Christianity as superscientific theory

I scooped up the Richard Swinburne essay quoted two posts ago, and to my surprise it wasn’t, by and large, about human suffering, but rather about the philosophy of science, and (sort-of) scientific arguments for theism. Hey – I’m interested in those topics too! The title of the essay is, in fact, “The Vocation of a Natural Theologian”, and I found it fascinating. Let me share the “title-quotation” with you first, and then explain some of his ideas.

But once I had seen what makes scientific theories meaningful and justified, I saw that any metaphysical theory, such as the Christian theological system, is just a superscientific theory. Scientific theories each seek to explain a certain limited class of data: Kepler’s laws sought to explain the motions of the planets; natural selection seeks to explain the fossil record and various present features of animals and plants. But some scientific theories are on a higher level than others and seek to explain the operation of the lower-level theories and the existence in the first place of the objects with which they deal. Newton’s laws explain why Kepler’s laws operated; chemistry has sought to explain why primitive animals and plants existed in the first place. A metaphysical theory is a highest-level-of-all theory. It seeks to explain why there is a universe at all, why it has the most general laws of nature that it does (especially such laws as lead to the evolution of animals and humans), as well as any particular phenomena that lower-level laws are unable to explain.

I found this an interesting thought – that Christianity bears the same relation to our fundamental physical laws that Newton’s Laws bear to Kepler’s. I imagine many scientists would find this statement quite offensive. (One of the textbooks I’m teaching out of this semester says quite plainly that religion and science are two completely independent fields of human inquiry with essentially no overlap or connection at all, for example. No, I didn’t pick it.)

But to back up – what makes scientific theories meaningful and justified? Swinburne gives three criteria:

1. To be meaningful, the theories must be stated in ordinary words, perhaps with their meanings stretched a bit. He gives the physical example of “spin” as an ordinary word whose meaning scientists stretch a bit.
2. The theories must lead you to expect observable phenomena that you otherwise would not expect.
3. The theories must be simple. He emphasizes that this is very important, making the point, as a previous blog post here did, that you can come up with an infinite number of theories to explain any observation. Simplicity is one very important way you eliminate most of those possibilities from consideration.

Swinburne says,

When we reach the simplest possible starting point for explanation that leads us to expect the phenomena that we find, there alone we should stop and believe that we have found the ultimate brute fact on which all other things depend.

Swinburne furthermore says that as we seek to explain the phenomena we see around us, all of our explanations fall into one of two categories: scientific explanations, and personal explanations. Scientific explanations always explain an observation or phenomena in terms of a natural law and a previous state: previous state + natural law = current state/phenomena. Personal explanations involve a person and goal; the phenomena was brought about by some person to achieve some purpose (you made toast because you were hungry, say). All explanations fall into one of these two categories.

With these ideas as premise, Swinburne then goes on to make several arguments for theism. He sees these arguments as akin to arguments for scientific theories – they do not prove theism, just as no scientific theory is ever really proven. But they do show that theism is “significantly more probable than not”.

Argument 1

The universe is very complex and, of course, exists. Whenever we observe something complex we seek a simple explanation, and we should do so here. “That there should exist anything at all, let alone a universe as complex and orderly as ours, is exceedingly strange.” However, a scientific explanation won’t work, because scientific explanations always involve some previous state, and if we want to explain the complex universe we essentially want to explain the first state. The hypothesis of theism, however, provides an explanation, a personal explanation – “the universe exists because there is a God who keeps it in being and that laws of nature operate because there is a God who brings it about that they do”. But if there is a God, why suppose that there is one infinite God as Christianity does, and not a host of minor deities? Because the hypothesis of one infinite God is simpler. “A finite limitation cries out for an explanation of why there is just that particular limit”.

Argument 2

Swinburne then goes on to make a couple different teleological arguments, arguments from design. First he points out, as all scientists know, that all objects in the universe conform to a few natural laws. This very strange fact cries out for explanation.

To say that all objects conform to laws is simply to say that they all behave in exactly the same way…

If all the coins of some region have the same markings, or all the papers in a room are written in the same handwriting, we seek an explanation in terms of a common source of these coincidences.

But science, by definition, cannot explain why this should be. Science begins with the most general natural laws, those few natural laws of widest applicability. But it cannot explain why those laws exist in the first place. But there is a simple personal explanation – theism, God. God created an ordered universe, because he intended humans to share in his activity of forming and developing, and that would only be possible for us if we could grasp and anticipate regularities in our environment.

Another example of a teleological argument would be what is often called the “argument-from-fine-tuning”. Many parameters of the physical universe seem to have been fined tuned to allow the existence of intelligent life like ourselves. Why should this be? Again, the only explanation, if we seek an explanation, is a personal explanation – a God who desired such life.


What objections could be raised to Swinburne’s arguments? I think any pure-naturalist, which would include most atheists, would object to Swinburne’s division of explanations into the “scientific” and the “personal”, because they would deny the real existence of personal explanations. All personal actions, they would say, are ultimately just the result of physical laws acting on the atoms that make up our bodies. There are only scientific explanations. Of course, this basically amounts to a denial of free will. And so perhaps the best answer that could be made to this objection is that no one, not even the most ardent atheist, lives like he actually believes this to be true. No one acts as if their love for friends and family, their goals in life and future decisions, have all been determined by impersonal physical laws. (In fact, I wish this point – that pure naturalism amounts to a denial of free will – would be brought up more in discussions. I think most naturalists, made to confront it, would find it very difficult to stomach indeed.)

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