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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.
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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]
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on 7 March 2010
I was hoping that this book would live up to the high words printed on it's cover. The author takes great delight in redefining existing English words, I suspect to make sure that his prose sounds very technical while saying very little. It labours the point again and again, but doesn't actually clarify. As for the actual substance of the work, and the major points the author repeatedly tries to make, if the reader is looking to balance the likes of Richard Dawkins with a pro deist argument, I would recommend that you read "The God Delusion" before you read this, otherwise you will feel cheated when Mr Dawkins utterly demolishes all of this authors crowning points without seeming to even notice. If you had struggled through this work first, believing the journey worthwhile, you would ultimately feel totally let down when you read the antidotes in "The God Delusion".
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on 12 April 1999
I am afraid I must agree with the above reviewers. Swinburne reaches the end of his own book with 'some dissatisfaction.' Readers who have come from any books by Richard Dawkins will feel the same way at the conclusion of 'Is there a God?' For a thrilling read with serious theological implications, read Dawkins. I even preferred the 'Contrarian Theological Afterword' (I think that's the right title) chapter of The Whole Shebang, by Timothy Ferris, to Swinburne's unconvincing presentation. Why are our scientists and science writers leaving our professors of theology in the dust when it comes to writing about God for the lay person? For all that effort, Swinburne might as well have quoted Lear's 'Nothing will come of nothing' as an ultimate argument for the existence of God: no God, no universe. And he would have been as convincing in a lot less space. I can only assume Swinburne's other works reveal his ability.
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