Two centuries after David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion first appeared in 1779, Richard Swinburne published The Existence of God (1979), in which he revived the outlook of Hume's protagonist Cleanthes. Cleanthes represents the popular apologetics of the Royal Society theologians (Dereham, Strype, Wilkins) who flourished in the generation after Locke and Leibniz. Presenting the existence of God as an empirical hypothesis to explain the existence and the order of the natural world, these writers tried to show that God would continue to preside over the new scientific world view, very much as he had presided over the older metaphysical and religious cosmologies. The system is wise and benevolent, and all is, on the whole, for the best: "Cosmic Toryism", the late Basil Willey called it, and it remains an enduringly popular theme in Britain. To this day, scientist-theologians are sure of large sales.
In 1979 many of us were astonished by Richard Swinburne's very anthropomorphic theism, and his precritical philosophy. Even within his own favoured period, how could he disregard the growing conflict between empiricism and realism in Berkeley and Hume, and the consequent revolution in philosophy brought about by Kant? Can England remain forever stuck, like the magazine Country Life, in a dream of the early 18th century?
Of course it can, and it is. In the present book Richard Swinburne reiterates his views without any appreciable change. It is more probable than not that there is a bodiless Person who knows everything and can do whatever He chooses. The hypothesis that there is such a Person offers the simplest, strongest and clearest explanation of the existence and the order of the world.
Swinburne's God is not quite the old metaphysical God, logically-necessary Being, self-subsistent and timeless. He is more of a World-Soul, a hypothetical supermind, whose existence is described at one point as "the ultimate brute fact".
The objections to such a view are well known. On the philosophical side, when an explanation gets to seem too powerful, general, simple and clear, so that everything seems to count in favour of it and nothing seems capable of fully refuting it, then it begins to sound something like a benign version of a conspiracy theory. It cannot be refuted. It sounds too good to be true. And when in addition you are postulating hidden supernatural powers, matters get even worse, because all the ordinary rules of evidence break down. Jeremy Bentham once made the point here by mentioning the witchcraft trials. A woman charged with attending a witches' sabbath could not establish her alibi by proving that she had spent the night in question locked up in prison, because the devil - so the prosecution charged - had taken just her soul to the party, miraculously leaving her body behind in the lock-up. The supernatural simply cannot be argued about rationally, because all our criteria of what is rational presuppose naturalism.
Bentham further asks, where are the predictions that would test the hypothesis? From the wisdom and goodness of the Designer, can I infer that this red-capped toadstool and this attractive pink-and-blue berry must be as good to eat as they look; and if not, why not?
The religious objection to Swinburne's extreme theistic realism is even more telling. What makes his World-designer religiously interesting? He does not say anything about God's holiness, nor about why God should be an object of spiritual aspiration, nor about how God might be thought to indwell the believer. I feel absolutely no inclination to worship the vast invisible, soul-like worldwide web of living communication that nowadays encircles the globe all the time, so why should I or anyone else worship Swinburne's God?
Jains, Buddhists and others have made an important distinction between theistic realism and religious theocentrism. They acknowledge that devas, gods and spirits, may exist, but they say that the religious person should not concern himself with them. He should aim much higher than that. Similarly, in our own day, the most important criticism of theistic realism is the one that says that it is religiously quite inadequate. It is unfortunate that, like so many other philosophers, theologians and church leaders, Swinburne fails even to notice that this criticism has been made.
Don Cupitt is a lecturer in the philosophy of religion, University of Cambridge.
Is There a God?
Author - Richard Swinburne
ISBN - 0 19 823544 5 and 545 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00 and £7.99
Pages - 144