least amongst physicists). If you believe that mind or intelligence can or will be explained by a purely materialist theory, making the universe at bottom indifferent and the personal merely an epiphenomenon, you are likely to warm to the atheist position."
Vernon's full post can be found here.
Tom McDonald says
Robert: I think you’re on the right track when you ask “Is probability even relevant in discussing the existence of God?” Such arguments constitute a bad form of speculation in my view, because they are subject to what Kant identifies as ‘transcendental dialectic’, i.e., reasoning about an interminably indeterminable object. This is why Hegel’s post-Kantian approach remains unappreciated in the Anglo world. For Hegel, the meaning or content of the concept “God” must be reconciled with the history of human experience, rationality, and normativity: a “God” or ‘Absolute’ that is completely transcendent is for Hegel a sign of a deeply dissatisfied, unfulfilled human desire, unreconciled to the reality of its milieu. That’s why the ‘God wars’ are, in my view, are really about the Ethical character of our world, e.g., the incapacity of natural science as a paradigm to provide meaningful, contentful (not formalistic) normative-ethical knowledge.
Tom McDonald says
Is anyone familiar with philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen? He delivered the Yale Terry Lecture on Religion in the Light of Science in 2002 or so.
Van Fraassen’s project is to develop a contemporary anti-metaphysical “constructive empiricist” theory of science and a related non-materialistic ’empirical stance’. While he follows in the empiricist tradition, he rejects contemporary materialistic and naturalistic metaphysics (claims that ‘all there is is matter’) equally with (what is equivalent) the Cartesian God of the philosophers, designed simply and self-servingly to guarantee philosophical beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality.
Van Fraassen’s criterion of what counts as scientific knowledge is “empirical adequacy”, not absolute truth. Scientific explanations may aim for truth, but they can in fact only be judged empirically adequate or not adequate to explaining the particular phenomena in question.
Science is (rightly) an ‘objectifying’ inquiry, whereas poetry, spirituality, religion are ‘nonobjectifying’ forms of inquiry. The latter flourish and find their legitimacy in the fact that the scientific world picture (the ‘scientific image’ as opposed to the ‘manifest image’ in Wilfrid Sellars’ terms) has no place for human persons, no way to answer the question ‘who someone really is’. It’s quite Kantian and existential on my reading so far, but with much more precision regarding the scientific milieu in which we are situated.
Here are two good assessments of van Fraassen’s lecture:
Tom McDonald says
BTW, the relevance of van Fraassen to the post here on Swinburne is that van Fraassen is also a trained analytic philosopher but is totally opposed to the analytic metaphysics that is practiced by Swinburne and atheistic analytic philosophers. In van Fraassen’s view analytic philosophy has taken a bad turn down the fallacious road of the metaphysics it originally set out to avoid.
Robert Scott says
I think the most one can hope for from these ‘rational’ approaches to proving God’s existence is perhaps to give a framework for a belief that already exists.
I think taking a statistical approach to something as critical to the human condition is downright crazy to be honest – as appealing as the “simplest explanation is the best explanation’ is.
After seeing how (in my opinion) bad Plantinga managed to defend the concept of omniscience from Patrick Grim’s critique I have grown a little impatient with arguments taking that as, or part of, a premise. He layed it out already in his 1991 book “The Incomplete Universe” (also arguing, against the Tractatus, that the world can not be thought of as “all that is the case”, i.e. a complete collection of facts) and I think he has since worked out a similar argument regarding omnipotence, but I need to read up on it all. (As one of its contributors he has a chapter on these arguments in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism [Ed. Michael Martin].)
By the way, something to spice up Tom’s summary of van Fraassen: he’s also a Roman Catholic.