on 23 December 1997
In "Is There a God?" Swinburne seeks to provide a less sophisticated version of the case for theism which appears in his classic "The Existence of God" (1979). While accomplishing his task with great brevity, I concur with the previous reviewer that this book may not be accessible to the lay audience. Swinburne's arguments are characteristically erudite and will require considerable attention on the part of readers.
Although this book may not acheive its intended success in the mass market, I consider it an excellent introduction to Swinburne's work. From that standpoint, "Is There a God?" may be used as a primer to his more substantial scholarly writings.
In this present title, Swinburne's first ("God"), third ("The Simplicity of God") and sixth ("Why God Allows Evil") chapters are particularly noteworthy. His two-page epilogue summarizes with great clarity one's responsibilities should theism be true.
--David A. Frenz
on 14 February 2008
My approach to this book is a little different to most, and hopefully I'm not going to get instantly voted unhelpful like most of the reviews of this book.
Basically I should start off by admitting that I find the conclusions of this book implausible. From a philosophical perspective Swinburne begins by shooting himself in the foot 'My topic is the claim that there is a God, understood in the way that Western religion (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) has generally understood that claim', the problem that raises for the religious philosopher is that the gods of the Abrahamic religions come with lots of other tie in clauses. He would perhaps have been better off disassociating his argument from particular religions. It's clear he's got an agenda, indeed he ends the book with a basic appeal to the reader to get on with worshipping.
However, the reason I started reading this book was that its larger brother was on my metaphysics reading list (i'm an undergrad philosophy student), but unavailable in the library. And when I put aside considerations of his bias it turns out that his core arguments are actually quite stimulating. I particularly like his conception of god as a single substance, it adds a nice new interpretation to the argument of first cause. Sure it doesn't in any logical way lead to a belief in a present, theistic conception of God, but present theistic gods aren't really what philosophy of religion is about. Philosophy is about constructing and deconstructing rational argument, Swinburne does construct a good rational argument and therefore gives me all the enjoyment of deconstructing it. I would basically therefore recommend it to those who want a good example of modern philosophical thought on the existence of god. It has actually given me something that's worth getting interested in and debating about.
So if you dislike the insistence of philosophers in treating all arguments, no matter how strange they may seem, with a certain credulity you're not going to like this book. But if you're prepared to accept that in philosophy some questions just don't have an answer, and you're prepared to read between the lines of Swinburnes blind faith for his actual logic you can probably get quite a bit out of it.
(as always if you don't find this review helpful please leave a comment and tell me why!)
on 3 March 1999
Swiburne writes clearly and his arguments for God's existence are interesting and suggestive. In the end, though, they come down to the notion that God is the "simplest" explanation for things we observe in the natural world. It was never clear how postulating the existence of something unlike anything else in experience could be a "simple" explanation of the world. Maybe it's "simpler" just to take the existence of the world as an unexplained fact, a mystery. The discussion of why God allows pain and suffering is the weakest part of the book and is almost a parody of traditional theodicy. At one point in his discussion of animal suffering, Swinburne argues that forest fires aren't necessarily bad for animals because they give them an opportunity to escape danger, which he regards as a "significant intentional act." Since "significant intentional acts" are goods things, it follows that forest fires could be good for animals. This sounds like a joke but Swinburne was serious. The reader wondering why God allows suffering would be better advised to read the book of Job.
on 16 August 2012
Before this book, there was no valid and sound argument for the existence of a theistic god. There still isn't one.
Swinbourne begins by defining what he means by "god", and even here some fallacies are apparent - he somehow goes from his god's "perfect freedom of will and omniscience" to omnibenevolence by conflating moral good/best with good/best action in terms of a goal and assuming, circularly, that the god's goal is goodness.
In Chapter 2, "How We Explain Things", a demarcation is drawn between impersonal and personal explanations (though why personal explanations should be considered for natural phenomena is not addressed). The simplicity of his god as an explanation is brought up, along with Occam's Razor, not realizing that he's glomming his god onto pre-existing scientific principles - "natural + god" is LESS simple than "natural".
Two chapters follow based upon a rather egregious logical error: "if my god exists, we would expect X; we see X, therefore my god exists." No. No, no, no. This is called "affirming the consequent".
If I have the flu, then I have a sore throat.
I have a sore throat.
Therefore, I have the flu.
is equivalent. What he needed to do, and didn't, was to show that if his god DIDN'T exist, we would NOT expect X (humans and consistency of nature are the examples he uses, but there are many others).
There is a brief discussion of theodicy (which counters a point I never bother making - "how can a good god allow suffering?"), followed by an analysis of religious experiences and mircales. This last chapter, more than anything, is the reason for my one-star rating. An appeal is made to the "principle of credulity" - since our experiences reflect reality in the vast majority of cases, we should assume that we experience what we think we do until we have reason to think otherwise. The point of the book is hazy, but if Swinbourne's assertion is that there is good reason for non-believers to accept theism, the PoC is utter nonsense. Do we assume that people who've "experienced" alien abduction were, in fact, abducted by aliens? Helpfully, Swinbourne shoots himself in the foot by conceding (though he doesn't seem to realize it's a concession) that people usually attribute experiences to their particular gods AFTER a context has been provided by upbringing and/or culture.
Despite protestations that he's not resorting to "god of the gaps", a final leap from "unexplained by science" to "unexplainABLE by science" is made. Indeed, throughout there is an underlying assumption that being AN explanation in the absence of competing explanations somehow lends weight.
on 17 December 2013
In this work Swinburne presents a condensed account of his much longer argument for the existence of God, as contained elsewhere. His argument, as well as his style of presentation, are to be commended.
on 12 July 2013
Whilst I do not necessarily agree with the views of Swinburne, the book is fabulous, well written, accessible and has served well for supplementing and further explaining the course I was studying. In addition it was also useful to quote within the exams, as much of the material is relevant to both the theology and philosophy AQA courses.
on 15 January 2011
Although I found his philosophical arguments unconvincing, Swinburne writes eloquently a good exposition of the freewill defence. His logic deserves an attempt to understand it. He thankfully does not attempt to impose his views on others, but only to explain his philosophical position, unlike other writers (both theist and atheist) on this topic; this can only be a good thing. As he says himself, this is merely an introduction to his thinking, so I would recommend reading his other books for better justification for his conlucions.
on 20 January 2005
Is There a God? is Professor Richard Swinburne's attempt to show that belief in the existence of God is the most rational conclusion from the facts of the world and further that the God whose existence he asserts is most likely to be the Christian God.
The book starts with a fairly standard definition of this God and then progresses to show that this God is the best explanation for the existence of the universe for the reason of its simplicity (everything has one cause - God) and explanatory power (God explains everything - even those things, like the soul, that science cannot). He then attempts to rebut the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God, justify miracles and the truth of revelation as following from the God he posits before trying, finally, to bolster his arguments by invoking religious experience and the principle of credulity.
There are many problems with his arguments - both his theodicy and definition of the soul rest on controversial and unproven (and largely discredited) notions of free will. His attempt to show that the world is as we would expect it given the existence of God is nothing more than an inverted argument from design and immediately makes one (though not Swinburne) think of Hume's merciless demolition of precisely such thought (we could use arguments all but identical to Swinburne's to explain our world given the existence of a cruel god, a stupid god, a weak god or even a non-existent god).
But Swinburne's biggest mistake, and the one that undermines the foundations for the rest of his argument (and book) is in thinking that God, as he defines him, offers a simpler (and therefore better) explanation than anything else. There are a number of problems with Swinburne's argument here but we can single out three as the most damning - 1) simpler versions of God than Swinburne's can be posited with just as much explanatory power - an ammoral, unsentient, impersonal deity is simpler than the moral, sentient, personal deity Swinburne posits and therefore by Swinburne's own argument is the better theory. 2) Swinburne's assertion that theism is simpler than materialism is unfounded not only for the simple reason that the insertion of God leads to an extra level of complexity to every existing explanation but creates additional needs for explanation both regarding such a being's existence and the mechanism of its interactions. 3) It is simply not true that the simplest explanation is necessarily the true one as Swinburne himself admits in relation to the speed of light.
Anyone of these arguments is enough to rebut Swinburne's claims but all three of them together leave his position hopelessly untenable.
In conclusion then, whilst this book is, mostly, a model of clarity when contrasted with much religious writing (the confused and confusing discussion about the alleged 'soul' notwithstanding) and sets out with the admirable intention of providing a rationalistic basis for a comprehensive theistic (specifically Christian) worldview, the deeply flawed quality of the arguments therein are ultimately unconvincing, unpersuasive, and, I suspect, will only be of value to those looking to provide a pseudo-rational justification for previously held beliefs.
on 21 June 1999
The book of Swinburne is intended for a general public. He has tried to give a not so hard explanation and defense for the existence of God. Although I agree with most things in the book, it is still not always very good. I think the main problem is, that it is a version of his academic book on the existence of God. Swinburne uses in that book a very broad argumentation to prove that the existence of God is more probable than his non-existence.
It's amusing, if not amazing, to witness the narrow view Christian theologians can still present in defense of indefensible stands. This book is misconceived, misdirected, and mostly mistaken. Although he posits a question about "a" god in his title, Swinburne immediately asserts there is but one - "the" god. "The" god, ignoring all the others still revered by non-christians, is the basis of all things, according to Swinburne. Polytheism is complex. Monotheism is simple, providing simple answers to complex issues. Nature is wonderful, mysterious, enigmatic. Only a single deity behind the scenes provides sufficient explanation for its existence and mechanics, he asserts. From governing atomic particles to providing cures for cancer, this deity reaches across 15 billion years for the [sole?] purpose of influencing our lives. He defines his god as "person-like", although without gender, claiming there is no better appellation. The English language still uses "it" to classify things lacking gender identity. Why does Swinburne fail to use it?
One reason is that he wants to retain a "persona" for his god. While not subject to human frailties - Swinburne conveniently ignores the "wrath of god" - it must work within a logical framework. Hence, the rules underlying the universe, he states, must have a logic to give them meaning and to leave a place for humans to exist and investigate how these rules are manifested. Swinburne is keen on logic and order. Like other Christian intellectuals, he must accept the reality of evolution. Accepting the idea of evolution, he argues that it is part of a divine plan. He inveighs against the "chance" of selection - life is not the result of "random" events. Like other Christian intellectuals, he leaves out Darwin's most important phrase - "by natural selection". A full understanding of Darwin's idea refutes "randomness" entirely. While rejecting anything "random" in nature, later in the book with a sublime arabesque of logic, he asserts the validity of the most random of all events - miracles.
Swinburne's arguments are old, weary and lack foundation. It's not surprising he admires Paley's 1806 attempt to show the divine order of nature. Swinburne simply uses the same logic with modern information. This may be comforting to the Christian reader perplexed by the real-world challenges to theism, to whom Swinburne likely directed this book. Others, seeking some rational explanation for the purpose of this book will be disappointed. He makes the blithe statement that "the evidence gives a significant degree of probability to the claim that [g]od exists". Except for universal laws and the human ability to make such an assertion, he offers no evidence in defense of this claim. Perhaps Daniel Dennett is correct in suggesting adherents of such ideas and tactics are best relegated to museums and zoos. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]