One God against the odds

January 19, 1996

On the basis of his article "From the laboratory to the inventor", (THES, January 12) Richard Swinburne's forthcoming book, Is there a God?, is unlikely to ask what is surely the central question, namely, "is there a relevant god?".

The point that Professor Swinburne tries to establish, that the "initial conditions of the universe and the special character of the laws of nature can be explained in terms of the actions of an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly free God" is of no consequence to either science or religion.

As to the former, note that his assertion that "science could not explain why the basic laws of nature are as they are" would leave any scientist - ie anyone attempting to discover what the laws of nature are - profoundly unaffected.

In fact, Professor Swinburne's statement can be rephrased as saying that there can be no "end of science" - surely a welcome relief to all precariously employed scientists.

Whether we call this ever-receding chimera either God, or Truth, or Knowledge is of little consequence. As to the second point, for any religion the existence of God is a necessary but not sufficient condition: unlike the gorilla who resides in my fridge and disappears leaving its content untouched every time I open the door, a religiously significant god must have a moral dimension.

As an atheist, I can accept the notion of a God (or indeed an infinite number of gods) "constantly active, moving the stars and atoms in a regular way", much in the same way my gorilla does not trouble me.

It is when fellow humans try to convince me that they have been told by God that some patterns of behaviour are good and others bad that I start feeling uneasy. So would they, if I were to warn them that the gorillas in their fridges may one day tear off their hands reaching for a naughty cream eclair.

Professor Swinburne's claim that that the reason for the basic laws of nature cannot be explained by science qua science can be turned on its head by saying that believers can never explain the existence of a morally-relevant god, thus establishing the incompatibility between religion and science.

Manfredi La Manna Reader in economics University of St Andrews Email: Richard Swinburne offers two arguments in support of his contention that there is a scientifically acceptable rationale for the existence of God. One of these is certainly preposterous; the other is probably naive.

Professor Swinburne argues that a slight variation in the magnitude of the Big Bang would have ensured that organisms would have failed to evolve. The implication is therefore that God must somehow have intended to get the initial conditions "right".

This is not science: the process of inferring some kind of supernatural intention from the outcome to what is probably a random combination of events is essentially the preserve of witchcraft. In any case, however, to suggest that the intention must necessarily have been to create an environment congenial to living organisms is to take a curiously parochial view of God's cosmic plan.

The second argument is that the regularities we observe in nature imply a more fundamental law which itself give rise to such regularities. This is to invest almost unquestioning faith in those "laws" which man has conveniently (and so far) been able to codify, and to neglect the possibility - for which there is already some evidence - that there may one day be discovered different laws, and different frameworks within which there exist no discernible regularities.

R. Rothschild Department of Economics Lancaster University In response to "Cards stacked against tarot" (Opinion, THES, January 12), I would have thought those in higher education had "a special duty to think hard" about why people behave as they do, and an obligation not to resort to arrogant and offensive slogans such as "a tax on stupidity".

The National Lottery embodies the successful exploitation by an amoral regime of those very people whom it has systematically pauperised over the past 16 years. A "tax on desperation" is a far more accurate description.

And you are wrong about the adrenalin buzz - more astute commentators have remarked on the change in attitudes of many of those taking part; it's no longer "a flutter", or a bit of fun for them, but a desperate throw for a way out of poverty. It is in that sense rational behaviour, because all other options are closed.

Any regressive tax by definition bears hardest on those least able to afford it.

What is so appalling about the lottery is that it can be presented by ministers as the exercise of choice - choice as to how to spend the pittance of income support (or indeed a student grant).

There but for the grace of God . . . would be a more useful attitude, but then of course "God" is also an irrational construct according to Richard Swinburne so perhaps a reminder of recent articles on the insecurities of Middle England would be more appropriate?

Carol Smith Student services manager Leeds Metropolitan University

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