The Existence of God 2nd Edition by Richard Swinburne (PDF)


Ebook Info

  • Published: 2004
  • Number of pages: 376 pages
  • Format: PDF
  • File Size: 2.77 MB
  • Authors: Richard Swinburne


Richard Swinburne presents a substantially rewritten and updated edition of his most celebrated book. No other work has made a more powerful case for the probability of the existence of God. Swinburne argues compellingly that the existence of the universe, its law-governed nature and fine-tuning, human consciousness and moral awareness, and evidence of miracles and religious experience, all taken together (and despite the occurrence of pain and suffering), make it likely that there is a God.

User’s Reviews

Reviews from Amazon users which were colected at the time this book was published on the website:

⭐This is a fascinating, densely-argued book. Essentially, Swinburne examines the probability of God’s existence; he does not press for proofs of God’s existence that would compel belief. He looks at a number of the traditional arguments, the cosmological argument, teleological arguments, the argument from (or to) design, the fine tuning argument, and a number of others—the argument from beauty, arguments from consciousness and morality, the argument from religious experience and the argument from Providence. In each case he is careful to adduce what he considers to be the available evidence. He then concludes by evaluating the strength or weakness of the individual argument. A number of them are adjudged weak.He examines the problem of evil at some length, but, unfortunately, he does not have the space to look at the arguments from historicity and from miracles in actual, historical and empirical depth. Given their importance in traditional Christian apologetics, this is unfortunate.He leans heavily on Bayes’s theorem, judging hypotheses on both their probability and their explanatory power. Throughout these discussions the principle of simplicity is extremely important. His bottom line is that it is far more likely that God exists than that He does not exist.This is the second edition of a book that originally appeared in 1979. There is an additional note on the Trinitarian God (presenting no problems for his argument), a note on the ways in which recent breakthroughs in Biology reinforce the arguments to design and a third note on Alvin Plantinga’s argument against evolutionary naturalism (which, Swinburne argues, does not provide any good additional reason for theism beyond that provided by Swinburne’s own argument from consciousness).Note that this is a long book (350+ pp. with approximately 400 words/page) and that much of it consists of symbolic logic. He spends nearly 100 pp. establishing the bases for his position, explaining his terms, and so on. This is a serious read, but a rewarding one, though I can continually hear Hume in the back of my head, arguing that Swinburne is making analogic leaps based on his preexisting sense of what Hume’s contemporaries called the Christian attributes. In other words, we know the attributes that constitute the essence of the Christian God and we continue to believe that we are able to find confirmation of them through observation and argument. (Swinburne does, of course, challenge Hume’s position.)A very important book.

⭐Published in 2004 this is an updated version of the “The Existence of God” – originally released in the 1970’s. Unlike many updates, however, that incorporate relatively minor changes this text has a significant amount of new and reworked material. Through examination of arguments for and against theism Swinburne makes a cumulative probabilistic argument for the existence of God. I offer the following thoughts for potential buyers.The text provides a solid examination of the classic arguments for and against the existence of God. At the outset Swinburne lays out some of the basics of philosophical argumentation, i.e. what is an inductive argument, what is a deductive argument, etc. This approach may be helpful to readers new to philosophical discussion. I also thought the discussion of the argument from evil and the hiddeness of God to be quite well handled. His discussion of the other arguments, while not bad, were not noteworthy. I say this not because of the author’s particular views (indeed I think share many of them) but, rather because of approach. His arguments seemed to oscilate between being excessiving accommodating to popular thought and being theologically bloated and rambling. While Swinburne has his followers, his writing is not at the level of a Craig or Plantinga.With respect to shortcomings, I was surprised by the amount of typos that I noticed – this type of editorial minutia is not normally my forte. Also from a general perspective the text struck me as a bit too self-referential. In light of the tremendous amount of excellent contemporary material in this area it came across as either a bit lazy or even egotistical. Although by no means a terrible book, my strongest impression was – why? Swinburne does not say anything that has not already been said better by others.Overall, I am not disappointed to have this book in my collection and I would not discourage anyone from picking it up. Readers new to this area would be better advised to start with one of the several great debate books co-authored by Craig (the ones with Flew and Synott-Armstrong are especially strong) and then some of the tremendous works by Plantinga.

⭐This is one of the most difficult and most densely argued books I have ever read; but worth persevering with.Swinburne begins with several chapters (about one fifth of the whole book) explaining his methodology and introducing Bayes’s Theorem. This is a method of estimating the probability of an hypothesis (such as the existence of God) being true in the light of evidence for that hypothesis and taking account of our general background knowledge of the world (or universe) and how it works. It is a mathematical theorem expressed by an algebraic equation. It is not possible to put numbers to the various probabilities, so Swinburne usually puts a probability, P, at 50% (the same as tossing a coin). This allows him to estimate whether the probability of the “God hypothesis” is greater or less than 50%.As far as I can tell from my limited mathematical knowledge, this procedure is sound. It should be noted that Richard Dawkins (in “The God Delusion”) pours scorn on the use of Bayes’s Theorem by Stephen Unwin because he does put numbers to his probabilities. Dawkins also pours scorn on some of Swinburne’s arguments published elsewhere. Dawkins has read the present book (at least he includes it in his list of books cited or recommended) but, oddly enough, he does not discuss Swinburne’s use of Bayes’s Theorem. I wonder why not. Could it be that he finds Swinburne’s reasoning sound; or does he not know enough maths to understand Bayes’s Theorem?Swinburne then applies Bayesian reasoning to the usual arguments for the existence of God: the Cosmological argument, Teleological arguments (including the orderly nature of the Universe and its fine-tuning), arguments from Consciousness, Moral Awareness, Providence, History, Miracles and Religious Experience. He finds, in each case, that, given what we know about the nature of our Universe, it is more probable that there is a God than not. He also considers that Hume’s classical argument against miracles is inadequate.One issue Swinburne does not clearly address is how these arguments interact. It may be that each argument in turn is reinforced by the preceding arguments so that, overall, God’s existence becomes extremely probable. However, in his concluding chapter, Swinburne claims only that “…it is something like as probable as not that theism is true…” (page 341).So he is not claiming that each argument reinforces the next.If the arguments are all independent (each one has no effect on the next) then the probabilities become similar to tossing a coin. Toss a coin once and the chance of getting Heads is one half; toss a coin twice and the chance of two Heads is one in four; toss a coin eight times and the chance of getting eight Heads is 1 in 256 (0.39%) (If you toss the coin 2048 times you could expect to get one sequence of eight Heads, and also one sequence of eight Tails). But if you picked up a coin, tossed it eight times and got eight Heads, you would begin to wonder if there was some bias in the coin; you would examine it to see if it was two-headed, then go on tossing to see if you got some Tails. Swinburne’s arguments could be considered as tossing a coin eight times and getting eight Heads. Without further arguments being available, we are entitled to think that the coin may be biased. It may even have two Heads; i.e. there is a God.Chapter Eleven is devoted to the problem of evil. One point that Swinburne makes is that, if God decides to create moral agents (people) then they must be free to choose morally bad actions as well as good ones. If God prevented the bad actions then people would not be free moral agents. Secondly, Swinburne claims that the existence of evil gives us the opportunity to develop and display compassion. If there were no evils in the world, we would have no knowledge of compassion. Natural evils provide us with the knowledge required to make significant free choices and encourage us to gain more knowledge of such evils and the consequences of our choices. Thirdly, God, as Creator, has the right to inflict harm. Fourthly, that the quantity of good outweighs the quantity of harm. Finally, God has to remain “hidden”. If it was overwhelmingly obvious that God exists, we would feel obliged to obey Him and therefore we would not have a truly free choice between good and bad actions.Of these arguments, the first seems to be sound; the second and last seem to me to have some merit. However, I find the other arguments unconvincing; in particular, I do not believe good and evil can be measured and so one cannot outweigh the other.Summing up in his final chapter, Swinburne concludes that the probability of God existing is not less than 50%. In that case, “…the testimony of many witnesses to experiences apparently of God suffices to make many of those experiences probably veridical. That is, the evidence of religious experience is in that case sufficient to make theism overall probable.” (Page 341)In other words, Swinburne does not make extravagant claims that he has proved the existence of God but he does claim that he has shown God’s existence to be more probable than not. In that case, perhaps we should all be studying some of the “religious experiences” claimed by some people with a view to making up our own minds.I would give this book five stars for the thoroughness of its discussion and the careful presentation of its arguments but only three stars for readability.

⭐Swinburne was a Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Oxford University and so this book is not an easy read. This is, perhaps, the centre-piece of Swinburne’s popular output and so covers much ground. One feature of this book is that it approaches belief in theism from an abstract viewpoint and discusses frameworks and categorisations of arguments and counter-arguments. For example, in the chapter on miracles, a range of criteria are set-out that a report of a miracle has to meet for it to be accepted. Swinburne provides simple analogies to aid his exposition but no discussion of concrete examples.The central thrust is that by accumulating the probabilities of arguments for God, each of which on its own merits is more improbable than probable, it is probable that God exists. Swinburne appeals to Bayes theory of conditional probability for his analysis, but in many ways this is window dressing. Of course the frequentist would argue the basic premise is flawed as we only have a sample size of one – this universeThe crucial points of Swinburne’s argument are:(i) God is defined as an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free being. Swinburne then derives/infers that God is also an eternal spirit with perfect goodness.(ii) Given God’s goodness it is equally likely as unlikely (i.e. a probability of ½) that God would create humanly free agents.(iii) The mind is separate from the body – basic dualism.(iv) Humanly free agents can exist as spirits but need to be embodied to experience the universe – we are the embodied humanly free agents.(v) We have the free-will to be good or evil. That we have free-will can be argued from the perfect goodness of God.(vi) All moral statements are objectively true or false, although Swinburne does not say whether God is the source of objective truth or constrained by it. Although he does write “… I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality”. This suggests absolute morals exist independently of God and since God is wholly good he is constrained by them.(vii) The centre-piece is the Argument from Simplicity – to quote Swinburne “Simplicity is the sole relevant a priori criterion”.(viii) There is an odd assertion that science prefers infinity or zero over finite numbers because the finite limit has to be explained. To my mind, infinity points to a singularity that science wishes to avoid.(ix) The Argument from Simplicity plus the preference for the infinite obviously pre-disposes Swinburne to the existence of God.(x) God does not provide proof of his existence because that would limit free-will – if we knew for certain that God existed then we would all choose to be good.(xi) Religious experiences, provided they meet a range of criteria, are genuine encounters with the divine. One of the criteria is that it is plausible to believe in God.The basic flow Swinburne’s thesis is that the argument for simplicity points to a God that created us as embodied humanly free agents. God in his perfect goodness gave us free-will which includes the choice of whether to believe in him or not. The evidence for God’s existence is deliberately ambiguous otherwise we would not have free-will.I found many of Swinburne’s arguments to be circular. For example, having asserted his argument from simplicity, he states “The intrinsic probability of theism is, relative to other hypotheses about what there is, very high, because of the great simplicity of the hypothesis of theism”. To me the most striking circularity is actually in his final conclusion. In assessing his accumulation of probabilities, the sum of all of them except religious experience is still more improbable than probable, i.e. the overall probability is less than ½. It is the addition of the argument from religious experience to the sum that makes the overall probability greater than ½. But Swinburne argues that religious experience can only be taken as genuine if it is plausible to believe in God. Put another way, I would argue that the likelihood of religious experience being genuine is the same as the pre-existing likelihood, i.e. before the experience, that God exists. Swinburne states “And so, if there is a God, any experience that seems to be of God, will be genuine – will be of God”. Obviously for the individual who has the experience their view of the probability of God becomes close to or equal to one. Swinburne has a neat argument for why the lack of direct religious experience does not mean the probability of God is zero. However, I do not see that the sum total of religious experience can be used as an argument for taking the probability of God to be greater than ½. If nothing else it contradicts the argument from hiddenness.To Swinburne’s credit, he largely avoids Christian doctrine and argues at a more fundamental level for the existence of God. The argumentation in this book is complicated and I would not recommend it as the first book to read if you are looking to understand some of the intellectual arguments for God. If you are already familiar with some of these arguments, e.g. cosmological, teleological, the argument from design, then I think you will find this book thought-provoking. I was still thinking about it for a couple of weeks after finishing it.

⭐A complex book looking at the issue of proofs of God’s existence very thoroughly. The author rightly rejects a priori deductive proofs of God’s existence and non existence as necessarily flawed, and thus the ontological proofs, the 5 ways etc. are all out as pure deductive proofs. But the opening chapters look at the issue of inductive argument, probabilities and the evident truth that the simplest explanation is usually the best in scientific explanation as well as in personal explanation (a concept which itself gets a lot of discussion).Having laid some solid groundwork, the arguments for God’s existence are examined in depth. Swinburne makes some excellent points and answers many criticisms very well. However his argument hinges on the ability to prove that the hypothesis of God is the most probably hypothess, and he does this by settling a value on the probability of God being about 1/2 before bringing in miracles and his principle of credulity. Sceptics will perhaps point out that a desire to achieve a value of 1/2 at this point may colour the values given for probabilities from other arguments. Perhaps the problem of evil, that Swinburne notes “reduces the probability” actually reduces it much more than the author supposes. Thus to set such a probability is somewhat open to challenge.Having established that probablility, the principle of credulity is brought in to suggest we believe claims to miracles and such like unless there is reason to doubt. A sceptic will reply that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and thus the strong extra jolt given to the probabilities by the influence of miracles on the hypothesis can certainly be quibbled with. Moreover, the argument about the strongest claims to miracles that the author introduces seems to miss the point that weaker and conflicting claims to miraculous support for conflicting notions is itself an argument against the principle of credulityUltimately this book is not going to convince an atheist of God’s existence I suspect. However, it does have some wonderful insights in it. The arguments about the hidden-ness of God are wonderfully thought through. The realisation that there must be a possibility of agnosticism if we are ever to make choices free of the knowledge of our being watched, as it were, over our shoulders was a new one on me. Many other arguments favoured by atheists are also dealt with thoughtfully and thoroughly.This review picks a couple of points and simplifies some very thorough arguments, and I would strongly recommend reading the book to understand the arguments more deeply. It would be quite wrong to dismiss this book based on my comments. I don’t think it will convince people who are predisposed to reject the thesis, but whatever your opinion of God’s existence or non existence, this is a deep and thoughtful analysis that deserves to be carefully considered.A first class book on the philosophy of religion – but like Keith Ward’s book, “Why there almost certainly is a God”, I think this ultimately makes the case that belief in God is a thoroughly rational belief, without making an overwhelmingly convincing case that would sway anyone if (we say with a deep say) they just had the wherewithal to understand it!

⭐Swinburne tries to show in this book that there is a “p-inductive”argument for the existence of God (with the attributes “omnipotent”,”omniscient” and “perfectly free”), i.e. that the existence of God ismore probable than not and therefore that it is rationally justifiedto believe in God. To justify his approach he frankly admits that alldeductive “proofs” to the existence of God failed. Starting with the apriori probability of the thesis of Theism he piles up the usualarguments for the existence of God using Bayes Theorem and argues thatmost of them are good “c-inductive” arguments for the existence ofGod, that is, that they increase the probability of His existence. Theonly argument that decreases the probability slightly, is, accordingto Swinburne, the “problem of evil”. Overall, he concludes, hisproposition holds.As expected from Swinburne, the book is brilliantly written and heexplains the theoretical concepts he applies with adorable clarity andprecision. This alone makes the book a good read. However, hisconclusion is questionable. His framework of “explanation” lacksempirical support and looks like an ad-hoc proposition, especially his”personal explanation” which he tries to establish besides the”scientific explanation” as equal in value. Of course, the “scientificexplanation” is backed by reality but the “personal explanation” isbacked only by faith. He can’t show with the arguments he offers,that they point to the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient andall-good God. His argumentation also holds for a being with huge butlimited power. He argues that a being with unlimited power is simplerand – according to the historical scientific evidence – a simplerhypothesis is more probable than a complex one. This is true in aheuristic sense, but it is too weak to give an answer to a veryimportant metaphysical question like the one under scrutiny.Furthermore, I can’t see a good c-inductive argument in Swinburne’swork for the existence of an all-good God as postulated by him.Why should an all-good God construct a world with a food chainmechanism? Why should an all-good God stage human beings in a veryunimportant place in a vast, empty and life-adverse universe? All inall, this book is – notwithstanding the fact that it has drawbacks – avery interesting read for anyone how is really interested in thephilosophy of religion.

⭐Swinburne proposes an interesting approach to the age-old philosophical problem of finding a proof to God’s existence, using the mathematical tools of probability calculus and in particular, Bayes’ theorem. Regrettably he goes about it in a rather sloppy way, for example by assigning arbitrary probabilities for the sake of his argument. That way, all the argument amounts to in the end, is that it’s sensible to assume the existence of God as long as we don’t have a better explanation for the existence of the world we see.The book is written in a rather scholarly style, but at the same time its terminology lacks constancy, which makes it difficult to read for a non-native speaker like me. All in all, an interesting but tedious read.


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