Swinburne’s Ridiculous Probability Argument for the Existence of God

I’ve picked on Protestant apologist Alvin Plantinga a lot before for his asinine claims and Roman Catholic apologist Edward Feser for his claims that have more gall than a gallbladder, but I haven’t addressed Eastern Orthodox apologist Richard Swinburne as much. They’re all supposed to be professional Philosophers, but often they read like Christian apologists.

Swinburne in his book, “The Existence of God” tries to show that the probability that God exists is greater than 50%, all things considered. Swinburne first tries to show that certain pieces of data are more likely on the God hypothesis than on the no-God hypothesis, and then Swinburne combines these pieces of data to infer that theism is more likely than not.

Much of Swinburne’s project has been challenged, including whether Swinburne’s final conclusion of God being likely is a sound inference, whether Swinburne has left out data against God’s existence, whether certain data increase the likelihood the God exists one iota, etc.

One often-overlooked challenge to Swinburne’s project is how he construes the negation of his hypothesis–the hypothesis that there does NOT exist an all-powerful, all-good God. The negation of Swinburne’s hypothesis includes a lot of hypotheses. While naturalism entails no-God, no-God does not entail naturalism. Simply defining no-God (~h) as naturalism is unhelpful and obviously misleading.

While not totally insignificant, demonstrating that certain pieces of evidence make theism more probable than naturalism, does not show that theism is probable all things considered. More work would be needed for that because theism and naturalism are not the only hypotheses. So, while showing that theism is more probable than metaphysical naturalism (all things considered) would be necessary and significant, it would not be sufficient. The reverse isn’t true in terms of showing that a hypothesis is false. In other words, as a reminder, since naturalism entails not theism (~t), then if naturalism is more probable than theism all things considered, then theism is probably false all things considered (probability<.50). But obviously, theism being false wouldn’t by itself show that naturalism is true.* These points don’t just apply to showing that the probability of theism is likely, but these points also apply to showing that individual pieces of data raise the probability of God. That is, if theism explains a certain piece of data better than naturalism, that doesn’t by itself give theism a boost in probability.

While traditional/classical theism is all the hotspot in philosophy, philosophy of religion, and in the world at this time, it is not the only hypothesis besides naturalism. In fact, classical theism being popular has no bearing on whether it’s true, and it may well be the case that its popularity keeps getting re-enforced due to status quo bias.
Even under ‘Omni-theisms’, there could be an indifferent, all-powerful god or evil, all-powerful god.

An all-powerful and indifferent god fits various pieces of data much better than God (e.g. suffering, religious diversity, nonbelief, etc.). Therefore, once again, the theist needs need to examine more than naturalism when looking at the no-God hypothesis (~h).

To be charitable, I’m not suggesting that a theist has to look into every conceivable hypothesis that’s compatible with ~h. But surely the sample size should be more than one hypothesis! (naturalism).

I want to close by granting (for the sake of argument) Swinburne’s conclusion. Merely showing that the existence of God is greater than 50% is not enough for full belief. And full belief is necessary for not just participating in a relationship with God, but it’s also necessary if I’m going to change my life! I’m not going to just change my life on a virtual coin toss; I certainly can’t rationally claim to outright believe something where the evidence is ambiguous. No. The world needs to appear to strongly stand behind/support the claim in question.

We certainly should not make laws based on weak reasons and/or initial appearances. By the same token, we shouldn’t change our life based on such reasons. We might want God to exist. But as Sean Carroll says, we should–if anything– be extra skeptical of beliefs that we want to be true.


*See Bayes’ theorem:
E(H) = P(H)PH(E/ [P(H)PH(E) + P(~H)P~H(E)]


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4 thoughts on “Swinburne’s Ridiculous Probability Argument for the Existence of God

  1. Maybe “publish or perish” for academics got replaced with “pontificate or perish”?

    Actually, philosophy is not different from economics. In the Dismal Science, economists regularly make fools of themselves propping up pet beliefs of political parties. Similarly, philosophy has always been ripe ground for Christian apologists that aren’t otherwise labeled so. I can’t believe any serious philosopher puts any weight on the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of a god or gods. But those who do get nice speaking feeds from various church organizations. Think of these as academic prosperity gospels.

  2. Jonathan Barker

    Who or what is Truth and Reality?
    Truth is not a person, or a thing, or a knowable object, or a thought.
    Truth and Reality is a Process.
    Who or what is “I”?
    “I” is not a person, or a thing, or a knowable entity, or a thought.
    “I” is a Process.
    The Process that is Truth and Reality, and the Process that is “I” are one and the same.
    What is the Process that is :”I” and that is Truth and Reality?
    It is positive or self-transcending bodily submission/surrender to the Radiant, All-Pervading Life-Principle.
    It is the bodily love of Life, done to the absolute degree, until there is only Life.
    This is the Divine Law, and it is all you need to know.
    Do this, be this, and you will Realize Happiness, Enjoyment, Health, Longevity, Wisdom, Joy, Freedom, Humor, Ecstasy, and the Radiant Way that leads beyond Man and beyond the Earth.

  3. Nietzsche warned against “worshipping the question mark itself” in On the Genealogy of A Morality. I’ve read a few of these blog posts, and I feel like that’s what’s happening here.

    What is interesting about faith is that it is a task; this is at best distracted glances at stale religious speculation. True believers may not have any academic credentials, but at least they know how to take a real position. But hey, there’s the fun bonus read of people trying to sum up their entire philosophy in your comments section. No one even reads my blog and I’ve had one of those posters

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