Richard Swinburne proposed this argument for the existence of God during a debate at Oxford University. His argument’s uses an approach called “natural theology” because it appeals to nature and human reason when arguing for the existence of God.
I often hear people dismiss the idea of God. “We just don’t know”, they say. Swinburne appeals to nature, and to human reason, and takes issue with this claim.
Swinburne’s proposition is that God is a personal being. Clearly, we are too. But unlike us, God has no limits or constraints placed upon him.
Further, God’s also perfectly good and free from irrational inclinations. Unfortunately, we can’t consistently do the right and good thing. Partly, that’s because we don’t always do the rational thing. There are many complicated reasons for this. But God’s not subject to this limitation – we might not fully understand why he does certain things (he’s God and we’re not) but God acts on reason always. He’s free – and he is good.
Swinburne proposes that if this God exists and is responsible for the universe – then that would explain two interesting observations.
1 – that there IS a physical universe in the first place.
2 – the Universe is governed by laws (captured by theories like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity).
These laws mean that every single particle in the universe has the same power and liability to influence any other particle in the universe.
Why would Swinburne’s description of God explain the existence of our ordered universe?
First – a good God would naturally seek to bring about good things. Fundamentally, human beings are intended as good things. It’s good for me that we all exist…and its good for you too. Of course, we face choices on how to treat each other. And we don’t always choose the good thing. But – its good for us that God has delegated this choice to us. We have free will because God intended it that way.
Second – for beings like us to exist, God must provide the necessary conditions. We are limited beings, embodied and our physical bodies require a physical universe.
If we are to be able to act as free beings in this universe, it has to be an ordered and regular universe. Not a chaotic one. What does this mean?
1 – we can predict what will happen. For example, if I feed you then – all things being equal – you will live. If I poison you…you will die.
2 – in a chaotic universe, it wouldn’t matter what I did…I would never actually know how it might affect you…. either positively or negatively. A regular universe is required for us to see how things behave. And this regularity is captured by certain laws, like physical laws, and these lead to general principles. For example, food nourishes and poison kills.
Swinburne’s claim is – if this sort of God exists – then you would expect to have a universe which is ordered.
What if there wasn’t a God like this. Would we expect this sort of ordered universe?
First – think about our physical universe.
Every particle of matter stretching across our mind-bendingly vast universe. Not only do these particles of matter exist in the first place…they are completely regular. Each and every one is composed of the same sub-atomic building blocks and behaves exactly the same way.
Now – how likely would this be if there was no God? Wouldn’t this be a bit like winning the lottery…not once…but a trillion-trillion times in perfect sequence?
Yet some people who do not believe in God might say – that’s just how the universe is.
But to believe that every particle of matter behaves as every other particle of matter – yet then proceed to decide that this state of affairs doesn’t require a meaningful explanation – seems deeply unscientific.
1 – you are faced with an overwhelmingly enormous number of coincidences.
2 – you can explain them all by a very simple explanation – there is a God.
3 – to stop at the coincides and to live with them, flies in the face of the scientific method.
So – we have data about how our universe is structured and behaves. Matter exists, and there are conscious beings who are able to recognise and analyse that fact. If there’s a God, you would expect that data. If there’s no God – if the physical laws are somehow ultimate and there’s nothing and no one beyond them – then you would not expect this data. It’s just astronomically unlikely.
Second – think about human moral choice.
We are faced with the choices whether to help or hinder other people…to hurt or to benefit. I face this choice, and evil results when I abuse the privilege of this choice. God’s good, and he’s interested in making people who are good and who will live forever.
The way human beings work, the choices we repeatedly make form our characters. Every time we choose to do the good and right thing, its easier to make that choice again. Likewise, every time we compromise, its easier to compromise in the future. God allows us the freedom to make these choices – but his goal is to help us develop good character.
So – what about human suffering, then? The fact that human beings suffer seems to fly in the face of this. Does suffering disprove the existence of God because it takes away human moral choice?
Well – to develop good character, we must have serious problems to face and to overcome. If I become ill, then the question is how will I deal with this? Will I grow in resentment and become a negative influence on the people around me? Or – will I face this challenge good naturedly?
Isn’t it reasonable to assume that God would provide difficult situations as an opportunity – during our limited time on this planet – to give us the chance to develop a good character? While this does not cover all issues related to human suffering, it poses a serious challenge to me. How will I choose to respond when I am suffering?
So – human freedom – and the choice to build a good or reprobate character – points to the existence of God.
In summary – this is the sort of world you would expect to have if there was a God. If there was no God – it would just be unbelievable that such a world would exist.
Therefore – on that basis – Swinburne proposes that there is a God.
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