Saturday, March 09, 2013

Book Review: The Christian God by Richard Swinburne

In The Christian God, Richard Swinburne examines basic metaphysical categories[1]. Only when that task is done does he turn to an analysis of divine properties, the divine nature, and the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.
I have found it necessary to develop at length views on straight philosophical questions, which could then be applied subsequently to the philosophy of religion….Since religious issues are more contested even than general secular philosophical issues, we are more likely to reach clear and justified conclusions about the former if we start with a firm base in the latter. My strategy in The Christian God is the same. Part I is concerned with general metaphysical issues….Part II then expounds the account of the divine nature given by Western religion, with the aid of these concepts, and shows how it can naturally be extended to embrace the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. (Location 54, Kindle edition)
The Christian God is a very dense work of metaphysics, and not all of the metaphysical distinctions Swinburne makes in Part I are central to the goings-on in Part II. Of those that are central, even fewer are justified by arguments that can be easily fit into a succinct review. So in outlining Part I, I will mention only those distinctions which are central to Part II. Further, in discussing those distinctions, I will simply state the conclusion of Swinburne’s argument(s) supporting those distinctions.

Part I: Metaphysics. Swinburne first spends some time discussing substances—that is, individual objects (you, me, the moon, that desk, this cat, etc.). As he does in his other woks, he carves up the world into substances, properties (characteristics or predicates which are instantiated in substances) and events (the coming into being, the continuance for some period of time, or the ceasing to be of properties and substances). The most important conclusion that Swinburne draws with regard to substances is that properties are universals that cannot exist unless they are instantiated in properties. (In one of his other works he states that ‘redness cannot exist apart from red things’.) This is important because it is the opening salvo against Platonism which will be reflected again at various points throughout this book.

Swinburne then discusses thisness-which might be loosely thought of as an aspect of being which persists throughout change.[2] Swinburne notes that ‘thisness’ is related to his version of the argument from consciousness, which posits that our physical bodies can undergo all kinds of changes and yet there be an unresolved fact about where I (a metaphysical entity, a soul) am.[3] He concludes that it is unlikely that material objects have ‘thisness’ whereas humans do.[4] He defends the use of counterfactual thought experiments in establishing this claim by noting that our own consciousness is the one thing we experience ‘uninterpreted’. It is the primary datum for us, and hence our modal intuitions regarding this are to be more trusted here than on other matters. He notes, however, that it is not clear that all souls have ‘thisness’—just that plausibly human souls do. The idea of ‘thisness’ is relevant to Part II discussions of the divine nature.

Swinburne then examines the idea of causation. He plumps for what he has elsewhere called the S-P-L (substances, powers, and liabilities) view of causation. In essence, the SPL says there are things (substances) which behave in certain ways (have ‘powers’) and exhibit specific behaviors in specific conditions (‘liabilities’). The important point is that for Swinburne laws of nature are not independently existing things, but rather are human descriptions of the ways that substances regularly behave.[5] His most important conclusion with regards to causation is that, contrary to other accounts which place emphasis on events, substances are a better candidate for the most primitive causal agent that there can be. He provides two examples of this: photonic indeterminacy, and (more importantly) libertarian free will. That is, he takes our first-person awareness of our purposings as causing things to happen in the absence of a passive (whether deterministic or probabilistic) liabilities. This, naturally, is more at home in theism than naturalism.

Swinburne then turns to a discussion of time, where he defends four basic principles: that events happen at periods, that statements like ‘happened ten seconds ago’ versus ‘happened ten minutes ago’ are only meaningful if there are laws of nature[6], that it is unavoidable that causes precede their effects (and hence backward causation is impossible), and that there are at least two kinds of temporal facts: indexical (“It is raining today”) and non-indexical (“It is raining on Feb 2, 2013”). The latter two are the most important for Part II, and will come into play when Swinburne discusses divine omniscience.

Rounding out Part I, Swinburne expounds his view of necessity, training his guns on what many philosophers have called ‘broadly logical necessity’—something that must be so in all possible worlds. Alternatively, this may be phrased as something whose negation implies a contradiction: something that cannot be true in any possible world. Swinburne thinks that one of the prime motivations behind believing in this kind of necessity is the widespread belief in propositions as timeless, necessary entities. In line with his general anti-Platonism, however, Swinburne argues that propositions are facts about human language and sentences, not something that actually exists independent of such things.[7] In any case, Swinburne thinks that broadly logical necessity cannot apply to God since the statement ‘God does not exist’ does not seem to entail a contradiction. Even more intriguingly, Swinburne thinks that ontological arguments reduce God’s existence as grounded in a logically necessary proposition. To his mind, this is a greater diminishment of God’s glory than to simply say that God is the ultimate brute fact.[8] Swinburne then plumps for two relevant categories of necessity: ontological necessity, or ON (defined as being an essentially everlasting substance which has no cause) and metaphysical necessity, or MN (an everlasting substance which is inevitably sustained in being because it derives from the necessary properties of an ON being).

Part II: Theology. Swinburne then turns to a discussion of the divine properties. He does this after reaching various conclusions in Part I because he feels that only if the conclusions from Part I are taken into account will the resulting claim that ‘there is a God’ be coherent. He proposes that the claim ‘there is a God’ be interpreted as ‘there exists necessarily and eternally a person essentially bodiless, omnipresent, creator and sustainer of the universe, who is perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation’. He chooses those properties because (a) those are the ones arising in the classical theistic tradition and (b) he thinks that many of the divine traits entail (and are entailed by) the other divine traits.
If the divine predicates all fit together, the claim that there is a God becomes a very simple claim and for that reason more likely to be true; it is not the claim of the coinstantiation of an ad hoc jumble of predicates. (Location 1563, Kindle edition)
To give an idea of how some of these traits imply others, consider the following. If God is omnipotent, his plans cannot be thwarted. For this to be true, he must be able to see an infinite number of consequences which might thwart his plans. Thus omnipotence entails omniscience. God’s omnipotence and omniscience entail that he is perfectly free (meaning that anything that happens is either caused by him or permitted by him). Therefore, God must be the Creator and Sustainer of the world, as these are things that happen and will therefore be either caused or permitted by him. If he is omnipotent and omniscient, he must not be limited by time or space as we are. This entails that he is omnipresent, or (essentially) bodiless.[9] Being omniscient, God will know all truths (including all moral truths, including what actions are obligatory and supererogatory). Being perfectly free, God will not—unlike us humans—suffer from weakness of will. Thus God will be perfectly good. And so on.[10]

So far, this will give many orthodox theists little pause. However, when filling out the specifics of omniscience, it becomes clear that Swinburne is an open theist.[11] He cites with approval an influential argument from Nelson Pike[12]. The essence of the idea is that for God to infallibly know what we are freely going to do is impossible. There are, Swinburne thinks, a couple of ways one might attempt to get around this. One is to propose that God is somehow in an eternal ‘now’ that transcends time. This is, however, implausible to Swinburne. One reason is that he thinks God must (as an omniscient being) know all facts it is possible for him to know. And here the earlier distinction between indexical and non-indexical temporal facts comes into play. God must not only know that the statements “It is raining today” and “It is raining on Feb 2, 2013” are true, he must also know if both are true because today is Feb 2, 2013. Or one can adopt a theory of backwards causation—that is, somehow, God’s foreknowledge of our actions is caused by our future actions. But then this runs afoul of his earlier arguments against backward causation, rooted in the conclusion that causes must always precede their effects.

Swinburne then discusses the doctrine of the Trinity. He argued earlier that the ‘minimal’ type of necessity required of a divine being was that of metaphysical necessity. He winds up arguing that God the Father is an ontologically necessary (ON) being in that he is essentially eternal and has no cause—he meets and exceeds, as it were, the requirements of metaphysical necessity. Swinburne then discusses two possible types of divine act: acts of essence (that which, given his essential nature, God cannot but do) and acts of will (acts which God chose to do, but might have chosen otherwise—like creating a world with humans). Swinburne then argues that the creation of two other divine persons is an act of essence, and hence the resulting beings are (metaphysically) necessary. He argues that given God the Father’s perfectly good nature, it would be an act of essence (and hence a necessary act, and hence the resulting divine person would be metaphysically necessary) to create at least one more person. He further argues that it would be an act of essence for the first two persons to create a third divine person, but that any further acts would not be acts of essence (and hence any other persons created would not be metaphysically necessary, and hence not divine). Swinburne also argues that if divine persons had ‘thisness’, then their identity would be comprised of something other than the divine properties they in fact have. In essence, it would be possible for God the Father to create God the Son (an entity with such-and-such properties) and yet it be a further question as to whom the resulting Son was. So such a divine person would not be necessary, and hence not divine! Further, this seems consistent with the idea that the divine properties are essential properties—properties that if God the Father (or Son, or Spirit) lost, they would no longer be God.

Swinburne then discusses the possibility of Incarnation, beginning with an examination of what the orthodox Chalcedonian interpretation was and if it was internally consistent (i.e., coherent). He defines the Chalcedonian account of the Incarnation as stipulating that there was one substance (person) with two natures. He argues that a divine substance could take on a human nature in addition to a divine nature, but that specific qualifications would have to be made to certain human traits.[13] Swinburne refers to examples from psychology of patients who have differing sets of beliefs which are somewhat independent of each other and yet can inform our actions differently in different situations.[14]

In the final chapter, Swinburne briefly sketches the evidence of Incarnation. He argues that it is not necessary that God create human beings; he has already argued in Chapter 8 that while it is plausibly necessary that God the Father create other conscious beings, that act of essence would be satisfied by the doctrine of the Trinity. Nor, plausibly, did he need to create humans with free will. But given that he has, and that humans have fallen into sin and need reconciliation, is it necessary that God incarnate? Anselm thought yes, Scotus and Aquinas thought no. Swinburne sides with the latter, although he does think there are a number of persuasive a priori arguments why we might expect God to incarnate. He cites several from Aquinas, of which I here provide only a couple of examples: (a) We humans owe to their creator a good life, and one perfect human life not already owed to God would be a proper reparation (b) God shows us how much he loves us by identifying with our suffering[15], and (c) God provides us an example of how to live a human life.
Granted some reasons for expecting an Incarnation, what would show that it had occurred by a certain human, Jesus Christ, being God incarnate? 
Here Swinburne is not so much concerned with examining the historical evidence for what follows, but rather to simply point out what type of historical evidence would need to ‘top up’ the philosophical spadework he has done in this work. Basically, we would want historical evidence that (a) Christ had lived the sort of life which would fulfill the reasons for incarnation (perfectly good life, offered as an atonement, teaching important truths otherwise unknowable) and (b) we would need evidence that Christ and the Church affirmed that he was indeed God incarnate.

Swinburne then examines various alternative accounts of the Incarnation (e.g., monophysitism, Nestorianism, various modern ‘humanistic’ Christologies, and kenosis). He judges that in all four cases, the ‘fit’ with the a priori arguments for expecting incarnation is lower than the fit with the Chalcedonian account. In other words, the a priori arguments give us reason to expect an incarnation along Chalcedonian lines, not along the others. In any case, the other accounts have less of a claim to revelation, given that the Chalcedonian interpretation is dominant in terms of various creedal statements, Church councils, and so forth. He also further criticizes the kenotic theory on natural theology grounds.[16]

Swinburne concludes with these words:
This simplest account of what the existence of God amounts to is that described in Chapter 7. Given arguments of some reasonable degree of probability for the existence of God, it is to that God that they lead, more probably than any other. It follows from that that there is very considerable reason to suppose that there are three divine individuals ‘in one substance’, and quite considerable reason to suppose that one such might become incarnate. A religion that claims to have a revelation of Trinity and Incarnation is therefore very likely to be a religion with a true revelation, which is to be believed in respect of what else it teaches us about the Incarnation—where and when it happened—and other central matters. (Location 2952, Kindle edition)
Assessment. I must admit, this was an exhausting work to read and review. Swinburne’s writing style is very dry and, while profound, is hard to follow even for someone who is familiar with philosophical terminology. In reading Part I it was not always clear what conclusions would be of real importance in Part II. In Part II it took a couple of readings before I noticed that a conclusion from Part I was coming into play. Nevertheless, while some Christians will be put off by Swinburne’s open theism or his account of (some) moral truths as ontologically independent of God’s existence, there is plenty of meat in this work to justify chewing slowly and ‘spitting out the bones’. This was another profound and interesting—even if (because human) less-than-perfect work by a well respected philosopher and theologian.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in epistemology and natural theology.

[1] Substances, ‘thisness’, causation, time, and necessity.

[2] Thisness is related to ‘sameness through change’ or a ‘metaphysically unified self’ that is present, despite fluctuating brain states, in rational reasoning. See Victor Reppert’s C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: A Defense of the Argument from Reason.

[3] As illustrated by thought experiments involving brain transplants.

[4] In brief, the idea is as follows. Take iron ball A and iron ball B. If both iron balls have all of the same properties, then they are, plausibly, the same iron ball. It is not so obvious, Swinburne thinks, that it is incoherent to suppose that in some possible world a body exactly like mine exists and even has the same mental events (thoughts, purposings, qualia) and yet is attached to another soul-it is not me.

[5] Once again we see his anti-Platonism at work here: he sees no need to ‘reify’ laws of nature as abstract objects which nonetheless have causal force. See The Existence of God for how this, on an SPL view of things, gives rise to the argument from temporal order for theism.

[6] This gives rise to a fascinating argument that there must have been a period of time before the universe began to exist. The basic idea is that in the absence of ‘pre-creation’ time, there would be a possible world in which there would be no meaningful distinction between a world that never began to exist and one that did begin to exist. Since such a distinction is meaningful, Swinburne concludes that pre-creation time must exist. His thinking on this matter obviously conflicts with that of William Lane Craig, although I recall Dr. Douglas Groothuis saying once that one could hold to Swinburne’s view of time and still promote the kalam.

[7] I am unsure how much of philosophical talk of ‘broadly logical necessity’ is rooted in the belief in propositions as necessary entities. Craig, for example, seems to be very nominalistic in his approach to abstract objects but nonetheless promotes broadly logical necessity.

[8] This struck me by surprise, as the purported goal of ontological arguments is, broadly speaking, rooted in Anselm’s ‘perfect being’ theology.

[9] By ‘essentially’ Swinburne means that he does not require a body, not that he could not adopt one if he wished.

[10] His most thorough discussion of the interrelationships among the divine properties is to be found in The Coherence of Theism.

[11] Swinburne also takes a somewhat unorthodox position on moral truths and God. He thinks that some moral truths are necessarily true and hence do not need God as their foundation, and others are only contingently true (e.g., it becomes obligatory to worship on Sunday only if God has commanded us to do so). However, Swinburne claims elsewhere that this position is one which goes back to Aquinas and Scotus. If so, then perhaps it is only from a modern view that it is unorthodox.

[12] For a Molinistic critique of Nelson Pike’s argument, see William Lane Craig’s The Only Wise God.

[13] Unlike ourselves who, on balance, have a desire and thus a possibility to do evil, Jesus would have to give himself desires to do other than evil (although perhaps less than the best in some situation).

[14] He gives a similar account in Was Jesus God?. A similar take is present in Craig and Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.

[15] Swinburne backs this point up with various human examples. Say a just war occurs and a draft is put in place. I refuse to exempt my son from the draft, but to show solidarity with him I also enlist.

[16]Part of Swinburne’s point here can be summarized as follows: (a) the arguments of natural theology lead to a ‘simple’ (and hence a priori probable correct) God who possesses the divine attributes necessarily. But if the kenotic theory is true then (b) God can set those attributes aside somehow, i.e., he does not possess such attributes necessarily. Then (c) this opens the possibility of a universe existing without a God being in control, and so (d) the arguments from natural theology are completely undercut.


Anonymous said...

You do a good job of reviewing these difficult works. As you point out, Swinburne has some questionable theological views.

But here I'm just concerned with two things:

(1) You summarize Swinburne saying "given God the Father’s perfectly good nature, it would be an act of essence ... to create at least one more person. ... it would be an act of essence for the first two persons to create a third divine person, but that any further acts would not be acts of essence ..."

Assuming this parallels the "begotten, not made" clause of the Nicene Creed, how does this not also make the Holy Spirit begotten, like the Son? Does Swinburne address this generation/procession distinction?

(2) At one point you indicate that that Swinburne defines a person as a substance: "He defines the Chalcedonian account of the Incarnation as stipulating that there was one substance (person) with two natures." But later quote him as saying that "there are three divine individuals ‘in one substance’"

I'm aware that Swinburne is a Social Trinitarianism (which seems to me to raise more problems than it solves), so he must not be cashing out "substance" here in the same way as earlier?

schaeferp1874 said...

Good which I don't have good answers. So before I attempt an answer, let me find the relevant passages and see what (if any) insight I can glean. I'll probably want to continue that exchange via email, though.

BallBounces said...

Any review that makes you think you have read and "know" the book is a brilliant review. This is one.

schaeferp1874 said...

Re: substances: in Chap 1, Swinburne defines substance broadly enough that I think the term can cover both uses. His definition (roighly, a substance is anything traceable through time under a form) occurs during a discussion of various ways philosophers have codified 'carving up the world into substances (see Location 147 Kindle edition). His point seems to be that substance constitution is determined by our purposes. Think of a desk. A drawer is a part of that substance. But surely the drawer can also be considered a substance in its own right.

Re the other begotten/made: if RS addresses this directly I can't find it. I am aware that some (Brian Leftow) feel that RS's take on the Trinity is 'tri-theistic'.

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