Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Is Theism a Simple, and Hence Probable, Explanation for the Universe?

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Is Theism a Simple, and Hence Probable, Explanation for the Universe?

Article excerpt


Richard Swinburne, in his The Existence of God (2004), presents a cosmological argument in defence of theism (Swinburne 1991: 119, 135). God, Swinburne argues, is more likely to bring about an ordered universe than other states (ibid.: 144, 299). To defend this view, Swinburne presents the following arguments: (1) That this ordered universe is a priori improbable (2004: 49, 150, 1991: 304 et seq.), given the stringent requirements for life (cf. also Leslie 2000: 12), and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Giancoli 1990: 396); (2) That it seems as if this ordered universe can be explained by theism; (3) A theistic explanation for the universe is more probable because it is a simple explanation. To this end, Swinburne makes use of Bayes' Theorem. Symbolically, this claim can be represented as (e) for the evidence of the existence of a complex universe, and (h) for a hypothesis. Swinburne's argument is that theism has a higher prior probability, P(h^sub theism^) > P(h^sub materialism^), since theism is simpler than materialism. He concludes that P(e|h^sub theism^) > P(e|h^sub materialism^). In this paper I will address only this argument (3) above, and defend the view that it is false: theism is not simpler than materialism, nor it is more probably true. I conclude that theism is less probable than materialism, expressed by P(h^sub theism^) < P(h^sub materialism^) : 2/N(2n+1) < 1/n, where N is the number of possible universes and n the number of entities in existence.

Keywords: Richard Swinburne, the Existence of God, theism, Bayes, Bayesianism, Materialism, cosmology, the universe, multiple universes.

Why theism is a simple explanation

Swinburne argues that both theism and materialism can explain, with varying degrees of success, how the universe came to be; both theories fit the evidence. But, he notes, there is more to scientific explanation than merely fitting the evidence. In particular, theories also should have the appropriate scope and level of simplicity (Swinburne 1991: 52, 2004: 53, 2001: 74). What Swinburne means by scope is how broad the theory is (how many phenomena it can account for). Swinburne's view is that the more ambitious a theory is (the broader the scope), the less likely it is true (1991: 52, 2004: 108-9, 2001: 82). Similarly, he argues, the better a theory fits the evidence and our background knowledge, the more likely it is true (2001: 74: 81-82). Lastly, he maintains, the simpler a theory is, the more likely it is to be true (1991: 56, 2004: 108-9, 2001:82).1

Swinburne acknowledges that materialism can account for the facts of the universe about as well as theism; so both theism and materialism fit the evidence.2 Similarly, the scope of theism is the same as that of materialism; they both seek to explain the entire universe, so theism has no advantage there (Swinburne 2004: 72, 108). The key difference, Swinburne argues, is that theism is a simpler explanation (Swinburne 1991: 52 et seq., 2004: 96-7 et seq., 108-9, Holder 2002: 297-8). Since theism is a simple explanation, it is more probable as an explanation; more probable than the mere brute fact of the universe existing (Swinburne 2004: 152, 109).

Occam's Razor, Swinburne reminds us, demands that we favour simpler theories. Swinburne feels that the view that the universe was designed intentionally by a person of the utmost simplicity, is a simpler hypothesis. The Big Bang postulates more entities and processes than theism (Swinburne 2004: 106). Thus, materialism is complex. Of course, Swinburne is not denying that these entities exist or caused our universe to come to be. He is concerned about the lack of antecedent explanations prior to the Big Bang. He also seems to be concerned that there are too many entities in a Big Bang scenario for it to be a satisfactory ultimate explanation.

Polytheism, Swinburne continues, likewise posits that many entities were responsible for making the universe the way that it is. …

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