God relies on luck of the draw for support

Epistemic Justification
October 25, 2002

Richard Swinburne's work is like philosophical Cuprinol. It guards against rot, and it does what it says on the tin (or, more precisely, on the dust jacket). Put another way, Epistemic Justification is a book that may well be judged by its cover.

First, there is the title. Polysyllabic and jargon-laden, the two words already imply what the preface will make explicit. The book's target audience is academic, undergraduates engaged in a course on epistemology, and the 40 pages of appendix and additional notes has material too technical even for them.

Second, there is what is said - or rather not said - in the blurb. Publishers commonly extend the market for student texts by commending them to the interested general reader. Ominously, there is no such invitation in this case.

Having ignored these warnings, I brought to the book an expectation it was never going to fulfil. Swinburne is a philosopher best known as a champion of traditional Christian belief. Yet this book on what makes it reasonable to hold a given belief contains no direct application to religious faith. The word God does not even appear in the index. I was unreasonably disappointed.

What the book does provide is a painstaking analysis of the many accounts that philosophers give of the key term justification in relation to beliefs in general. Swinburne judges that these are not rival accounts of a single concept, but descriptions of different kinds of justification. He distinguishes these kinds, shows how they relate to each other, discusses what each indicates about the truth of the belief it justifies, and asks whether each kind of justification is worth having. Finally, he explains the difference between justified belief and knowledge.

Swinburne agrees with Locke that we cannot help having the belief we do at a particular time, be it true or false. This is because believing is a passive and involuntary state, not something we actively engage in and can change at will. But this does not leave us totally at the mercy of our beliefs. We can and ought to consider whether a particular belief is a reasonable response to the overall situation in which it arises - whether or not it is justified.

Following Kihyeon Kim, Swinburne analyses epistemic theories according to their grounds, their basing and their adequacy. Each of these three elements is classified either as internalist, if its role in justification depends on its being mentally accessible to the subject by introspection, or externalist, if it does not. Swinburne's own contribution to the process is his emphasis on the distinction between synchronic and diachronic justification. The former relates to the situation in which a believer finds himself at a given instant; the latter concerns a response to adequate investigation over a period of time. Swinburne is clear that a rational change in belief can result only from an extended investigation of what, based on its evidence, makes one particular belief more probable than the alternatives. He therefore stresses the importance of diachronic justification.

Much of the book is taken up with questions relating to probability, since our assessment of the likelihood of certain states occurring is crucial to our beliefs. For instance, I am impressed by the millions-to-one odds against any particular set of numbers winning the lottery. I therefore believe I should never win and so I never buy a ticket. You, in contrast, may be more impressed by the certainty that every draw will produce one set of winning numbers, and therefore always buy one ticket in the belief that it could be you who wins. Are both beliefs equally justified?

In tackling such questions, the author offers sure-footed guidance through the minefield of physical probability, statistical probability, inductive probability and so on, relating the different kinds of likelihood to internalist and externalist theories respectively. Yet even here, where one sensed that one might be getting close to some practical outcome from all the theoretical analysis, the result is somehow disappointing. The great defender of the soul and theism seems to reduce belief to mere numerical formulae.

The book's close might also be an anticlimax for readers who anticipate some reward (other than examination success) for their philosophical toil. Just as you are reflecting that at least the quality of your future beliefs will be better for all the work put into their justification, Swinburne announces at the very end of the last chapter: "I conclude that a strong true belief is none the worse at the time at which it is held for being the result of luck."

The Rev Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

Epistemic Justification

Author - Richard Swinburne
ISBN - 0 19 924378 6 and 924379 4
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00 and £14.99
Pages - 262

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