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The Existence of God Paperback – 3 Jun 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, U.S.A.; 2 edition (3 Jun. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199271682
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199271689
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 1.8 x 13.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 450,259 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


Richard Swinburne...over the past thirty years or so, has fashioned the most sophisticated and highly developed natural theology the world has so far seen. (Alvin Plantinga, Times Literary Supplement)

...if you want Swinburne's latest thoughts, and his response to some recent developments, here they are. (R.L. Sturch, The Journal of Theological Studies)

About the Author

Richard Swinburne is formerly Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of Oxford.

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Swinburne was a Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Oxford University and so this book is not an easy read. This is, perhaps, the centre-piece of Swinburne’s popular output and so covers much ground. One feature of this book is that it approaches belief in theism from an abstract viewpoint and discusses frameworks and categorisations of arguments and counter-arguments. For example, in the chapter on miracles, a range of criteria are set-out that a report of a miracle has to meet for it to be accepted. Swinburne provides simple analogies to aid his exposition but no discussion of concrete examples.

The central thrust is that by accumulating the probabilities of arguments for God, each of which on its own merits is more improbable than probable, it is probable that God exists. Swinburne appeals to Bayes theory of conditional probability for his analysis, but in many ways this is window dressing. Of course the frequentist would argue the basic premise is flawed as we only have a sample size of one – this universe

The crucial points of Swinburne’s argument are:

(i) God is defined as an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free being. Swinburne then derives/infers that God is also an eternal spirit with perfect goodness.
(ii) Given God’s goodness it is equally likely as unlikely (i.e. a probability of ½) that God would create humanly free agents.
(iii) The mind is separate from the body – basic dualism.
(iv) Humanly free agents can exist as spirits but need to be embodied to experience the universe – we are the embodied humanly free agents.
(v) We have the free-will to be good or evil. That we have free-will can be argued from the perfect goodness of God.
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A complex book looking at the issue of proofs of God's existence very thoroughly. The author rightly rejects a priori deductive proofs of God's existence and non existence as necessarily flawed, and thus the ontological proofs, the 5 ways etc. are all out as pure deductive proofs. But the opening chapters look at the issue of inductive argument, probabilities and the evident truth that the simplest explanation is usually the best in scientific explanation as well as in personal explanation (a concept which itself gets a lot of discussion).

Having laid some solid groundwork, the arguments for God's existence are examined in depth. Swinburne makes some excellent points and answers many criticisms very well. However his argument hinges on the ability to prove that the hypothesis of God is the most probably hypothess, and he does this by settling a value on the probability of God being about 1/2 before bringing in miracles and his principle of credulity. Sceptics will perhaps point out that a desire to achieve a value of 1/2 at this point may colour the values given for probabilities from other arguments. Perhaps the problem of evil, that Swinburne notes "reduces the probability" actually reduces it much more than the author supposes. Thus to set such a probability is somewhat open to challenge.

Having established that probablility, the principle of credulity is brought in to suggest we believe claims to miracles and such like unless there is reason to doubt. A sceptic will reply that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and thus the strong extra jolt given to the probabilities by the influence of miracles on the hypothesis can certainly be quibbled with.
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Richard Swinburne doesn't need to be introduced to those interested in contemporary philosophy of religion. He is - together with Alvin Plantinga - the finest living analytic christian philosopher. He opens this book with a statement that "the book aims to discuss the topic [i.e. whether or not there is a God] in depth and with rigour" and this is just what he does.

Swinburne builds a probabilistic case for theism while rejecting deductive arguments. He treats theism as a quasi-scientific hypotheses. His method is quite simple. After a few introductory chapters, he tries to make some a priori considerations about what is to be expected if there is a God. He then examines various features of the universe (as well as its existance) and shows that these are more to be expected if there is a God than if there is no God. To use the standard symbols, he argues that P(e/h&k)>P(e/~h&k), where P(e/h&k) means probability of e given h and k (e is the evidence that Swinburne considers, h is theism, ~h is "theism is false" and k is previously considered evidence). From this it follows that P(h/e&k)>P(h/k), so each piece of evidence increases the probability of theism. Probability here is to be understood as the degree of confidence to which we can suppose that something is true (so called epistemic probability).

Swinburne also adresses the objection that his arguments could be as well used to show that there are a few minor deities or one deity with great but limited power and wisdom. His refutation of these charges is brilliant (but also controversial).

Swinburne also raises the problem of evil, but his discussion of this issue is - I think - the weakest part of the book. He concludes that evil decreases the probability of theism, but only slightly.
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