A philosopher says we’re doing it rong

September 27, 2010 • 7:23 am

I don’t usually accept “challenges” to read this or that religious or philosophical tome, all guaranteed to remove the scales from my eyes, but this one merits mention.

Besides the many comments prompted by the CfI post, I received several private emails. One came from a philosopher whose identity I’ll keep confidential.  The person wrote me arguing that the very best arguments for the existence of God come not from theology but from the analytical philosophy of religion.  He/she also recommends two books that give the best a.p. arguments for God.  With the philosopher’s permission, I’m posting excerpts of the email in hopes that people will either read these books or comment here if they’ve already read them:

Further on in the post you say that you have tried to keep up with theology, but have found only obfuscation where the arguments for God's existence are concerned. I have my own beefs with modern theology, but my point here is just that this is the wrong place to look for interesting arguments for God's existence! (Theologians, after all, tend to *presuppose* God's existence, working out more detailed understandings of the world fed by that presupposition. That is their job.) So what's the right place? Analytical philosophy of religion. I find a surprising ignorance among many today who comment about God concerning this source of sophisticated argumentation about God's existence. I have my beefs with many analytical philosophers of religion, too, who are believers and whose philosophizing is most fundamentally motivated not by a love of understanding but by a love of God. However it's just a fact that this believing sub-group, fired by its religious loyalties and a newfound intellectual toughmindedness, has in the last few decades managed to produce more impressive arguments for God's existence, and for the rationality of theistic belief (which some are saying can be defended without arguments for God's existence), than have ever been seen before. There are some extremely smart people in this group. I'm not saying any of their arguments is *successful*, all things considered. But no inquiry into belief in God can get anywhere close to the level of sophistication readers of your book are enabled to achieve without engaging these arguments seriously. . .

So who should you be reading? I'd suggest Richard Swinburne's *The Existence of God,* for one. (And really *read* it, instead of taking your lead from those who say they have done so but who may be uncomprehending or poorly motivated. I have been amazed to find, from misinterpretations of my own work by believers, how badly many people read. As serious intellectuals, I suggest that we should repay evil with good here!) Another, quite different, work is William P. Alston's *Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience.* These two are probably good enough for a start. Either work may well irritate you or leave you dissatisfied in various ways. But I predict that if you approach it with an open mind, it won't elicit the sort of commentary that other believers' works have occasioned in your posts. Instead, I expect you will manage more respect -- thereby achieving (in my opinion at least!) a deeper respectability.

So, I guess I’ll be reading these in the fullness of time.  I suspect, however, that even if we find better arguments for the existence of God, we won’t see good arguments for the truth of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or any other specific faith.  I’ll add that, as a scientist, I’m dubious that any argument for God’s existence can be convincing without some empirical evidence.  After all, even the assertions of theoretical physics require empirical confirmation.

402 thoughts on “A philosopher says we’re doing it rong

    1. Why?
      They are one and the same, save that sophistry at least admits to being utter fabricated bullshit.

  1. You should probably read Swinburne. If nothing else, it will give you a crash course in the way that a charlatan can abuse Bayes Theorem by inputting poorly supported assumptions or by misunderstanding the sample space. That’s useful information, because Bayes is used by real scientists, and learning all the stupid-Bayes-tricks out there might actually help you in real life.

    1. I suspect, however, that even if we find better arguments for the existence of God, we won’t see good arguments for the truth of Christianity …

      Not at all!

      Swinburne’s books are all a bad joke on Bayes’ rule: he plays with the priors and his assumptions until Bayes rule tells him that God “probably” exists. Though Swinburne avoids Christianity specifically with this silly mathematical exercise in The Existence of God, he does not shy away from using the very same apallingly bad mathematical arguments in The Resurrection of God Incarnate, in which he computes on page 213 the “probablity” that Jesus was God incarnate equals 100/103 = 97% !  Here’s the “reasoning” behind Swinburne’s “calculations”:

      It would be immensely unlikely that there would be evidence [of incarnation] … unless God so planned it. It would have been deceptive of God to bring about this combination of evidence unless he had become incarnate in this prophet.

      Trust in anything Swinburne writes is a very strong indication of a credulous nincompoop. Or using Bayes’ rule,

      P(person A is credulous nincompoop | person A trusts Swinburne’s arguments) = 100%

      1. It would be immensely unlikely that there would be evidence [of incarnation]

        I agree completely…and that evidence would be?

        Surely not books of mythology (aka, the bible)? That’s the same level of evidence for centaurs, minotaurs, and the River Styx.

        Seriously. Swinburne gets worse and worse with every anecdote.

        How in the world does this qualify as sophisticated philosophy?

    2. More proof of Garbage In, Garbage Out, eh? In my line of work, Bayes’ Theorem is more commonly used as a mystical magic bullshit generator. I just tell people to cut out all the pretense to legitimacy and simply use a magic eight ball. Bayes’ Theorem is extremely useful for some things such as identifying problems in manufacturing, but there seems to be an entire generation of folks out there who believe that mentioning Bayes automatically makes their ridiculous claims true and the mathematics is being applied in situations for which it simply is not relevant.

  2. Swinburne’s ‘The Existence of God’?

    The book where Swinburne finds a siler lining in the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima?

    Suppose one or two people had decided to go on a picnic that day in 1945, and had left the city when the Americans dropped an atomb bomb on it.

    Would that have been a good thing? A miraculous escape?

    Let us see how prominent theologian Richard Swinburne, a Professor at Oxford University, answers that question on page 264 of his book ‘The Existence of God’…

    ‘Suppose that one less person had been burnt by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Then there would have been less opportunity for courage and sympathy;one less piece of information about the effects of atomic radiation….’

    But Richard, wouldn’t there be one more person alive to show courage and sympathy?

    Swinburne thinks his god should not have saved one single person from Hiroshima, as then we would not know so much about the effects of atomic radiation.

    No wonder theologians consider Swinburne more sophisticated than Ken Ham.

    1. How convenient for Richard.

      Hiroshima, as it turns out, was part of a divine plan to elicit retropective altruism via the melting of *other* people’s skin.

      Pardon the language, but that’s fucked up.

      1. I’m not certain but I think Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss reserved his rationalizations for natural evils such as syphilis and volcanoes.

        1. Considering syphilis and humans are both products of nature too, what’s the difference? Or, if you are so inclined, that syphilis and humans are both products of God?

          1. Philosophers and theologians make a distinction between natural evil and man’s evils. The distinction being free will of course.

            Something, something natural evil is associated with the best of all possible worlds and man’s evil is associated with his fall from grace.

            1. And, of course, they can cogently explain why they know that Bonobos do not have free will, but we cousins do?

    2. Swinburne seems to be fond of this line of “reasoning”. Swinburne is the guy about whom Dawkins was writing when he (quoting Dawkins, God Delusion, p. 89) “attempted to justify the Holocaust on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble. Peter Atkins splendidly growled, ‘May you rot in hell.'”

      Swinburne seems to think this tripe is some sort of palliative for the existence of evil – when in fact it is itself evil.

  3. We should give Swinburne more respect?

    We should actually respect somebody who claims his god should not cure cancer because that would deprive human beings of the choice of whether or not to fund cancer research.

    Honest, I am not making this up.

    Swinburne actually did write that page.

    No atheist could ever produce a parody of Christian thought that approached that piece of writing.

    I can’t respect somebody whose writing is beyond parody.

  4. ‘But no inquiry into belief in God can get anywhere close to the level of sophistication readers of your book are enabled to achieve without engaging these arguments seriously.’

    How on earth can anybody engage the arguments of Swinburne seriously?

    Just how do you counter somebody who claims god should not cure cancer because that would remove our motivation to decide to give up smoking?

    What can you say to such a person?

    How can you take such a person seriously?

    It is all very well saying you should respect Swinburne, but then you can’t go around saying you should also read his books.

    Make up your mind.

    Do you want us to respect Swinburne or read his books?

  5. I have been amazed to find, from misinterpretations of my own work by believers, how badly many people read.

    Or perhaps how badly many authors write.

    I suggest that the onus is on the author to produce clear, unobfusticated prose.

  6. I’m skeptical of any argument that asks you to keep ‘an open mind’ or ‘make the leap’. Science is powerful because it offers proof, predictions, and applications for its knowledge. Philosophy has logical arguments (sometimes) but without any proof, its just semantics. And I bet these books are justifications for faith without any conclusive proof besides the fact that there are a lot of religions, and religions may have been useful at some point in the past.

    1. Sounds like that excludes Kant for you:


      For a lot of you guys, it’s like the German part of the Enlightenment never occurred. It’s Anglo empiricism or nothing.

      Charles Taylor is an interesting case, because where he lives, the tectonic plates of continental and English empiricism rub up next to each other really closely. (There’s a good chance English empiricism might even come off as oppressive to some Quebecois.) So he probably has been motivated to study different styles of reason very closely and see where different philosophical premises have to be seen as internally consistent and coherent, but irreconcilable. But everyone still has to get along…

    1. I’m reminded of Fermat’s Last Theorum, where he claimed to have a proof for a proposition in number theory but there wasn’t enough room in the margin of his copy of Arithmetica to fit it in.

      All the “very best arguments for the existence of God” are nothing but an ongoing “my dog ate my homework” comedy skit.

      1. Although you should admit, when Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally solved, the proof certainly would not have fit in a margin.

        1. And was solved with techniques Fermi did not have. Leaving us to wonder if he ever had proof.

          Personally, I think he realized he was wrong about his full proof. So he never made it…

          But I can’t prove it.

  7. Swinburne? An interesting dinner companion, especially if dining on thin gruel.

    Thank you very much, but I’m content to disrespect theologians in a light-hearted, mocking fashion and achieve a shallow respectability.

    More interesting, in my opinion, is John Spong who systematically stripped all the woo out of Christianity and found himself (my interpretation) with theravada buddhism, devoid of supernatural entanglements.

    1. I’ve read several of John Spong’s books (“The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love” was notable) and he comes across as a decent person who does not believe in god but loves the ritual associated with the church.

      Sort of a Mr. Dressup for adults that never grew up.

      1. Yeah, I agree. He seemed both literate and thoughtful and rational. All three both.

        His personal speed bump was God which he couldn’t let go of. So, he got rid of all the Bronze Age goat herder stuff, but kept the bump.

        Let go, John!

        I thought he was on to something by developing a “social religion” (my quotes) based on good ideas. Personally, I would call that secular humanism but I only took Philosophy 101 and am, therefore, neither qualified, nor respected and should sit down and shut up.

  8. It’s the “read this” argument. It’s a vast pool of diversion. Because after all there will be another “read this” in due time.

    Swinburne? It isn’t even that deep. But surely it gets cheers from the likes of William Craig Lane, another supposed philosopher.

    But yes, I get reminded of Swinburne every time a religious person claims that universities are biased against them. Not like whole departments on the topic do not exist… like departments of theology…

    Swinburne happens to sit in the philosophy department but he is an apologist. Here is his own statement of purpose:


    All the central questions of philosophy.
    The meaning and justification of the central claims of Christianity.”

    Yep, it’s apologetics disguised as philosophy.

    Sadly reading Swinburne one quickly discovers the same old issue: Hiding fallacies in pseudo-sophistry is not a rational argument.

    But I have to say I do not know: William P. Alston’s *Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience.*

    I’ll be very happy to look at it, exactly because I don’t like people misappropriating epistemology. But I’ll reserve judgment until after I read it.

    And yes I’d second that John Shelby Spong is more interesting to consider than Swinburne. Or perhaps Hans Kung. But these people tend to be outcast by the powerful of their own crowd.

    Needless to say neither has anything to say that is tangible about the existence of deities. They have good things to say about reforming religions towards a more sane state.

    One certainly does not have to read Spong or Kung to reject theism and be on solid ground.

    1. P.S. Another philosopher whose ideas are repeatedly suggested to me for arguments for faith is Charles Taylor. Sadly his argument basically boils down to him not wanting to abandon Aristotelian metaphysics (which historically includes, of course the space where deities can happily live in the philosophical structure). His argument is indeed best understood as a statement of desire rather than an argument. Hence also ultimately boils down to “I want this to be true, so I side with this view.” A self-fulfilling rather than a deductive argument.

      That is the problem with arguments that at their deepest core have a notion of truth-confirmation in them. They are there to not question a certain claim, but rather rescue it.

      Reading these authors, one is always just left with the task of identifying where they hid their “leap of faith” to the desired outcome.

    2. But surely it gets cheers from the likes of William Craig Lane, another supposed philosopher.

      Surely. I read William Lane Craig’s chapter on theistic arguments in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Michael Martin, ed.), and there is not a theistic argument around that Craig does not view as convincing, or at least promising.

    3. “”It’s the “read this” argument. It’s a vast pool of diversion.””

      This is brilliant! I don’t have to read anything by, say, Behe, Dembski, D’Souza or Chopra to dismiss them as lightweight cranks and kooks.

      For example, I read 5 pages of Behe’s Edge and that was enough for me to dismiss his entire argument as crap.

      How many creationists have chastised me for not reading a kook’s book “more closely.” Grains of sand on the beach, grains of sand.

    4. Needless to say neither has anything to say that is tangible about the existence of deities. They have good things to say about reforming religions towards a more sane state.

      I.e. ignore it (religion) all together, I presume.

  9. Not surprised by the proposal, really. Because it is true that while theologians have – as theologians – assumed the existence of God, theist philosophers (or the very same theologians after having put their philosopher’s gown) have felt obliged to appeal to the “natural reason” to justify the rationality of religious belief.

    In this respect, the writings of William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Charles Hartshorne, Richard Swinburne, Roger Scruton et al. have played a role in some fashion or other. All right, much of that is openly apologetic, but that should not come as any surprise for that is the difference between “pure” philosophy and theism that tries to defend the rationality of belief in God by means of “natural reason”.

    A good starting point for anyone in all matters philosophical is of course the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
    Among the articles on philosophy of religion (mostly from the perspective of faith):

    And there are some good intros on Alston, Plantinga et al. (by themselves, I mean) readily available:


    1. From Alston’s article Chapter 9 “Mysticism and Perceptual Awareness of God”

      It’s basically an attempt to rescue mystical experiences as actually relating to causes by a deity.

      Let me quote an interesting passage:

      “Hence we are left with the conclusion that even if there is an adequate naturalistic account of the proximate causes of ME, that does not rule out the possibility that God plays a role in eliciting such experience that renders him perceived therein. But there are also reasons for questioning the claim that there is such an account. If we consider the most prominent candidates (and this is not a popular research field for social and behavioral scientists), we must judge them to be highly speculative and, at best, sketchily supported by the evidence. ME poses
      severe problems for empirical research. It is something that cannot be induced at the will of the researcher and so is not amenable to experiment. Attempts to get around this by substituting drug-induced analogues are of little value, since it has not been shown that findings concerning them can be extrapolated to spontaneous
      cases. Since the states are usually short-lived, we must rely on autobiographical reports; a researcher can hardly be expected to hang around a person on the
      off chance that he might happen to have a mystical experience!”

      Note what position is deemed to be “highly speculative and, at best, sketchily supported by the evidence”.

      Basically this article is a “god of the gaps” variety. “You have not shown that god does not induce mystical experiences, hence it’s sketchy to dismiss that god did it!”

      Now of course that’s a dishonest argument to say the least, because any entity could be postulated to induce experiences. From quantum fluctuations, to demons, to the flying spaghetti monsters, to orbital tea pots, to butterfly flapping its wings in south India. The fallacy is standard: There is a gap so we pick one specific explanation and we call it God. And then we claim that this hypothesis cannot be dismissed.

      The simple response to this is Popperian. How is your particular choice falsifiable?

      Why this is interesting to consider is beyond me. It clearly is the same old apologetics presented in a scholarly style.

      Certainly one can (and should) study self-reported human experience, but it does not require any extraneous particular hypothesis.

      Is this supposed to pass for epistemology?

      1. ME poses
        severe problems for empirical research. It is something that cannot be induced at the will of the researcher and so is not amenable to experiment.

        …except if you electrically stimulate someone’s brain in the correct manner. Gotta love neuroscience!

      1. I’ve never run into has arguments on natural selection, but I’ve read some of his arguments, and enjoyed Nicholas Everitt’s takedown of his arguments (The Non-Existence of God, IIRC). If Plantiga’s arguments about natural selection are crap, then, yeah, his arguments for god are like that.

  10. Remind me again how many of the faithful have read Swinburne or Alston? Does Jerry’s correspondent feel that believers’ faith is unjustified until they do?

    Honestly, I am seriously tired of the sophistimacated theophilosophers telling atheists they can’t really understand the concept of god until they read Augustine/Anselm/Armstrong/etc. etc. etc., while 99.999% of believers happily go to church without such crucial information.

    1. Believers believe because of one simple reason, their parents tell them to do so. Sure there are converts here and there, but I bet 9/10ths of people require no more convincing than that.

      All this semantic, philosophical rationalizing is really just there so that religious people with doubts can put a book on their shelf and think it does the job of proving it.

      1. It’s true actually! I remember reading somewhere (sorry, don’t have time to Google it but I’m sure it’s easy to find) that the absolute best predictor for your religion is whatever religion your parents have. For instance, if your parents are Christian, you will almost certainly be a Christian. If your parents are Buddhists, you will almost certainly be a Buddhist. People very very rarely change religions across generations, which means that no one religion is more compelling to adults than any other – the time when you are most susceptible to catching a religion is as a child.

        1. I have long felt this a quite extraordinary coincidence; in fact it almost amounts to a proof of God’s influence in the World

        2. And the time when you are most susceptible to conversion is when you marry someone who is religious.

          It’s the same reason why I sometimes cheer for MSU football even though I never went to school there.

          1. I think you sometimes cheer for MSU football because of their amazing ability(of late) to beat back the Catholic hordes from South Bend. 😉

    2. And, of course, those of us who have read the former are now being told that those are No True Religious Philosophers.

      “If only you read this person and not that person, then your eyes will be opened.”

      Insulting. Just one more, just one more, just one more.

      The implication is that until you read the book that converts you from disbelief to belief, you have to continue to read more books about belief.

      It’s a demand that you convert, nothing more.

  11. While I am not familiar with the works of the said authors, I do look at the works of philosophers purporting to prove the existence of god. It seems to me they are trying to prove a statement about the natural world (let’s say like the cell theory) through a game of words. An we are never told which of the numerous gods worshipped in human history this supposedly proves. Why can a patriarchal god of the bible or Koran be proven philosophically, while pagan and Hindu gods can’t? Except that whichever of them happens to be true, the others are automatically falsified.
    The reason we are told best argument for existence of god comes not from biology but philosophy is that the argument from design has been debunked. It is called grasping at straws.
    Lastly, why are the works of nonbelieving philosophers like David Hume any less impressive than believing ones? Sounds arbitrary to me.

  12. Here we go again….

    sophisticated argumentation about God’s existence

    Sorry, but there is no such thing. It’s turtles all the way down. There are no more than a half-dozen “arguments” for god’s existence, when you boil them all down.

    What I am expecting, nay demanding, from anyone who expects me to believe in their supernatural is not yet another argument or a re-casting of the same tired old drek in a shiny new suit.

    I want EVIDENCE!!!!!!!!eleventy!!!!!!


    Sorry for the shouting.

    Argue all you want. Unless and until you give me evidence, it’s all just so much refreshing the lipstick on the pig.

  13. The Wikipedia entry on Swinburne is more than enough to convince me that I shouldn’t waste my time reading his three tomes.

    1. Completely agree with Neil. Principle of Credulity presumes that our brain is awesome and can never trick us. This is *not* true, there are a handful of neuroscience experiments that show that the brain can be tricked – a LOT.

      Principle of Testimony is more ridiculous. If someone can flat out lie or fabricate their experience and I don’t have any reason to disbelieve them – I have no choice but to believe them. Oh well.

        1. George Noory (Coast to Coast AM host and idiot) came out once and said that he had heard so much (aliens, Mel’s Hole, Illuminati, etc) that he has to have something proven false before he will not believe it. Completely back-assward.

      1. The Principle of Credulity ignores reality and all philosophy over the past 2400 years. For much of that period philosophers were obsessed with how we can tell that something is real. They were all aware that the senses could be fooled, and taking that observation to its most ridiculous conclusion, they asked “how can we tell if anything is real.” That is precisely the sort of thing which led Descartes to his “I can think, so I must exist” – a fact which no one seems to have figured out how they could deny it. Descartes also babbles on about how things can be measured and measured repeatedly, but I can’t recall if he bothered to discuss errors in measurement. What a truly bizarre opinion to have – especially for one who claims to be a philosopher. Simply ignore the age old issue of the fallibility of the senses and conjure the bullshit of the Principle of Credulity.

        1. What I find hilarious is that in his cogito ergo sum, Descartes has the world’s most awesome proof of God; IIRC, it basically goes like “when I close my eyes and think really really hard, I still feel God there. Therefore, God exists”.

          Wow, way to go man. Super convincing. There’s a reason why most people ignore that particular argument.

    2. Incredible!

      “Swinburne also coined two principles for the assessment of religious experiences:

      * Principle of Credulity – with the absence of any reason to disbelieve it, one should accept what appears to be true (e.g., if one sees someone walking on water, one should believe that it is occurring, unless one is under the influence of a hallucinogen).
      * Principle of Testimony – with the absence of any reason to disbelieve them, one should accept that eye-witnesses or believers are telling the truth when they testify about religious experiences.”

      Boy, do I have a bridge to sell him!

      1. Every time I see that “Credulity” thing it reminds me of the old “shouldn’t we have told him about the stepping stones” joke.

      2. It’s funny because Philip K. Dick, someone who had a lot of experience with mind-altering drugs, came up with (I think) the best definition of reality: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, is still there”.

        Now, he was no philosopher, but I think that one statement of reality is clearer and more useful than any amount of Swineburne’s writing. Principle of Credulity my ass.

  14. I was thinking, why analytic philosophy? Why not continental? Why not Nietzsche, and critiques of metaphysics, including critiques of the linguistic and cognitive biases that predispose us to believe in nonsense?

    I won’t be reading the suggested works. That’s because I don’t share their assumptions, I don’t care for their illegitimate biases, and they don’t even begin to provide any kind of evidence for their claims. I’d rather read stories about leprechauns and nixies than still more wretched apologies for god.

    Isn’t Plantinga enough twisted logic for one lifetime?

    Glen Davidson

  15. So far, I have not spied a reply from a “qualified philosopher”.
    What about it, you philosophers out there in academic-land?

    1. Are you assuming all contemporary analytic philosophers would jump on here and *defend* Swinburne? Because let me assure you that’s not the case. Ask Michael Ruse about Swinburne, for example. (Or me, but I’m just a grad student.)

  16. However it’s just a fact that this believing sub-group, fired by its religious loyalties and a newfound intellectual toughmindedness, has in the last few decades managed to produce more impressive arguments for God’s existence, and for the rationality of theistic belief (which some are saying can be defended without arguments for God’s existence), than have ever been seen before.

    Unless those arguments consist of some very high-powered math, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be possible to distill them down to at most a few short paragraphs. So why not post that instead of a long-winded description of just how incredibly smart these people are, if only you’d squint hard enough?

    And, of course, any such argument must start with a definition of the terms: what, exactly, is this “God” thingy we’re supposed to be discussing?

    Let me guess: the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator of the universe, right?


    Let’s get this out of the way up front, okay?

    The same kind of diagonalization proof used to demonstrate that there are more irrational than rational numbers or that Turing’s Halting Problem and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem are both true applies to claims of the existence of the “power of all powers” and the “knowledge of all knowledge” and “the source of all sources.” As a poetic example: “All but God can prove this sentence true.” More familiar is the common destruction of the First Cause claim: either everything needs a creator and therefore we must assume the existence not only of “God” but of an infinite regression of great-great-great-great-gods, or the initial premise that everything needs a creator is false and there isn’t any need to postulate a first cause in the first place.

    Even young children tend to figure this out when they play the “name the biggest number” game. After jumping through hundreds and billions and gazillions, somebody triumphantly calls out, “Infinity!” Next, of course, comes “Infinity plus one!” and the cycle starts over again, usually ending with “Infinity plus infinity an infinite number of times!” The smart kids figure out that there’s no such number. They’re also the ones to figure out that there really isn’t a last digit of π and that 0.999… exactly equals 1.

    So that leaves the omnibenevolent bit, and Epicurus did that one in half a millennium before Caesar.

    Now, for any “sophisticated” theological philosopher to come up with an “impressive argument for God’s existence,” he’ll have to start by proposing a god that isn’t the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything. But what else is left? Space aliens doing magic tricks with anal probes?

    Lastly, the notion that there’s a rationality to be found in theistic belief in the absence of the existence of gods is itself self-contradictory. Rationality is grounded in facts. Worshipping a logical contradiction is the antithesis of rationality and the very epitome of insanity. Inanity too, for that matter.



    1. The first of my 5 Goalposts for Proving God’s Existence(TM) is:

      Describe its ontology. Not what it does, but what it is. What is it made of? How do you know? Under what authority do you make this claim? By virtue of what set of data points? Is this ontology agreed upon by all religions everywhere – or at minimum those who propose the existence of a deity? If not, why not?

      Unless and until we describe what it is, how in the heck will we know when we find it?

      Science goes looking for the indiscernible all the time. The Higgs boson is the latest. But they don’t go looking for it until they have a pretty good idea of what it looks like, how to detect it, and how to distinguish it from everything elase that isn’t what they’re looking for.

      Theism/deism/religion offers none of that. That’s why, in the most obvious and common use of the word, it’s a lie.

        1. 1. Define what it “is” as described above.

          2. Describe how to detect it. What tests would you use? Why? Does everyone agree that this test will work? Under what conditions will the test work? Not work? Why? Again, is this agreed upon by all theist-searchers? Why or why not?

          Until you can get agreement on 1 and 2, you really can’t go very far. So far, every time I’ve proposed these goalposts to a theist-searcher, they’ve given up before even attempting #1.

          3. Report the results of the test in such a way as to definitely prove you’ve found what you’re looking for, and not something else.

          In other words, the results have to obligately prove a “god solution” and not something like invisible interdimensional alien monkeys. Describe how and why you’ve rejected all other potential outcomes. In other words, you can’t just reject the null hypothesis, you also have to reject all the other alternative hypotheses.

          4. If you are proposing a specific “god solution”, describe why you have found it and not some other “god solution”. Why Yahweh and not Shiva?

          If you’re not proposing a specific god solution, you can do without this one. But 99.999999999% of theist-searchers are proposing not just “a” god solution, but “their” god solution, so I think this is important.

          Francis Collins, Ken Miller, et al, argue with regard to “any” god, then make the enormous intellectual leap to “their” god without having gone through this crucial step. How do you KNOW this god solution is Catholic and not Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879?

          5. Do all of this without using a holy book as a reference or as an authority.

          It’s probably not “sophisticated theology”. And it’s been criticized because supposedly the supernatural can’t be tested for. My reply to that critique is “tough shit. Just because it’s hard, that doesn’t absolve you from doing the fundamental work.”

          It’s really no different from my goalposts for proving string theory, or the inflationary model of the “pre-universe”. Define what it is and how to detect it, and report those results to prove definitively you’ve found what you’re looking for and not something else. And do that in such a way that is agreed upon by all interested and disinterested observers using authoritative sources that are not in dispute.

          1. But…but…but…all you’ve done is apply the scientific method to theology! And we all know you can’t cross the magisteria like that!

            What’re you after, anyway? Feline-canine cohabitation or something? Why, I bet you probably even eat your toast butter-side-up.



            1. I know. Silly, aren’t I, to insist that someone seeking to intrude on my belief space use the same “way of knowing” that has served me in good stead all these years.

          2. This is splendid! Although my own list of hurdles would look very slightly different:

            1. Demonstrate a higher intelligence working in the universe.

            2. Explain why it must be divine, instead of a sufficiently advanced alien species or similar. Although to be honest, this could be relaxed, as an alien intelligence sufficiently advanced to, say, create the universe ex nihilo would for all practical purposes be indistinguishable from being gods.

            3. Explain, now that we can grant the existence of some mysterious higher intelligence in the universe, from where exactly you get the knowledge that this is identical to God as worshiped by your sect, and not as worshiped by another.

            4. Make a case for this higher intelligence being worthy of worship as opposed to contempt. If it turns out that it throws people into a lake of fire for all eternity for having had consensual extramarital sex, for example, it may well be a god, but not worthy of our devotion.

            But no matter the details. Once you lay it out like this or similar, you realize how apologists always only ever try to clear hurdle #1, and once they have fallacied themselves over it, they presume all others cleared as well, as fittingly deconstructed here.

    2. Nicely put, Ben.

      I’d just add that it seems damned strange to me that one even needs such fancy obtuse arguments for the existence of what is supposedly the most powerful being ever. It seems even stranger to me that, historically, this being has allegedly not been at all shy about performing very tangible demonstrations of its existence, and that is it only now, when we are no longer Iron Age goatherds and have science and stuff, that we even need such fancy abstract arguments for a being that has seemingly disappeared.

      You don’t need theology when you’ve got a burning bush (much less parted seas and murdered first-borns) — curious that we somehow need it now.

      1. Thanks.

        You raise a very important point here: these gods that we’re supposed to be worshipping are allegedly as pervasive as gravity, electroweak, and the rest of the fundamental forces. And they’re supposed to be not only more powerful but more influential in day-to-day-affairs than all of the fundamental forces combined. Yet, somehow, there isn’t even a shred of evidence. Go figure.

        I’ve had theists actually try to use that as evidence in favor of their favored pantheon. “Can you see the air?” (Actually, yes. wind turbulence, the bluing effect of distant mountains, the sky itself, lots more.) “No, you can’t see the air, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” (Weren’t you paying attention? Air is easy to see! Oh, nevermind.) “Therefore, you should join me in a refreshing snack. Here, eat some of this Jesus!” (Cheeses? Great, thanks…but those look like crackers. Where’s the cheese?) “Yum! I think I got his liver!” (Nurse!)



    3. I think it’s funny because a classical Catholic argument to (theoretically) solve the Problem of Evil is that we have free will, we fuck shit up, and therefore bad shit happens to us (yes including tsunamis, did you forget the whole Adam and Eve thing?)

      This has severe problems, without even getting into the whole “do we have free will” thing.

      Why? Free will is a meaningless concept in the face of an omniscient deity. If it is possible for anything to be omniscient, then it is possible for all of your actions to be known before you take them; therefore, if it is possible for God to be omniscient, then it is not possible for you to have free will – and in fact, if it is possible for God to be omniscient, the universe must be fundamentally deterministic.

      So basically, if they want to keep their silly little free will argument, they have to acknowledge that God cannot be omniscient.

  17. Swinburne – Mr “suffering is good because it gives the opportunity to show compassion therefore god is not evil.” Groan.

    And someone saying “religious experience is veridical, it is it is it is.” Groan.

    Still – it’s useful to know what the best is supposed to be.

    1. Of course, Mr. Philosopher doesn’t think you’ve really read him.

      Because if you’ve really read him, you’d be a card-carrying Christian.

      I seriously don’t see how this is anything other than a demand that you convert. It’s a dismissal of your critical thinking capacity.

      “Oh well, you must not have really read Swinburne if you don’t see how sophisticated his arguments are.”

    2. Yes, groan. Even W. James admitted that religious experiences are only veridical for the people having them, not for people hearing about them. Sounds like more of that “if you are justified in cowering before a monster you see while hallucinating then you are still justified in fearing the monster when you come down.” stuff from TPM a while back.

  18. What if someone told you, he knew an extremely detailed, very sophisticated book by a recognized expert, explaining all the deep and complex techniques and philosophies of modern professional astrology, thereby showing its validity and usefulness … would you read it?

    I wouldn’t. Go ahead: call me closed-minded.

    1. I might for the lulz…but probably not. I don’t need lulz that badly.

      Alternatively, I’d pick it up at Barnes and Nobel and put it back on the shelf when I found the very first error of fact or logic.

      I skimmed through Francis Collins’ first book this way. I don’t think I got to page 10 before I put it back.

      I suppose this would be a great way to deal with all of them. Go in with an open mind, but stop when they start insulting your intelligence.

    2. I prefer to be close-minded; a closed mind keeps the bullshit out. The challenge is figuring out when to open that cranium and let something in.

      1. It’s a famous quote from someone…paraphrasing in the absence of the desire to look it up. …

        It’s good to be open-minded, but not so much that your brains fall out.

  19. this believing sub-group…has in the last few decades managed to produce more impressive arguments…for the rationality of theistic belief (which some are saying can be defended without arguments for God’s existence)…

    (emph. added)

    Well! That is an entirely different discussion, and I consider it very much an open question. (Though I have my own opinions)

    I think there are three questions in play here, which for some reason tend to get all muddled up in the public conversation about religion:

    1) For any given theistic belief system, is it true?

    2) Does theistic belief carry any inherent positives or negatives, and what is the balance?

    3) Is theistic belief as practiced today a net positive or net negative?

    Question (1) is really many questions in one, because you have to substitute a particularly belief system before you can answer it. But for every incarnation of the question I have ever seen, the answer is a resounding “NO”.

    I feel the answer to question (3) is also obvious: Net NEGATIVE, and how! Readers of this blog will require no elaboration on this point.

    However, I consider question (2) to be very much unresolved. In a world with no fundies, would a UU- or Quaker-like religion teaching love and charity and compassion (albeit with rather fuzzy thinking underpinning it it) be a net positive for some naturally fuzzy-thinking subset of the population? It would be elitist and condescending to assert “Yes” without strong evidence, but I think it is at least plausible, and what evidence we do have is very mixed. My personal gut feeling is that, even if there were small benefits, they would always be outweighed by the risk of such a religion metastasizing into fundamentalism, but again, I say this without sufficient evidence.

    The point being, even if one could make a strong case for the “rationality of theistic belief” even in the complete absence of a theistic god(s), most arguments made by the gnu atheists would still stand.

    1. James Sweet wrote:
      “In a world with no fundies, would a UU- or Quaker-like religion teaching love and charity and compassion (albeit with rather fuzzy thinking underpinning it it) be a net positive for some naturally fuzzy-thinking subset of the population?”

      Of course, you’re risking the evils of long church committee meetings, vegan potlucks, and earnest folk-singing.


      On the positive side, the UU folks have developed one of the best available sexuality education programs out there. It’s not just used in churches — secular folks like Planned Parenthood and Advocates for Youth also use the UU materials.

  20. I’ve never read Swinburne myself, but I did attend a lecture series by Dutch philosopher Herman Philipse about atheism (sorry, in Dutch only). In it, he discussed Swinburne’s work as one of the most impressive cases in apologetic literature.

    What I learned was that Swinburne very carefully sets up a Bayesian argument for the probability for the existence of God. But in the end, he finds out that he can’t really quantify his probability factors (never mind justify his choice of one half for prior probability). He therefore finds himself unable to answer the question for the probability of God. So what does Swinburne do? Why, try to invert the burden of proof, of course.

    So, based on this review, and from what I’ve heard or read elsewhere (including in this thread), I have to conclude that reading Swinburne would not be a worthwhile use of my time.

    William P. Alston I’ve never heard of, so maybe I should look into that. My expectations aren’t very high, however, and accordingly, it won’t get very high on my reading list.

    I also have to add, highly intelligent, sophisticated, analytical and impressive nonsense is still nonsense, and not necessarily something that deserves respect.

    1. Thanks, that’s interesting, finally giving us some notion of what this “sophisticated argument” is about.

      Inverting the burden of proof is sort of standard practice in these matters. Gee, I wonder why he can’t quantify his probability factors? Possibly because there’s no evidence for God?

      Of course, the bottom question is why anyone should consider God’s existence as being any more worthy of contemplation than Santa’s. Why should I even consider the question of God’s existence in the first place? In the second place, I know why, which is because it’s a cultural conception that is socially important–what I don’t know is any reason why God should be supposed to exist, what such a concept would answer or explain at all (since it is no proximate cause for anything).

      That’s what Swinburne needs to tell us, some reason why his hypothesis is of any sort of value whatsoever–before we read a bunch of nonsense that props up his religious predispositions.

      Glen Davidson

      1. Just for the sake of fairness, let me stress that this is by now at least a third-hand account of some of Swinburne’s work, so take it with a grain of salt. But based on some of the other reactions here, I don’t think I’m wrong to see better uses for my time than reading Swinburne.

        The thing is, the sender of this email doesn’t even really tell us why he chose Swinburne and Alston. What sets their work apart from the other apologetics? I don’t know, he doesn’t say. I probably could tell you in a few sentences or a short paragraph why WEIT or TGSOE are decent introductions to evolution. Why couldn’t he do the same for Alston and Swinburne?

      2. why anyone should consider God’s existence as being any more worthy of contemplation than Santa’s. […] I know why, which is because it’s a cultural conception that is socially important

        Are you saying Santa Claus isn’t a social important cultural conception?

        Someone’s getting coal in his stocking this Christmas…

  21. My random quote of the day seemed appropriate.

    “The fundamental principle of science, the definition almost, is this: the
    sole test of the validity of any idea is experiment.”

    — Richard P. Feynman

    1. Especially when that idea makes specific claims about how the universe came into resistance, and how it works.

      These arguments for god from analytical philosophy seem to have no connection with reality. It is very Aristotelian, thinking one can reason your way to reality without needing to look out the window. It is also very likely to end in failure.

      1. It is very Aristotelian, thinking one can reason your way to reality without needing to look out the window.

        Of course, mathematicians do that all the time.

        1. In fairness, mathematicians generally don’t pretend that just because they’ve got a clever bit of math that one should conclude that there are tasty zombies at the foot of the garden. Or, at least, if they do come to such a conclusion, they don’t pretend that it’s a result of their mathematical work.

          Not to mention, of course, that there have been countless — erm, “lots” of instances where some abstract really-out-there mathematical idea turned out long after the fact to be useful for understanding something in the real world. Imaginary numbers come to mind.



  22. A few more comments. Quoting from the email:

    However it’s just a fact that this believing sub-group, fired by its religious loyalties and a newfound intellectual toughmindedness, has in the last few decades managed to produce more impressive arguments for God’s existence, and for the rationality of theistic belief (which some are saying can be defended without arguments for God’s existence)…

    First, I’ve noticed that most modern apologetics are of the “arguments for the rationality of theistic belief” variety. It appears apologists are no longer trying to prove that God exists, but just that it’s not completely crazy to believe that he does.

    Second, the idea that theistic beliefs can be defended without arguments for God’s existence is the most blatant special pleading ever. There is simply no other area in life where we are not expected to be able to back up our beliefs with arguments (if not evidence). To include this idea in the list of “impressive arguments” just boggles the mind.

  23. I feel like I’ve been Rick-rolled. Lured in by the promise of finding the best possible careful philosophical arguments for the existence of God, only to be slapped with Richard Swinburne.

    Perhaps philosophers are impressed with Swinburne because he trots out physics and cosmology, but as a physicist I don’t find anything there but the previously mentioned abuses of statistics.

    Don’t know William Alston, maybe I’ll take a look. Plantiga seems to be worth reading; at a casual acquaintance, he appears to be a careful enough writer and thinker that you can pinpoint pretty well where he goes off the rails, and you can actually learn something along the way.

    1. Don’t forget the impressive math! Everything becomes more impressive with some equations.

      It’s probably also why people love Plantinga. He reformulates old arguments in modal logic, so most people can no longer decypher it (and detect the flaws). But it sure looks impressive.

      1. You remind me of Gödel’s own (unfinished) ontological proof. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to spot the “magic happens here” line.

        At least Gödel had the good sense to not publish the proof. Still, I’m surprised that somebody who lived and breathed diagonalization could be silly enough to believe in the existence of an ultimate anything.



      2. I found a very good refutation of Plantinga’s S3-Modal logic recapitulation of Anselm’s ontological argument…unfortunately I neglected to bookmark it…some work with Google should nail it.

        IIRC, Plantinga’s conclusion is that “if god exists in any one world/universe, then it exists in all”. Picking up the (unstated) other side of the conclusion, that says “if god does *not* exist in any one world/universe, it does *not* exist in any”.

        Of course, this leaves us where we started…”god does or does not exist”. I presume Swinburne tries to rescue that by attempting to superglue some probabilities on various sub-statements.

        1. Not being an expert in modal logic, I am perhaps not qualified to respond to Plantinga’s “proof”… but it seems to me what he has done basically amounts to this:

          1) Get victim listener to agree to what seems like an innocuous premise.

          2) Import that premise into modal logic, a system under which the implications and probably even the very meaning of said premise go way beyond what the listener thought she was agreeing to at the time.

          3) Run away cackling with glee while the listener tries to figure out what the fuck Modal Logic is. (I’m still trying to figure it out, FWIW)

          In other words, it’s a very clever super-sneaky means of begging the question.

          I am also not entirely convinced that Plantinga’s interpretation of “possible worlds” in his proof is valid even under the rules of modal logic. Since I don’t actually completely understand modal logic, I could be wrong… but it seems to me that he is redistributing the terms. He defines maximal greatness in such a way that it extends across possible worlds — I do not think that is fair, because now the possible worlds are not independent, i.e. whether at thing in a given possible world exhibits a certain trait is contingent on what traits it exhibits in other possible worlds. And while I could be mistaken, but I don’t think that is allowed when talking about philosophical “possible worlds”.

          1. Could someone who understands the S5 axiom explain to me what is wrong with the following?

            It is possible that I have terminal stage IV brain cancer.

            If I have terminal stage IV brain cancer, I necessarily will be dead within five years.

            Therefore, it is possibly necessary that I will die within five years.

            Therefore (by S5) I will die within five years.

            What am I missing?

            1. Does that actually follow in S5?

              I thought that if something is possibly necessary, you can infer that it’s possible, but not that it’s necessary.

              (E.g. “I may necessarily die within five years” collapses to “I may die within five years,” not “I will die within five years,” unless of course you add some other axioms.)

              Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong.

            2. p=have terminal cancer
              q=will die within 5 years

              (if) p (is true, which is possible) implies (the necessity of) q


              (it is possible that) q

              (used because I don’t like the phrasing used on wiki, and think this is clearer).

              So it doesn’t do anything unexpected (at least in this case) since it just states that, given that there exists a world in which p is true, q is true.

              But that stuff is opaque, so…

              aka, I agree with Paul W.

          2. That appears to be the tactic to me too. If you don’t understand modal logic, you lose the argument by default, ergo Jesus.

            I can respect that Plantinga is an intelligent person. After all, he appears to understand and properly use modal logic. But the ontological argument is still only as credible as its premises are, and that is still true for Plantinga’s version, and its greatest weakness. Which, as far as I understand it, Plantinga more or less acknowledges.

            It still feels like he’s trying to distract us from that by the dazzle of his modal logic, though.

            1. That appears to be the tactic to me too. If you don’t understand modal logic, you lose the argument by default, ergo Jesus.

              Yes. I’ve shown a couple of these modal logic proofs of God to a couple of logician colleagues, and they were simply aghast at the abuses of their precious subject.

              It does seem to very much be a tactic that relies on the fact that few philosophers of religion really understand modal logic well enough to spot how the conclusion is being sneaked into the premises.

    2. Perhaps philosophers are impressed with Swinburne

      I don’t think they are, or with Plantinga, or with any of the other “philosophers” that believers trot out. Like all apologists, these writers are there to convince the convinced. I don’t think that these folks are considered philosophers by actual academics any more than Ayn Rand is.

      1. That is my impression as well, from several philosophers at several schools.

        As I understand it, most philosophers think that these guys are crackpots. Some use the phrase “Plantinga’s Lament” when joking about the difficulty of sneaking your conclusions into your premises. 🙂

        Unfortunately, sectarian schools provide a sort of affirmative action for this kind of crackpot. Most of them can’t get jobs at secular schools, but may get hired at a Christian one, where they like that kind of crazy. (Many philosophers at Christian schools think this stuff’s crazy too, but it’s often harder for them to take a stand against it.)

        As philosophical crackpots go, they’re relatively employable, and there’s not much other philosophers can do about that.

    3. I like Jesus and Mo’s take on Plantiga (http://www.jesusandmo.net/2008/02/22/raft/)

      He (Plantiga) does trot out the Sensus Divinatus idea and basically says that the feeling of “knowing” god (my own words for it) is a properly basic thing and therefore real. Something like that, it’s been a while.

      He never produces any evidence for this, and I think I used one of his arguments for god to show that I was god (probably failed somewhere, but basically in an infinite number of universes, it was possible that I was god in one, and since god is maximally powerful or something, it applied to all possible worlds, therefore I was God…something like that).

      I’ll stick to actual evidence.

      1. Ah yes, the Sensus Divinatus, the divinely created sense that lets you experience the one true God. The fact that this sense is clearly broken in at least 80% of people doesn’t make his argument very convincing.

  24. Alston was one of the few philosophers of religion the (very good) philosophy department at my college took seriously when I got a degree in it in the late 1960s. I don’t remember details, but I do remember being impressed with the quality of Alston’s writing(s).

  25. What does this god of Swinburne, and the other analytical philosophers of religion, actually do ?

    Surely if this god did anything that actually effected how the universe works we could (in principle at least) detect such an effect using science. The simple fact is that science does not give us any indication such a god is at work. So what is he up to ? What does he do all day ?

    1. Apparently (according to Swinburnian logic in any event) he gives some people cancer so that other people can feel good about feeling bad that someone else got cancer.

      1. That’s carried/mutated into the New Agey “The universe wanted this to happen so I could learn something…too bad 100 people had to die, but since it’s all about me, it was necessary so I could learn” – ok, the last part is never stated out loud, but the whole idea is there.

  26. The scales have fallen from my eyes!
    The Holocaust was good, because it gave the Jews who survived it an opportunity to convert to Hitler’s religion – Catholicism!
    Yeah, I know I just violated Godwin’s Law, but it doesn’t apply to me. I’ll write a book soon explaining why.

    1. You jest, but I have seen it argued that the holocaust was good for the Jews because it allowed then to show dignity in their suffering.

      If I recall that came from a “sophisticated” theologian.

      1. There’s also the argument that it was part of God’s plan to restore Israel – just as the bible said it would be restored. Therefore, God ‘orchestrated’ the Holocaust in order to effect this very important event for His mysterious purposes.

  27. People, you really should listen to yourselves more carefully. Many – though not all – of these comments sound extremely touchy, suggesting defensiveness or suspiciousness. Perhaps that’s well earned, but do note that it can be inimical to rational thinking. Ditto for the tendency to treat everything atheistic or naturalistic as a foregone conclusion. I’m a philosopher and an atheist, and I suggest we need to try to take this rational thinking thing to a whole new level, where we operate consistently from a love of understanding instead of from a hatred for religion, looking for interesting ideas instead of for bad motives. In Swinburne’s case, we have confirmation theory – in which he’s an expert – applied to theism, and all his occasional sharp philosophical insights (it’s easy to be distracted by his thoughts about evil, but it’s just a bad ad hominem to reason that because someone’s got nasty views on x, what he says about the rest of the alphabet is hogwash and can safely be ignored). In Alston’s case, what we’ve got is a world-class epistemologist applying everything he’s learned to theistic belief. If our aim is understanding, then cooly and rationally we should look at what these, the best among today’s defenders of theism, are saying. And, yes, of course, we should also read Hume and the best among contemporary atheists and naturalists. Interestingly, what you’ll find in the latter case are a number of people who share your moral and metaphysical views but who take Swinburne, et al. very seriously. (I’m thinking in particular of Jordan Howard Sobel in his Logic and Theism and Graham Oppy in Arguing About Gods.) Why do you suppose they do? Might they have seen something respect-worthy to which your anger or suspiciousness has blinded you? *Some* of these people, including Swinburne and Alston, are writers of genuine skill and (in the main) philosophical seriousness, who deserve to be read carefully. And there’s much in their work not directly about God that can be appreciated for its own sake. If we atheists are not just apologetic bloodhounds ourselves, sniffing hard for the slightest sign of vulnerability in our ‘opponent’s’ arguments, maybe we’ll notice this kind of thing.

    1. Perhaps you could do us a flavor and summarize one or two if the best arguments, then?

      I hate to point it out, but all you’ve done in this post is echo the sophisticated theologians in insisting that there really is an elephant in the room while still managing to not actually even point in its general direction.



      1. That’s really not true, Ben. John Schellenberg is suggesting that you take seriously arguments that have been seriously made. And Swinburne, as I do point out below, is apparently accepted as an expert in philosophy of science and induction, and he does apply this expertise to religious beliefs. I wouldn’t start off with the big books though. I’d start off with Is there a God?. I think if you do this, you will not want to go to The Existence of God unless the problem of induction interests you specially.

        Alston may be one of the best around. I do not think, as I suggest below, that religious experience can be made a convincing basis for an epistemological claim about entities such as god. I think Wittgenstein’s private language argument is a convincing counter to this, and cognitive theory of religion seems to me to be decisive. We have good reasons for believing that religious beliefs have their source in the way our cognitive systems function, and, if so, this undercuts Alston’s epistemological claim for the epistemological use of religious experience, and Alston wrote his book before cognitive theory of religion was well underway. I would still like to read Alston’s book, because the question of religious experience is important, and it is still being used uncritically to support religious belief (cf. David Hay, Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit).

        However, I do accept Schellenburg’s point that it is a bit silly simply to dismiss philosophy of religion as something like (I think the comparison is made) philosohy of astrology. There are different issues involved; religion is deeply embedded in our systems of thought, and if we do not think it through, it will think us. And simply dismissing it without argument is as Shook would say, simply know-nothing, and I see no reason why atheists would want to be tarred with the same brush as the Tea Partiers.

        1. I’ll only disagree with you slightly on this point…for a large period of human history, astrology was part-and-parcel of religion.

          The Magi were “following a star”…they were astrologers! They met with Herod and showed him their star charts.

          So, the philosophy of astrology, at least from an historical perspective, is intimate with the philosophy of religion.

          It’s all part of divination. The gods do speak to us, tell us “the plan” and all. However, they only do this obtusely. They never call you on the phone or text when they could have a meteor streak across the sky in a certain direction.

        2. On the contrary, Astrology is the perfect analogy.

          Astrology is the proposition that the positions of celestial bodies at least influence, if not control, human affairs.

          Religion is the proposition that unseen intelligent agents influence, if not control, human affairs.

          Astrology can and has been tested. The tests unanimously reveal no correlation. Further, all theorized causative mechanisms to date (such as gravity) have been demonstrated to be theoretically irrelevant.

          The religious crowd, on the other hand, can’t even offer any sort of way to test their proposition and don’t bother to pretend to offer any source of causality.

          Astrology, like alchemy, can at least be granted the respect of other failed theories. The aether and phlogiston also come to mind, as do epicycles. Religion doesn’t even have that much going for it.

          I’ve yet to come across anything, including from John Schellenberg or you, that yet rises to the level of an argument for religion, so what is there to respect?



          1. Oh, hell, what’s the use? I haven’t made an argument for religion! I won’t make an argument for religion, but I think, still, that the dismissal of philosophy of religion is a silly thing to do. Religion has been a dominating part of human culture. It still is. It needs serious conceptual analysis. It needs careful thought. I think serious analysis and careful thought will show that religion does not satisfy epistemological requirements. It may not even be intelligible, as the Logical Postivists thought. But this is something that has to be shown, not simply said, and that is what philosophy tries to do.

            The other side of this is the fact that, like it or not, religion is embedded in our culture, in our very forms of thought, and if we don’t think about it, it thinks us. Michel Onfray makes this very clear in his book, Atheist Manifesto. The only way this particular prison gets opened is from the inside, and, while it is fine for atheists simply to dismiss religion — hey, I’m not complaining — there are a lot of people trapped in there, and careful thought might help them to get out before they lose their lives to it.

            1. I’ll certainly agree with you that, love it or loathe it, religion is a very important part of the human condition and history.

              However…this particular discussion is about whether or not there are any valid philosophical (or other) reasons to believe that one or more gods are part of the universe.

              Once one has matured enough to realize that the number of gods in the universe is perfectly congruent with the number of faeries at the foot of the garden, there exists an interesting debate on how to help others to similarly grow up. And, on that, I’d flatly disagree with you that engaging with theologians on their own turf is at all productive. Rather, I’d suggest observing that the Bible (e.g.) is a book that opens with a story about a magic garden with talking animals and an angry giant, and it ends with an utterly bizarre zombie fantasy (including the reanimation of putrid corpses, zombie hordes invading Jerusalem, zombies getting their intestines fondled, modern people eating zombie crackers to become zombies themselves, and more).

              Vanishingly few religious ideas deserve respect. Rather, they deserve laughter and contempt. Respecting such idiocy is as counter-productive as “respecting” a teenager’s insistence that Santa and the Tooth Fairy are both real. You’re not doing anybody any favors by coddling poisonous delusions.

              But, back to the original point: this thread was supposed to be about presentation of the best evidence / reasoning / proof / whatever that can be found for a deity. And, unsurprisingly, all we’ve gotten is more of the same old shit wrapped up with an especially colorful bow, with lots of commentary on just how colorful the bow is. Me? I’m just tired of the smell of shit and I really couldn’t give a shit what kind of a wrapper it’s in.



            2. …this thread was supposed to be about presentation of the best evidence / reasoning / proof / whatever that can be found for a deity. And, unsurprisingly, all we’ve gotten is more of the same old shit wrapped up with an especially colorful bow …

              Not so. This was about a “reading assignment,” not about providing the arguments here and now. Do the reading assignment, and then perhaps we can talk. See how atheist philosophers deal with the arguments, say, Michael Martin, if you don’t want to read Swinburne (since Martin discusses some of S’s arguments in detail), but don’t talk about shit in a bow until you’ve done some work!

    2. 1: No tone arguments please.
      2: No arguments from authority please
      3: No fallacious ad-hom-attacks please (“Person A has really fuzzy thinking on subject Ax, so it’s probably not worth my time reading his views on the other modalities of A” really isn’t an ad-hom)
      4: Paragraphs, please!

    3. Interestingly, what you’ll find in the latter case are a number of people who share your moral and metaphysical views but who take Swinburne, et al. very seriously. Why do you suppose they do?

      If I were cynical, I’d say “job security” – they provide the cannon fodder.

      If I were slightly less cynical, I’d say they’re a bit more of a challenge when it comes to the “find the flaw” challenge – it’s hidden by more layers of scholarly language, rather than in plain sight.

      But more seriously, I imagine that the more scholarly philosophers of atheism would want to focus on the best and most scholarly arguments for religion, not on the worst. That does not necessarily make their arguments any good, though (they clearly did not convince you, for example), just better than others.

      I do admit that I am a little puzzled by how strongly you insist that we should read arguments that you believe are failures in the end. After all, you are still an atheist.

      Maybe Swinburne and Alston deserve respect for some of their other work, but that doesn’t automatically make their apologetics worthy of respect too. Like I said, skillful and serious nonsense is still nonsense.

  28. I’m reading the wikipedia page on Swindon. There’s only one thing I can say to mr. too-cowardly-to-be-named: Is this a joke? We are not amused.

    Any person able to formulate the “Principle of Credulity” is not worthy of my time.

    There’s always reason to doubt – people are playing silly buggers all the time. Especially if it puts them in positions of power. Religion, unfortunately, is supreme at putting buggers in positions of power (pardon the bad-taste pun).

    From reading the introduction to Alston, the cornerstone of his argument for god is believers experience of god. If he were correct, we should all be hindus.

    For further reference for mr. noname: If you want me (or anyone else with half a mind or more) to read anyting:

    * Give three to five hash points on the main arguments
    * Clearly stating the basis of the argument
    *And if that is not a falsifiable hypotesis: Give me a damn good reason for reading it

    This is not to be close-minded, this is to avoid reading people going silly buggers with fancy-worded tautologies and other inane crap. If a work has merit, you should be able to summarize. If you are not able to summarize it either means you don’t understand the work good enough to pimp it to others or it means the person writing is playing silly buggers.

  29. And what the hell is a “sophisticated” argument, anyway? An argument is either factually and logically valid or it is not, regardless of the diabolically subtle forensics involved. In fact, one must beware any argument that violates Occam’s Razor.

  30. First, I think I have said from time to time that theology is not the real issue here, since theology as such is always confessional. Philosophical theology, or philosophy of religion, is what Dawkins is doing, effectively, though some would argue that he does not do it well. He certainly oversimplifies, but then he wasn’t writing a philosophy of religion, but giving a fairly terse account of the philosophical arguments as he understood them, and why he thought them uncompelling.

    It is wrong, however, as some here have suggested, that philosophy of religion is merely smoke and mirrors, or puff the magic dragon kind of stuff. Philosophy of religion, which often concludes that there is no god or gods, is an attempt to deal reflectively with religious belief, and it is silly to dismiss it as sophistry. That means that atheists who do philosophy of religion are simply sophists, that is, in Plato’s or Socrates’ terms, trying to make the weaker argument sound the strongest. It is a genuine philosophical endeavour to understand what religious language is about, and whether there is an epistemological basis for claiming knowledge of the kinds of beings posited by religion.

    Second, if Richard Swinburne is the best philosopher of religion around, I’ll eat my hat! Before diving into his big tomes, The Coherence of Theism and The Existence of God, which is a two volume argument, start with his more popular Is there a God?. I promise you that you will not want to read the two volume argument. His theodicy, or “solution” to the problem of evil is grotesque and laughable (if it were not so silly and cruel). I am told that his book on Baysian probability theory is a classic, but I am no judge of such things. Nor can I say how sound he is on philosophy of science, though some people think the first four chapters of The Existence of God, which deal with science and induction, are a locus classicus.

    Third, I have heard of, though I have not read Alston’s book on religious experience. I do not think that religious experience provides any basis for religious belief. I say that on the basis of what psychology/anthropology/cognitive science is now saying about the nature and origin of religious belief (Boyer, Tremlin, Atran, etc.). Though Alston’s book might be interesting, it does not seem to me possible to show that religious experiences are perceptual in any way, and therefore qualify as evidence for the objectivity of the experience. If we could be independently assured of the existence of a god or gods, then perhaps experiences might be coordinated with that assurance, but I do not think that we can be independently assured of the existence of god or gods, and without that the experiential argument is simply treading water.

    I am concerned that the suggestions that you have been given, Jerry, are both by believing philosophers, and it seems to me that, if you are going to read philosophy of religion at all, you must add unbelieving philosophers to the mix. Despite the way that he was expoited in old age, Antony Flew’s God and Philosophy, though an introductory book, is really still the best. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are still very important. Alvin Plantinga (another believing philosopher) is very rigorous, and does some fancy tricks with logic, but his conclusions are often so contra-intuitive and sometimes simply wacky that I question the value of his work. Others would no doubt disagree. But Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, though somewhat arid, is very thorough. There are lots more, but I should not start with either Swinburne or Alston. Just my humble judgement.

    1. It is wrong, however, as some here have suggested, that philosophy of religion is merely smoke and mirrors, or puff the magic dragon kind of stuff. Philosophy of religion, which often concludes that there is no god or gods, is an attempt to deal reflectively with religious belief, and it is silly to dismiss it as sophistry.

      I believe it is more and more recognized that it can be dismissed as simply wrong.

      Scientists are the ones dealing with existential questions, if an observation/object/process exist. There are basically two ways to do that (which are interleaved and iterated):

      1) Make an observation that deviates from the expected. From there, ascertain that something unexpected exist and start to elucidate its nature.

      2) Make a prediction from existing theory of a new type of observation. From there, ascertain that something unexpected exist and start to elucidate its nature.

      Both ways depend on testing existence, or its a non-starter. Hence philosophy on existential questions are not only a dead end, it was always a no go.

      To further see this, recognize the time scales: in science a few years to decades typically suffice to make a stillborn subject dropped, theology & philosophy both has been at it for millenniums without any observations to show for it.

      1. I believe it is more and more recognized that it can be dismissed as simply wrong.

        This is, I am afraid, not true. Certainly, in philosophy, there is still a very active conversation going on. While scientists sometimes scorn the philosophy of science, there are interesting logical and conceptual issues involved in science, which philosophers try to sort out. In the same way, the religious project raises all sorts of ocnceptual problems, from the concept of god itself, to other issues pertaining to religious beliefs and their credibility. As John Schellenberg points out above, the fact that Richard Swinburne is a well-regarding philosopher of science, the application of this to religious belief is bound to have some genuine interest. I do not think it is compelling. In fact, there are many atheist or agnostic philosophers of religion: John Schellenberg, obviously, Richard Gale, Terence Penelhum, Nicholas Everitt, Anthony Kenny, Antony Flew (before he was nobbled by the religious, who exploited him in his old age), Kai Nielsen, etc. Its a very active field, and should not be simply dismissed in a peremptory and know-nothing way.

        As to philosophy and existential questions, there is philosophy of science, cognitive science and its associated philosophy, philosophy of biology, not to mention existential philosophy itself with addresses itself to question of human existence, phenomenology, etc.

        1. As to philosophy and existential questions, there is philosophy of science, cognitive science and its associated philosophy, philosophy of biology, not to mention existential philosophy itself with addresses itself to question of human existence, phenomenology, etc.

          The question that this raises for me, though, is this: is there any convergence to a consensus detectable within philosophy? To the uninitiated, it seems that there is mostly divergence, as your enumeration seems to confirm.

          1. Of course, the first thing to understand about philosophy is that it does not come to the kinds of conclusion that we expect of science. It is an ongoing process of conceptual analysis and clarification. There are convergences, if by that you mean nodes around which philosophers tend to gather. But in philosophy there is a range of options, and within that range argument, disagreement, clarification, etc. continues to take place. Since philosophers, as Robert Nozick points out, are experts at detecting faults in arguments, this is an ongoing process, but along the way much gets done and is clarified. However, I’m not sure this is the place to defend philosophy as such. The point about philosophy and its relationship to religion is that it does help us to understand what it is that religion is claiming, or it can force religious believers to achieve some clarity about what it is that they believe, so that we can judge whether or not such beliefs can stand up to rigorous questioning and analysis.

            For example, many religions use the concept of revelation, but theologians themselves, in philosophical mode, have tortured this concept until, in many ways, though the religious still talk in these terms, it is arguable that the idea of revelation is inapplicable to the claims that religious people make. Religious people who are at least intellectually aware, should be dealing more critically with this fundamental concept, and they very often do not.

            In any event, enumeration alone cannot imply either divergence or convergence. There are convergences, however, and philosophy of mind and consciousness is working within a very narrowing range of divergences, if absolute convergence has not been achieved. In philosophy, that is perhaps a “bridge” too far, but that does not invalidate the process, because the process is itself a matter of conceptual analysis and clarification.

            Interestingly enough, in their new book, which starts on its first page by saying “Philosophy is dead,” Hawking and Mlodinow are doing philosophy much of the time. Their concept of ‘model-dependent realism’, for example, is a philosophical, not a scientific construct.

            1. However, I’m not sure this is the place to defend philosophy as such.

              I don’t know about that. We have here philosophers that insist that we as atheists should study certain works of philosophy. But not because they are a serious challenge to atheism (as those same philosophers reassure us). It seems to me, then, that we are told to study them for the sake of understanding philosophy better. In that case, the merits of philosophy are not besides the point.

              Of course, the first thing to understand about philosophy is that it does not come to the kinds of conclusion that we expect of science.

              I would like to believe you, but the works of Swinburne and other apologists do claim to come to a conclusion. So do many works that defend an atheist worldview.

              But I get your point that philosophy can help develop tools for understanding complex issues. Although my girlfriend thinks I’m being too charitable 😉

            2. This is silly Deen, and you know it. Serious arguments are a serious threat if they’re not answered seriously. That’s the whole point of critical/sceptical thought. If you think it’s just as easy as saying ‘Boo!’ then the religious win the argument, because you’re not even trying. That may not convince you, but it will convince someone else. You take human thought seriously, even when you disagree, or you lose. It’s just that simple.

            3. You take human thought seriously, even when you disagree, or you lose. It’s just that simple.

              Oh, I agree. But I only have limited time, so at some point I’m going to leave the esoteric details to the experts. I do that with climate science and evolution too. Why not with philosophy?

            4. Absolutely, you won’t get an argument from me on that. Leave it to them. But, in the meantime, don’t suppose, as some people here seem to, that the philosophy is just a waste of time. Philosophy is refined common sense, but the refinement is important.

    2. Though Alston’s book might be interesting, it does not seem to me possible to show that religious experiences are perceptual in any way, and therefore qualify as evidence for the objectivity of the experience

      If they do, then there is also plenty of evidence that there are aliens who take far too much interest in probing our posteriors, and that the CIA is beaming thoughts into our brains using satellites whose transmissions can only be blocked by tinfoil hats.

    3. Philosophy of religion, which often concludes that there is no god or gods, is an attempt to deal reflectively with religious belief, and it is silly to dismiss it as sophistry

      When it comes to how religion affects lives and how it propagates? Yeah, you’re right, philosophy of religion is not sophistry. Note that those include measurable effects.

      Existence of god? Notsoumuch, it’s pure sophistry there.

      1. What is this supposed to mean?

        Existence of god? Notsoumuch, it’s pure sophistry there.

        Philosophy of religion is not composed only of proofs for the existence of gods. It is also composed of arguments claiming to show that those proofs are unsuccessful. Why this odd idea that philosophy is a part of religion? It addresses itself to all sorts of things, from religion, morality, science, to questions about aesthetics, the good life, etc. etc. There is a very strange notion of philosophy being expressed in this thread, and one wonders whether this is just ignorance of what philosophers do, or a cavalier kind of dismissal of things simply because they are not understood.

          1. Well, yes, but my point still is that the arguments for the existence of god or gods, and arguments designed to show that these arguments are not successful are also philosophy of religion.

        1. There is a very strange notion of philosophy being expressed in this thread, and one wonders whether this is just ignorance of what philosophers do, or a cavalier kind of dismissal of things simply because they are not understood.

          I’d also put some of the blame on philosophy itself. Especially the apologetic philosophers reinforce the stereotype that philosophers are people who spend their time trying to find arguments that will prove what they already believe is true. The fact that the rest of philosophy appears to insist we take those apologists seriously doesn’t help much.

          1. That’s simply a canard. I know of no stereotype of philosophers who are just engaged in apologetics. Where does this stereotype exist? Can you give me examples of it?

            1. I don’t think I was making myself clear. I was referring to the stereotype of philosophy in general, the stereotype that philosophy is mostly people who produce BS from their armchair, but obscure it with fancy scholarly language. I’m sure you can find examples of that attitude on this very page (and if not, someone will likely post it soon).

              I know this is not a fair image of philosophy, but if anything seems to come close to it, it is apologetic philosophy.

        2. “It is also composed of arguments claiming to show that those proofs are unsuccessful. ”

          Why they are unsuccessful? No evidence! No evidence! No evidence! Philosophy is the know-nothing position. It insist on NOT checking ideas against facts when it can easily be done.

          1. Eric, I’d like to hear your opinion on this issue. I always feel that “no evidence” is sufficient for countering any claim about god. It follows that philosophy or theology is completely useless. But apparently you don’t agree. What is the problem with the of “no evidence” trump card? Is there any philosophical reason to not use evidence as the sole justification for existence?

            1. Have you read any philosophy of science, particularly (given this blog’s content) philosophy of biology? To claim that there’s no evidence in the work of Elliott Sober, or Michael Ruse, or David Hull (a philosopher who was once president of the Society for Systematic Biology) is simply ignorant.

  31. Hitch said:

    “…Swinburne happens to sit in the philosophy department but he is an apologist. Here is his own statement of purpose:


    All the central questions of philosophy.
    The meaning and justification of the central claims of Christianity.”

    Yep, it’s apologetics disguised as philosophy….”

    Another stealth creationist on the school board. (He has a degree in Theology)

    Let me guess – Christian Theologians have long been considered properly part of Philosophy departments?

  32. Swinburne? Haven’t we buried that spontaneous abortion of argument already?

    Everyone, and I mean everyone, laughs at Swinburne: here is a computer scientist laughing at his “mind-numbingly stupid math” from a “this mind-bogglingly stupid article” containing “one of the dumbest pseudo-mathematical arguments that I’ve ever seen”:

    [One of Swinburne’s abuses of bayesian math, inverting burden of evidence in the process]

    “Where to start with shredding this? Is it even worth the effort?

    By a similar argument, I can say that probability of pink winged monkeys flying out of my butt is one in two: that is, either they will fly out of my butt, or they won’t. The probability that those monkeys will fly to the home of this Oxford professor and pelt it with their feces is one in two. If pink winged monkeys fly out of my butt, that’s an argument for the likelyhood of a fecal attack on his home by flying pink monkeys.

    Do I really need to continue this? I don’t think so; I’d better go stock up on monkey food in my bathroom.”

    It is Russell’s orbiting teapot or the FSM, but with the evidence-shifting assumption that since we can imagine them they likely exist.

    But if Swinburne can discuss (a perversion of) bayesian probabilities as the best argument for religion, why can theologists dismiss Dawkins’ frequentist likelihood discussion out of hand as a bad argument? (Especially since Dawkins discuss Swinburne.)

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  33. I have Alson’s book but haven’t cracked it yet. My understanding however is that both Alston and Swinbourne are committed Christians whose arguments do operate from a presuppositional ground.

  34. http://users.ox.ac.uk/~orie0087/pdf_files/General%20untechnical%20papers/The%20Existence%20of%20God.pdf

    This is a lecture that Swinburne gave on the existence of God where he addresses some of the ideas he has in his book. Here’s a teaser from the introduction of his speech.

    “Why believe that there is a God at all? My answer is that to suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why humans have the opportunity to mould their characters and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ‟s life, death and resurrection; why throughout the
    centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with an guided by God, and so much else. In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience, and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.”

    I read a chapter of Swinburne’s book “Is there a God” entitled “Why God allows evil.” He argues that it is a good thing that each of us have the real ability to either harm or help other human beings. He suggests that some suffering would allow “greater virtues” (courage, heroism, sympathy) to rise. He dismisses the idea that there is excess suffering in the world because, he states, God has put safeguards into our existence including human pyschology and physiology and the “shortness of our finite life.” In other words, because our bodies are unable to experience infinite pain, and because we can’t suffer for an infinite amount of time, we skeptics can’t suggest there is excess suffering for the God Hypothesis. Convinced?

    1. Doesn’t this contradict his god’s teachings? Doesn’t the good lord preach of a place of infinite pain for those who are naughty (or simply a part of the majority of people who have lived who never got to hear the good message of salvation from the pain he made himself)?

      – oh – I forgot – that’s one of the parts “sophisticated theology” has done away with. Too bad the message hasn’t gotten through to the common faithhead.

      And to argue from the common perception of believers would be *crass* of us. My oh my!

        1. Yes, that claim told me pretty much all I needed to know about the quality of his arguments. We don’t have good evidence that he even existed — that he was revivified after death is “well-authenticated”? Seriously?

    2. “…why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ‟s life…”


      I’m sorry, that’s the wrong answer. Next contestant please.

      Swinburne is obviously nothing more than a desperate christian attempting to hide from the glare by wrapping himself in a cloak of something called ‘Analytical Philosophy’ (i.e. crap).

      If I did happen to have a copy of Swinburne’s book I’d bury it with PZ’s bible and koran.

      1. I would have waited to *bzzzt* him out of the game until after he had mentioned the whole resurrection bit. I think it somewhere between reasonably possible and reasonably probable that some apocalyptic Jewish teacher named Jesus lived and died in the 1st century.

    3. So he considered “goddidit” to be an explanation? And an intellectually satisfying one at that? Jesus, any first grader should be able to see the flaws in that thinking. This is the same tripe reheated that you can find from any creationist website. Theology is stupid and indefensible, even when bright minds waste their time with it.

  35. As a PhD student in a philosophy related program, I endorse the comments of your ‘secret’ philosopher completely. (That should not be taken to imply that I think you should reveal who the person is, but I would think he or she wouldn’t mind.) I haven’t read all the comments, but if the latter ones are like the first few, they quite frankly are uninformed at best, ignorant at worst. Good, analytical philosophical thought is a truly wonderful think, and it is a part of this debate that has been shunted aside, in part by you scientists–and I do NOT mean that to be demeaning. You do what you do very well–I envy you–but those trained in science can rarely reach the level of engaging with the philosophical thought of a trained philosopher. Nor do I mean to endorse a “philosophy is the queen of the sciences” approach. I do not. Still, if you have not read Sellars, or Quine, or Nozick (and I don’t mean just on this issue), I believe you are missing something important. To that small, two-membered list of pro-God books, I add J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism.

    Just a quick example of my point. Take Francis Crick. Now, in a purely naturalistic way, I revere Crick. As a part time historian of science, I spend some time studying his work, that whole episode, his turn to neuroscience, etc. Wow. His wonderful book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, is an important book that I assign in my classes. But that book is written, from the standpoint of careful philosophical reasoning, with a ham-fist, as compared, say, to something by Searle, Lycan, or Fodor. (Ok, maybe not Fodor, at least not the recent stuff.) Or Nozick, though that wasn’t his main issue.

    Contentious, yes, of course. But it is this way in the philosophy of religion as well. Those of us who read and loved the Dawkins book on this, the Hitchens book, and others, for their many wonderful insights and contributions, are frankly a bit–gosh, not ashamed–but, well, we find the attention to argument detail (on which truth so often hangs) notably lacking. Even Dennett, much as I read and appreciate him, does philosophy in a somewhat different way that, on this issue at least, often takes him out of the camp of analytic philosophy of religion. That’s ok–I don’t think that an phil of rel is the only word on this subject; my point is that it is simply overlooked, by both sides, in this debate.

    Nozick was one of the best philosophers and writers I have ever read. When one disagrees with him, as I so often do, it is immediately clear why. Read his Invariances, the first section, where he lays out so clearly the role of the philosopher in the (then) 20th century. It should be something every post-Sellarsian, post-Quinean philosopher should be able to recite verbatim–even if they disagree with it. Read Nozick’s chapter on consciousness, then read Crick on the same topic, and see if I’m not right. Both brilliant, but part of the point of Crick’s Astonishing Hypothesis was to play on philosophical turf.

    Frankly, one does not have to look very far to find brilliant scientists saying ignorant things about philosophy. Weinberg. Feynman (who said if his son came to him and wanted to be a garbageman, he would say, How can I help? But that if his son came and said he wanted to be a philosopher, he would be appalled. That’s not a quote, but close to the idea.) I can think of others in a few minutes, but want to end this email. You know what I mean.

    1. Good, analytical philosophical thought is a truly wonderful think

      And what is your evidence that Swinburne and Alston are “good analytical philosophy” about theism?

      1. Come on Tulse, John Schellenberg, who is a philosopher, is telling you that, as philosophers, they’re worthwhile reading. Read them and find out. Alston is a well-known philosopher and did not deal only with religious issues. Much of his expertise lies in epistemology or theory of knowledge, so his application of this to religious should at least be of some interest.

          1. Keep in mind thatthis thread is about recommended reading, not necessarily the arguments in the suggested works.

            No fair saying no fair.

            On the other hand I think it would be fine to politely request that people give some idea what kind of argument they find particularly interesting, and why, even if they don’t find it convincing.

            I, for one, am curious why people recommend Swinburne. I’ve only read a little bit of his stuff, because I ran into what I thought were patently goofy arguments and stopped.

            What did I miss?

            1. I am not myself impressed by Swinburne. I think he lets his apologetic hat dominate too often. I also find his style somewhat stultifying. I’d choose someone else.

          2. Not an argument from authority. If a philosopher tells you that something is worthwhile reading, as philosophy, then its an opinion that has some reasonable standing. If, of course, you find that his recommendations often turn out to be duds, then you would reassess your opinion of his ability to judge what philosophical works are worthwhile reading. Nothing to do with authority, except in so far as a philosopher presumably has some worthwhile opinions about philosophy, just as Jerry could tell us whether A, B or C, by biologists A, B and C are worthwhile reading, or whether we should perhaps read something else.

            1. No, it’s bloody argument from bloody authority.

              If he actually deigns to step down from whatever buttocks of Plato he is riding on and tell my why I should read it, it’s not. Not one of the “you should read it” crowd in this tread has done that so far IMHO

            2. Well, yes he did. Schellenberg told you that Alston had done a great deal of work in epistemology, and that he had put this to good use in his book on religious experience. That’s at least a reason for reading the book, whehther or not you agree with it. And whether or not you agree with it, it might be worth while reading, because, in philosophy, you learn as much or more from people you disagree with, because you are yourself doing philosophy, and clarifying your own thinking and developing your own arguments. You can very bearishly insist that it’s just an argument from bloody authority, if you like, but just saying so doesn’t make it so, I’m afraid.

            3. Again, you are basing it on him being a philosopher, and us giving a rats ass about how much work he has done on whatever.

              It’s never the quantity of work, it’s the quality. And when you’re trying to asses a duty for us to read something you ought to bring something more to the table to establish that quality.

              A quick look at his opening remarks screams “utter bullocks” to me, so it better be convincing too.

            4. TheBear,

              I think at least one of us is missing some context, and now I realize it’s at least partly me.

              In the earlier CFI thread, Jerry asked what the good new theology is, and several people commented that they’d like reading recommendations of the supposedly good stuff—they (we) want to know what the experts consider to be the “sophisticated” theology that apologists and accommodationists mention so much, but don’t generally point out specifically.

              (See the stuff hanging off Juha Savolainen’s comment #1. Juha asks for a Five Best list of theological works.)

              I thought Jerry was one of those people asking for recommended readings from “experts” on theology, and not necessarily the actual arguments.

              I think now I was mistaken; I had misremembered Jerry as saying or agreeing with Juha.

              At any rate, the “Best Theology” reading recommendations may have been a response to that discussion, even though Jerry himself didn’t actually ask. That’s how I took it.

            5. BTW, TheBear, one of the reasons I took Jerry as being interested in reading recommendations is that he said in the OP above that he does read theology, and also that he will read the two books recommended by a philosopher.

              Clearly Jerry, like some others of us, is interested in reading the supposedly “good” and “sophisticated” theology, according to the expert consensus, if there is one.

              Given that, I think it’s reasonable for people to recommend particular works without necessarily being willing to defend the particular arguments in them.

              It’s also reasonable for you to be skeptical they’re actually worth reading.

              My own guess is that there is no consensus. Theology generally doesn’t converge to a consensus.

              Ideally, we’d have a serious survey of theologians and philosophers of religion, and come up with a top ten list of most recommended “sophisticated” theology.

              Failing that, I’d be interested in seeing if a pattern emerges among recommendations here.

              Besides, we have Google. I thought the recommendation of Swinburne got some interesting responses.

            6. I don’t know if you are dense or simply dishonest.

              Jerry of course will read what he wants. He says he will read the books in the op, and I haven’t seen a single person in this thread saying he shouldn’t. If Jerry wants to waste his time that is his business.

              What people are saying is that these two guys look like utter bollocks at a cursory glance and there is no good argument presentet to why we should read those.

              In this context a couple of guys goes “You should totally read him because someone who claims to have training in philosophy says so” (my pharaphrase – not entirely fair – but that’s the gist of my perception of your “arguments”)

              If this isn’t argument from authority what is?

              As to what I would see as a vaild argumentation, see my # 32. It might be that I’m to strict, but then you should rather attack that.

              As for Jerry recommending something:
              Firstly I would excpect Jerry to say slightly more that just “because I sez”, secondly – through his work I personally feel I know and trust Jerry somewhat, so even if he didn’t I would at least give them a glance.

              For me to say to someone else, not familiar with Jerrys work, to read those books would of course be wrong.

        1. Come on Tulse, John Schellenberg, who is a philosopher, is telling you that, as philosophers, they’re worthwhile reading

          And mathematicians have told me that Swinburne’s Bayesian argument profoundly misunderstands and misuses Bayesian probability. So who am I to believe?

          And, more specifically, John didn’t say that he had read Swinburne or Alston, nor did he offer an opinion on them — I took his arguments to be far more a general defence of the utility of philosophy. I am genuinely curious if he thinks that Swinburne and Alston represent good analytical philosophy of religion.

          1. I don’t know. If it’s important to you, read Swinburne and find out. If it’s not, ignore Swinburne. It’s quite frankly not important to me. I don’t think Bayesian probability is very useful in religious argument. Nicholas Beale of the blog Starcourse has convinced me of that. He uses it in the most shamelessly apologetic fashion.

    2. No, they’re not.

      Evidence comes first, quit with the words. No handwaving, no matter how “sophisticated” will convince anyone here.

    3. I am going to give them both a shot, “And really *read* it”, just so I can see why they have been suggested as the place to start.


    4. Good, analytical philosophical thought is a truly wonderful think, and it is a part of this debate that has been shunted aside

      No, it hasn’t. Let’s begin with the first “sophisticated argumentation about God’s existence”: Richard Swinburne. As documented in the comments above, Swinburne’s “contribution” is a really bad mixture of the misapplication of Bayes’ rule and the “principle of indifference” (or Laplace’s aptly named “principle of insufficient reason“)—a well-known logical fallacy based on an argument from ignorance that leads to all sorts of obvious paradoxical and contradictory results.

      How can anyone with a background in philosophy or even basic logic begin to take any of Swinburne’s glaring nonsense seriously?! Using Bayes’ rule to compute the probability that god exists or that Jesus is his son? Are you fricking serious? Swinburne’s writing is full of drooling imbecilities that can be dismissed out-of-hand by anyone with basic knowledge of logic and logical fallacies. Swinburne’s Bayesian arguments—and the people that point to them approvingly—deserve nothing the harshest derision and scornful laughter.

      How, specifically, has Richard Swinburne really offered a “sophisticated argumentation about God’s existence”?

    5. You do what you do very well–I envy you–but those trained in science can rarely reach the level of engaging with the philosophical thought of a trained philosopher.

      You are so right, the hemming on the emperor’s robe is absolutely of the highest artisanship!

    6. But that book is written, from the standpoint of careful philosophical reasoning, with a ham-fist, as compared, say, to something by Searle…

      Is that John Searle to whom you refer? The John Searle who could never understand the gaping holes in his Chinese room analogy which so many critics have pointed out?

    7. What you say is, or may be, true, but I think the problem many people here have with philosophy of religion is the lack of empirical content, and that lack of empirical content is not improved or obviated by the increase in the sophistication of the thinking. And even a sophisticated thinker like Swinburne is apparently fudging his math and shifting the burden of proof. Will his extra sophistication cancel out these problems?

      I’ve come to think that philosophy is simply no help. I’ve seen convincing defenses of, for example, the kalam cosmological argument, and convincing refutations. Those refutations then offer new material to convincing defenses/counter-refutations, which themselves are then vulnerable to new attack, defense, etc. These arguments only fill libraries, they don’t solve anything either way. Language is too imprecise in the end for it to be any other way.

      It will be empirical neuroscience that solves (or not) the mystery of consciousness (for example). Philosophy will at best be a handmaiden along the way; it will not lead the way as it once might have done before neuroimaging and other technical advances.

    8. So. The issue here, I think, is when is enough enough.

      It seems to me that all of the philosophy in defense of religion being done today has an air of desperation to it.

      In this specific instance, it seems to me that what’s being played here is a game. Philo (if I can be forgiven for naming our philosopher), in this instance, is saying that until you’ve read these particular philosophers, your education isn’t complete.

      The implication is clear; because you’re not a believer, you have to be compelled to read about belief until you believe.

      If I were a believer, no one would propose that I can’t continue to believe in the absence of their opinion. But as a non-believer, I have to consider these arguments in addition to all of the arguments that have gone before.

      And if I reject those arguments either through deep study or out-of-hand (frankly, even a synopsis of Swinburn tells me it’s nothing new or even interesting), what I’ll be given is yet another authority to read and reflect upon.

      Until I convert. At which time, my study will be deemed adequate.

      It’s the one-way street implicit in Philo’s e-mail that I think most object to.

      Most of us live our lives without the desire, need, or time to constantly re-think our position vis-a-vis the supernatural. Those of us who reject the supernatural have probably done so through often-painful processes that involved study and deep thinking.

      Philo is arguing that we should continue to reject our own conclusions unless we come to a conclusion that is in concordance with his conclusions.

      Tautology, meet circular argument.

      Again, to me, it seems like nothing more than a demand that we convert to a specific form of religious belief on the basis of argument from authority. With a never-ending supply of authorities to draw upon in case we reject this specific authority and his/her arguments.

      At the risk of being considered trite and repetitive, what unbelievers are asking for is something else.

      Bringing an endless supply of arguments and arguers to the table won’t change the fact that there is not one single shred of evidentiary support behind those arguments. And that until we start applying some rigor to the arguments in terms of observation and evidence, we’re left with baseless assertions.

      And unless you want me to live my life based on what I read in each morning’s astrology column, I’m afraid that just isn’t enough.

      1. If I were a believer, no one would propose that I can’t continue to believe in the absence of their opinion.

        Exactly. This kind of “philosophy” is nothing but apologetics. Surely if this work were necessary to truly understand the Christian god, it would be taught from the pulpit to the 99.999% of believers who conceive of their god as something like a powerful Santa Claus.

        1. Two possible non-contradictory answers:

          1. To offer counter-arguments to the theist position, so as to not have a playing field with no opponents.
          2. To sell books, earn fame and fortune, get on all the talk shows (except Oprah), and and and.

          Fundamentally, it’s about demonstrating to others that you’re *right*. Yes, there’s more than a little ego involved. But the stakes are pretty high. Saving the world and all that.

    9. Hmm, that’s a lot of name-dropping. I disagree that Nozick’s writing on faith has any particular merit (argument of God’s culpability in ethics in his Philosophical Explanations, chapter on the nature of god and faith in the examined life,…), but I rather have you explain why you think it’s worthwhile before I state my objections.

      Enthusiasm and appeal to authority doesn’t count as an argument.

      Nor does “you scientists” count as argument that people indeed are uninformed or have poorer arguments.

    10. I am very strongly reminded of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.

      In the novels, there are highly intelligent computer Minds. These Minds, being very intelligent, tend to spend a whole lot of their time simulating and exploring alternative universes; they find this theoretical endeavor stimulating in a way that reality simply isn’t.

      Philosophy is like that to me. As far as I can tell, all you guys are out there in the Land of Infinite Fun whipping up huge artifacts of hyperbole and induction, but fundamentally the whole structure has only the vaguest, most tenuous link to reality.

      Why should I believe that philosophy is of use, when it has historically not been of use? I mean, even weird, far out mathematics like imaginary numbers or quaternions ends up being practical at some point; when has philosophy ever done the same?

      1. In the only instances where a philosopher has claimed (to me) of such positive uses for philosophy, in every single case, it has been only to clean up a previous mess placed in the road of progress by previously erroneous philosophy.
        So far: no instances of where any philosophy has de novo created anything of lasting utility.

    11. “As a PhD student in a philosophy related program, I endorse the comments of your ‘secret’ philosopher completely. (That should not be taken to imply that I think you should reveal who the person is, but I would think he or she wouldn’t mind.)”

      How could anyone pursuing a degree in philosophy think that his endorsement of some anonymous individual’s opinions could possibly imply that this individual’s identity should be revealed? Unless, of course, this individual no longer needs anonymity because his ideas have received approbation by a fellow esteemed philosopher.

  36. Swinburne, Swinburne… oh wait, you mean this guy [sadly, this post seems not to have transferred to GMBM’s new new home at Scientopia]? Jebus H Christ…

    Not familiar with the other guy; maybe he’s not as mind-numbingly stupid as Swinburne?

  37. Of vaguely related interest I would say, I recall reading 10 years ago, Europe: Was it Ever Really Christian? The Interaction Between Gospel and Culture
    by Anton Wessels. The title says it all.

  38. Some of Swinburne’s writing on the topic of substance dualism (which he is a defender of, no surprise there) is available on the web; it’s pretty impressively bad.

    I’ve found that looking at a philosopher-apologist’s arguments on the subject of substance dualism is a pretty good shortcut when deciding whether to take them seriously or not. Do they address the evidence, or simply resort to appeals to personal identity or the arguments of pre-scientific philosophers?

  39. I’ll add that, as a scientist, I’m dubious that any argument for God’s existence can be convincing without some empirical evidence.

    Bullseye. Arguments untethered to data can prove nothing about the real world. A believer desiring comfort and confirmation may find such arguments affirming and comforting. But, so what?

    I’m going to repeat my summary of the arguments for gods:

    1. I just feel it

    2. It provides me comfort/world-view/social support/social cohesion

    3. My holy book tells me it

    4. My authority (priest, pope, guru, whatever) tells me it

    5. Many people have believed the same and sacrificed for it

    6. God had to have created/designed the universe and life (I can’t understand any other explanation)

    7. You can’t disprove it

    8. Necessity (there has to be: A “greatest” thing or a “first cause”)

    The only even mildly convincing or rational one I’ve ever seen is: You can’t disprove a deistic sort of creator god who starts things off and then retreats forever.

    Well, that’s just not very interesting, it’s not the god people actually believe in (dare you to bring that god up in a mosque in Saudi Arabia or in a fundamentalist church in the US!), and it also provides no reason to believe in any such thing. It just says you can’t disprove it. Well, there are lots of silly things we can’t disprove. (For example, purple and yellow striped, 10,000-pound, flying unicorns living on a planet beyond our event horizon.)

    It just evokes a big yawn from me.

    Lot’s of luck. Like you, I have been goaded by various apologists into wasting far too many of my precious hours on this planet reading bad apologetics.

    How these people can think that any of these arguments will convince a skeptic is beyod me.

    1. JBlilie wrote:
      It just evokes a big yawn from me.

      Exactly. If there’s a more boring subject than “proofs” of the existence of God, I haven’t come across it. Of course, that’s different than the study of religions. We know religions exist. The untold harm they have done and continue to do is well worthy of study.

  40. Okay guys & gals, be gentle and don’t all jump on me at once. I am new to this blogging world though I suspect our struggles w/ regard to a “deity” or “higher power” are or were, occasionally, similar (note -my struggle has been going on since the late ’60s).
    BUT, when I boil it all down to the one irreducible crystal it still comes up: how can anyone on Earth actually KNOW the truth? We can’t test or experiment on a “thing” or a “thought/idea” if we have no way to determine what “it” is if there is no equivalent available to our human/earth-born cognitive abilities.
    In other words,
    I have tried to be 100% atheist but I can’t shake the notion that there are possibly other dimensions or states of being that we cannot or do not have the capacity for knowing in our present form. Can you, with unwaivering trust in your a-theism say that there is definitely NOT “something” out there?

    Okay, let ‘er rip!

    1. Definitely not? You can’t say with 100% certainty that the sun will come up tomorrow.

      What level of certainty do you need?

      There’s so many 9’s on the probability of there not being a god I consider myself atheist. Technically, I’m an agnostic.

      1. That’s pretty much where I am.
        Though I have been confronted by a push on the part of more confident atheists to drop all hesitation and stand up for atheism in toto – I didn’t feel I could.
        I guess i don’t need ANY level of certainty, really. It has no bearing on how I live my life anyway. Just a form of “dorm room pot induced speculation” (kinda judgmental Tulse :P)
        Thanks for the response!

        1. Why do you live your life like you’re going to wake up tomorrow?

          Why don’t you hesitate and live it like it will be your last? After all, it’s not certainty that it won’t be.

          1. Oh no, I don’t at all. I do live as though there are new and exciting things to be learned every time I wake up, though. And I would be withholding to not admit that I have a HUGE amount of curiosity surrounding death (yeah, I know I will be contributing to the carbon emission problems _ cuz i won’t be worm food – when it happens but I still wonder about that whole “last dance”).

            1. But why? There’s no certainty you’re going to wake up.

              The chance of you not waking up tomorrow is much higher than the chance of there being no god. So why do you treat them differently?

        2. You really don’t have to actually talk about it. I’m a far more vocal atheist than my wife; she just brandishes her atheism when religious people won’t leave her alone, and twelve years of Catholic school have given her very sharp teeth.

          In fact, she even pretended to be Lutheran for a while in college in order to work at a nearby preschool 🙂

          So no, there’s really no reason to be an activist or anything, unless you want to. A lot of the people here and on other forums with a reality-based view of the world just do it because the like arguing.

    2. There is no absolute proof of anything. We are all living in a subjective world, and there is no true, faultless intersubjectivity.

      There is only the balance of probabilities. When an atheist says “there is no god” it is usually shorthand for “the balance of probabilities suggests strongly there is no god” – given stronger evidence in the direction of a god most of us would relent.

      Personally though, I find such new evidence about as likely as the sun not rising tomorrow.

    3. Here is the difference between a deist/theist and an epistemic skeptic/agnostic atheist.

      The latter is fine to not know things 100% and does not fill uncertainty with ONE explanation.

      The former dreads uncertainty and has to fill it with one explanation even though many, perhaps infinitely many are thinkable.

      Oh and there are lots of truths that we know with 100% certainty.

      For example that I could respond to your post in a way that is coherent means that I read and had sufficient comprehension of your text. And if I write MONKEY and anybody responds to it, we have encoded an actual truth about perception and human communication that is really beyond doubt.

      We don’t know many things with certainty. But we do know many things. And we certainly do know that no tangible evidence for deities exist, and that lots of indicators point to religious conceptions being man-made.

      Taking stock of the evidence it would be intellectually dishonest to over-weigh the remaining uncertainty. And even if we keep the uncertainty around as we should there is absolutely no warrant to fill it with exactly one explanation.

      1. Well, that’s a relief!
        I shall continue on knowing that I know very little (in the grand scheme…) and striving to learn more and stop worrying about that tiny place in the corner of my brain.
        Besides, it seems to me rather boorish to claim to know the answer to this question to the n’th degree. That would pretty much put me in the same basket as the “believers”, eh?
        Thanks for the response!

    4. how can anyone on Earth actually KNOW the truth?

      C’mon, CandyLiz — that’s at the level of dorm-room pot-induced speculation: “Seriously dude, maybe we’re just a spec on a giant’s toenail! How could we know??!”

      If you want philosophy, it has been quite a long while since philosophers of science thought of “TRUTH” as something that can be known with absolute certainty — all accounts of knowledge these days are at best probabilistic, involving justifications that may shift with further information. In other words, we can’t know anything for certain, but we can get awfully close to certainty.

      Frankly, if the best theists can do is cite the problem of induction, they’ve got deep problems.

    5. CandyLiz,

      First, I’ll observe that we can’t know that Russel’s Teapot doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that we should give it any further thought.

      But, beyond that, it’s essential to ponder what, exactly, it is that you think might be “out there.”

      One might postulate that we’re in a Matrix-style computer simulation and that there are programmers who could play the roles of gods. While that would be a profound discovery, and while it’s impossible to prove that that’s not the case, it’s also irrelevant to the topic. After all, those programmers themselves might be embedded in somebody else’s super-Matrix, in exactly the same position we’re in. And so on ad infinitum.

      That’s one area where the omnipotent Christian God actually comes in handy: as something to disprove.

      Take some time warping your head around this line of iambic pentameter:

      All but God can prove this sentence true.

      If you need help, read up on the popular proofs of Turing’s Halting Problem and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. In the end, you’ll realize that the very concept of “omnipotence” is meaningless, and that Einstein’s painting of a universe with no privileged frames is quite solid.

      So there could conceivably be provincial overlords with dominion over Earth, but we have absolutely no evidence that such is the case. But we can be absolutely certain that any overlords that do exist are entirely provincial and not universal (even if they have large provinces by human scales).

      All the other properties commonly assigned to the Christian God — omniscience, omnibenevolence, primal causality, omnipresence, the rest — can be dismissed with very similar arguments to the one that demonstrates that there is no power of all powers.



      1. I know that you meant “wrapping your head around” but I like “warping” even better!

        Consistency… urp!
        I guess my goal here was to hear from people who have been more fully educated on the subject than myself. When Harris came out with “The End of Faith” it was my first serious foray into the formal “debunking” of religions after decades of keeping quiet on the matter and having no place to discuss any of it (until discovering these blogs) due to being in the “Bible Belt” and afraid of the consequences should my atheism (Yes, I AM!) become known.
        Thank you!

        1. Glad I can help.

          And, yeah, the first time you seriously contemplate diagonalization in this kind of self-referrential form, it usually does warp your brain.

          Do take some time to think through that sentence. It’s pretty bold, after all; the idea behind the Christian God is that he’s supposed to be able to do anything, yet the sentence says he can’t do this thing that everybody else can do. So, what would happen if the Christians are right and he went ahead and did it anyway? And what have you accomplished in the process with this thought experiment?

          If you think it’s just a word game, first (re-)familiarize yourself with the proof that there are more irrational numbers than rational numbers, and then learn how the same basic technique is used to prove the meaninglessness of the phrase, “the set of all sets.” Next, get to know the popular proofs of Turing’s and Gödel’s works that I mentioned, and it that should be all you need to know that this disproof of the existence of “the power of all powers” is as solid as any of the rest.



    6. Well, I’ll let others “rip”.

      However, you’re offering a strawman argument by insisting that you can’t be an atheist unless you’re 100% certain that there is nothing out there. Richard Dawkins claims no such certainty – so I hardly think it’s a definition worth keeping on your part.

      You’re trying to assign a 50-50 probability to something for which the probability is more like 10 billion to 1 against.

      We see no evidence that anything supernatural exists. Despite your “belief” that something “might” be out there, for the past 3,500 years or so of searching, there is not one credible shred of positive evidence in favor of that assertion.

      So. What you’re left with is a vague sense of uncertainty that maybe the last unturned stone might indeed lead to a momentous discovery.

      What most atheists are left with is a the conclusion when you turn the next stone, you’ll get exactly what you’ve gotten previously — the bottom of a stone.

      However, that does not preclude us from changing our minds. But what we ask for is not just a vague sense of “something” — or even a sophisticated philosophical argument. We want the real goods. Evidence that is tangible, observable, repeatable, falsifiable, and unassailable.

      It boils down to this: how do you distinguish between the ineffable supernatural and the merely imaginary? If you can provide a credible means of doing this, you’ll have a shot at convincing others of the soundness of your position.

      Otherwise, you’ll excuse us if we use short-cut language with regard to having seen it and heard it all before. And to not buying into it.

      1. Kevin said:

        It boils down to this: how do you distinguish between the ineffable supernatural and the merely imaginary? If you can provide a credible means of doing this, you’ll have a shot at convincing others of the soundness of your position.

        Oh, I like that! I’m writin’ this shit down …

      2. Nope. I did not say that you cannot be atheist if you’re not 100% certain but I DID ask if there was anyone out there who IS unwaivering in their a-theism.
        I am comforted by the answer that allows me my doubt or my “guess” that there IS the unknowable and that that it is ok or, better put:

        “Taking stock of the evidence it would be intellectually dishonest to over-weigh the remaining uncertainty. And even if we keep the uncertainty around as we should there is absolutely no warrant to fill it with exactly one explanation.”
        (Thanks again, Hitch 😀 )

        1. So, you’ve turned the argument on its head to meet your own biases.

          Again…the likelihood of there being a god or anything supernatural is about 10 billion to 1 against.

          You seem to think that means you can blithely go ahead with your uncritical belief in the possibility of the ineffable.

          The REST of us think that’s childish nonsense. There’s an equivalent chance that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

          I think I’m done here. Because you’re not listening; only turning what we’re saying completely upside down in order to so you can tell your friends “I’m spiritual but not religious”.

          1. Wow. Where did you get all of that?
            How did I “turn the argument on it’s head”?
            And where did you get “spiritual”?
            Just because I accept that there are “unknowables” out there doesn’t mean I believe in the ridiculous (including deities).
            It would seem that you, on the other hand, are unable to accept that you misinterpreted my meaning even after I corrected you – politely – and twisted it for your own purposes. And what those are only you can stand up and take account for.
            Cheers all the same 😀

      3. When it comes to the percentages there is still that “1” all by itself. That is all I was asking about. IMO, I don’t think you should just dismiss it out of hand.
        And you should probably stop sounding like I am giving it some supernatural power – I am just saying that there are unknowables at this stage in human understanding and I wondered how this community of well-read atheists looked at that particular question.
        Thanks anyway.

    7. Candy said:

      “…Can you, with unwaivering trust in your a-theism say that there is definitely NOT “something” out there?”

      That’s the wrong question. (unless the answer is “Of course not and the God is Zeus”)

      The question is why should anyone believe in something for which there is:

      1) No evidence

      2) No need for it’s existence (in order to provide solutions to insoluble questions)?

      It is those who assert a God upon which is rightfully the burden of proof to supply evidence for its existence.

      1. I know that part of the argument. I was asking how you defend your stance if there is that little % point of doubt available. I don’t ask it as a means of confronting theists/deists but as a means to understanding how to overcome my own doubts.
        Thanks for the response!

        1. Look, you were programmed to believe in a god. Then, one day, the programming stopped working.

          However, the idea just doesn’t drop out of your head. Rather, like an insidious virus, it keeps working at you.

          It just takes time to get over those doubts. Though senility and fear can over-come them.

          The mind, while believing itself to be the rational master of it’s destiny, is really quite the cock-up. Willing to believe any old half-baked argument or line of shit when faced with recognizing its inevitable non-existence.

          Just look at Anthony Flew…

          1. So you are 100% cock-sure that there is nothing else?
            My tenacious grip on my skepticism is definitely NOT the last vestiges of a Christian up-bringing – on the contrary – my skepticism is what led me to atheism and will be a part of me ’til I am ashes.

            1. You make me laugh.

              Lots of otherwise very intelligent skeptics share this particular little weasel. In some it’s contrived doubt, in others a false (or real) humility, many others feel the need to be recognized for their “open mindedness.” With some it’s the inability to let go of the final vestiges of their programming and/or fears of personal extinction.

              I’m sure there are other reasons, but those are the ones I encounter the most. Which is why I list them.

              The bottom line, woolly-thinking and pandering others to the contrary, life is full of certainties. You were conceived and born into this world in some fashion. You will die. Those are easy certainties.

              The earth orbits the sun in a complex dance with it and other celestial bodies. This is a certainty, though more complex.

              Those are some of many certainties you will face, willingly or unwillingly, in your life. And if you don’t like certainly, pretend you’re enlightened and call me cock-sure if it makes you feel “superior” in your faux rationalism that’s nothing more than a watered-down, weak-form of Pascal’s wager.

              But there is no god. And I don’t need to pretend there is doubt. I gave that crutch up over 20 years ago.

              But if it makes you happy to be “spiritual” but not religious, or whatever your game is… Hey, whatever floats your boat.

        2. That little (infinitesimal fraction of a) percent of doubt also exists for leprechauns, but I have no problem calling myself an aleprechaunist (well, apart from it being a silly term). The whole point is that all knowledge, even the most certain, comes with that fraction of doubt. That’s just the nature of (non-a priori) knowledge. That doesn’t make questions about the existence of god any more special than questions about Russell’s teapot or invisible pink unicorns or the FSM.

          1. When it comes to man-created supernatural beings I have no problem saying I am 100% sure they do not exist – I was just interested in how others looked at that tiny measure of doubt.

            1. I guess the issue is a sort of binary–if you waver in your atheism, does that mean that sometimes you entertain the idea of a deity or something supernatural? That’s what many of us would probably object to in what you’re saying/thinking/asking. Certainly there can be a lack of certainty…but only if that doesn’t somehow translate into entertaining the idea of a deity or the supernatural.

            2. CandyLiz, you seem to be all over the map with your comments. I can’t tell just what you are trying to say.

              What exactly is the difference between man-made supernatural beings and any kind of religious beliefs?

            3. For me, the same way I look at the doubt for everything else in the universe…a big so what? All it means is that I still question and investigate, and keep myself open to change; until there is evidence, though, the doubt (or rather, uncertainty?) subsides to the “ignore” pile.

              I prefer to believe in things that are evidenced. Doubt keeps us honest.

    8. You’re falling for the burden of proof fallacy if you believe you must prove this type of negative. The burden of proof lies on the positive claimant. For example, if I assert Obama is a Muslim, it is up to me to prove he is a Muslim. It is not up to him to prove he is not.

      So, yes, one can imagine all kinds of things. I can imagine UFOs. But if I claim I was abducted by a UFO, I must prove it to be true and you have no burden to prove it’s false.

      Such is religion. There is no proof that any of the major, remaining, religions are “true” in any real sense of the word “true.” And I have no need to chase intellectual snipes to “disprove” each and every goal-post-moved God-Concept someone can imagine.

      Rather, put of proof. No proof = no god.

      And, no, that’s not “shorthand” for “high probability of no God.” There is no God. There is no tooth fairy. There are no magic faeries to give me cheese and crackers in bed at 2:00AM because I’m feeling peckish… I don’t play that particular weasel game.

  41. Why should I read these books and, indirectly, give money to the authors for almost certainly re-thrashing arguments I’ve heard a hundred times before.

    Do I get my money back if they’re rubbish?

    1. “Do I get my money back if they’re rubbish?”

      They are rubbish. Full stop. If they weren’t, the Nobel Committees would have announced it to the world already.

    2. Oh, I’m sure your local library will have copies. So, it then boils down to the value of your time in reading them versus some other alternative…like watching reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” or “Family Guy”.

  42. My test is substitution. Can I use your arguments to prove existence of Thor, Ra, Isis, Zeus, etc.? If I can, by substituting ‘God’ with any other deity, then your arguments explain nothing.

    Swinburne’s work is of that nature. That is, he makes arguments that depend upon the presupposition that his Christian God is the one true god. But if we substitute Thor, or Zeus, we come to the conclusion that Thor, or Zeus, is the one true god.

    In short, he’s proved nothing but he has a pre-supposition that the Christian God exists and he is the one true god. Something any honest fundamentalist will tell you to your face. And not through odious volume after odious volume of rationalizations for a pre-supposed conclusion.

    For what it’s worth, if I’m to be mocked, I prefer the mocker of a fundamentalist. At least it’s honest and has passion. So, while it is ignorant it’s an honest ignorance.

    Something I can respect, even if it’s wrong. Unlike the puffed-up, pseudo-intellectual mockery of the “sophisticated” philosopher…

    1. There is a much higher likelihood that Prof Swinburne owes me $50,000 than that God exists. Either he does or he doesn’t: that’s 50%. In this case I’ll take those odds quite happily.

  43. I find the claim to be absolutely bizarre – that is, that philosophers have come up with a rational basis for believing in a god. The vast majority of philosophers I have met over the years reject god and can find no reason to believe in a god unless it makes you feel good, but of course simply feeling good doesn’t make something so. The lone philosopher I had met who is religious doesn’t even want to talk about religion. Thomas Aquinas allegedly proved the existence of god using his philosophy-foo. The Summa Theologia has got to have the record for the longest most tedious circular argument ever published. Another more recent philosopher also comes to mind Rene Descartes: “A triangle exists, therefore god exists” – well, that’s the conclusion after about 20 pages of waffling. So my question would be “have the authors of those 2 books been able to accomplish something which Aquinas and Descartes have both been mistakenly credited for but didn’t actually accomplish?” Descartes wasn’t even original; his argument is very similar to one of Aquinas’ arguments which in turn is influenced by early Greek philosophy and the concept of perfection.

  44. ‘Theological philosophers’ write books to sell to an assured captive audience: those who desperately seek that proof which will supplant the ‘faith’ with/in which they remain insecure. That the faithful seek proof is proof that they lack faith.

    1. I have made the argument of your final sentence. I think it is correct.

      If you have faith, you do not need proof. If you need proof, you do not have faith.

      1. They have plenty of other books on the topic (some technical, some for the general audience), just not those two. Right now I’m reading a Michael Martin book I borrowed from there.

        Part of it might be that a) I’m in Australia so usually the books at the library are restricted to books sold here, and b) the library is for a region of at most 400,000 people.

    1. Well, that tells you something, doesn’t it.

      My local library has Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett. And McDowell and Strobel, too. Heck, it even has the fraudster Kevin Trudeau!

      I guess the new definition of “sophisticated theology” is “not popular enough to bother buying even at institutional rates”.

        1. Well, I had to check.

          Nope, not in my library system, either.

          Neither philosopher, none of their books.

          Maybe at a garage sale somewhere, then.

  45. There are some extremely smart people in this group. I’m not saying any of their arguments is *successful*, all things considered.

    Then honestly what’s the point of bothering with them? They’re still wrong, just wrong in more interesting ways? Name me another field of study where one is encouraged to read people known to be wrong simply on the basis that they aren’t as spectacularly and stupidly wrong as some others. Here’s an idea: if the even the brightest and best minds of theology can’t do any better than “still wrong,” maybe the field should be dispensed with entirely, hmm?

  46. Far more valuable than reading such as Swinburne (whom I confess to not having read and, having seen the sort of stuff imputed to him, do not want to read – how any sane person can make that contemptible argument about Hiroshima, I don’t know) – anyway, to begin again, far more valuable than reading such as Swinburne would be to read Boyer, Atran, Tremlin, Pyysiainen, Mithen, Lewis-Williams et al – people who do take religion seriously as a near universal phenomenon in human societies and as such worthy of understanding, even, at times, sympathetic understanding, and who approach it not as believers or apologists or adversaries, but analytically and scientifically, drawing on the advances in the cognitive sciences. What this group of thinkers are doing, among other things, is dissolving the differences among faiths and providing very good naturalistic reasons for why belief in gods occurs and why belief is so difficult to eradicate. Their work seems to me to pose a far more serious, because deeper and universal, challenge to the religiously-minded (despite what Trewin asserts in an overly conciliatory paragraph towards the end of his book) than books like those of Dawkins and Hitchens, both of which I admire, by the way, but which are very much in a Western tradition of atheism, one that is defined by antagonism to a particular monotheistic religion, and which follow very much in the footsteps of Hume and Russell. And now that the debate, or quarrel, seems to have got lost in a sort of comic-book posturing – nasty gnu-atheists, spineless accommodationists, woolly theologians, fire-breathing fundamentalists and deviously libidinous catholics – I think it would benefit from being broadened to draw more consciously and explicitly on this body of work, which strikes me as likely to be a better solvent of religion in the end.

    1. I strongly agree! I would add Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” to the list you noted above. Professor Dennett seems (at least in that book) also to be trying to steer the conversation in the direction of the search for universals in religion, and religion as a natural phenomenon. Sam Harris’ upcoming book on morality also appears to be headed in that direction. In fact, based on a talk Sam Harris gave where he defended the idea that the word “atheist” ought to be avoided, I’d say he agrees with you in the main. “…a better solvent of religion…”. Nicely put–as though religion were rust. Or, a wart.

      To be honest, I don’t care for “Does God exist” arguments. I think they’re fruitless, and therefore pointless. Round and round–I get motion sickness:))

  47. Swinburne’s Bayesian argument for God has been thrown at me before. It essentially begs the question.

    It makes a calculation of the form P(h|e&k), which is the probability of h (a theistic god) given e (evidence of fine-tuning) and k (background knowledge about the universe).

    In other words, its first given assumes evidence that the universe is “fine-tuned” for life. That in turn assumes a tuner, and thus the (at least deistic) god is slipped into the premise. No wonder the probability comes out so high.

    The PDF in which the argument was first given to me (I don’t know whether it was Swinburne’s own work; I can’t pin it down right away) began by stating “the universe supports life” and, halfway through, quietly substituted “the universe is fine-tuned for life”. The author was perfectly aware that fine-tuning would have to be established a priori for this Bayesian argument to work (which would of course make it redundant) and had to resort to bait-and-switch sophistry.

    Swinburne’s Bayesian argument for Jesus as God incarnate, made in his later book, makes use of the probability of God sourced from this calculation and cannot therefore be any more valid than same.

    1. That’s the problem with subjective Bayesian analysis. You’re, literally, just making up shit that you can’t possibly test. You could run the same calculation for Santa Claus and get the same results if you chose.

      I mean, come on, NORAD tracks Santa every year. And there are presents under the tree. And lots and lots of homage to Santa, especially in late fall, early winter, on the boob-tube…

  48. I hope, by the way, that our philosopher-cum-theologian is in no way related to the poet Swinburne, author of The Leper, a thoroughly nasty and brilliant assault on God’s nastiness.

  49. Have any of you looked at the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology? The atheist blogger Common Sense Atheism says it’s “the best case for theism ever assembled.” (google the name of the blog and the title of the book to see his post on it.) I’m an atheist myself but I really think you should all take a look at it. These are about as sophisticated as God arguments get-the new ontological argument, I am told, makes use of propositional calculus. For an example of one of these arguments you guys should look at, see here:


    Tell me what you think.

    1. Why don’t you tell us if you buy the argument and why? If you don’t buy it why not?

      Else this is just another case of “read this” ad nauseum.

      1. Isohunt has the book as a torrent for the pirates among us.

        It’s edited by William Lane Craig and JP Moreland? Seriously?

        Given Luke’s man-crush on Craig (nothing wrong if it is sexual, but thinking Craig is good? A great debater? [as if his arguments haven’t been shredded a hundred times] – I can’t figure it out).

    2. The argument in the link is the Cosmological Argument, only stretched out to 45,000 words. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’ve looked at that one.

      1. All that’s been discussed in this thread so far is the old first cause argument and the Kalam argument. This is the argument from contingency.

        1. The argument from contingency is the cosmological argument, taken one step farther to argue that God is the explanation (Aquinas) or the reason (Leibniz) for the universe even if it’s always existed. It’s a time-independent reworking that relies only on causation.

          Though it allows for all possible universes, as opposed to Kalam which requires a universe that “began to exist” (and constantly sidetracks William Lane Craig into arguing cosmology itself), it’s otherwise logically equivalent and no more powerful than the common or garden cosmological argument.

        2. Tom, if you do not understand the flaws in arguments that claim stuff like this: “The typical philosophical atheist or agnostic not only doesn’t believe in God, but also doesn’t believe in a necessarily existing first cause. The typical philosopher who accepts a necessarily existing first cause is also a theist.”

          Why are you bugging us with it?

          A first cause by no means implies theism.

          He proceeds:

          “Thus there is not much of an audience for arguments that the necessarily existing first cause is God.”

          Absolutely not. In fact there are plenty of non-theistic possibilities for first causes, in fact “first cause” is ill-defined if one takes it really seriously.

          That the author doesn’t have the ingenuity to envision them is the limit of his argument.

          This is the classical gap collapse. The argumenter does not see alternatives so one outcome labeled God is celebrates as the conclusion.

          Nothing special here at all.

          Now if you really think it’s worthwhile to read the rest and content with idle drivel like this:

          “Of these the, Aristotelian-essentialist account will have some serious problems with it—and, moreover, seems to require theism, so the agnostic or atheist cannot embrace it as an alternative the Aristotelian-causal one.”

          Now the trouble is of course that the argument pre-supposed Aristotelian metaphysics hence basically encodes its own justification.

          But this is quite irrelevant. You should only appeal to arguments that you can understand, not that some authority has told you to believe.

          Why we still have to contend with the Aristotelian confusion of metaphysics and word-play 2000 years after Aristotle, is beyond me to be honest. And people wielding metaphysical arguments without showing any awareness of the critique of metaphysics of this kind is not a sign of deep arguments but sophisticated ignorance. It gives you an indication how “learned” the good author here really is.

          So why exactly to you personally want us to read this?

          Just read the whole thing, and if you do not find many passages that are humorous, then you didn’t get it.

          Just for fun consider this nugget:

          “It is tempting to quip that there is a conceptual impossibility in a committee’s being omnipotent, since committees always suffer from impotence, say due to interaction issues within the committee. There may be something to this quip. How, after all, could a collective collectively be omnipotent? How would the powers of the individuals interact with one another? Would some individuals have the power to prevent the functioning of others? These are difficult questions. It seems simpler to posit a single being.”

          Clearly we are to use our intuition how our committees work to infer how some envisioned committee of creators work. Good philosophy much?

  50. Among the “extremely smart people” recommended to Jerry by his philosopher friend was Richard Swinburne. I reviewed for the Sunday Times a previous book by Swinburne, with a similar title to the one mentioned here, and Jerry kindly encouraged me to post it here, although it is longer than a normal Comment post.

    Review by Richard Dawkins, for The Sunday Times, of Richard Swinburne: Is There a God?

    It is a virtue of clear writing that you can see what is wrong with a book as well as what is right. Richard Swinburne is clear. You can see where he is coming from. You can also see where he is going to, and there is something almost endearing in the way he lovingly stakes out his own banana skin and rings it about with converging arrows boldly labelled ‘Step here’.

    It is surprising that a writer as clear as Swinburne has risen to the top of his profession as Nolloth Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Oxford. Theology is a field in which obscurantism is the normal path to success, and a favourite trick is to insist that religion has its own ‘dimension(s)’, completely separate from those of science; science and religion are about different kinds of truth and you cannot use the criteria of one to judge the other; religion answers those questions which are outside the territory of science.

    Richard Swinburne will have none of these flabby evasions. His opening chapter expounds what he is going to mean by the God whose existence he plans to demonstrate, and it is very much not a vague synonym for The Ground of All Is-ness or Caring in the Community, but a spirited, supernatural intelligence whose existence, if demonstrated, would actually make a difference to something. Swinburne returns to an earlier, braver and more intellectually honest – some might say foolhardy – theology.

    Swinburne is ambitious. He will not shrink into those few remaining backwaters which scientific explanation has so far failed to reach. He offers a theistic explanation for those very aspects of the world where science claims to have succeeded, and he insists that his explanation is better. Better, moreover, by a criterion likely to appeal to a scientist: simplicity. He shows that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. But then comes the great banana skin experience. By an amazing exploit of doublethink, Swinburne manages to convince himself that theistic explanations are simple explanations.

    Science explains complex things in terms of the interactions of simpler things, ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles. I (and I dare say you) think it a beautifully simple idea that all things are made of different combinations of fundamental particles which, although exceedingly numerous, are drawn from a small, finite set. If we are sceptical, it is likely to be because we think the idea too simple. But for Swinburne it is not simple at all, quite the reverse.

    His reasoning is very odd indeed. Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence for so many to have the same properties. One electron, he could stomach. But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity. For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other. Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time, but would be expected to change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment. That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs. Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation.

    “. . . it is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now” (p 42).

    Enter God. God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralising their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation. That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all, that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond. It is because God is constantly hanging on to each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.

    Oh, and in case you wondered how the hypothesis that God is simultaneously keeping a billion fingers on a billion electrons can be a simple hypothesis, the reason is this. God is only a single substance. What brilliant economy of explanatory causes compared with all those billions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

    “Theism claims that every other object which exists is caused to exist and kept in existence by just one substance, God. And it claims that every property which every substance has is due to God causing or permitting it to exist. It is a hallmark of a simple explanation to postulate few causes There could in this respect be no simpler explanation than one which postulated only one cause. Theism is simpler than polytheism. And theism postulates for its one cause, a person [with] infinite power (God can do anything logically possible), infinite knowledge (God knows everything logically possible to know), and infinite freedom . . .” (p 43).

    Swinburne generously concedes that God cannot accomplish feats that are logically impossible, and one feels grateful for this forbearance. That said, there is no limit to the explanatory purposes to which God’s infinite power is put. Is science having a little difficulty explaining X? No problem. Don’t give X another glance. God’s infinite power is effortlessly wheeled in to explain X (along with everything else), and it is always a supremely simple explanation because, after all, there is only one God. What could be simpler than that?

    Well, actually, almost everything. A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe is not going to be simple. His existence is therefore going to need a modicum of explaining in its own right (it is often considered bad taste to bring that up, but Swinburne does rather ask for it by pinning his hopes on the virtues of simplicity). Worse (from the point of view of simplicity) other corners of God’s giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being. He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer. That would never do, for, “If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.” And then where would we be?

    If this is theology, perhaps Professor Swinburne’s colleagues are wise to be less lucid.

    1. Professor Dawkins, you are not supposed to destroy people’s illusion that atheists are illiterate about contemporary theology 😉

    2. “God can do anything logically possible”

      I’ve heard this from a number of theists, and it simply demonstrates that they’ve given a cursory amount of thought to the “Jesus-makes-a-rock-so-heavy-he-can’t-lift-it” problem and think this somehow presents a clever solution.

      It doesn’t. Quite the contrary, it utterly destroys the concept of omnipotence: for, by this definition, we are allomnipotent.

      It is logically impossible to draw, on a flat sheet of paper, a figure with exactly three intersecting line segments, each of which intersects at a right angle. A square triangle, in other words. Therefore, Jesus is excused from drawing square triangles — but, so are we.

      The reason the speed of light is an absolute limit in our universe is entirely due to the geometry of the space-time-continuum; therefore, Jesus must be granted a pass for his inability to travel faster than the speed of light. Then again, we can’t go faster than light, either.

      Due to similar geometric impossibilities, it is logically impossible for me to leap tall buildings in a single bound. There is not enough energy available to my muscles, and my muscles are not strong enough. So, since it is logically impossible for me to leap tall buildings, my inability to do so must not be counted against my omnipotence any more than Jesus’s inability to draw a square triangle.

      At this point, a theist might suggest that Jesus can somehow leap tall buildings in a single bound. But is that because his muscles are that much stronger and he has that much more energy available to them? Is it because he has a jetpack? Or is it because he’s doing something logically impossible?

      As it turns out, though, there is something i can do that Jesus’s dad can’t: I can prove that the following sentence is true:

      All but God can prove this sentence true.

      It’s logically impossible for God to prove that sentence is true, but it’s trivial for anybody else to do so. So is God somehow still considered omnipotent, even if there are things that he can’t do that we mere mortals can?



      1. I’m afraid your examples do not stand up.

        The impossibility of the square triangle is equivalent to Euclid’s 5th postulate (one parallel line through a point not on the line) and those postulates, in effect, define what is meant by a “flat space”. The same is true of any formal mathematical system. Anything that can be proven within the system (or ‘constructed’ within a geometric system) is a purely logical consequence of the postulates. As such, this is no different from saying “God cannot make a red thing which is not red”, or “God cannot make 5 be the solution to X-2=2 in standard number theory”.

        Your physics example also does not work. Speed of light is not a consequence of geometry of spacetime, because we have no idea, actually what geometry any part of spacetime has. We infer equations from observations (that is all, ultimately, that physics can do) and it just so happens that the equations we have thus far inferred have certain geometric interpretations, but the equations work regardless of any geometric interpretation. Einstein himself pointed this out — general relativity is ultimately just a field equation, that happens to have an elegant geometric interpretation. Their is also nothing sacred about the speed of light. It simply appears to be the intrinsic speed of propagation in all the underlying field equations of both general relativity and quantum field theory. If tomorrow discover a new field with a faster speed of propagation, while it would be the most amazing news in science since ever… it would not turn existing physics upside down. Of necessity it would be field with extremely weak interaction with known fields (which would be why we have not noticed it yet), so it won’t change what we understand about the currently known fields interact with each other. It *will* change our understanding the causal connectivity of spacetime (i.e. wider “new-field-not-light” cones), but because of the weak interaction, it won’t really change the now *approximate* causal structure of spacetime based on speed-of-light (narrower light cones).

        By extension, your building leap is not “logically impossible”, it is empirically impossible. All the laws or equations of physics are, in the end, based solely on empirical data, and there is no logical proof that the next bit of data we obtain will not break a supposed “law”.

        Finally, your last bit is clever, and I agreed at first glance, but it also does not work. Consider the negation.

        Call your proposition “P”. Then the negation is:

        ~P: “At least one person cannot prove P, or God can prove P”.

        The above is certainly true — there are going to people who lack the mental capacity to prove anything, let alone P, so no one can prove P because it is provably false by anyone capable of proof. And if somehow you could prove that *everyone* else can prove it, then an omnipotent God could create someone who can’t, and do it retroactively.

        So you are saying that God cannot prove something that is logically (provably) false, or more accurately not provable by logic, but by empirical evidence — and no one but an omnipotent god would have access to the data required to prove it even if it were true — so no one can prove it.

        However, you might fix it by taking out the “all but”:

        Q: God cannot prove this sentence true.

        This again seems to work at first glance, but in fact God can prove it by saying, “You would prove it by saying ‘If God can prove it, then it is true, so he can’t, contradiction, ergo true.” Since it can be proven, it must be true.” Notice that god never creates a contradiction in her proof. So now we know it is false, because God can ‘prove’ it. Wait, er, we know it is true, because we know God can prove it.. or for that matter we can prove it directly.

        The strange loopy-ness here hinges on the inference “if someone can prove P, then P”. If we can use that inference to prove P by contradiction, then God can reference our proof to prove P. The sentence is either logically meaningless, or else there are things which can be “proven” which are both true and false, or neither.

        1. By now I should know better than to post informal statements without a book-length disclaimer.

          Yes, of course, the impossibility of square triangles is constrained to Euclidean geometries, and the classic riddle of the color of the bear you’ve tracked for one mile north, south, and west (and wound up where you started) is a perfect example otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, specifying that the space must be Euclidean is as obvious an uninteresting as specifying that the lines must be straight and infinitely thin.

          As you are a mathematician, I hope that you recognize that my one-liner is an attempt to encapsulate a Turing- or Gödel-style diagonalization proof in a single line of iambic pentameter. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s far from the ideal language for such work, but the ideal language is also impenetrable to those who have not devoted a signification portion of their lives to such study. Rather than attempt a formal exposition, please permit me a bit of additional handwaving and accept my suggestion that “the power of all powers” is as meaningless as “the set of all sets.” Similarly, the concept of omniscience falls to the Halting Problem — as does, for that matter, primal causality. (Could “God” dupe “Satan” into believing that Satan is the supreme super-dude? If so, how does God know that Satan hasn’t duped God? If not, how is this reconciled with God’s supposed omnipotence?)



          1. I just don’t like to see math, physics or logic abused. 🙂

            Iambic pentameter? (counting syllables) are you sure?

            Anyway, I see no reason for the logic constraint on a hypothetical omnipotent God. There is no ‘proof’ that logic is correct, it just seems intuitively obvious and seems to encapsulate what we mean when we use language to say things about the world. But this may simply be a limitation of our minds. Perhaps the universe is so bizarre that logic only works approximately and only within limited sub-domains.

            I imagine the following dialog:

            Achilles: God is omnipotent.

            Tortoise: Really, so he make a stone so heavy he cannot move it?

            Achilles: Of course.

            Tortoise: Aha. So then God would not be able to lift such a stone.

            Achilles: Oh, god can lift it.

            Tortoise: Aha! So you admit– er, wait. What?

            Achilles: God can lift it.

            Tortoise: But it is a stone God cannot lift.

            Achilles: Yes. So?

            Tortoise: So he cannot lift it.

            Achilles: Exactly. But he can lift it.

            Tortoise: That’s a contradiction!

            Achilles. Yes. What’s your point?

            Tortoise: You can’t have both! Either he can make a stone he can’t lift and hence cannot lift such a stone, or he cannot make one in the first place.

            Achilles: Ah, Tortoise, you make it way too complicated. See. First God makes a stone that is impossible for him to lift. Then God lifts it. Easy. God can do anything.

            Tortoise: Right. Um… can’t argue with that. Oh look at the time.

            1. Iambic pentameter:

              All but God can prove this sentence true.

              I’ve had theists actually claim, as you parody, that one or more of their gods is somehow “unhindered” by logic, or “beyond” logic, or “transcends” logic or some other variation on that theme.

              I think the only response that makes any sense is to observe that they are, therefore, by definition, illogical people who worship illogic. And seeing how that’s as good a definition of “insanity” as I’ve come across, the Tortoise’s reaction to quietly back off and run away is indeed quite wise.

              If I think there’s any hope of reasoning the person back to sanity, I might attempt a basic introduction to logic. For example, if Jesus is unconstrained by logic, then he could very easily simultaneously exist and not exist. And, if Jesus is illogical, then there’s no reason (i.e., logic) to think that he’ll still love you in the morning. As has oft been observed, ex falso quodlibet.



            2. You’ve inverted all the iambs and dropped the last syllable, or dropped the first syllable. Unusual variants.

              I’m not sure I would call someone insane for believing in something that is not constrained by logic, as long as it is kept out of the day-to-day sphere of experience.

              It is really just a way to say that God is so unfathomably ‘mysterious’ we cannot hope to comprehend the why’s and wherefore’s of the universe. Which reinforces the notion that religious doctrines must be accepted “on faith”.

              But I think a better ‘escape’ for the theologian is simply to drop the notion of absolute omnipotence/omniscience and just say relative to human capacities, God is for all practical purposes omnipotent/omniscient and wrangling over logical subtleties is pointless academics.

      2. “It is logically impossible to draw, on a flat sheet of paper, a figure with exactly three intersecting line segments, each of which intersects at a right angle. A square triangle, in other words.”

        Not true.
        But it depends upon what one means by “flat”.
        In the awesome Lectures on Physics, by Richard Feynman, he gives/gave a crystal-clear exposition of a contradictory example to your claim, involving a flat plane, but of graduated temperatures, affecting the expansion of rulers, the plane, etc.
        (Everyone who has not read it, would profit immensely from so doing. As they might from reading ANY of his output)

        In any case, he shows nay: PROVES that one can construct a non-degenerate triangle that is also a circle, on a ‘flat’ plane. (Or any polygon, for that matter.)
        This is but one of a handful of of ‘arguments that should never be made’.
        Another one is the supposed ‘fact’ that the babble claims that π=3.
        This, too, is an ‘argument that should never be used’, as it is (almost) trivially shown to be a mis-interpretation of a foundry-man’s (yes, the male sex is deliberate) common practice.
        Ben, you will have encountered my lengthy expositions on these topics in USENET’s alt.atheism

          1. I’m not sure that it is available on the intertoobs.
            I read it in the 3 volume compendium of his whole lecture series in the sixties.
            “Lectures on Physics” – Feynman, Leighton & Sands
            The ISBN of the boxed set is 0-201-50064-7
            If your local library can’t get it in for you, then they should close down!
            If I had the standard choices for 3 books to take to a tropical island, this set would be one of them. (With “Why Evolution is True”, by some author who’s name escapes me the moment)

    3. Richard,

      I’m curious whether you’ve asked people who the supposedly good, sophisticated theologians are—the ones you’re supposed to respond to.

      If so, do any particular names come up particularly frequently, or is it just a zoo?

    4. We need God to explain electrons?

      Worse, only the simplicity of God can restrain the inherent irregularity of subatomic particles? Without God, gluons and quarks, leptons and bosons, would frolic and cavort and do terrible, terrible things with each other?

      I’d like a taste of what he’s smoking.

      1. This works as an explanation of virtual particles.

        If electrons were allowed to pop into existence unchecked, then they’d soon fill up all available space and there’d be no room left to move in. Luckily for us, God zaps them back into nothingness almost as soon as they appear.

        This means that we can use Planck’s Constant as a measure of God’s power. A truly omnipotent God would be able to eliminate virtual particles completely and hold Planck’s Constant to zero. The God of our Universe isn’t quite that powerful, so Planck’s Constant is around 6.6 x 10^-34. But that’s still pretty darned impressive. It’s a lot better than I can do!

    5. Hilariously, Swinburne just keeps digging in his response to Dawkins on the point of god’s simplicity. The anticipated upshot is that Dawkins’s failure is not to have read Swinburne’s “detailed examination of the concept of simplicity” in The Evolution of the Soul, Epistemic Justification, and The Existence of God!

      [Dawkins] writes that ‘a God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple’. And why does he think this? He doesn’t say, but I take it that his reason for thinking this is that, if God gets his knowledge and exercises his power in the way in which we do (via brains) he will need to be very very complicated, since ordinary human brains with their limited powers of control are very complicated things. But (1) I am not the same thing as my brain. The full story of the world would need to include both what happened to me and what happened to my brain. Split brain experiments illustrate this – see, for example, chs 8 and 9 of my book The Evolution of the Soul. And I (a simple entity) control quite a bit of my brain (a much more complicated entity) so that I can make it cause many different motions of my limbs, tongue etc. And (2) whether a hypothesis is simple or not is an intrinsic feature of that hypothesis, not a matter of its relation to observable data. Whether the hypothesis is such as to lead us to expect the data is a second and different criterion for assessing a hypothesis. Whether the hypothesis that one criminal committed all of some set of murders, or whether Newton’s theory that all bodies attract each other with forces proportional to mm1/r2 is simple is something we can see by studying it. But, to be probably true, the hypothesis must also satisfy the criterion of leading us to expect the data. The postulation of one entity (God) with the stated properties (scientists prefer hypotheses postulating infinite qualities to hypotheses postulating very large finite quantities – other things, that is satisfaction of other criteria, being equal) is intrinsically simple. I also argue that it leads us to expect the enormously complex data (enormously large numbers of protons, photons etc.behaving in exactly the same way) For a detailed examination of the concept of simplicity, see my book Epistemic Justification, ch 4; and for an account of why it leads us to expect the data, see Is there a God? ch. 4 and (more fully) The Existence of God, chs. 6, 7 and 8. I apologize for referring to so many of my own writings, but any justification of one’s belief that there is, or that there is not, a God, at the highest intellectual level will inevitably bring in one’s views about most philosophical issues. It is not possible to circumvent the serious philosophical discussions of these issues.

      In The Existence of God, Swinburne goes on to apply Bayes’ rule to compute probabilities of “simple theories”:

      The best theory may be less than perfectly simple; but other things being equal, the simpler the more probably true.

      There’s 50/50 odds that this is all a long running joke or that Swinburne is a crackpot. Anyone citing Swinburne’s work approvingly has immediately discredited themselves.

    6. That’s hilarious. Well, now I have one more thing to tease my Oxford buddies about. Forget the quantum and chemical diddling – god doesn’t even manifest as an untestable influence on the genetics of species, he controls all subatomic particles at once and all the time. Ah, deus ubiquitous.

    7. Swinburne doesn’t even get his physics right. Physicists do not postulate some gawdawful number of electrons or other particles any more than one who observes the crowd at the superbowl ‘postulate’ that there are tens of thousands of people in attendance. If anything is postulated, it is the existence of a small number of fields and equations describing the probabilistic time-evolution of those fields.

      The real problem with his God hypothesis is not that it is complex, but that it does not explain, describe, or predict anything which is observable. All his verbiage boils down to claiming that God explains why there are things that can be described, predicted or explained, but in this sense it has no more content than to simply say “well, that is just how it is.”


      (a) “The universe has consistent physical laws because God makes it that way.”

      (b) “The universe has consistent physical laws for no discernible reason.”

      I challenge anyone to come up with any experiment, which could be done in principle even if not practical, which can distinguish between (a) and (b) and which also does not introduce new assumptions about the nature and intentions of ‘God’.

      I should also point out that “the universe” in (a) and (b) above can easily be restricted to the “known universe”, since that is all that we can really say anything about anyway. In that case, ‘god’ need not be omnipotent or omniscient.

      For that matter, why does god need to be ‘good’ in order to provide lots of identical electrons and consistent physical laws? Why couldn’t an evil god do the same? If everything were random chaos, who would be around for the evil god to make suffer? One could argue that a ‘good’ god would prefer total randomness, as that would put an end to all suffering!

    8. I’m not a particle physicist, but as I recall no atom is equal to any other, even more we do not know the “form” of one atom. What is equal between two electron paths in an atom is their probability function but there is no way to tell if two atoms are identical. We really live in an universe constantly changing and probabilistic at the atomic level. Does this mean that God does not exitst?

    1. Ah well, but as pointed out by others above, until he says “oh my, what an impressive sophisticated argument, now I must go ahead and respect the believers all respectfully and such”, he has not really really read it.

      Fun read – although I got the shortened version of his disposal of this weird piece of apologetics already in the God Delusion.

      1. Yes, Jerry’s anonymous philosopher included the same basic clause:

        And really *read* it, instead of taking your lead from those who say they have done so but who may be uncomprehending or poorly motivated.

        In other words, anyone who rejects it can be explained away using bias and lack of concentration.

          1. Ah, but don’t you see? If the argument were sufficient to convince you, then you wouldn’t have any choice but to believe — and we all know how important free willies are to believers, don’t we?



            1. But, what if that omniscient god who still lets free will exist decides that you are not supposed to believe? What if he hardens your heart (but still lets you keep your free will)?

  51. “1. The probability of God’s existence is one in two. That is, God either exists or doesn’t.
    2. The probability that God became incarnate, that is embodied in human form, is also one in two.
    3. The evidence for God’s existence is an argument for the resurrection.
    4. The chance of Christ’s resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
    5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.”


    There’s just no way an Oxford professor can be this stupid. There’s just no way.


    1. I didn’t believe it, but that’s a legitimate quote from one of Swinburne’s latest.

      Does he turn it into algebra at some point? Because I find his working completely impenetrable, and having studied mathematics that really annoys me.

    2. Bayes’ theorem can be used right in this kind of argument (requires a lot of intellectual honesty, though), given:

      1. You have to not be selective about the evidence you consider.

      2. You have to fairly assess the probabilities of your evidence being present given the assumption that your hypothesis is false.

      For example, if H is the hypothesis “Jesus rose from the dead” and E1 is the evidence “In the decade or so 40-50AD a number of followers of Jesus actively attempted to convert others” (which I’ll assume to be true for the sake of argument), you have to consider not only P(E|H) (if Jesus did rise, it’s very probable that his followers would do this), but also P(E|~H) (if Jesus did not rise, it’s also very probable that some of his followers would do this – there are well-studied examples).

      3. You have to avoid smuggling elements of your hypothesis into the prior or the background evidence, since that weakens your argument from “it is probable that H given the background we all agree on”, to “it is probable that H given my assumptions H0”. Equivocating from the latter of these to the former is common; e.g. apologists arguing that the prior probability of miracles is not small if you assume the presence of a theistic god, when the existence of such a god is part of the hypothesis being argued.

      Carrier has written some papers on the use of Bayes’ theorem which cover this ground in more detail.

      1. Jason Rosenhouse is covering Swinburne over at his blog chapter by chapter.

        Seems to me that he fails in the first instance by a priori assuming that “god exists” as a precondition for his further work.

        Is that correct? Not a mathematician, but it seems to me that you have to start with the null hypothesis, or as you imply at least have it carry at least the same weight as the positive assertion (which then turns it into nothing more than Pascal’s wager).

  52. Loved Dawkins review above. I have a syllogism for those who claim god is simple: A Simple Silly-gism.

    1. God is simple (most any theologian)
    2. Nothing is about as simple as it gets
    (Victor Stenger)

    Conclusion: God is nothing

  53. Wow, I guess I’m late to this party.

    I just wanted to say this: if the arguments in favour of God, faith or religion are so sophisticated and complex that most believers will not have heard of them or understand them; are they really useful arguments in the context of justifying what believers believe?

    1. Don’t be silly — believers have faith, so they don’t need something as prosaic as arguments. Such things are only for the poor benighted atheists.

    2. A valid point. Clearly Swindburne and Dr Coyne’s new philosopher buddy, Schellenberg, are trying their best to counter those pesky Gnu Atheists. The faithful have no need to weigh evidence and consider the probabilities of God’s existence.

  54. I’m going to enter the discussion just once more. First, let me clarify something, which concerns the first time I entered the discussion. I am the philosopher who wrote to Jerry. I didn’t ask him to keep my identity under wraps. He asked whether I’d mind his posting excerpts from my letter “with any identifying material removed,” and I said to go ahead. I suppose I could have asked him to identify me, but I commented under my own name at #31 assuming people would put 2 and 2 together. No one did. Perhaps you’ll think this is because I held back one of the 2s. You have it now.

    Second, a suggestion for the more reflective commenters. (I should have offered it before.) You can read large blocks from the theistic texts I mentioned in my letter to Jerry, and similarly large blocks from the atheistic texts I mention at #31, at Google books. Thus a chance to test for yourself the claims as to their value and disvalue that have been made here is only a few clicks away. Of course you also have the irritation of gaps in the text (that’s just life at Google books), but enough material is visible to provide a basis for certain decisions – including the decision whether to acquire any of these volumes for yourself.

    Third, an answer to the question why I recommended Swinburne to Jerry. Jerry was, in the post on which I was commenting, apparently looking for theistic arguments less “opaque and muddled” than those he found in modern theology. Swinburne, with his precise reworking of the traditional theistic proofs in a context alive to the latest results in science and philosophy, *has some.*

    But isn’t Swinburne just woefully awful? Almost everyone here seems to think so, though on what grounds? Sometimes it’s on the basis of third-hand reports of what someone ill-disposed wrote about the man in a non-philosophical context. Sometimes ad hominem arguments are suggested citing in their premises his evident nastiness as a person – look at what he says about suffering! – or his apologetic motives. But while I too cringe at some of what Swinburne says about suffering, it doesn’t follow that he’s a nasty person. And, more importantly, it wouldn’t follow from his being a nasty person, were he to be one, that nothing he says on other matters is worth reading. Furthermore, many atheists themselves transparently have apologetic motives. Are all their works now to be dismissed?

    Richard Dawkins, himself (among other things) an apologist for atheism, responds in this discussion with a copy of his review of Swinburne’s Is There a God? A couple of points are apropos: (1) Reading this popular work is no substitute for reading the more rigorous, developed work, The Existence of God, which I recommended. There and in other books and papers Swinburne at length and with careful arguments defends what he says about, for example, simplicity. Professor Dawkins does not interact with any of this. And what he does say shows some misunderstanding of Swinburne’s views. 2) Dawkins does not tell us – perhaps he does not know – that Swinburne has himself briefly replied to him (specifically, to what Dawkins says about simplicity and certain other matters in The God Delusion) at his website, here: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~orie0087/framesetpdfs.shtml. Read it for yourself, to see where some specific worries arise. But as Swinburne in this context just as pertinently notes, his specific claims are intricately bound up with numerous larger issues in philosophy, and one cannot escape grappling with the latter if one wishes to discuss philosophy adequately.

    Swinburne is himself distinguished in philosophy – and note that he is fundamentally a philosopher, not a theologian, as Dawkins suggests – for devoting whole books or large blocks of a book to straight philosophy, before applying it to religion. This is why in *my* books he is not as deserving of the label ‘apologist’ as many others. There are works here on space and time, confirmation theory, epistemic justification, and so on, full of rigorous and precise philosophical argumentation that should not be shrugged aside simply because you’ve encountered something infuriating, or something contrary to one of your own present assumptions, in a brief encounter with one of Swinburne’s scholarly or popular works.

    My having to point all of this out is actually amusing in a way, because, as it happens, it is well known in the philosophy of religion that I disagree with Swinburne on many points. Indeed, I have disagreed quite strongly with some of the things he says. (That, of course, should not be enough for you. You, like Jerry, ought to read the best arguments available on both sides yourselves, familiarizing yourselves with the philosophical context in which they are given, and making up your own minds about their merits.) But I much more strongly oppose some of the intellectual habits that have been on display here.

    Here’s an analogy. Suppose Darwin really were wrong, and the arguments for natural selection in some complicated way had fallen into error. Suppose I saw this, and then was asked my opinion of creationist reasoning. Of course I’d have to say I agree with the creationist *conclusion,* that Darwin was wrong. But within the general context of inquiry, loving the careful pursuit of understanding as I do, that shouldn’t prevent me from objecting to an *awful lot* of what creationists say – for example, their tendency to pounce on any weakness in an evolutionist’s reasoning as a sign that the whole is infected; or their unwillingness to read much evolutionary literature, because it just “unnecessarily complicates things”; or their tendency to start most discussions with the assumption that they’re right and suspicion of the opposition – any member of whom they will regard as unreliable from the moment an approving word about evolution falls from his or her lips.

    Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. *Much* that is said in these threads about theism I regard as being about as respectable as creationist reasoning in these respects, even though I agree with your view that theism is false! You may say that creationist thinking is obviously defective because creationists have not read sophisticated evolutionary literature and learned to develop their objections in interaction with the best evolutionists have to offer, and so even if it could be made obvious that Darwin is wrong, they would still not be entitled to their view. I agree. But then you’ll see why I must regard those of you who are not interested in reading and seriously trying to understand the best of theistic writing, or in learning to develop your objections to theism in interaction with it, but who wish to have your atheism taken seriously, as having a precisely analogous problem.

    Jerry seems to like Bertrand Russell. I’ll give Russell the last word. The sort of creationist and (in the relevant cases) atheist behaviour I’ve described has “all the advantages of theft over honest toil.”

    1. I have two problems with your position.

      Firstly, criticisms of his “explanation” of evil are not ad-hominem arguments, or at least not solely ad-hominem arguments. It is argumed that his position on evil is part of his argument for the existence of God, in that he uses to discount the problem of evil as an argument against his specific God, and thus increase his estimate of the probability of God’s existence.

      Is that not the case? Because if it is he has introduced what to many of us is a self-evidently false premise.

      Secondly you are asserting that people are not justified in concluding that Swinburne’s arguments are awful. Perhaps some are doing on the basis of third-hand reports, but how do you know that everyone is. That claim smacks of ad-hominem.

      For a first hand report see http://scepticalthoughts.blogspot.com/search/label/Richard%20Swinburne
      It has been said by several people that Swinburne is abusing Bayesian statistics.

      Is that not the case? Because if it then surely people are justified in concluding that Swinburne’s argument is not worthy of respect.

      I would have been more inclined to take your recommendation of Swinburne seriously if had you addresses these two points.

    2. Could you be more specific?

      For example, could you tell us an interesting thing or two that Swinburne gets right that Dawkins or other prominent New Atheists get wrong?

      We’ve seen a couple of examples of Swinburne making ridiculously fallacious arguments, or so it seems. Do you disagree that they’re both horrendously bad philosophy, and if so, why?

      (I’m referring to the suffering
      argument, which it seems you agree is bad, and the one in which he computes “probabilities” assuming the prior odds of a pair of possibilities are 50/50. Perhaps he justifies the latter somehow in his longer work?)

      I agree with you that people who say some really awfully boneheaded things can also be really smart about some other things. I, for one, am not dismissing Swinburne as always a kook.

      Still, if I’m going to go searching through his extended in-depth work on Google books, rather than reading his “pop” stuff, I’d like a hint or two of something worth looking for and paying close enough attention to.

      As I said above, I’ve read some Swinburne in the past, but not much because it seemed to me he went off into the weeds, and it got annoying. I’m willing to reconsider, but not without some idea of what topics he’s actually good on. (I mean something in the philosophy of religion vein under discussion here.)

      1. I’m making myself into a liar by contributing again, but I do want to express appreciation for reasonable comments and requests and not just excoriate inadequacies. So I’ve selected this one entry to reply to (not that no other sensible remarks have appeared).

        (1) Swinburne knows his ideas – especially on suffering – are counterintuitive for many and is trying to get people to see things in a new way. The latter is a central goal of much philosophy, and although I find some of his premises quite counterintuitive even after thinking carefully about his arguments, he does have premises and he does have arguments – and he has the courage to challenge us on these matters. That’s enough to prevent me from regarding even his work on evil as being “horrendously bad” *as philosophy.*

        I do think his veering into specifically Christian thought, especially on the Resurrection, is unfortunate, in part because it prevents people from reading his other work – as amply demonstrated here. Having said that, the Bayes’s material as applied to the Resurrection is inadequately represented in the present discussion. For a more adequate discussion of his work on this topic, see the NDPR review of his book at: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=1329. And the more general points about Swinburne’s use of Bayes’s Theorem that have been made here would benefit from deeper acquaintance with his work on the subject – for example, in his early Introduction to Confirmation Theory and his recent edited volume on the Theorem. Simply the conflating of his more general views on Bayesian reasoning with “statistics” shows that something has gone awry. If you want to know more about Swinburne’s own ‘logical’ theory of probability, read his work!

        (2) Where has Swinburne said particular things that writers like Dawkins are unaware of, to their detriment? To find one example, you might read pp. 96-109 of the second edition of Swinburne’s The Existence of God (see esp. pp. 98-99), on “The simplicity of theism.” Here Swinburne precisely identifies the reason why theists should regard the oft-repeated question “So what explains God?” as reflecting confusion. It is this: omnipotence entails non-explainability. The theist has put forward the idea of God, who is regarded, really, as the ultimate person, and therefore as omnipotent, omniscient, and all the rest. Presumably an atheist like Dawkins is asking *of this person,* what explains its existence. But such a person, were it to exist, logically could not have an explanation. For if there were some external factor on which God’s existence depended, as must be the case if the existence of God is explained by something else, then that factor could not be subject to God’s power, as omnipotence requires. So omnipotence entails non-explainability.

        This may seem like a cheap trick to some who are unwilling to look closely, but it is really just drawing out an implication of what the theist is saying in claiming that God exists. And to see even better its deep rationale, go back a little further to the realization that the theist’s ‘ultimate person’ just reflects one way of filling out the fundamental religious idea of an ultimate Divine reality. (The latter gets different fillings in different religious contexts.) The idea of God, if it is to be a *religious* idea, *has* to be of an ultimate reality – and that means ultimate metaphysically, too. And any atheist’s criticism of this religious idea must therefore carefully avoid imagining something non-ultimate as the thing whose existence is in question.

        Perhaps it will be said, along Dawkinsian lines, that anything as complex as a God would have to have an explanation, as opposed to arising by chance. But this just pulls God into a physical frame of reference, assuming that if God exists at all, God must exist as some sort of physical being. Now, it may be that God doesn’t exist. I myself believe this. But the physicalist move I have mentioned is about as bad, philosophically, as a move in support of atheism can get, for it patently begs the question against theism, as opposed to giving any reason for regarding it as false.

        Maybe that will be enough to satisfy the reflective that looking more deeply into Swinburne — and of course all the other writers I have recommended — can be worthwhile. Now I have to get back to my own wrestling with the miserably difficult subject of philosophy!

        1. Regarding the inability to explain an omnipotence God, I understand the point you (and Swinburne) are apparently making. However, that negates the purpose of invoking the God in the first place (which is to explain, among other things, the origin of the universe).

          You haven’t answered *any* question by stating “I posit that the universe was created by an omnipotence God, who by definition is unexplainable (and so it is illogical to inquire further).” That “feature” appears to make it immune to the possibility of disproof, and it fails MosesZD’s substitution test. Indeed, it doesn’t really tell us anything about this God (other than we can’t disprove it’s existence), including whether it actually created the universe! (For all we know, if it does exist, perhaps that is *ALL* it does, and the universe was created either spontaneously or by another entity.)

          IOW, I don’t see where this argument gets us.

          1. No wait, I get it! God *is* the universe – the only entity that could be omnipotent and omniscient about everything in the universe. Therefore, inasmuch as anything exists, God exists!

            I’m sorry, but this is meaningless, and it still bears no relationship to what most believers mean when they say “God exists.” You need to come up with a new word.

        2. Mathematicians consider Swinburne’s use of Bayes to be, at best, a misunderstanding. Considering he has continued to use it in his own “logical” way after decades of corrections from maths people says something about the “difficult subject of philosophy”.

          As for claiming God requires no explanation because he’s omnipotent: it’s special pleading, plain and simple. The whole reason to posit a Creator-Being in the first place is because it’s “simpler” for the Universe to have a cause than for it to be uncaused [citation bloody needed]. So when called on the contradiction of the universe needing a cause while said cause doesn’t need a cause, the theist response is “well god is omnipotent and omnipotent things don’t need causes”. The reason this is a terrible argument is that “omnipotence” is a meaningless, contradictory term. What does “all-powerful” mean? Something omnipotent can do anything that isn’t logically contradictory, Swinburne tells us. But wait, isn’t that putting a limit on the potence of this being? And if that limit is acceptable, why can’t we demand a cause for It? This of course doesn’t even touch on the self-contradictory nature of omniscience and omnipresence, both of which Swinburne attributes to his god (Why? Because it’s “simpler”! Saying it’s simpler makes it so!)

          Finally, I want to quote one particular part from Chapter 5:

          It is simpler in just the same way that the hypothesis that some particle has zero mass, or infinite velocity is simpler than the hypothesis that it has a mass of 0.34127 of some unit, or a velocity of 301,000 km/sec. I finite limitation calls out for explanation of why there is just that particular limit, in a way that limitlessness does not. […]

          As I noted in chapter 3, scientists have always preferred hypotheses of infinite velocity to hypotheses of very large finite velocity, when both were equally compatible with the data. There is a neatness about zero and infinity that particular finite numbers lack.

          No. No, no, and again no. This is Not Even Wrong, and is endemic of the whole work. He sneaks what he’s trying to prove into his premises and fails to understand the important mathematical and scientific concepts he wrongly wields.

          And this doesn’t even get into Chapters 7 on, where he brings up the same old, tired arguments: fine-tuning, “why is there something instead of nothing”, arguments from consciousness (ooo, dualism, yay!) and morality (*groan*), religious experiences and miracles…

          In the end, it’s merely sophistry hidden behind bad math.

        3. the Bayes’s material as applied to the Resurrection is inadequately represented in the present discussion. For a more adequate discussion of his work on this topic, see the NDPR review of his book at: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=1329.

          This statement is demonstrably false— the content of the NDPR review and the criticisms levied here are largely one and the same:

          The basis of Swinburne’s argument is an application of Bayes’ theorem to the probability of Jesus’s being God incarnate … It is clear that Swinburne’s argument is based on an appeal to God not deceiving us, which will be unconvincing to many philosophers. [See comment #2] … He endorses a form of the principle of indifference applied to God’s actions, and thus one would expect Swinburne to conclude that the probability of God becoming incarnate (given that he exists) is about 1/n, where n is the number of equally best acts that God could do (p. 34). Given this, it is difficult to see why Swinburne concludes the probability of God becoming incarnate, if he exists, is 1/2 instead of 1/3, and many readers will assign an even lower probability. [Many comments here make this criticism.] … Swinburne is not successful in defending the values he assigns to various probability statements he used in Bayes’ theorem, I do not think he is successful in showing that, given our evidence, necessarily it is very likely that Jesus was God incarnate who rose from the dead. [Many comments here make this criticism]

          Have you even read the NDPR review or the comments made here?

        4. I would like it if someone would present an argument for an extremely wild claim like “omnipotence” should require less support (or none at all) than more conventional propositions. Perhaps it is buried in a book somewhere but unlike my rubber-headed colleagues, I’ve bounced my skull off one too many apologetic books for me to want to tackle another without some hope of insight. Is it really too much to ask for this to be presented in public somewhere?

          It reminds me of so many other religious claims, where the wilder the claim, the more people are willing to turn off their thinking and accept it. Think an unseen being with the power to turn milk sour is talking to you? Ludicrous and silly. Think an unseen being with the power to do anything not logically impossible? Apparently rational. Think your hair drier wants you to quit your job? Insane. Think the supreme being of the universe wants you to quit your job? Hallelujah, you’re blessed.

          You’ll forgive me if the explanations for why “omnipotence” should not require an explanation appears to be more of the same. Lets say I buy your argument that omnipotence doesn’t need a “how”, we’re still putting the cart in front of the horse. Where is the detailed, empirical argument why omnipotence is even possible and a repeat for why omnipotence actually exists?

        5. That’s enough to prevent me from regarding even his work on evil as being “horrendously bad” *as philosophy.*

          How does theodicy count as philosophy, rather than theology? Surely the “problem” of evil traditionally presupposes a Christian worldview with Christian theological commitments.

          And frankly, even if one considers this topic to be “philosophical”, surely the solution Swinburne offers is completely unconvincing to anyone outside of a theological context, and is itself an argument that is either laughably bad and/or profoundly immoral.

          omnipotence entails non-explainability

          So Swinburne’s god can’t explain its existence? But surely that itself is a limit on “omnipotence”, no?

        6. “Simply the conflating of his more general views on Bayesian reasoning with “statistics” shows that something has gone awry. If you want to know more about Swinburne’s own ‘logical’ theory of probability, read his work!”

          I would deny that characterization.


          It’s quite clear that Swinburne uses straight up (albeit very basic) bayesian inference. There is no diversion from the mathematical theory (in terms of the machinery) at all.

          That he misuses it is another matter.

          In fact a major problem is that he does not use the more advanced aspects such as hypothesis testing.

          In any case Swinburne is not really entitled to his own way of applying Bayesian theory of probability. There are actual reasons why the probability theory is the way it is. He cannot just pick priors for example.

          If he picks priors with uncertainty, he has to show that the uncertainty does is limited by a confidence interval in the end. If he does not do that he may get a number that completely depends on the uncertainty in the prior.

          In fact by picking a 50% hypothesis with full uncertainty, and failing to show that this choice is insignificant to his conclusions shows that he does not properly use the methods we have.

          And that’s just the bootstrapping. Swinburne gives the impression that it is in fact possible to write down the conditional probabilities. For example the probability that god exists if a universe exist. Yet this too is an a priori ad hoc assumption with full uncertainty.

          So his prior is random, his conditional probabilities are random and he gets a number that supposedly gives evidence for his desired conclusion.

          Finally, what is his condition for success? He writes that P(h|e&b) > 1/2. So apparently the hypothesis that h (god) exists depending on evidence (e) and background knowledge (b), it is sufficient to be just above chance in a coin flip.

          Pretty stunning, given that real hypothesis tests demand that we have a small failure probability. Such as p<0.05 or smaller.

          Apparently we are to accept that just slightly above coin flip chance (without any knowledge of the variance and uncertainty in the setup) we have confirmation that god exists!

          Basically Swinburne doesn't show any sign how confidence is established in statistical inference.

          All steps, the setup of priors, the conditional probabilities and the probability readout are flawed.

        7. Oh come on, the “he is just making us think about it in a new way” is just as much a cop-out as saying “I was just playing devil’s advocate”. Are you seriously suggesting that Swinburne didn’t actually believed his own argument?

          And no, god doesn’t have to be material to be more complex than the universe. He has to be more complex in the information theoretical sense of the word too, since an All-knowing god must contain at least as much information as the universe. And that’s not counting the information contained in its own plans and desires. Admittedly, we have currently no real concept of information that doesn’t require some sort of physical medium, but physicality is not a presupposition for this argument at all.

          And as others have pointed out already, an unexplainable explanation isn’t an explanation at all.

        8. “For if there were some external factor on which God’s existence depended, as must be the case if the existence of God is explained by something else, then that factor could not be subject to God’s power, as omnipotence requires. So omnipotence entails non-explainability.”

          Isn’t this just another version of the ontological argument (God is the best possible, and to exist is better than not to exist, therefore God exists), with “powerful” instead of “good”? God is so powerful he doesn’t need anything to make him exist….

          And isn’t this just another way of saying that God’s omnipotence is the true, full omnipotence, able to do even the logically impossible? But if logic fails, then all discussion fails – such a God can both exist and not exist at the same time, for example.

          I just want to cut the Gordian knot, and say “therefore an omnipotent being is impossible”. End of story.

    3. Thank you John. Actually, I had put 2 and 2 together when I read your first note, and realised that you were obviously the person who had written originally to Jerry. I thought it was up to you to identify yourself if you chose to, since Jerry’s note seemed to imply that you did not want to be identified. However, I thought you made it quite clear in your opening note that you were the one.

      Second, while I agree with you that in order to assess Swinburne’s arguments fully one would have to read his more complete works, and not base oneself on his more popular work, I also feel that the popular work gives a pretty good idea where he is going, and after reading it, I was not convinced that his other arguments would be sound. I ignored them, and decided to read other philosophers. One must choose somewhere. My own sense is that where Swinburne falls down so badly is in his theodicy. His remarks on theodicy are so disastrous that it is hard to see how he could resurrect anything of real value, no matter how sophisticated his other reasoning is on issues like the simplicity of God or how his work on philosophy of science and epistemology contribute to an argument for the existence of a god. His theodicy of course does not mean he is an nasty man, but it does mean that he has failed a major test for the claim that he has provided reasonable grounds for belief in God.

      On the other hand, I have throughout argued your point, that it is important to consider the arguments of philosophy of religion very seriously, and that many of those commenting here show a callous disregard for careful thought. And this concerns me deeply. I do not think it would be entirely fair to characterise Jerry in this way, since he has shown considerable willingness to consider and assess serious argument. Of course, he is a biologist, not a philosopher, and one can scarcely expect from him the depth that we have a right to expect from you.

      While I enjoyed Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, one of the things that concerned me about it was the apparent unwillingness to dig deeper, and it seemed to me that this might have a deleterious effect on the willingness of atheists to take a closer critical look at their atheism and its philosophical underpinnings. Unfortunately, this seems to me to have happened in many cases. Of course, not everyone can be a philosopher, and spend the kind of time philosophers do in delving into the depths of argument, but the unfortunate effect has been, in many cases, that the atheist case has been critically undeveloped, and there seems little willingness amongst atheists to do the hard critical work that is necessary to give their beliefs strong foundations. That is a pity, because clearly many religious philosophers are still prepared to do the hard work involved, and that will simply marginalise atheism as a critical position.

      What is concerning is that people who are devoted to critical and sceptical thinking in one area think that critical and sceptical thinking needs simply to do its job once, and they are forever freed from the responsiblity of doing it again. No human thought works like this. Human thought, like science, is an ongoing activity, and does not come to an end, so it is necessary, in order to maintain one’s place in the conversation, to continue mastering the arguments, and dealing with the questions that arise. This, it seems to me, was the important thing that you were pointing out to Jerry, and I fully agree. I wouldn’t start with Swinburne, however, thought that is a personal choice. I have never been particularly moved by what he has to say, but, since I have The Coherence of Theism in my library, I will give it a go, and see if it will lead me on to the rest.

      1. Here’s the issue. Atheists are rationalists. We believe in metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism. It is not the atheist’s responsibility to prove the negative, to prove that God does not exist. I am certainly not a philosopher and I have not even studied philosophy in any serious way, so it’s very possible that from a philosophical perspective I am making a mistake, perhaps I am somehow called on to prove the negative here. At which point I will fail because in terms of empirical evidence (I’m speaking here of a deity, not of theism), I see nothing to prove the existence of God. Maybe this is bad or weak philosophy. Maybe I need to read more complex ideas, but I don’t see how thoughtful and complicated logic can lead to an empirical proof for God. And that’s what it would take to convince most/many atheists. Until that point, I feel quite comfortable not believing in something for which I have no evidence to believe in.

      2. My general problem with theodicy and much of apologetics is that they seem premised on intellectual dishonesty – arguing for a predetermined outcome. Years of reading science books have taught me that intellectual honesty isn’t merely possible but is an expected norm in research and discovery.

        When I see whole fields of study devoted to dismissing evidence, I think something must be very wrong indeed. When I hear horror stories about not merely theodicy but poor theodicy, it raises big questions about the author’s commitment to truth, inquiry, knowledge and integrity.

        If you’ll excuse the language, I don’t give a rat’s shit about reading the best arguments for God’s existence. I’ve seen enough. What I value now are honest explorations of our universe and acquiring knowledge and insight. Where there are genuine debates I’ll do some investigation but this debate is anything but honest and I think it does an awful disservice to real philosophers to be continually associated with apologists and theologians who abuse & misuse the structure and language of philosophy to create the illusion of rational belief while abandoning any methodology or fallacy check which might point them to other conclusions.

        When you talk about “digging deeper”, I greatly fear that you are guilty of giving these arguments far too much credit and treating this as if there is a genuine debate with intellectual equals on both sides.

    4. It seems we have two questions at discussion here: is Swinburne amongst the best that the apologists have to offer; and are his apologetics any good?

      Personally, I really don’t care about the former — only the latter. It matters not which pig wins the beauty pageant if all the entrants are pigs.

      And I think this thread has served to soundly demonstrate that Swinburne is full of pig shit.

      You suggest we hold our noses at his theodicity, yet that is entirely apropos: the gods he proposes are themselves powerfully evil. If they are extant, they are our worst possible enemies and to be fought, not worshipped.

      But, more to the point, his attempts to apply Bayesian probability to the matter thoroughly impeach his credibility as a serious thinker. As Furcas in #58 quotes, for example, all he’s done is put numbers to Lewis’s Trilemma. He doesn’t even pretend to be thorough in his statistical evaluation of the evidence; for example, what are the odds that Jesus could have been the real deal but that all his contemporaries (including Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pliny the Elder, and many more) either never noticed him, never bothered to mention him, or that all their references to him were lost? What are the odds that, as no less a Christian apologist than Justin Martyr went to great pains to point out in excruciating detail, every single story of any importance about Jesus had obvious precedents in Pagan predecessors? What are the odds that all early non-Christian sources would have dismissed Christianity in the same way that we today dismiss Raelians and Scientologists? I could continue at great length.

      The beauty of Bayesian probability is that you can start with completely worng assumptions and still come up with the right answers, but only if you then follow up with massive amounts of accurate data. In a move so childishly transparent as to be laughable, Swinburne starts with his desired conclusions and then never follows up with a thorough examination of massive quantities of carefully-assessed data. He starts with his most important conclusions, adds in a couple more of his favorite-but-less-important conclusions for flavor, and creates a perfect demonstration of how to create the exact problem Bayes was intending to solve.

      In doing so, Swinburne has demonstrated either profound ignorance and incompetence by so thoroughly failing to understand the most important facet of a very elegant bit of math, or he’s demonstrated that he’ll gleefully dupe the marks in the most “sophisticated” way he can, if that’s what it takes. Or, more charitably, he’s suffering from such a powerful case of cognitive dissonance that he dare not pay any attention to the man behind the curtain and he’ll do whatever he can to keep the little girl and her dog from pulling back the curtain, either.

      So, since you’re so well versed in the subject, any chance you might be able to present a theologian who’s not merely “sophisticated” but actually demonstrates a beginner’s level of understanding of the analytical techniques he tries to use? That might be a better starting place.



      1. Sorry, Ben, but this has to qualify as the most benighted remark on the whole thread:

        “And I think this thread has served to soundly demonstrate that Swinburne is full of pig shit.”

        This is not the way thought is done. I agree that Swinburne’s theodicy colours, for me, at any rate, what I see as his value as a philosopher of religion. That may be premature, though I rather think not. But to characterise someone in the way you do is completely inapropriate. By all means argue against arguments, or question a person’s sincerity, but we don’t need to descend to crude hyperbole.

        1. This is not the way thought is done.

          Oh, come on. I guess I agree that this is not the right place to toss around four-letter words, but Ben and others have done a pretty good job of arguing that the shoe fits.

          Object to “crude” terms if you want, but don’t be such a priggish tone troll about it.

          It sounds like you agree with the arguments that indicate that Swinburne is, in colloquial terms, “full of shit,” and are awaiting any counterarguments, as I am.

          If that’s right, don’t say “this is not how thought is done.” It’s exactly how thought is done, and a little cussing doesn’t change that.

        2. I’m sorry, Eric, but I’ll stand by that remark.

          Respect must be earned. When it has been demonstrated to be undeserved, it must be withheld, else the concept has no meaning.

          Swinburne has demonstrated at best profound ignorance, with mendacious sophistry being (to me, at least) a much more likely explanation.

          This sub-thread here should have for you ample demonstration that his use of Bayesian math is so spectacularly misapplied and incorrectly executed as to beggar disbelief. And, apparently, he has been repeatedly shown the error of his ways over a period of years. He has been soundly castigated and ridiculed by mathematicians, and his fallacies are so transparent that they would qualify as freshman-level textbook caricatures of how not to use the technique.

          Elsewhere in the thread we can see ample evidence of equally-boneheaded reasoning from him. Richard Dawkins alone supplied many examples.

          Granting him the dignity of respect does a disservice to the furtherance of human knowledge. Whether he’s a conniving swindler, suffering from an acute case of cognitive dissonance, or simply a blithering fucking idiot doesn’t really matter: he is not deserving of respect. Whether he is deserving of pity, scorn, or ridicule is a topic for another discussion.



          P.S. To re-emphasize: the beauty of Bayesian math is that one can start with whatever probabilities you like. Swinburne’s 50/50 for the existence of his favorite god is as good as any. But, using his logic that either his favorite god exists or it doesn’t, one must also assume that each of every other potential gods do or don’t exist. After adding in all those data points to the mix, the Bayesian odds of the existence of Jesus go from 50% to 0.00000001%. Next, one would want to start coming up with an objective means of ranking the probability of each of those tens of thousands of gods existing and adjust their rankings accordingly — and here you’ve only just barely scratched the surface of what you need to do to apply Bayesian math to the question. And by now, if you still can’t understand just how spectacularly worng Swinburne is, I must question whether or not your own intellect is a match for his. b&

          1. “…Swinburne’s 50/50 for the existence of his favorite god is as good as any…”

            No, it is clearly not even bad.
            For it commits the logical fallacy of “the excluded middle”.
            This is not even a freshman mistake.
            It is an elementary school error of such egregious measure, that it I suspect that is intentionally deceptive.
            The alternatives are even less pretty or less flattering than outright duplicity.

            1. All I meant by that was that, in the context of Bayesian statistical analysis, the initial assessment of odds is irrelevant. He could have assumed a 100% chance for the existence of his gods, or 0%, or anything inbetween. Had he then followed through with a suitable data set and analysis, assuming the data set was valid and the analysis properly executed, a few bad data points here and there would get lost in the noise.

              When you’re training your spam filter, if you make a mistrake on the first note you mark as spam / not-spam, it’ll result in really bad predictions up front. But correctly identify the next thousand or so, and the problem will have gone away. And at that point, mistrakes at the typical human frequency won’t even be a blip on the radar.



    5. Sometimes ad hominem arguments are suggested citing in their premises his evident nastiness as a person – look at what he says about suffering! – or his apologetic motives.

      Yes, his views on suffering appear to show a distinct lack of compassion, but that’s not the problem. They also don’t impress when it comes to good thinking. If the existence of God means that even holocausts can somehow be good for humanity, then this means we have no way to separate moral actions from immoral ones anymore. I’m sure there is more serious philosophy behind this, but I doubt the final conclusion is going to be very different.

      You may say that creationist thinking is obviously defective because creationists have not read sophisticated evolutionary literature and learned to develop their objections in interaction with the best evolutionists have to offer, and so even if it could be made obvious that Darwin is wrong, they would still not be entitled to their view. I agree.

      I disagree. The problem isn’t that creationists haven’t read the sophisticated evolutionary literature. The problem is they haven’t even read the basic evolutionary literature. Popular books like WEIT or TGSOE are sufficient to show why creationism just doesn’t work. What’s important is that we all understand the basics of evolution, and the basics of its main evidence. The details can wait till later.

      If you want to be a biologist, of course, those details suddenly become very important. But we don’t all have to become expert biologists before we can dismiss creationism with some confidence.

      Similarly, we should definitely all know the basics of philosophy, and the basic arguments for and against atheism. But we don’t all have to become expert philosophers before we can dismiss theism with some confidence, do we?

      Look, I’ve been aware of some of Swinburne’s arguments, as well as some rebuttals, even if they may not be all of a scholarly level. Same for Plantinga. Thanks to your suggestions, and those of Eric MacDonald and others, I now know of some more places to look, should I want to learn more. In a way, it’s often more important to know where to find the details, should you need them, then to know all details about everything, which is impossible anyway. So I sincerely thank you for that.

      However, you also have to understand, that based on what I know so far about Swinburne, and given the fact that I do not currently have the desire to become a professional philosopher, it will not get a high priority on my reading list, which is long enough as it is already.

    6. isn’t Swinburne just woefully awful? Almost everyone here seems to think so, though on what grounds?

      I’m a professional mathematician. In my opinion, Swinburne’s misuse of Bayes’ rule coupled with his reliance on the “principle of insufficient reason” is an egregious, laughable mistake. Swinburne clings to this error across years and the pages of many books, and in the face of repeated, devastating criticism. That Swinburne is distinguished as a theologist and philosopher should be all the more embarrassing for these fields.

      But don’t take my word for it. Just pause and take the 3 seconds of thought required to see that assigning arbitrary probabilities to arbitrarily selected events will always result in absurd results.

      Swinburne actually purports to compute the probability that god exists and that Jesus was his son. Let’s call this what it is: that’s not just a mathematical error, but mathematical crackpotism.

      It should be a major embarrassment for any theist or philosopher who missed such crazy mistakes.

      This whole episode with Swinburne and Bayes reinforces Steven Weinberg’s assessment oh philosophy:

      The value today of philosophy to physics seems to me to be something like the value of early nation-states to their peoples. It is only a small exaggeration to say that, until the introduction of the post office, the chief service of nation-states was to protect their peoples from other nation-states. The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers.

      1. stvs,

        I’m posting this here in the hopes that, if I don’t get this right, you’ll correct me.

        I think email spam analysis is the easiest way for a layman to understand how Bayesian math is and should be used.

        First, you come up with as many different ways of objectively assigning a score to a message. It might be the ratio of words in the spellcheck dictionary to those not; the number of words in the email; the counts of specific words; the ratio of upper- and lower-case letters in the subject line; the number of mail gateways in the header; or any of a vast array of other possibilities. You want to use each and every metric you can think of, not just those few you think are more likely to be relevant.

        Next, you ask a human: is this particular message spam or not?

        Next, you repeat both processes for at least hundreds, preferably thousands, of messages.

        Finally, you get a message that the human hasn’t yet evaluated but that you have performed the objective analysis of. The magic hand-waving of Bayesian math will calculate the probability, complete with error bands, that this new message is or isn’t spam.

        How good the prediction is will depend on whether or not your objective analyses are measuring things highly correlated with what you consider spam. It might be that spelling is equally good / bad between spammers and legitimate senders, so Bayesian math automagically gives spelling very little weight in the final calculation. If the presence of the word, “Viagra,” is universally correlated with what you consider spam, any message with that word will have a much higher probability (but not 100%) of being marked as spam. Obviously, a proctologist will have different rankings on that particular score from the general population.

        Hope this helps the uninitiated.



        1. As another professional mathematician, I agree that [infantile magical garbage in] = [completely incoherent bullshit out], Bayesian analysis or not.

    7. While I don’t agree with Schellenbergs reasons for reading the works in questions (obvious fallacies are obvious after all) I applaud the giving of reasons for the recommendations.

      And must somewhat agree on the clarity – after all: Swinburne managed to convince me he’s not worth my time in his introduction. Not because he was obtuse or unclear, but because he clearly stated his position. That is commendable even though IMHO he’s just playing philosophical silly buggers… (Which by all means can be a fun game, it’s just lacking in general interest outside a narrowly defined community)

    8. “But then you’ll see why I must regard those of you who are not interested in reading and seriously trying to understand the best of theistic writing, or in learning to develop your objections to theism in interaction with it, but who wish to have your atheism taken seriously, as having a precisely analogous problem.”

      It’s comments like this that make philosophers sound irritatingly smug.

      What does it mean to have one’s atheism “taken seriously”? If you mean “regarded by philosophers of religion as a serious contribution to the academic field,” then fine, I can live with that.

      If a believer hasn’t extensively read philosophy of religion, would would say that her theism should not be taken seriously? Somehow I expect you wouldn’t, because you’d realize that such a statement at least sounds like it runs afoul of the “respect” we’re all supposedly obligated to show believers.

      And here’s another double standard: “Reading this popular work is no substitute for reading the more rigorous, developed work, The Existence of God, which I recommended. There and in other books and papers Swinburne at length and with careful arguments defends what he says about, for example, simplicity. Professor Dawkins does not interact with any of this.”

      I don’t think Dawkins has ever claimed that The God Delusion was meant to be a scholarly contribution to the field of philosophy. I think of it as a sort of Atheism FAQ: a work intended for a broad audience that addresses the common questions and criticisms that people have for atheists. Yet people like John Shook want to wag their fingers at Dawkins and others for doing so.

      On the other hand, when Swinburne writes a “popular” work on the subject, we’re told that Dawkins’s criticisms aren’t really fair because hey, it’s only a popular work and you really have to read Swinburne’s other books.

      1. There and in other books and papers Swinburne at length and with careful arguments defends what he says about, for example, simplicity. Professor Dawkins does not interact with any of this.

        He does. On pp 176-179 in the Black Swan -07 paperback of “The God Delusion”, he makes much the same short and strong point as in his review he thoughtfully published in the comments.

    9. Richard Dawkins, himself (among other things) an apologist for atheism,

      I don’t consider Dawkins an apologist for atheism, since he clearly presents observable likelihoods (if not tests) that does not defend atheism but empirically investigates nature.

      Similarly Swinburne is one of the very few theist non-apologists. The difference is that he is laughable wrong, while Dawkins is correct. And Dawkins is fruitfully so, since we can add his “The God Delusion” to the empirical basis of the materialism we observe.

      their tendency to start most discussions with the assumption that they’re right

      It has been mentioned many times that most vocal atheists are provisional atheists. Like Dawkins they have empirical reasons to conclude what they do. Thus they can explain under which circumstances they would change their conclusion.

      That a provisional conclusion is an “assumption” is a strawman, a category mistake or what have you. It is as laughable as Swinburne, yet it remains the favorite claim of theists and accommodationists alike. Since their position is not revisable when prompted for circumstances what would make them change their mind, the “theft over honest toil” adage indeed comes to mind. Have you placed yourself?

    10. How does the “more rigorous work” differ from the load of crap that R. Dawkins previously reviewed? Does inflating a single paragraph of arguments into multiple volumes, as Thomas Aquinas did, make the silly arguments any more valid? The sophists seemed to believe so, but the sophists have always been and will forever remain the butt of all jokes. Well, maybe not all jokes – Swinburne can be the butt of some.

  55. Probably no-one is reading these comments by now, but one thing that intrigues me is the sheer callousness that Swinburne’s beliefs justify regarding, say, Hiroshima or cancer. You find the same callousness in John Henry Newman’s works (and, I suspect, in Mother Teresa’s attitude towards dying paupers)- which seems to amount to something along the lines of given the vastly important metaphysical or spiritual issues at stake, human suffering is a trivial thing. This callousness is a very intellectual blindness – that of a certain kind of intellectual, and certainly not confined to religion (though religion seems to foster it rather more successfully than most modes of thinking): for example, the economist Karl Polanyi in his The Great Transformation speaks of thinkers ‘arming themselves with science’ (as I remember) to justify the suffering caused by economic exploitation.

    1. Well, I’m still reading. 🙂

      “…given the vastly important metaphysical or spiritual issues at stake, human suffering is a trivial thing.”

      This also infuses the retched defense of child rape in the Catholic Church.

    2. which seems to amount to something along the lines of given the vastly important metaphysical or spiritual issues at stake, human suffering is a trivial thing

      And this is not only a callous argument, but it is clearly an example of apologetics and not philosophy — the presuppositional nature of the claim is blatantly clear.

  56. I have just read, as John Schellinger requests, Swinburne’s response to Dawkins, and his defence of the reasons for suffering – which amounts, so far as I can see to this: that if God had explicitly informed us of his existence and told us that if we cared for the poor and the starving, then we should inevitably go to Heaven, then there would be no genuine moral life, since we should behave ‘morally’ simply for our own selfish ends and not out of genuine moral feeling. I am sorry, but I find this argument contemptible, not least in the way it takes the point of view of the person who is not suffering and who contemplates the sufferer, and supposes that this point of view is in some sense absolute (the person suffering doesn’t get a look in). It does not seem to me to be an argument that could be made by anybody who has a genuine, as opposed to a merely intellectual, understanding of what suffering is.

    1. Assuming your characterization of Swinburne’s response is accurate, does that not imply that any religious teaching that mentions heaven or any other eternal reward (or punishment) is immoral and contrary to God’s will? Shouldn’t God want to keep the existence of Heaven a secret for the same reason that he keeps his own existence a secret?

      1. At the very least, it implies that atheists who do good deeds are morally superior to Christians who do good deeds.

        1. Well, we can start by hiding from our children after they are born so that we won’t impinge on their ability to do good for the right reasons.

    2. Absolutely despicable, and beyond that, since Swinburne is evidently a christian, it is absolutely in contradiction with the founding doctrines, such that he would certainly be destined for Hellfire. (If it existed) Math 25:34 – 41

      1. Math 25:34 – 41
        I looked that up in my bible.
        Math: Advanced Engineering Mathematics, by the God Erwin Kreyszig.
        But it does not have a chapter 25.
        In which Math book should I be searching for this doctrinal truth?
        Heaven forbid that it should be the Math book to which Swinburne refers:
        The Ladybird Big Bumper Book of Bayesian Bullshit for Infants. © 1842, Unseen University Press.

  57. Also, Mr Schelling, it is wrong to assert that the response to your suggestion to read Swinburne has been merely ill-informed. A number of commentators have made very cogent criticisms of, for example, his misuse of Bayes’ theorem.

    1. There have been no cogent criticisms of Swinburne’s use of Bayes’ theorem. There have been several claimst that there are such cogent criticisms, but that is a very different thing.

      1. If I may be so bold, I think I did so reasonably well at a layman’s level in my response to John Schellenberg’s post at #63.

        If you think that what I wrote does not rise to the level of a cogent criticism, I’d appreciate an explanation of my shortcomings.



      2. “The probably of God’s existence is one in two. That is, God either exists or doesn’t.”

        Two possibilities does not encode their respective probabilities.

        This is very basic.

        If people hold this in high regard, that is strong evidence that they know nothing about probability theory.

        But yes, we have not even invoked Bayes’ theorem yet. No need. The prior is invalid so it will give garbage.

        For example, you have a coin flip. We cannot just assume that the chance of the coin flip is 1/2. We have to know the underlying probability distribution. One side could be slanted. In the same way it is not enough to know that a door can be opened or closed, to state that it’s probability to be open is 1/2. We need to know the operational probability distribution. In fact the door may never be open, nailed shut etc. We simply do not know the probabilities.

        In short, one cannot assume probabilities for anything for which we do not have sufficient knowledge how the choices have a chance of occuring.

        And yes this is very basic introductory probability theory.

        Now Bayesian inference can be used to construct tests about shakey hypothesis. But the idea is not, as Swineburn does, to use a chain of shakey hypothesis against each other. No, the point is to use strongly established data to add knowledge and show that it is indeed extremely unlikely that the initial hypothesis is true (at best, no matter how poorly it was guessed).

        It is rather clear from what I have seen that Swineburn nowhere sets up a proper hypothesis test throug Bayesian inference, but rather uses Bayesian theorem to give likelihoods of an assumption while all priors are claimed without underlying distributions actually being justified.

        1. I play a lot of poker. Probability theory and Bayes theorem is quite valuable in that pursuit. Bayes gives solid, usable information about playing opponents with whom I have only a little experience. On the other hand, if I used Swinburne’s application of such I would lose my shirt. In poker terms, Swinburne is a fish.