Monday, 27 July 2009

Richard Swinburne "The Existence of God"

I got this book out of the library last weekend - the second edition published in 2004. In it, Richard Swinburne spends about 350 pages going through the various arguments for God, and finds them persuasive.

Interestingly, Swinburne's definition of God is somewhat narrower than that provided by Dawkins in The God Delusion, and also narrower than Spong's definition of the Theistic God in A New Christianity for a New Age. I think it is worth making a direct comparison between them.

Here is the Dawkins version:
There exists a superhuman supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed the universe and everything in it, including us.
Here is Spong's understanding of a theistic God:
A being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will.
Note that there is some difference here. Dawkins' definition encompasses the non-interfering God of deism as well as the activist God of theism, while Spong is specifically describing a theistic God. Spong isn't making explicit Dawkins' claim that God created the universe, but that doesn't matter a great deal. If God is outside the universe, then whether or not God created the universe, he must have come into existence separately from it, and therefore Dawkins' arguments against God apply with just the same force to Spong's definition as to his own.

Swinburne's version of the God proposition is this:
There exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient , perfectly good, and the creator of all things.
This seems to me to be a narrower definition than either Spong's or Dawkins'. Although Swinburne doesn't actually use the word "supernatural" in his definition, this can be inferred, since omniscience and omnipotence are both generally regarded as being supernatural properties. Swinburne and Dawkins agree in their definition being one of a God who is the creator of all things, but Swinburne adds "without a body", "perfectly free" and "perfectly good" to his definition, and makes the existence and properties of such a God both "necessary". What this means is that Swinburne's definition is a subset of Dawkins' definition - Swinburne's God meets all the critera of Dawkins' definition, and so all Dawkins' arguments are applicable to Swinburne's God. Since they reach opposite conclusions, one or other of them must be wrong.

Swinburne's definition is also a subset of Spong's. Spong makes no statement concerning the characteristics of "the divine will" but Swinburne talks of it being "perfectly good".

Interestingly, in the first chapter Swinburne accepts that there are no conclusive deductive arguments for or against God's existence that start from generally-accepted premisses. So he accepts that one can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. So he starts out by stating that he proposes to use inductive arguments, and explains at considerable length what he means by this and how he proposes to use them. By means of these inductive arguments (whose subject matter cover the usual range of topics I've written about before), he finds that the balance of probability greatly favours the existence of God.

I think there are some fundamental errors in Swinburne's approach, which result in his conclusions being invalid. It will take a good deal of detail to explain what those errors are, so I'm not going to go into them now. Instead, I intend to go though the book in the same level of detail as I'm covering Spong, but only after I have finished the Spong blog.

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