God Debatery

In the online exchange of letters, ‘How should we study religion?’, between atheist Daniel Dennett, and Orthodox Christian and philosopher Richard Swinburne, Swinburne offers his first reply to Dennett:

Dear Dan
10th January 2006

You think that religion needs rigorous scientific investigation. I agree, as would most religious people—in Britain, if not the US. I have been doing this for some decades, as have thousands of philosophers, historians and sociologists over the past 3,000 years. Welcome to the club. But you suggest in your new book Breaking the Spell that we should investigate religion “with the presumption that it is an entirely natural phenomenon.” Such a presumption needs to be justified. If there is a God, then all regular processes—codified by physics, biology, psychology or whatever—occur because of the sustaining activity of God and so are “supernatural” (even if God never intervenes). So the first thing is to investigate “scientifically” whether or not there is a God.

A scientific theory is rendered probable by its data in so far as 1) if the theory is true, the data will probably occur; 2) if it is false, the data will probably not occur; 3) it is simple; and 4) it fits in with our background knowledge of what happens in other areas of enquiry. But the fourth criterion tends to drop out when we are dealing with a large scientific theory (such as a general theory of all physical phenomena) for which there are few other fields of enquiry. Above all, criterion four drops out when we have a theory such as theism which purports to explain all data: that is, all observable phenomena. The most important of these observable phenomena which theism can explain is that there is a large physical universe, that everything behaves in it in a totally regular way, that the boundary conditions of the universe and the laws of nature are such as to lead to the evolution of human bodies, and that human bodies are connected to conscious lives.

There is not the slightest reason to suppose that these phenomena will occur unless a theory somewhat like theism is true—why should every atom in the universe behave in exactly the same way? (It is of course a “law of nature” that they do; but laws of nature are just the way things behave. They don’t explain them.) On the other hand, if there is a God of the traditional kind—omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and perfectly good—we have every reason to expect that he will bring about the existence of good things; and one especially good thing is the existence of embodied creatures such as ourselves who have a choice between good and evil and can influence the world and each other in various ways. The supposition that there is such a God is a very simple one. For it is the supposition that there exists one “person” (not many persons), who is the simplest kind of person there could be. A person is a being with some power to make a difference to things, some knowledge of what the world is like, and some degree of freedom as to which differences to make. God is postulated as a being in whom there are no limits to these qualities. (Scientists have always preferred theories postulating infinite degrees of qualities to theories postulating large finite degrees, when these are equally compatible with the data.) God’s perfect freedom means that there are no irrational influences deterring him from doing what he sees reason to do, that is what he believes good to do; being omniscient, he will know what is good and so he will be perfectly good. So by scientific criteria the data make it probable that there is a God. Given that, we should investigate religion on the presumption (now established by reason!) that there is a God.

Go to the link above to read the rest of the exchanges, which come in advance of a debate they will have on 15 March over Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell.