Richard Swinburne

The Existence of God

Review by Todd Willison, 2008

Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. 327 pages.

Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God is the second part of a trilogy, beginning with The Coherence of Theism (1977) and concluding with Faith and Reason (1981), and collectively delivered as the Wilde Lectures at the University of Oxford in 1976-77. Swinburne's purpose in this middle volume is to demonstrate that the proposition "God exists" (shown in the first volume to be at least 'not demonstrably incoherent' as a proposition) is more probable than not to be true. Swinburne defends this claim by analyzing several arguments for the existence of God, quickly ruling out their force as deductive arguments (since denying the existence of God involves no apparent contradiction within any description of the universe), and assessing the value of each in terms of its inductive explanatory power. Swinburne, after arguing that theism is at least intrinsically probable due its explanatory simplicity (an intentional, infinite, and omnipotent being provides the most simple explanation for existing phenomena), ultimately concludes that the arguments for the existence of God that he attends to (arguments from cosmology, teleology, consciousness, morality, providence, and miracles) collectively support the proposition that theism is more probable than not. One should note that Swinburne nowhere argues that any one argument is individually sufficient to establish such a claim. Rather, these arguments only build a cumulative case of probability. 

Of particular interest to Swinburne's overall treatment are two arguments that he attends to in a more parenthetical sense before arriving at his final conclusion. The first of these arguments is the only argument against the existence of God treated in the book, the argument from the existence of evil. Swinburne's treatment on this issue is undeniably controversial. For he suggests that the existence of evil does not refute the existence of God since it might be good for God to allow evil and suffering in order to provide "opportunities..for performing good actions and deepening knowledge." (216) This suggestion deserves a review in and of itself that will not be provided here. Let it just be stated that the initial offensiveness of this notion is surprising to say the least and stirs up a desire for rebuttal.

Of even greater interest perhaps is the second of these parenthetical arguments, the argument from Religious Experience, which Swinburne treats as a verifying argument for the existence of God, but only under certain conditions in which its veridical force is not strongly challenged. Swinburne sees two operative principles (rooted in Scottish common sense philosophy) at work in the argument from Religious Experience. First, religious experiences are evidentially forceful to the one having them due to the Principle of Credulity, which says "that apparent perceptions ought to be taken at their face value in the absence of positive reason for challenge." (275) Second, others who do not have religious experiences can still attribute evidential force to them due to the Principle of Testimony, which says that reports are generally trustworthy and that credibility increases as reports increase. (273-274) Therefore, if the existence of God "is not already on other evidence very improbable" (291), the "evidence of religious experience is in that case sufficient to make theism over all probable." (291) In other words, the argument of Religious Experience is allowed to operate as "scale-tipper" that can push all the evidence toward the establishment of overall probability as long as the evidence is not too strongly opposed to such probability. 

Throughout the course of the book, Swinburne makes many statements, embedded in philosophical jargon, that can cause the first time reader to raise an eyebrow. Is it really true that theism is a probable hypothesis due to its explanatory simplicity? And is theism really all that simple as a hypothesis anyway? And one has to wonder if any of Swinburne’s arguments actually succeed in persuading one that theism is probable, since a closer look at the scientific, sociological, and historical data that Swinburne only cursorily surveys calls not only the probability but the very feasibility of theism into question. And one has to call into particular question Swinburne’s appeal to the argument from Religious Experience, since the basic activity of trusting a report that an authentic religious experience has occurred in no way can be said to warrant the gigantic propositional leaps one has to make in order to consider a classical doctrine of theism to be probable. These are just a few of the immediate concerns that emerge in a first time reading of Swinburne’s seemingly audacious monograph. Swinburne no doubt expects and deserves a more sympathetic and nuanced reading of his work by a more seasoned philosopher, rather than the rough shod appraisal of his work presented here. And so these criticisms are offered only as instinctually cautious responses to a work that seems clearly intended to provoke an impassioned reaction. In the end, no matter what one makes of Swinburne’s conclusions, the work does succeed in pushing one to consider what it would mean for the proposition “God exists” to be deemed a probable as opposed to demonstrable proposition, a subtle but important distinction that really does change the nature of how arguments for the existence of God might be treated.