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The Orion nebula seen in a sweeping image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer

Posted: 18 April 2013, 14:43

Richard Swinburne, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University and the author of The Existence of God, recently talked to journalist Nigel Bovey about whether there is good evidence for believing there is a God.

Professor, what fascinated you about philosophy that made you want to make it your life’s work?

I am interested in big questions, such as: What is the world made of? What is the relation of mind and body? Do we have free will? Are there moral certainties? Among the questions are those of whether there is a God and whether he is interacting with us.

I have always been a religious person and therefore have been only too pleased to apply my philosophical expertise to those questions about God.

In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gives your argument for the existence of God something of a mauling. How did you react to that?

Richard Dawkins is very concerned with truth, and I share that. But I think that Dawkins’ arguments are not cogent, and I disagree with his conclusions.

Dawkins argues that the question of God’s existence should be treated and tested as a scientific hypothesis. Do you agree?

If a scientific hypothesis is to be well justified, it has to have observable consequences – either before the formulation of the hypothesis or after it. I think there are some very obvious observable consequences of the hypothesis that God exists.

First, this is an extraordinarily orderly universe. The world is a law-governed world. Every particle of matter behaves in the same way as every other particle. Every atom, every bit out of which the atoms are made, attracts every other atom in the universe with – as Isaac Newton said – a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance apart.

The same applies to the other three forces – electromagnetism, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force – that they govern every particle in the universe. Every single object behaves in exactly the same way.

Secondly, the regularities of nature were exactly the right kind to lead to the evolution of human beings, who are a particularly good kind of thing.

We need a regular universe because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make any difference to anything. It is because the universe is regular that there are possibilities of benefiting or harming people, because I know what I have to do in order to make a difference.

If the world wasn’t regular, I couldn’t make any difference to anything. Therefore my free will, if I still had it, would be of no use.

In some of the great detective stories, we know all the evidence at the start but what establishes the theory is that somebody suddenly thinks of a reason why all these things should be so. It is like that with theism.

Dawkins concludes that the probability of the existence of God is very low. Why do you think he is wrong?

The probability of a hypothesis depends on how well it satisfies certain criteria. The first criterion for any big scientific hypothesis is that it must lead us to expect observable conclusions with significant probability. And secondly, the hypothesis itself must be simple.

For example, let’s take a detective story. Some money has been stolen and John’s fingerprints are on the shop’s safe. At the time the crime was committed, John was observed near the scene. Police have found cash equal to the stolen amount in John’s bedroom. The police put forward an hypothesis that explains these data – John did the crime.

But when the case gets to court, John’s barrister puts forward another hypothesis. John simply had a sudden urge to walk past the shop. Some of John’s enemies planted his fingerprints on the safe. It is pure coincidence that John had exactly the same amount of money in his bedroom.

In both cases, if the hypothesis is true, we would expect the data to be as observed. But we rule out the second hypothesis because it is complicated. It postulates a number of different people acting in different, uncoordinated ways, which coincidentally produce this result. The first hypothesis, however, postulates only one person.

This is how it is with the God hypothesis. God is postulated as a single entity with three properties of infinite degree. He is omnipotent – he can do everything. He is omniscient – he knows everything. He is perfectly free from exterior, causal influences – nothing makes God do anything other than God himself.

By contrast, the person who says there is no God has to say that it is the laws of nature that are ultimate.

But what does it mean to say, for example, that the law of gravity is ultimate?

Given that laws are not independent from the things they govern, in the case of gravity it means that every particle in the universe behaves in exactly the same way – attracting every other particle in accordance with the formula that Newton produced.

Now, an atheist has to explain this in terms of an enormous coincidence in the behaviour of objects – and that is a very complicated hypothesis.

Unless there is an explanation, it would be very strange for there to be such a coincidence. It is no good saying, as some atheists do, that science will get an explanation one day – maybe in the form of the theory of everything – because a scientific explanation consists in having a scientific law, and that will simply postulate that a lot of things behave in exactly the same way.

It is the theist who has the explanation – there is a God who explains the most obvious of data, the world is governed by simple regularities and they are such as to lead to the evolution of human beings.

Given that he is omniscient, God knows what is good and what is bad. Given that he is perfectly free, he is not subject to irrational influences. If you recognise that something is good and if you are not subject to a desire to do anything else, you will naturally pursue the good. God always pursues the good. So, inevitably, God is perfectly good.

God produces good things. Humankind is a good thing. Uniquely in the universe, we have a choice between good and evil. Not only is it a free choice but it is also a responsible choice. By our actions, we can make a difference to ourselves and to other people. This is a great blessing for us, and God our creator wants to share, to a limited extent, that blessing with us.

Because God always pursues the good, and it is a good thing for us to have a limited choice between good and evil, it is expected that God will bring about the existence of beings who have that sort of choice.

If there is a God, then the existence of an ordered world and a regularity sufficient to produce humankind – those observed phenomena – are to be expected. If there is no God, they are not to be expected. Contrary to what Dawkins concludes, this makes it very probable that the hypothesis of God is true.

You describe God in terms of infinite attributes. Dawkins defines God as ‘a supernatural creator that is “appropriate for us to worship”’. Do you agree with that definition?

Yes, I do. But there is rather more to God than that. There are reasons why it is appropriate for him to be worshipped – because he is our creator and we owe everything to him. He is the ultimate.

Is it the case that the question about whether or not God exists will always be only a matter of personal opinion?

No, not if my arguments are right. I am appealing to criteria that are used in all other areas where we are interested in explaining things – science, history, criminal detection. But, of course, though the arguments may be good objectively, people may not see that. I mean, not everybody agrees with some very well-established scientific theories, but that doesn’t mean the theories are simply matters of opinion.

One of the classic arguments for the existence of God is that of design – the world looks as if it is designed, therefore suggesting a designer. Is that a sound argument?

Yes, the argument I’ve presented is an argument from design. The data we can observe are best explained, most simply explained, by supposing that God is responsible for them. God is responsible not merely for the beginning of the universe but for sustaining it in existence.

Some scientists use the idea of the universe being finely tuned to explain how life is possible on Earth. Some see this fine-tuning as an indication of a fine-tuner. Where does fine-tuning come in your thinking?

The fine-tuning of the universe is a matter of the laws of nature having particular numbers in them which if they had been slightly different – bigger or smaller – would have meant that the Earth and humankind would not have emerged.

It also includes the idea that if there were a big bang, it must have been of a particular magnitude – too big and everything would have flown apart; too small and everything would have collapsed, once again resulting in no humans.

Some scientists are talking about our universe as being one of many. If there are a number of universes – a multiverse – does that counter the argument of fine-tuning?

The multiverse idea is recognised by physicists as a speculative scientific theory. The idea is that other big bangs are producing particles that behave in slightly different ways from those in our universe. These form a number of other universes, each with slightly different initial conditions and each of them with slightly different laws of nature from each other.

If that were true, the argument goes, then there is nothing surprising in a universe like ours being capable of producing humans, because there are all these other sorts of universes and one of them might well do that.

Even if multiverse theory were true, it wouldn’t make a great difference to my argument, because our only grounds for supposing that such a theory were true would be that the simplest theory of our universe is such that it will throw up universes in different ways.

The simplest theory is that a multiverse would have, like our universe, very regular laws which govern the particular evolution of laws in different places. So, there would be the same phenomenon of regularity in every other universe as is observed in our own.

The question then becomes not just why is our universe so finely tuned, but why is the multiverse finely tuned?

To what extent is the multiverse being used as a substitute for accepting that the universe has a divine fine-tuner?

The multiverse idea has the same disadvantages of being a substitute for God as that which people use when looking at our universe. The ‘laws of nature’ are just descriptions of the powers of individual atoms. If there is a multiverse, then there are even more of these things which behave in exactly the same way. Therefore it seems irrational to say that the multiverse is the ultimate explanation.

The simple explanation is that there is a God who is good and who is prolific.

Richard Swinburne is Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford and author of The Existence of God.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is reprinted with permission

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