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...?
Tom McDonald says
I’m not sure I have a dog in this fight, other than concern that naive empiricism is made more critical, and it so happens that such criticism is being rendered by the theological side. It is significant that Swinburne appeals to our intuition (not a pejorative word here) that we are “not the same thing” as our brains, i.e., I am not identical to my brain. But of course, this raises the question of dualism, which materialists are now wont to rule out of hand. I hate to sound a one-note song here, but the dualism/materialism debate is just so tired, and it seems to me the world of Anglo philosophy is sorely needing to accept what Kant, Hegel, and Hegelian/continental philosophy has been exploring for a long time now: there is an eliminably paradoxical character to thought or reason as a unity-in-difference with embodiment, i.e., both our inclination to a material unity in science, and our intuition of a dualistic, radical difference of thought in philosophy both give expression to a truth of the human condition. Exactly what the character of this paradox or dialectic is is disputed though. For example, Lacanian psychoanalysis claims it is entirely to do with language: when the natural human organism takes up the collective grammatical structure of “I” in language-use, one becomes (capable of being) an independent reasoner or “I” in the language-game of one’s culture. This is an interesting to solution to why we experience dualism between nature or body and culture or thought, and it also shows why we would likely never be able to undo it without ceasing to be the thoughtful beings we’ve become.
Wes Alwan says
See also: http://philpapers.org/archive/SHAPFA.1.pdf; and http://philpapers.org/archive/WIEDGH.1.pdf. And the Kenny paper mentioned in the episode announcement.
Vikram Paralkar says
Some thoughts about Swinburne’s comments (I’m responding to the excerpt in your post):
1) I disagree with the statement “I am not the same thing as my brain”. There’s every indication that consciousness is a higher-level feature of the brain. I looked up the book linked in the excerpt, and here’s a quote from the back-cover: “…mental states are states of the soul, a mental substance in interaction with the body”. (So, yes, Tom, he’s a dualist!) I agree that if there is such a thing as a “mental substance” that can float free of a neurobiological substrate, then yes, a mind could potentially be “simple”. But there’s no evidence whatsoever supporting this. In fact, we know that every single aspect of what we call the mind can be damaged by damaging specific parts of the brain. Swinburne’s very conception of a mind is founded on an assumption that is contradicted by observation after observation in neuroscience.
By the way, the chain of causation from mind to brain works both ways. A very simple molecule – C2H5OH (also known as alcohol) – when introduced into the vicinity of neurons, can control very complex aspects of our minds (our ethical/moral principles and inhibitions)!
2) Swinburne says that the idea of a mind as a first cause is more satisfying that a host of quarks/strings all exhibiting the same behavior. He’s setting up a false equivalency here – between a phenomenon any particle accelerator can demonstrate at a moment’s notice (fundamental particles exhibiting the same behavior) and something that has never ever been demonstrated (a disembodied mind floating free of a brain). In order for the equivalency to be valid, he would first have to demonstrate that a disembodied mind is even possible.
Daniel Horne says
I ultimately agree with you more than I disagree, for just the reasons you cite, though you do a much better job than I.
I recently posted a video on some experiments supporting the idea that core aspects of self (including the ability to render moral judgments) is at the mercy of physical processes within the brain.
That said, while the mind-body problem is almost certainly based upon an illusion, it’s a _damn compelling_ one!
Erroll Treslan says
Wes, thanks for those links – nice to add to my philosophy library on The God Delusion. To date, I only had these two: http://www.ouruf.org/d/grad/10.1%20ganssle%20-%20Dawkins%20Best%20Argument.pdf
Love your show. Keep up the great work.
Wes Alwan says
Thanks Erroll — you’re very welcome.