A name that popped up in Episode 43 and Episode 44 was that of Oxford philosophy professor Richard Swinburne. Swinburne has made his reputation positing analytic arguments in favor of Christian theism. As Robert pointed out toward the end of Episode 43, most Christians, even if sympathetic, would probably not find Swinburne’s arguments dispositive toward their belief. Even so, it’s only fair to allow serious scholars like Swinburne to frame their own arguments before rendering judgment. Swinburne’s approach reveals the strawman nature of the arguments deployed by Hitchens, Harris, et al. when they evoke the cartoonish “I believe because the [insert Holy Text] says so” stereotype. (I will cut Richard Dawkins some slack here; he’s actually done a pretty good job of engaging non-silly theists in civil debate.)
Among Dawkins’ arguments against God-as-sufficient-reason-for-creation is this: Musn’t any Supreme Being capable of creating the Universe necessarily be so complex as to demand an accounting for His/Her/Its own origin? Dawkins thinks so; he declares the lack of explanation for something as necessarily complex as an omnipotent God renders useless any appeal an Unmoved Mover. Carl Sagan posed the issue a bit more elegantly in Cosmos years before:
Where did God come from? If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step, and conclude that the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Or, if we say that God always existed, why not save a step, and conclude that the universe always existed? There’s no need for a creation, it was always here. These are not easy questions.
To see Swinburne present an alternate version of the same argument in dialogue, check out his performance on the PBS show Closer to Truth.) I find Swinburne’s arguments engaging, if not compelling. They are as carefully considered as Dawkins’ arguments to the contrary, and Dawkins — to his credit — posted Swinburne’s rebuttal to Dawkins’ critique on his own website:
[Dawkins] writes that “a God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple”. And why does he think this? He doesn’t say, but I take it that his reason for thinking this is that, if God gets his knowledge and exercises his power in the way in which we do (via brains) he will need to be very very complicated, since ordinary human brains with their limited powers of control are very complicated things.
But (1) I am not the same thing as my brain. The full story of the world would need to include both what happened to me and what happened to my brain. Split brain experiments illustrate this — see, for example, chs 8 and 9 of my book The Evolution of the Soul.
And I (a simple entity) control quite a bit of my brain (a much more complicated entity) so that I can make it cause many different motions of my limbs, tongue etc.
And (2) whether a hypothesis is simple or not is an intrinsic feature of that hypothesis, not a matter of its relation to observable data. Whether the hypothesis is such as to lead us to expect the data is a second and different criterion for assessing a hypothesis. Whether the hypothesis that one criminal committed all of some set of murders, or whether Newton’s theory that all bodies attract each other with forces proportional to mm1/r2 is simple is something we can see by studying it. But, to be probably true, the hypothesis must also satisfy the criterion of leading us to expect the data. The postulation of one entity (God) with the stated properties (scientists prefer hypotheses postulating infinite qualities to hypotheses postulating very large finite quantities — other things, that is, satisfaction of other criteria, being equal) is intrinsically simple. I also argue that it leads us to expect the enormously complex data (enormously large numbers of protons, photons etc. behaving in exactly the same way).
Now, who could find fault with that reasoning? Anyone…?