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Swinburne’s Case for God – Part 3

Before we look at the a posteriori arguments that Swinburne presents and evaluates in The Existence of God (EOG), I should briefly describe his views on a priori arguments for and against the existence of God.


In Chapter 1 of EOG, Swinburne mentions an assumption that his case for God makes:
In reaching my final conclusion about how probable it is that there is a God, I assume that no a priori arguments of either species, and no a posteriori arguments other than those that I discuss, have any significant force. (EOG, p.9)
In EOG, Swinburne ignores a priori arguments for and against God:
I shall not discuss a priori arguments–these are arguments in which the premisses are logically necessary truths–namely, propositions that would be true whether or not there was a world of physical or spiritual beings. Among logically necessary truths are the truths of mathematics or logic. Hence I shall not discuss the traditional ontological argument for the existence of God, or any variants thereof. Nor shall I discuss arguments against the existence of God that claim that there is something incoherent or self-contradictory in the claim that there is a God. (EOG, p.8-9)
So, the arguments that Swinburne presents and evaluates in EOG are all a posteriori arguments, arguments based on premisses that “report what are (in some very general sense) features of human experience…” (EOG, p.8).

How can Swinburne be justified in making the assumption that there are no a priori arguments which have significant force for or against the existence of God? For one thing, Swinburne mentions the views of leading philosophers of religion:
The greatest theistic philosophers of religion have on the whole rejected ontological arguments and relied on a posteriori ones. (EOG, p.9)
He also points out that the majority of philosophers are in agreement about the traditional ontological argument:
…almost all philosophers argue that it is not a good argument. (The Coherence of Theism, revised ed., p.273)

But Swinburne does more than just appeal to the authority of philosophical experts. The first book of his trilogy on theism, The Coherence of Theism, focuses on various a priori arguments against the existence of God, and it also includes a brief critique of the traditional ontological argument for the existence of God. His main objection to the ontological argument has general implications for other a priori arguments for the existence of God.

So, Swinburne’s justification for assuming that there are no a priori arguments for or against the existence of God which have significant force is that he has previously (in The Coherence of Theism) answered many a priori arguments against the existence of God, made a positive case for the meaningfulness and the coherence of the claim ‘God exists’, and presented a strong objection to the traditional ontological argument, an objection that applies to any argument which attempts to show that the claim ‘God exists’ is a necessary truth.

Here, for your personal enjoyment and edification, is Swinburne’s objection to the traditional ontological argument:
Nevertheless, it is, I think, easy enough to show fairly conclusively that ‘God exists’ is not logically necessary… .For to say this is, as we saw, to say that (s) ‘there exists a personal ground of being’ is logically necessary. But if this were so, any statement entailed by (s) would also be logically necessary. (s) entails such statements as the following: ‘it is not the case that the only persons are embodied persons’, ‘it is not the case that no one knows everything about the past’, ‘it is not the case that no one can make a weight of more than ten million pounds rise into the air’. Hence, if (s) is logically necessary the negations of these latter statements will be incoherent. But fairly obviously they are not. Fairly obviously ‘the only persons are embodied persons’, ‘nobody knows everything about the past’, and ‘no one can make a weight of more than ten million pounds rise into the air’ are coherent claims, whether false or true. Hence (s) is not logically necessary. (The Coherence of Theism, revised ed., p.274-275)
Since the traditional ontological argument is an attempt to prove that the sentence ‘God exists’ expresses a logically necessary truth, this is a counter-argument to the traditional ontological argument, and to any other a priori argument which attempts to show that ‘God exists’ is a necessary truth.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09708981993708509662 Robert Oerter

    I posted some remarks on this argument of Swinburne's at my blog,
    Somewhat Abnormal.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Robert Oerter said…
    I posted some remarks on this argument of Swinburne's at my blog,
    Somewhat Abnormal.
    ============
    On his blog, Robert puts forward a countexample to Swinburne's counterargument to ontological arguments:
    ===========
    Let us suppose that the basic theorems of arithmetic are logically necessary. Now, take any statement that follows from the basic theorems: Fermat's Last Theorem, for instance. The negation of that statement is, of course, false. Here is the negation:

    The equation an + bn = cn has a solution for some integers a, b, and c, and some integer n greater than 2. [Note: 'an' means a to the nth power - I cannot make superscripts in comments]
    Now, that statement is certainly not obviously incoherent. Indeed, no one knew whether it was true or false for over 250 years. By Swinburne's argument, then, the basic truths of mathematics must not be logically necessary.

    So, why does Swinburne think that the negation of a necessarily true statement should be obviously incoherent? It beats me.
    =========
    Response:

    This counterexample does indeed show that some negations of necessary statements are not obviously incoherent.

    Swinburne is aware of this, and would agree with your key point.

    However, I do not think that Swinburne is making the strong assumption that ALL negations of neccessary statements are obviously incoherent, nor do I think that Swinburne needs to make such a strong assumption.

    He might only need the weaker assumption that IF a statement appears to be coherent, and if no one has been able to prove the statement to be incoherent, THEN it is likely to be coherent.

    Furthermore, in the particular case at hand, some of the statements entailed by "God exists" are simpler than the statement that "God exists". The implications, in this case, express only a part of the meaning of "God exists".

    Thus, while it might not be reasonable to trust our intuitions about the coherence of the somewhat problematic and farily complex statement "God exists", it might, nevertheless, be reasonable to trust our intuitions about the coherence of simpler implications of this statement.

    The statement "God exists" is (roughly speaking) of the logical form:

    (1) There is an X, such that X has property A, and X has property B, and X has property C, and…

    This createls lots of opportunities for contradictions to occur between the various alleged properties, and some such contradiction might be less than obvious. But if we are considering only one implication of this complex statement the level of comlexity may be significantly reduced:

    (2)There is an X, such that X has property A.

    Our intuitions about the coherence of statements like (2) are more reliable than our intuitions about the coherence of statements like (1).

    The same goes for our intuitions about the coherence of the negation of statements like (2):

    (3) It is not the case that there is an X, such that X has property A.

    As Swinburne argues, a proof of the coherence of a statement must ultimately rest on prior assumptions about the coherence of other statements.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09708981993708509662 Robert Oerter

    Bradley, thanks for the clarifications. I knew it was dangerous to comment on the argument without having read the whole context, and your comment makes the main point much clearer.

    It still seems dangerous to rely on intuitions when advancing an argument like this. And to claim that this absolutely refutes all deductive proofs of God's existence goes way beyond the limits of the argument, don't you think?

    "He might only need the weaker assumption that IF a statement appears to be coherent, and if no one has been able to prove the statement to be incoherent, THEN it is likely to be coherent."

    I don't see how this can be enough. Here' Swinburne:
    "Hence, if (s) is logically necessary the negations of these latter statements will be incoherent."

    If he were to say instead "will PROBABLY be incoherent", then the rest of the paragraph will not follow. You can't get to "Hence (s) is not logically necessary" from a statement that includes the word "probably."


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