Swinburne @ Biola

swinburne3Richard Swinburne was a visiting fellow at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought in the Fall of 2012. Here are the videos they’ve posted from that visit.

Interestingly, they seem to have avoided the topic of Swinburne’s Trinity theory – at least, judging by the videos they posted. One has to wonder why. Maybe they just wanted to leave room to discuss the soul, about which Swinburne has many plausible arguments. But in general, again, judging by what they’ve posted, they seem to have avoided areas in which some would think Swinburne to be, as it were, off the (American) evangelical reservation.

In this one, he pretty clearly implies that churches not ruled by bishops in a line traceable to the apostles are not legitimate churches, not continuations of the movement (and he thinks institution) Jesus founded. That would be: most Protestant churches! But the interviewer lets it go.

Again, in this one, Swinburne expounds a view of atonement which I think differs quite a bit from what most American evangelicals think, but the differences are not highlighted.

Here’s an exception. Right up front, in the first minute, Swinburne notes that probably most Biola philosophers and theologians will disagree with his thesis, that “God” is what Swinburne calls “a metaphysically necessary” being. (See here for what he means by that.) Be forewarned: this is as arcane as Swinburne gets, and the questioners afterwards are clearly, and understandably, struggling to grasp his meaning and motivations. Here too is the written form, which is forthcoming in the European Journal for Philosophy of Religion.

For my fellow philosophers, here are a few quick thoughts on that paper, to help you understand why Swinburne denies that God (on anything) is a metaphysically necessary being.

  • Most of us want to say that God, if he exists, must be a metaphysically necessary being – one who can’t not exist, whose non-existence is absolutely impossible. Why think this?
  • Some would say, by Anselmian perfect being theology reasoning – conceived of as the greatest being there could be, God must have this feature: metaphysically necessary existence.In the common lingo: being the Greatest Possible Being entails existing in all possible worlds.
  • Even if you’re skeptical about that sort of reasoning, you may accept this: if God exists, he must exist a se – independently of anything else, but only because of himself. But if he exists, and is this way, then arguably, he must be such that he can’t not exist – he must be have metaphysical necessity.
  • This reasoning seems clear enough. But Swinburne demurs. Why?
  • First, he thinks that the basic or fundamental bearer of metaphysical necessities must be sentences. Thus, we must define “metaphysical” necessity in terms of what he calls “logical” necessity.
  • A being will be metaphysically necessary just in case sentences implying the existence of that being are “logically” necessary. What’s that? That is a sentence being such that its falsity entails a self-contradiction. (In section III he complicates this definition to get around what many philosophers accept as counterexamples to the claim that metaphysical necessity is reducible to any sort of sentence-necessity; but I’ll leave that aside.)
  • Finally, it’s hard to see how “There is no God,” all by itself, entails any self-contradiction, any sentence of the form P and not-P.  In fact, Swinburne urges (very abstractly, and so, I’m not sure on what grounds) that it can’t entail any self-contradiction. (Section V, first two paragraphs)

There’s more to the paper than that, but that is arguably the core of it. I don’t claim to really understand why he thinks that necessity must fundamentally be a feature of sentences. That seems false to me. If there were no sentences, there would still, arguably, be necessities. e.g. Necessarily, that amoeba is not an onion. And necessarily, there are no true contradictions. This too would be true even if there were no sentences at all – a sentence is a spoken or written thing, a physical event or fact.

In the much-discussed modal ontological argument, one reasons like this:

  1. Possibly, there is a perfect being.
  2. If it is possible that there’s a perfect being, it is necessary that there is a perfect being.
  3. Necessarily, there is a perfect being.   1,2

Granting the common way of thinking about modalities, this argument is indisputably valid. And the justification for 2 is the point that absolute perfect entails metaphysically necessary existence. Atheists and theists who don’t want to accept the argument as sound concentrate all their fire on premise 2. And others of us defend 2.

But Swinburne thinks there is something untoward about this talk of possibility and necessity, as features of things and not sentences. For him, we would have to understand the argument like this:

  1. The sentence “There is a perfect being” doesn’t by itself imply any self-contradiction.
  2. If 1 is true, then “It is false that there is a perfect being” by itself implies a self-contradiction.
  3. “It is false that there is a perfect being” by itself implies a self-contradiction.
  4. It is false that “It is false that there is a perfect being.”
  5. Therefore, there is a perfect being.

The second premise here is loony – no one accepts it, least of all Swinburne. So there’s no hope of such an argument for God’s existence. But I think the subject has been changed. The first argument wasn’t at all about sentences!

It is clear to me that Swinburne’s approach to metaphysical necessity is driven by some epistemic concerns (e.g. in his paper, intro before section I, section II para 3, VI para 1) but I don’t well understand what those are. I don’t think he fully spells out his epistemic assumptions.

In part, he seems to require that disagreements about metaphysical necessity be in principle resolvable by empirical investigation! Or at least, even if we grant there may be a sort of necessity beyond our ken (section VI, para 2), we should only philosophize about logical necessities, because then disputes will (at least, if we’re cognitively alike and not self-deceived) be resolvable.

But I’m not sure why we should be this narrow. At the end of the day, we have intuitions about what it absolutely possible, impossible, and necessary, and it seems to me that we have no other available path than forming our beliefs on the basis of these – whether or not we can provide the self-contradictions Swinburne demands. As Swinburne’s paper shows, even if we fastidiously stick to “metaphysical necessity” defined as the logical necessity of sentences, we’re still going to run into irresolvable disagreements with our fellow philosophers. (See, e.g. the end of his section IV.)

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

One Response to Swinburne @ Biola

  1. It’s curious that Swinburne’s philosophical reflections and speculations still do not seem to be informed at all by the Eastern tradition to which he converted several years ago. Perhaps most troublesome, at least for me, is the absence of the Trinity in his philosophical theology. Can we meaningfully talk about God as necessary being without considering what it means for God to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? I wonder how Swinburne would respond to the trinitarian theology of Met John Zizioulas, who argues that the triune God is free from all necessity, including the necessity of his own existence. Swinburne and Zizioulas seem to inhabit two very different theological planets.

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