Swinburne’s Cosmological and Teleological Arguments – Part 2

Like many other liberals, I’m delighted and mesmerized by Bridgegate and various other Chris Christie scandals from the fine state of New Jersey. I cannot wait for my daily dose of Rachel Maddow dishing the latest dirt on Christie and his idiotic crowd of corrupt New Jersey hooligans.

What does this have to do with Swinburne’s arguments for God? Well, one neat trick that a couple of Christie’s friends have pulled is to plead the 5th amendment as a legal justification for refusing to turn over documents in accordance with subpoenas from the N.J. legislature. I initially thought it was ridiculous to plead the 5th in relation to providing documents, but a recent Supreme Court case did apply the 5th amendment to the production of documents, and after reading a bit about that case, I see that pleading the 5th makes a good deal of sense in this particular case. The key concepts here are ‘relevance’ and ‘background knowledge’, and these concepts also apply, quite appropriately, to Swinburne’s case for God.

The subpoenas issued by the N.J. legislature basically request documents that are RELEVANT to Bridgegate, relevant to the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge back in September of last year. But judgments of relevance always depend on BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE. Some documents are such that anyone, with common background knowledge could identify the document as being relevant. For example, if an email says “Should we plan the lane closures on the George Washington bridge for early in September?” just about anyone could determine that email to be relevant to the inquiry of the legislature.

But the relevance of some documents might not be so obvious. For example, the famous email from Bridget Anne Kelly, then Christie’s deputy chief of staff, reads: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”. Notice that this email does NOT explicitly reference the George Washington bridge. Nor does it say anything about closing down lanes on a bridge. Someone (i.e. David Wildstein) had some background knowledge about the context of this email, such that the few words in the email are interpreted as being relevant to the lane closures on the George Washington bridge back in September.

Roughly speaking, Wildstein knew that he and Bridget Kelly were part of a criminal conspiracy to create a terrible traffic jam in Fort Lee by shutting down lanes on the George Washington bridge. This background knowledge allowed Wildstein to identify that email as being part of a collection of conversations and discussions and planning sessions in this criminal conspiracy.

In putting forward this specific email as being relevant to the lane closures on the George Washington bridge, Wildstein is revealing some of his own background knowledge, and thus he was, in effect, testifying against himself. It is not just the fact that the contents of the email constitute potential evidence for criminal charges against him, but the very production of this email amounts to him testifying that the email is relevant, which appears to imply that Wildstein has background knowledge of a criminal conspiracy.

In any case, whether or not you agree with my take on the Bridget Kelly email, it is clear that judgments of relevance are based upon one’s background knowledge. The same goes for judgments of significance. These concepts and related principles can be applied to Swinburne’s case for God, and to his inductive Cosmological and Teleological arguments. Each inductive argument for God involves a single factual premise, which Swinburne claims to provide inductive evidence for the existence of God.

My objection or my concern with these arguments (at least the concern I wish to explore here and now) is that in order to properly and correctly understand the meaning, the relevance, and the significance of each of those premises, one must draw on a significant amount of contingent factual background knowledge. If I am correct in this view, then that opens the door to a significant degree of doubt about the correctness and strength of these arguments, because if they actually depend on a larger set of factual assumptions (which might either contain some false or questionable claims, or which might reflect a biased selection from a larger collection of available and relevant factual evidence), then there is clearly a sense that the significance or strength of these arguments is not a purely a priori matter, and is subject to reasonable doubts and challenges.

One thing I admire about Swinburne is that he not only studied philosophy of religion and theology, but he understood the importance of science, especially as a perceived threat to religious belief, and so he also studied philosophy of science and the history of science, and he spent several years thinking about and writing about the philosophy of science prior to building his case for God. In his book, The Existence of God, Swinburne puts his knowledge of science to good use, and this is especially the case with the presentation of his inductive cosmological and teleological arguments.

My concern is that much of the background knowledge that Swinburne brings to bear concerning these arguments are contingent factual assumptions/beliefs, in which case, it appears that it is mistaken or misleading to view these arguments as consisting of just one or two contingent factual claims, as opposed to them being based on a large collection of contingent factual assumptions, some of which might be false or questionable, and which may be the result of a biased selection of such contingent ‘facts’ from a much broader collection of evidence (which may include facts that don’t fit so well with Swinburne’s theism).

Swinburne’s inductive cosmological argument has just one premise (see EOG, p.149):

e. A complex physical universe exists (over a period of time).

And it has a single simple conclusion:

g. God exists.

Swinburne argues that this contingent factual claim is both relevant and significant in relation to the hypothesis that ‘God exists’. These judgments, I believe, are based on Swinburne’s knowledge (and beliefs) about physics, chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, philosophy of science, and history of science. I suspect that there is a great deal of contingent background knowledge (or beliefs) that is being drawn upon not only in the formulation of Swinburne’s own judgment that e is relevant and significant in relation to g, but that in order to argue this point, in order to persuade others of his view on this matter, Swinburne must draw upon a large collection of contingent background knowledge (or beliefs).

It is the degree of complexity of the physical universe that impresses Swinburne, but the expression “a complex physical universe” is somewhat vague. How complex does a universe have to be in order for e to be true? If only a small degree of complexity is required for this expression to be correctly applied, then perhaps the evidence here is of only minor significance or weight. Also, we need to have some way to measure or quantify degree of complexity.

Could the existence of a single electron count as the existence of “a complex physical universe”? That seems a bit too simple to me, but if the behavior or nature of the electron was determined by several laws of physics, perhaps even a single electron could count as “a complex physical universe”. If so, then e would not be very significant, it seems to me, as evidence for theism.

Part of Swinburne’s discussion and defense of his inductive cosmological argument appears to revolve around a possible objection. The objection could be put like this:

It does seem fantastically improbable that complex organisms such as tigers, dolphins, and human beings would spontaneously arise as the result of a chance conglomeration of inorganic matter. But according to the well-established theory of evolution, such complex organisms did not arise in such a manner. Rather, very simple organisms were formed by chance conglomeration of organic compounds, and over billions of years through the process of evolution very complex organisms arose from less complex organisms which in turn arose from very simple original life forms. The complex physical universe that we observe today might also have arisen through a process of development from a much simpler physical universe.

Swinburne thinks this is not just merely a possibility or conjecture; he thinks this is probably the way the present physical universe came to be what it is today:

…all the evidence suggests that the universe evolved from a much simpler state in accord with the laws of nature ensuring that such a universe would develop into a large complex universe. (EOG, p.150)

Knowledge about the process of biological evolution is mostly contingent factual knowledge, not knowledge of tautological truths. This knowledge of biological evolution suggests the possibility that the current complexity of the physical universe might also have arisen through some natural process over a long period of time, and that billions of years ago, the universe might have been much more simple, much less complex, than it is now. But this objection does NOT require contingent factual knowledge. The main idea here is of a concept or a logical possibility: something complex can arise from something much simpler through natural processes. Such an idea or possibility could occur to someone who had no knowledge of the biological process of evolution. Though the well-established theory of evolution gives this idea or possibility some initial plausibility and appeal, the idea can stand on its own, at least as a possibility that needs to be considered, and taken seriously.

However, if we take this idea, this logical possibility, seriously it seems to me that the objection this raises against Swinburne’s cosmological argument can be properly evaluated only in terms of contingent factual background knowledge about: physics, chemistry, biology, evolution, astronomy, cosmology, philosophy of science, and history of science. Furthermore, it seems to me that Swinburne’s response to this objection draws upon his knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, etc. In order to persuade others that his inductive Cosmological argument is significant and can withstand this objection, Swinburne must make use of his considerable stock of contingent scientific knowledge (or beliefs).

To be continued…