Swinburne: On the Defense of Christian Doctrine
Visiting Scholar Richard Swinburne discusses doctrine with CCT Associate Director Steve Porter.
Hello, my name is Steve Porter, I’m an Associate Director at the Center for Christian Thought here at Biola University, and I’m here today with Professor Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Religion at University of Oxford. And today we’re gonna be talking about philosophy of religion fairly generally. Richard you’ve published quite extensively in philosophy of religion. At what stage in your life did you decide to take this project on and what motivated you to do so?
Well I always had a natural interest in the big questions and philosophy traditionally over the years has been concerned with the big questions. What can we know, what is the world ultimately like, what does it depend on, what is space, what is time, and so on. And so I studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Oxford, together with one or two other subjects but philosophy was my main subject.
I’ve also myself always been religious and it seemed to me in the 1950s when I was an undergraduate that there was a sharp division between the secular world and the religious world. Of course in those days there was more people in the religious world, but they didn’t feel any need to interact with the secular world in the sense of interact with the knowledge claims of the secular world. And the secular world was saying there aren’t any moral truths, there isn’t a god, the science can explain everything.
And the religious people said oh well it’s all a matter of faith and left it at that. And that seemed a very careless attitude on the part of religion. The Christian religion has always claimed that there are good arguments in favor of its truth claims though it has also claimed that not everybody needs to have arguments in order to be religious. And the churches weren’t making a serious attempt to show that some of these secular claims were wrong, but that the best arguments would lead to the traditional Christian claims.
And it seemed to me that philosophy at that time, although it wasn’t achieving any great results, but it did have certain techniques of careful argument which could be applied to the claims of the Christian religion and show their relation to some of the moral claims and scientific claims of the modern world. So I thought there is work to be done and I found it interesting, I thought it would serve an important religious purpose if I went into these matters.
But overall I was especially aware that the modern world regarded science as the paradigm of truth and I hadn’t really learnt much science up to undergraduate days and so I was fortunate enough to have a couple of research fellowships after I’d got a graduate degree in philosophy and I spent those learning history and philosophy of science and I devoted the first 10 years of my academic career not at all to the issues of the interaction of philosophy, science and religion, but simply to the philosophy of science.
Considering what would be evidence of a good scientific theory, what are the limits to scientific explanation and so on. And indeed two of my, my two main first books were on issues which weren’t really concerned with philosophy of religion. My first book was on space and time, and in particular it was interested in the claims of physical cosmology and relativity theory with regard to the structure of the universe, and the other book was on confirmation theory, that is a study of what is evidence for what and whether what is evidence for what can be adequately captured by the probability calculus.
And then after those 10 years I went on to apply what I had learnt about science, what I had learnt about rigorous arguments, to considering traditional Christian doctrines. I’ll hope at the end of the day it has been useful at any rate for some people. And there is a desperate need for religious people to understand that their religion is well-justified on rational grounds by the highest rational grounds. Some people might think that some of my arguments are a bit complicated and rigorous but one can defend things at various levels of sophistication and I was concerned most of my writing to defend them at the most rigorous level in the belief that in the end if philosophers and scientists see that there is something here it will eventually trickle down.
If I’m not able to follow these arguments and I don’t see the force of them does that, should I be concerned about that? Does that put the rationality of my own religious beliefs in question or how should one think about it?
Not necessarily. We don’t have to believe on the basis of arguments. Some people may have deep religious experiences and that’s fine. They are aware of the presence of God and it’s a basic principle of rationality that you should believe that things are as they seem to be in the absence of counter-evidence, so if you seems that you’re aware of God you should believe you’re aware of God in the absence of counter-evidence.
Some people believe on authority because the people that they trust may tell them there is a God, they feel that that’s a good source of knowledge and that’s also a rational thing to do. But in the modern world, not many people have very deep religious experiences. Some do of course and that’s fine, but they have their religious experiences, but there’s a lot of people around telling them that people are subject to delusions in these matters and so on.
And so they need some backup arguments, perhaps the arguments themselves might be enough, but to show that, to provide further evidence suggesting that those arguments are, that those experiences are genuine. And all right people can be told by their teacher or their priest or their parent that there’s a God, but a lot of other rather authoritative voices are around saying there isn’t, and in that situation you need further arguments. It’s true that some of my arguments are a little complicated but I have tried in a couple of books to present them in a more popular form and I hope that what I have said in somewhat more complicated books other people have found useful sometimes to say in simpler expositions.
Many things many of us find difficult to understand but there are simple explanations of scientific matters and there are simple explanations of religious arguments too, and if people learn that there are more complicated explanations where philosophers and scientists takes them somewhat seriously even if they don’t agree with them that is useful for them to know.