Saturday, March 2, 2024


Amazed by Necessary Facts : Swinburne's Teleological Arguments

by Francois Tremblay

Teleological arguments are argument seeking to establish a proof using the evidence from natural order and patterns. While cosmological arguments are arguments about the universe as a whole, teleological arguments use specific order or patterns in nature. In this article, I will look over Swinburne’s Teleological Arguments as presented in his article ‘Argument from Design’.

Swinburne’s arguments, and his amazement at facts of nature, displays very well the difference between the theological and rational-scientific worldviews. As we will see, he finds things such as the existence of natural law to be quite incredible. Why should he feel this way ? Because, of course, he assumes that the only alternative is chance, like most theologians , and does not acknowledge that an ordered universe is a necessary fact.

In the place of a theologian, I would be quite vexed. If only God was a necessary fact, and not the very universe I lived in, I would have no grounds for principles, laws of nature, absolutes. Every single fact in the universe would be contingent to a supernatural being. So Swinburne, when he invokes natural law as evidence, presupposes the rational-scientific worldview.

As I get into each argument, I will repeat these two points – that Swinburne’s arguments assume a false dichotomy by rejecting the necessity of the universe, and that his arguments are self-defeating. They are crucial flaws of any theistic teleological argument. I will also examine other problems when they arise.

Swinburne’s two arguments use temporal order (natural law, uniformity of nature) and beauty.

1. Teleological Argument from Temporal Order

Swinburne introduces the topic by describing the two forms of order, spatial order (the arrangement of things) and temporal order (their succession by virtue of natural law). A good example of a teleological argument based on the former would be Paley’s Watchmaker Argument, where the complex arrangement of parts in a watch is considered proof of a Creator. Swinburne, however, is correct in pointing out that evolution elegantly disproves this category of arguments. Instead, he argues from temporal order.

He claims that the existence of natural laws, and the corollary of the uniformity of nature, are surprising facts which demand an explanation :

The temporal order of the universe is, to the man who bothers to give it a moment’s thought, an overwhelmingly striking fact about it. Regularities of succession are allpervasive. For simple laws govern almost all successions of events. In books of physics, chemistry, and biology we can learn how almost everything in the world behaves. (...) The orderliness of the universe in this respect is a very striking fact about it. The universe might so naturally have been chaotic, but it is not-it is very orderly.

Is it such a surprising fact ? What else does Swinburne expect exactly ? As he says himself, a “chaotic” universe. But why should we expect a chaotic universe to be a metaphysical default ? Of course, to the theologian, who rejects the necessary nature of the universe, it is a valid question. God could have created a chaotic universe just as well as an ordered one. But from our perspective, his amazement is about as absurd as God being amazed about its own existence.

We can see that Swinburne is positing a false dichotomy between chance and design. We can identify his hidden reasoning as such :

(1) Without a Creator, the universe should be chaotic, since the only alternative to design is chance.
(2) The universe is not chaotic.
(3) There must be a Creator.

He also uses this assertion of chance when he compares the facts of the universe with a “card-shuffling machine”. But we must reject (1) as a false dichotomy. Natural law is a consequence of the existence of various identities belonging to a number of particles that compose the matter of the universe.

As such, Swinburne thinks he poses us a problem by saying “natural law explains what we see, but what explains natural law ?”. He thinks this is a big “stumper”, when in fact he has walked right into the trap of necessity. We should ask him what explains God’s existence, and see how he sees that question. No doubt he would consider it trivial, and we should consider his point to be just as trivial.

His false dichotomy can also be seen, in this case, as an argument from fine-tuning, but in a more fundamental form. As for any other fine-tuning argument, we have to point out that the assumption that the constants of the universe could be different is unproven, and scientific evidence tells us that the unconditional probability of our universe existing as it is, is extremely high.

Having established this, Swinburne gets into his argument proper, which we can formalize using his own words.

(1) “So the universe is characterized by vast, allpervasive temporal order, the conformity of nature to formula, recorded in the scientific laws formulated by men.”
(2) “Now this phenomenon, like the very existence of the world, is clearly something ‘too big’ to be explained by science. (...) [F]rom the very nature of science it cannot explain the highest-level laws of all; for they are that by which it explains all other phenomena.”
(3) ”[W]e must postulate an agent of great power and knowledge who brings about through his continuous action that bodies have the same very general powers and liabilities (that the most general natural laws operate); and, once again, the simplest such agent to postulate is one of infinite power, knowledge, and freedom, i.e. God.”

I have already addressed why premise 2 is false – because it posits that a chaotic universe is the metaphysical default But we now have to ask the really tough questions. As Swinburne points out quite gracefully, we found natural law by the use of science. He may very well argue that the existence of natural law is “too big” to be explained by science – a point being increasingly disproven by cosmological discoveries – but it does not alleviate the fact that any examination of natural phenomena can only start from the premise of methodological naturalism. I make this argument in my article “The Impossibility of Divine Intervention”.

But most importantly, we have to ask Swinburne, or any other theologian, why they are invoking something they do not believe in as evidence ! Belief in divine causation commits the theologian to uphold that all facts of nature are contingent on a god’s subjective will. If these facts are not necessary but contingent, we cannot count on the “temporal order” to remain allpervasive and on the “conformity of nature” to be maintained. These facts, which are necessary from the rational-scientific worldview, are contingent for the theologian. He therefore cannot admit (1), because doing so contradicts his own worldview. Furthermore, since we do not, and cannot, know the will of a transcendent being, it is functionally similar to chance.

Finally, can we agree with Swinburne in (3) that the singular infinite Creator hypothesis is simpler than any other ? To prove this, he tries to argue against Hume’s notion of many gods working together by objecting that his hypothesis is simpler, and that it has more explanatory power because we would expect a universe with many gods to be more chaotic.

There is a problem with each objection. How are we to know which hypothesis is simpler ? The substrate of the god-concept is indefinite, and therefore tells us nothing about the ontological status of a god or gods. We have no grounds to declare any god-based hypothesis simpler than any other god-based hypothesis on a numerical basis alone.

We also cannot declare all many-gods hypotheses to be insufficient as explanations, since we can imagine a system where each god is “in charge” of a specific natural law. This system would have as much explanatory power as Swinburne’s hypothesis.

Therefore we cannot conclude that, even if the syllogism is correct, that the singular infinite Creator hypothesis is the simplest solution, and that Christianity is correct.

2. Teleological Argument from Beauty

Swinburne uses a very similar argument, this time for beauty. He seems to be arguing that the non-man-made is necessarily beautiful, or at least that there is a principle similar to this regulating esthetics, when he says :

We saw that God has reason, apparently overriding reason, for making, not merely any orderly world (which we have been considering so far) but a beautiful world-at any rate to the extent to which it lies outside the control of creatures. (And he has reason too, I would suggest, even in whatever respects the world does lie within the control of creatures, to give them experience of beauty to develop, and perhaps also some ugliness to annihilate.) (...) Few, however, would deny that our universe (apart from its animal and human inhabitants, and aspects subject to their immediate control) has that beauty.

We must ask Swinburne, how did he conclude this ? Presumably, by observing nature and drawing his own conclusions from what he imagines his god wants. Dare we say, that he found what he thinks is a principle regulating the universe ?

But he is not allowed to believe in principles, since all natural facts are contingent in his worldview. He cannot argue from regularity in nature because such regularity would have to arise from necessity. His belief in this “principle of beauty”, so to speak, is a concession to the rational-scientific worldview and its justification of principles.

And in his deduction he also commits the same false dichotomy. He says :

A priori, however, there is no particular reason for expecting a basically beautiful rather than a basically ugly world. In consequence, if the world is beautiful, that fact would be evidence for God’s existence.

We can once again rephrase this as :

(1) Without a Creator, the universe should be basically ugly, since the only alternative to design is chance.
(2) The universe is not basically ugly.
(3) There must be a Creator.

Once again, we have to reject this presupposition as trivially false. From a naturalistic standpoint, Swinburne should know why beauty exists, since he is already aware of the truth of biological evolution. Beauty is a mental operation based on percepts, not only an inherent property of objects. We know that people find symmetry, averageness, and hormone markers attractive in other people’s faces, because they are outwards signs of health. This is not a mystery of cosmic proportions : it is a fact of human nature.

The main feature of teleological and fine-tuning arguments is the theologian’s inane awe at the facts of nature. Some theologians make a living out of listing impressive-sounding numbers and scientific facts. But the theologian’s awe stops at “God did it”. Once this conclusion is reached, no more discussion is possible. No principles can be supported, no science can be used, only faith.

Swinburne displays the fundamental problems of theism by sweeping aside any naturalistic possibility and stealing concepts that are not part of his worldview. By accepting the necessary nature of reality, and acknowledging that all is material cause and effect, the rational atheist can go beyond such presuppositions and gain real understanding of the universe. No other way !

Last updated: August 2, 2004