Swinburne’s Cosmological & Teleological Arguments

I’m not going to try to fully explain and evaluate Swinburne’s Cosmological and Teleological arguments for God here. That would be way too much to tackle in one or two blog posts. There are just a couple of doubts or concerns about these arguments that I would like to express and explore.

Swinburne’s inductive cosmological argument for God has just one premise:

e. A complex physical universe exists (over a period of time).
Therefore:
g. God exists.

Swinburne argues that e is more likely to be the case if God exists, than if God does NOT exist. From this he concludes that the e represents legitimate inductive evidence for the existence of God; that is to say, the truth of e increases the probability that God exists relative to the a priori probability that God exists, relative to the probability that God exist given only tautological truths (truths of logic and math and analytic conceptual truths) as background knowledge.

If g represents the hypothesis that God exists, and k represents background knowledge consisting only of tautological truths, then Swinburne argues for the following claim:

1. P(e|g & k) > P(e|k)

(Read this as asserting: “The probability of e given g and k is GREATER THAN the probability of e given only k.”)

From premise (1), Swinburne infers the following:

2. P(g|e & k) > P(g|k)

(Read this as asserting: “The probability of g given e and k is GREATER THAN the probability of g given only k.”)

One objection that has been raised against this argument is that it is not clear that a probability can be reasonably or justifiably assigned to a factual hypothesis given background knowledge consisting in only tautological truths. If “The probability of e given only k” cannot be reasonably or justifiably determined (or estimated), then we are in no position assert that some other probability is greater than (or less than, or equivalent to) “The probability of e given only k”.

The same issue arises with claim (2) that Swinburne infers from claim (1). If “The probability of g given only k” cannot be reasonably or justifiably determined, then we are in no position to assert that some other probability is greater than (or less than, or equivalent to) “The probability of g given only k”.

But this issue with the idea of a probability given only background knowledge consisting of tautological truths is not the concern I wish to explore here. My concern is with the other conditional probabilities in these equations:

P(e| g & k)

P(g| e & k)

I’m not sure that these probabilities make sense either. My concern is this: Is it possible to know just one contingent fact? Is it possible to know that ‘God exists’ without knowing any other contingent facts? Is it possible to know that ‘A complex physical universe exists (for a period of time)’ without knowing any other contingent facts? If it is not possible to know just one contingent fact, or if it is not possible to know only the contingent fact that ‘God exists’ or to know only the contingent fact that ‘A complex physical universe exists (for a period of time)’, then it appears that we are being asked to conceive of a set of circumstances that is logically impossible.

If it is not possible for a human being to know just one contingent fact, these expressions might still be meaningful and useful as abstractions, as tools of hypothetical reasoning. Arguments typically have just a few premises, and we evaluate arguments by focusing in on these questions: Are each of the premises clear and unambiguous? Are each of the premises true? If all of the premises were true, would the conclusion follow logically? or would the conclusion be made probable assuming the premises were true? Does any of the premises beg the question at issue?

However, if knowing that g is true requires that one knows some other things as well, if knowing g presupposes knowing q, then objections to the knowability of q also work as objections to the knowability of g. So, the epistemological presuppositions of knowing g or of knowing e are relevant to evaluating Swinburne’s cosmological argument.

Suppose I know the fact that I am 5 feet 8 inches tall. Suppose I know that ‘Brad Bowen is 5 feet 8 inches tall’. Can I know just this contingent fact and no other contingent facts? Let’s think about this for a bit. I must understand that the name ‘Brad Bowen’ refers to a specific person, a specific human being, and that the measurement here relates to the size of the human body that belongs to a specific human being. I suppose that all of this could be taken as conceptual knowledge, as knowledge involved in simply understanding the meanings of the words and phrases in the sentence ‘Brad Bowen is 5 feet 8 inches tall’.

To have a clear and correct understanding of this sentence, I must also know that while many animals walk on four legs, human beings walk on two legs and use their arms for other purposes. Thus, the height of a human being is not measured when the person is on his or her hands and knees. Also, height at least for human beings, is measured when the person is standing, not when the person is horizontal, as when the person is sleeping. I should also know that rulers or yardsticks or measuring tapes are used for measuring the height of humans. This assumes that there are physical substances that are fairly stable in their length. Rulers and yardsticks don’t generally grow or shrink large amounts in short periods of time. A ruler that is 12 inches this morning is not likely to be 24 inches this evening. A yardstick that is 36 inches today is not likely to be 25 feet tomorrow. Furthermore, human height is significant and relevant in part because it is relatively stable, at least for periods of days and weeks. I was only about two feet tall when I was born, was about four feet tall when in elementary school, and was over five feet tall in high school. People usually get taller rapidly as young children and teenagers, and then their growth in height slows, and height is stable for many years.

As you can see, there is a fair amount of background knowledge involved in knowing the fact that ‘Brad Bowen is 5 feet 8 inches tall’. Some of that knowledge is conceptual/linguistic knowledge, but some of the knowledge mentioned above is contingent factual knowledge about the world and about human beings. If such an apparently simple and innocuous fact as this requires a good deal of background knowledge in order to clearly and fully understand and know the fact to be true, then I suspect that a deep philosophical claim like ‘God exists’ or ‘A complex physical universe exists’ also requires a significant amount of background knowledge to clearly and fully understand that claim.

To be continued…

  • Paul Vasquez

    I’m not a professional philosopher, but it seems to me that Swineburne’s syllogism is just a non sequitur.

    How is it possible to determine that the probability of the following:

    e. A complex physical universe exists (over a period of time).
    Therefore:
    g. God exists.

    is any more likely than the probability of this:

    e. A complex physical universe exists (over a period of time).
    Therefore:
    g. God does not exist.

    It seems that in order to know such an answer, one would first have to know whether or not there is a relationship between complex physical universes and gods, which of course is not something anyone knows.

    • Scott Scheule

      There’s no need for professional philosophy here, Paul. But you shouldn’t expect a full argument from a blog post that admit it’s only a sketch.
      Swinburne’s inductive argument is outlined in more detail at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/#6

    • Bradley Bowen

      Swinburne defends the correctness of this as an inductive inference. In other words, he argues that e provides some evidence in support of ‘God exists’. I will summarize his thinking on this.

      It is very unlikely that a complex physical universe exists, given only tautological truths as background knowledge. (We of course know that a complex physical universe exists, but this knowledge is based on experience). Swinburne argues that the probability that a complex physical universe exists is approximately equal to the probability that a complex physical universe exists without any cause or explanation for existing. He asserts that it would be unlikely for a single electron to exist without having a cause or explanation for existing, and that it would be even more improbable for hundreds of electrons to exist without a cause or explanation. Finally, it would be extremely unlikely for trillions of electrons, protons, and neutrons to exist in the form of physical objects (like stars, planets, solar systems, rocks, water, etc.) to exist without any cause or explanation. The more complex a thing is, the less likely it is to exist without a cause or explanation.

      On the other hand, if God did exist, then that means that there would be an eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person. Such a person, Swinburne argues, would probably (at least a 50/50 chance) bring about human-like creatures, creatures who have a significant degree of freedom to make choices and perform actions that would significantly impact (for good or bad) themselves, other persons, and other things. In order to bring about human-like persons who had the potential to realize their capacity to make significant choices, God would have to also bring about a complex physical universe. Therefore, if God exists, God would probably (at least 50/50 chance) bring about a complex physical universe.

      This reasoning supports the first probability claim:

      The probability that there exists a complex physical universe given that God exists is GREATER THAN the probability that there exists a complex physical universe given only tautological background knowledge (and no contingent facts).

      From this claim, one can infer the following:

      The probability that God exists, given that there is a complex physical universe is GREATER THAN the probability that God exists given only tautological background knowledge (and no contingent facts).

  • Brian F.

    The “necessary being” element has always intrigued me. Could I not replace being with thing or energy? Anthropomorphizing First Cause seems to bring the argument to a level through which our being can better associate. It may be the case that in doing so we are creating a more personal First Cause, but it is not clear we are doing anything more than hoping it true for convenience. One might even argue there exists, for some, an existential need to qualify First Cause. For others it is sufficient to say, “Yes there is a thing which exists which must be necessary relative to Being, but I am not qualified to constitute such a thing.”

    • Bradley Bowen

      The cosmological and teleological arguments put forward by Swinburne are fundamentally tied to the idea of personal explanation. In effect, ALL of Swinburne’s arguments for God are based on personal explanation and are arguments from design or providence: The world is the way it is because the world is the product of a perfectly good person.

      If you remove the idea of a person who has purposes and goals, then you remove the possibility of personal explanation, and that leaves you with nothing but ‘blind, unthinking chance’ as the basis for an explanation of basic features of the universe, in Swinburne’s view.

      Swinburne argues that the idea of a perfectly good person (who also has unlimited power and knowledge) provides a plausible explanation of the basic features of the universe and that apart from some such personal explanation, there is no plausible explanation of the basic features of the universe.

      • Brian F.

        Thank you for the reply Bradley. I can appreciate Swinburne’s position, but it isn’t clear the leap is justified. As is noted in the article, background data is so intricate that to create a Super Being surely implies a requirement to call our own failings into question. In other words, how can I trust what I’m constituting is a fair representation of a Perfect Being? I guess he could argue we can only define that which experience allows, which I’m ok with, but then any dogmatic representation must be ignored. The necessary next step is the elevation of Religious Experience as the evidence. Thoughts?


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