Swinburne’s Cosmological and Teleological Arguments – Part 5

The Cosmological Argument (TCA) is the first argument in Swinburne’s inductive case for the existence of God. The arguments are presented in a specific order, each argument adding one more contingent fact (or specific set of contingent facts) to the facts presented in the premises of the previous arguments. Since TCA is the first argument, it is presented against a background of ZERO contingent factual claims or assumptions. On Swinburne’s approach, we literally start from scratch. The ONLY information to be considered in thinking about TCA is the premise of TCA (i.e. “A complex physical universe exists”) and a priori facts (e.g. ‘2 + 2 = 4’ and ‘All triangles have three sides’ and ‘If it is the case that either P is true or Q is true, and P is not the case, then Q is the case’).

This reminds me of Social Contract theory in ethics. In Social Contract theory, we are to imagine ourselves living in a time before there were any laws or rules of morality. This is called ‘a state of nature’. Presumably, in a state of nature, prior to the existence of any laws or moral rules, people would do whatever they wanted in order to obtain whatever they wanted or needed. People would take food, clothing, tools, weapons, gold, etc. from others by violent means, or by threats of violence, by coercion, or by means of lying and deception.

Life in a state of nature would be nasty, brutish, and short. In such violent and dangerous circumstances, we are to imagine that some clever person comes up with the idea of establishing laws, rights, and rules of morality. In a state of nature, the idea of civil society would seem very appealing. One might well give up the advantages involved with being able to kill and threaten and deceive others in exchange for others giving up such methods and means as well. In other words, laws and moral rules have significant benefits that appear to outweigh the cost of giving up certain behaviors (killing, stealing, threats of violence, coercion, lying, etc.).

In Swinburne’s approach to the question ‘Does God exist?’ we are supposed to put ourselves imaginatively into a state of ignorance, into an epistemological state of having ZERO knowledge of contingent facts. The ONLY thing we begin with is our tautological knowledge, a priori knowledge that is not based on observation or experience. It is in this state of ignorance that we are to consider TCA, which provides us with just one single contingent fact:

1. A complex physical universe exists (for a period of time).

The question at issue, according to Swinburne, is whether the addition of this ONE contingent fact increases the probability that God exists, relative to the imaginary circumstance in which we have ZERO knowledge of contingent facts.

In considering this one contingent fact, namely the premise of TCA, we are not to make use of background knowledge that includes other contingent factual claims or assumptions. Swinburne, for example, sets aside an objection from the skeptic David Hume on this basis:

In the Dialogues Hume suggested that polytheism was at least as good an explanation of the existence of the universe as is theism… He claims, however, that…although the supposition that there is one cause is as such a simpler supposition than the supposition that there are many, in postulating many gods of limited powers to be responsible for the order of the universe we are postulating gods more similar to humans in their power and knowledge than is the God of monotheism–that is, we are putting forward a hypothesis that fits in better with our background knowledge of what there is in the world. But whether this latter point has any force depends on just how we construe the argument. In putting forward the cosmological argument, I have assumed that we have no contingent background knowledge (we have mere “tautological” knowledge) and are therefore looking only for the simplest explanation of the data. (EOG, p.145-146)

Swinburne’s reply to Hume’s objection that the existence (and order) of the physical universe can be explained equally well by polytheism as it can be explained by monotheism is that the strength of this objection rests upon contingent background knowledge other than the contingent fact asserted as the premise of TCA. Such additional contingent background facts are not allowed into consideration when evaluating TCA, because we are to confine ourselves to a state of ignorance in which we imagine knowing just ONE contingent fact: a complex physical universe exists.

But if an objection against TCA from Hume can be set aside because it draws upon some contingent background knowledge, then the same groundrule applies to Swinburne’s attempts to support and defend TCA. He cannot draw upon any contingent factual claims or assumptions, other than the factual premise of TCA.

In the previous post, however, we saw that in Paragraph 3 of Chapter 7 of EOG, Swinburne draws upon various contingent factual claims and assumptions that go well beyond the premise of TCA. Specifically, Swinburne draws upon background knowledge concerning the existence and history of physical cosmology and physical anthropology. So, it seems clear to me that in Paragraph 3, Swinburne violates his own groundrule concerning the evaluation of TCA.

However, although I’m convinced that Swinburne messed up here, and that he violated his own groundrule by making use of contingent factual claims other than the factual premise of TCA in defending the inference made in TCA, my objection fails to inflict serious damage, at least in this particular instance.

While it seems clear that Swinburne is making use of contingent factual claims and assumptions in Paragraph 3, it seems to me that it was not necessary for him to do so. He could have made basically the same points in a hypothetical manner which would not require making assumptions concerning contingent factual issues.

To see my point, it might be helpful to recall Descartes evil genius hypothesis: suppose that all of your so-called knowledge about physical cosmology and physical anthropology was NOT based on actual observations and experiences of actual planets, actual stars, actual animals, and actual human beings. Suppose that all of your contingent factual knowledge concerning physical cosmology and physical anthropology was based upon illusions and deceptions of an all-powerful but evil god. This god is able to make it seem as though you have seen, touched, and conversed with other people, with other human beings, but all of these experiences were simply in your mind, created by a powerful and deceptive god, and that there are in fact no other human beings in existence. Perhaps you yourself are not a human being, but are simply a disembodied mind, a mind that is being manipulated by an evil and deceptive god.

This Cartesian scenario strips away most of our ordinary contingent factual knowledge. On this scenario, I have never seen the moon. I have never seen any stars. I have never looked through a telescope. I have never seen or spoken with another human being. I have never conducted an actual scientific experiment, nor have I ever read an actual science textbook or article from a scientific journal. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Swinburne could still make a good reply to Hume’s objection, even if I imagine myself to be in such a state of ignorance.

Physical cosmology and physical anthropology still make sense in the evil god scenario. Although I might have no way of knowing whether there is in fact a moon, or stars, or galaxies, or animals, or human beings, the scientific views contained in physical cosmology and physical anthropology are logical and hold together on the assumption that my experiences and observations correspond to reality.

If I don’t know whether or not there is an evil god who is deceiving me, who is creating sensations and experiences in my mind that have little or no relationship to reality, then I don’t know whether to believe my senses and observations to be accurate and reliable. But, IF my sensations, observations, and experiences did correspond with reality, then physical cosmology and physical anthropology would be true, or at least would contain a great deal of justifiable contingent factual claims and assumptions.

Such a hypothetical conclusion is all that Swinburne needs. He does not really need the stronger conclusion that physical cosmology and physical anthropology have produced numerous true or justifiable contingent factual claims and assumption about the origin and development of our universe and the human species. Rather, he just needs to show that this is so ON THE HYPOTHESIS that our sensations, observations, and experiences correspond to reality.

It is enough for him to establish such a hypothetical claim, which does not require that he establish any actual contingent factual claims. He does not need to show that physical cosmology or physical anthropology make true claims or even that they make justifiable claims. He only needs to show that they could, under certain hypothetical conditions, make justifiable claims about the origin and development of the universe or the human species. That would be sufficient to show that there being only one universe (or only one universe that we know about) does not rule out the possibility of knowing about the the origins and development of that one universe. The same goes for the possibility of knowledge about the origin and development of the human species, despite the alleged uniqueness of humans.


Update (3/18/14):

The evil god hypothesis does not fully eliminate the appeal to contingent factual claims, so the above reply to my objection does not work as it stands. That is because sensations and experiences, even for a disembodied mind (or brain in a vat, or a person stuck in the Matrix) still constitute contingent facts. That I have a pain right now which seems to be in my right hand is a contingent fact about my current sensations and experiences, even if I don’t know whether or not I actually have a right hand.

But I think the reply can be made even more hypothetical, and thus avoid making any assumptions of a contingent factual nature:

If whenever I appear to see a needle stuck into my right arm I were to feel a pain which seemed to be in my right arm, I could justifiably infer that the sticking of the needle into my arm was probably causing the pain, if my sensations and experiences corresponded to actual physical events/reality.

This reasoning is doubly hypothetical. Instead of reporting an actual sensation or experience, it speaks of possible sensations and experiences occurring in a certain temporal order, and it speaks of a justifiable inference from those hypothetical experiences, but only on the hypothetical assumption that the sensations/experiences correspond to physical reality. Similar reasoning could be put forward concerning the apparent origins of our universe and of the human species.

Of course spelling this out in detail would be very cumbersome, but I see no reason to think it could not be done. So, although the evil god hypothesis does not, by itself, provide a sufficient reply to my objection, by appealing to hypothetical, as opposed to actual, experiences and sensations one can show that it is possible to justify conclusions about the origin of our universe and our species even assuming that there was only one universe and only one species of human-like animals.