Richard Norman criticises Swinburne


Richard Norman

Of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, the most plausible has always been the argument from design. It’s a serious argument – and serious arguments are what the religious believer needs to come up with, rather than evasive appeals to “faith”. If belief in God is a matter of “faith” in contrast to reason, there’s nothing to distinguish it from mere wishful thinking. Rational arguments are what’s needed – but are they good enough? I’m going to look at two versions of the argument from design set out by Professor Swinburne. They are ingenious, but I think that they fail.

Richard Norman, author of The Moral Philosophers (Oxford University Press)

The classic version of the argument from design appeals to the appearance of purposive adaptation in nature. Living things are intricately constructed, with parts which all seem to serve a purpose – organs which enable them to feed and reproduce, the bright colours of flowers which attract pollinating insects, coats to protect animals from the cold, colouring which serves as camouflage to protect against predators, and so on. It seems plausible to suggest that they must all have been deliberately created this way, with the features which they need in order to survive and flourish in their particular habitats, and hence that such a world must be the work of a divine creator.
As Swinburne accepts, this version of the argument has been undercut by Darwin’s theory of evolution, which offers a scientific explanation of apparent purpose in nature, and eliminates the need to attribute it all to a creator God. It’s not that animals and plants have been fashioned by a divine designer and given what they need to serve the purposes of survival. It’s just that over long periods of time new kinds of living things have come into existence as a result of random genetic variations, those new variants which happened to be better adapted to their environment survived, and those that weren’t died out.Swinburne now offers two new versions of the argument from design, which shift the argument to another level. The first, which he calls the “argument from temporal order”, points to the fact that everything in the universe takes place with predictable regularity, in accordance with scientific laws. Evolutionary theory, like any other scientific explanation, explains particular events by discovering scientific laws which make them intelligible and show them to be instances of some regular pattern. Swinburne suggests that what now needs explanation is the very fact of such laws, the existence of regularities and patterns in nature.

To say that such laws govern matter is just to say that every bit of matter, every neutron and proton and electron throughout endless space and time behaves in exactly the same way (ie in accord with exactly the same fundamental laws). How extraordinary that is! (p. 49)

And it is best explained, Swinburne suggests, by the existence of an all-powerful God who “is constantly active, moving the stars and atoms in a regular way”. (p. 52)

What exactly is supposed to be “extraordinary” about this regularity? Is it really “extraordinary” that we should be able to find these patterns and explanations? What would the alternative be?

How could things have been different? Is it supposed that there might have been a universe in which everything was totally random, in which there were no regularities or patterns at all? That really would be extraordinary, to the point of unintelligibility.

It would be a universe about which nothing could meaningfully be said, in which nothing had any determinate nature at all and nothing was in any way explicable. I’m not sure that we can even make sense of such a possibility. So perhaps the alternative is a universe of partial randomness, in which some things happen in accordance with regular laws and other things are just chance events which are inexplicable. But then wouldn’t that be rather extraordinary?

We would be puzzled as to why some things are regular and law governed, and others seem to be random and unpredictable. What is the difference between them? The puzzlement would be removed if we could show that the apparently random bits weren’t really random, but were governed by regular laws at a deeper level. Now that is the situation in which we in fact find ourselves. At the level of everyday experience we find a lot of regularity, but also a lot of things which are apparently irregular and unpredictable – the behaviour of the weather, for instance. The business of scientific explanation is the discovering of the regularities which underlie this variety and apparent unpredictability – in the case of the weather, the meteorological investigation of patterns of air pressure and temperature and humidity and the velocity of air currents, and so on. So it’s not the regularity that’s extraordinary – on the contrary, it’s the discovery of the patterns and regularities that removes the appearance of something extraordinary.

Regularity can be made to appear extraordinary only if we think of misleading examples. Suppose we toss a coin and it comes down heads every time – hundreds of times, maybe. There’s a regularity which seems extraordinary. But it’s puzzling only because it’s an isolated regularity. It would cease to be extraordinary if we could find out why that particular coin always came down heads – perhaps it was because the coin was weighted in a certain way, or its shape was distorted so that the flow of air over its surfaces always caused it to flip in a certain way. In other words, we would explain this isolated and puzzling regularity by showing that it in fact fits into a deeper pattern of regularities, of laws of motion and theories of aerodynamics. So once again it’s not regularity as such that strikes us as extraordinary. On the contrary, it’s the discovery of the full picture of regularities that removes the appearance of something extraordinary. We don’t need to suppose that there is a divine law-giver to explain it.

I turn now to Swinburne’s second argument – the form of the argument from design which he calls the “argument from spatial order”. The existence of plants and animals and humans, intricately constructed and adapted to their environment, can be explained by the theory of evolution through natural selection, but this process occurred only because the initial conditions were right. There had to be a planet like ours with just the right kind of atmosphere, the right amount of oxygen and water and so on, and for the universe to evolve in such a way as to produce such a planet the initial conditions of the “Big Bang” which began our universe 15 billion years ago had to be just right.

As Swinburne puts it,the Big Bang had to be of exactly the right size – if it had been a very slightly bigger bang, the quanta of energy would have receded from each other too fast for matter to condense into galaxies, stars and planets and so allow organisms to evolve. If the Bang had been very slightly smaller, the Universe would have collapsed before it was cool enough for the chemical elements to form and so to allow organisms to evolve. (p. 53)

This he thinks so remarkable as to call for a special explanation – “how extraordinary it is that the initial conditions and laws were so ‘fine-tuned’ as to produce plants, animals and humans!” The explanation, he says, is that God willed there to be the initial conditions and laws which would lead to the evolution of plants and animals and ourselves.

Again we have to ask: what is “extraordinary” about this? Looked at from our perspective it may feel extraordinary – if the initial conditions of the Big Bang had been just slightly different, we wouldn’t be here now. But that’s like saying “If your mum hadn’t looked across the room at that party and smiled at the man who was to become her husband, you wouldn’t be here now.” It’s an “uncanny” thought, perhaps, but it doesn’t call for some special explanation and it certainly doesn’t mean that your parents’ meeting and your existence are all part of some divine plan. It just means that had it not been for that glance, your mum and dad would never have met, she would probably have married someone else, and not you but some other child would have been born. That’s all.

Likewise, if the initial conditions of the Big Bang had been slightly different, there would now be a universe very different from our own, and we would not exist. That’s all.

Our existence seems to call for some special explanation only if we assume that we human beings have a special importance and that a universe without us would be an impoverished universe which would have gone badly wrong. We may like to think that the purpose of the universe is to produce ourselves, but there’s no reason to suppose that that’s true. It’s just a reflection of our human perspective and our inflated ideas of our own importance.

That brings me to the last of the points I want to make – about the place of purposive explanations. Swinburne says that the explanation we need for why the initial conditions and laws of the universe were as they were cannot be a scientific explanation, for those conditions and laws are what science has to accept as the starting-point for the explanations it gives. They must therefore have some different kind of explanation, what he calls a “personal explanation”, and by that he means a purposive explanation.

Now this is a matter much disputed by philosophers, but I agree with Swinburne that there are two different kinds of explanations here. We can explain the process of your reading this article in terms of the way in which certain light-waves strike the retina of the eye, the way in which that causes certain patterns of neural excitation in the brain, and the way in which that causes certain movements in the rest of your body. That’s a scientific, causal explanation. But I can also explain your reading this article in terms of your reasons for doing so – maybe you hope it will help you pass an exam, maybe you want to know how an atheist would reply to arguments for the existence of God, maybe you’ve got nothing better to do and just want to pass the time. Those are purposive explanations. Some philosophers would argue that they can be shown to be, after all, a kind of causal explanation, but I agree with Swinburne that they are different.

However, such explanations are appropriate only in very specific and restricted contexts. Only if what we are trying to explain is the purposive activity of a rational agent is it appropriate to look for a personal explanation. It’s because I already know that you are a rational being, and that what you are doing is reading, that I look for an explanation in terms of reasons and purposes. But if it rains for the week of my holiday and I say “Someone up there has got it in for me”, that’s a purposive explanation in the wrong place. It’s probably a joke. If it isn’t a joke, it’s a piece of superstition – superstitious because it assigns a purpose to what is just a natural phenomenon appropriately explained in terms of meteorological conditions and scientific laws.

Swinburne’s argument, reduced to its bare essentials, has this form:

Premise 1: There must be some further explanation of why the initial conditions and laws of the universe were such as to produce plants and animals and humans.

Premise 2: The explanation cannot be a scientific explanation.

Conclusion: So it must be a personal (purposive) explanation.

I agree with Swinburne’s second premise. Necessarily, if what we want to explain are the facts which science starts from, then science cannot itself explain them. But it doesn’t follow that, because there is no scientific explanation, there must be a personal explanation. The alternative is that there is no explanation at all (that is, we should reject the first premise). Swinburne thinks that this is unacceptable. He says: “To suppose these data to be just brute inexplicable facts seems … highly irrational.” (p. 53) But all explanations have to come to an end somewhere. If you ask theists why there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent god, there is no further explanation they can give. If God is the explanation of everything else, then the existence of God has to be just a brute inexplicable fact. It seems to me to be a great deal more rational to accept, as our brute fact, the existence of a certain kind of universe. After all, we do have the best possible evidence that this universe, unlike God, actually exists!

Richard Norman, author of The Moral Philosophers (Oxford University Press)







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