Customer Reviews: Faith and Reason
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on May 5, 2002
Swinburne would surely affirm Bishop Butler's famous declaration that "probability is the very guide of life." This sentiment is present throughout his work but it is developed most fully and explicitly in _Faith and Reason_. Swinburne maintains that there is no tension between faith and reason, defining faith simply as "a matter of pursuing the goals of religion on certain assumptions believed to be more probable than rival assumptions." This may sound sterile, but, for better or worse, it is thoroughly Swinburnean. The book is probably the best modern attempt to lay out a "rationalistic" account of religious faith, according to which faith is a matter of weighing probabilities and making decisions in light of them. This is required reading for anyone who would fully understand the contours of Swinburne's thought.
Swinburne begins by laying out a theory of rational belief, then applies it to the case of religious belief. Throughout the book, Swinburne does what he does best: make distinctions. For example, in Chapter 2 he distinguishes no less than five kinds of rationality, and in Chapter 4 he analyzes the rational and volitional components of faith and relates each to pragmatist theories of faith. His discussions of both faith and reason are often illuminating, even when his account of how they relate to each other is unsatisfying. Swinburne considers the positions of such figures as Aquinas, Luther, Pascal, James, and Newman in some detail, but is dismissive of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. I think the book suffers from its failure to consider Kierkegaard's view that uncertainty is not just acceptable, as Swinburne admits, but is the very hallmark of faith. It would have been stronger had he tried to account for the intuition behind this view within his framework.
I do not know of any wholly satisfactory treatment of the relationship between faith and reason. Swinburne's book is valuable, not only for the position it defends, but also for its clear and precise elucidation of the issues at stake. I recommend reading this book in conjunction with Scott MacDonald's paper "Christian Faith" in the volume _Reasoned Faith_, edited by Eleanore Stump, and possibly James Kellenbarger's "Three Models of Faith" in _Contemporary Perspectives in Religious Epistemology, edited by Geivett and Sweetman. Etienne Gilson's _Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages_ is also an excellent treatment of three medieval approaches to the issue that still have application today.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon August 26, 2015
Richard G. Swinburne (born 1934) is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford; he has written many other books such as Is There a God?,The Existence of God,The Coherence of Theism,Was Jesus God?, etc.

He wrote in the Introduction to this 1981 book, "[This book] is the final volume of a trilogy on philosophical theology. The first volume, `The Coherence of Theism,' was concerned with what it means to say that there is a God, and whether the claim that there is a God is internally coherent... The second volume, `The Existence of God,' was concerned ... to assess the force of arguments from experience for and against the existence of God. It argued that... on balance the various arguments ... showed that it was more probable than not that there was a God. `Faith and Reason' is concerned with the relevance of such judgments of probability... to religious faith... what sort of faith is needed for the practice of religion, and what sort of faith ought churches to demand of their members? ... what is it to believe that there is a God? Finally, when is faith in God obligatory and when is it rational? These are the topics of this book... This work is thus centered more on Christianity than its predecessors... As in both the earlier works, my primary aim has been to justify my conclusions by rigorous and careful arguments." (Pg. 1-2)

He states, "We can now apply our claim that belief is relative to alternatives, to religious beliefs... Belief-that is relative to alternatives; and where this is not realized or where the alternatives are not clearly specified, a man who expresses belief may not be saying anything very clear. I believe that this simple point, generally unrecognized, is of very considerable importance for the Christian religion. What is it to be a Christian believer is unclear until we have made clear what are the alternatives with which the propositions of Christianity are being contrasted." (Pg. 6-7)

He suggests, "The main claim which I have made so far is that a man's beliefs carry consequences about how he will seek to bring about his purposes." (Pg. 12) He adds, "Belief is thus an inner attitude towards propositions which is manifested in action and often evidenced by public criteria, but which may exist independently of its manifestations and of evidence shown in public behavior... a man's belief is a mental attitude towards a proposition which, perhaps together with his other beliefs, entails how he will seek to realize his purposes." (Pg. 16-17)

He asserts, "A man may continue to believe a proposition while his evidence for it changes. I may a few years ago have assembled a lot of historical evidence which, I believed, made it probable that Jesus was raised physically from the dead. I therefore believed the latter proposition. I may now have forgotten the historical evidence, and yet continue to believe that Jesus was raised. My evidence now may be only that I once did, honestly and conscientiously, examine historical evidence and reach the conclusion that Jesus was raised. This evidence about my past investigations may be my present grounds for belief." (Pg. 22)

He observes, "While I cannot change my beliefs at will, what I can do is to set myself to change them over a period. I can set myself to look for more evidence, knowing that that MAY lead to a change in my beliefs. Or I can deliberately set out cultivating a belief---e.g. by looking selectively for favorable evidence, and then trying to forget the selective character of my investigation. I can bring before my mind the evidential force of certain evidence, and try to forget about the evidential force of other evidence. And I can try to persuade myself that my old inductive standards were wrong standards." (Pg. 26)

He says, "The rationality of a belief is a matter of a man having devoted such time to investigating it as he himself thought adequate. But although a man may think that he has devoted enough time to such investigation, even by his own standards he may not have done. He may have devoted far less time to it than the importance which he believed the matter to have warranted by his normal standards of how much time you ought to devote to investigating things. While believing that religion was a very important matter, he may have devoted far more time to studying football. His resulting belief would then fail to be rational. For a rational belief is one where the believer has by his own standards adequately investigated the evidence, his inductive standards, and the force by them of his evidence." (Pg. 70)

He argues, "A further reason why it matters to acquire true beliefs about religion, is that religious beliefs themselves have moral consequences. If there is a God and he has made and sustains the world and issued commands to men, men have moral obligations which they would not otherwise have.... Worship is the only response appropriate to God, the source of all being. Further, if God has given me particular instructions for the use of the Earth, then of course I have a duty to follow these---for if God made the Earth, it is his. (What greater title can one have to property then having created it ex nihilo?) (Pg. 79)

Of Pascal's Wager, he comments: "it is, I think, difficult to avoid the view that it is more important to believe that there is a God, if in fact there is a God, than to believe that there is no God, if in fact there is no God. Thus failure to hold a true belief that there is a God could lead us failing to worship a God to whom worship is due; whereas, if through a false belief that there is a God, we worship a God who does not exist, no one is thereby wronged. Further, failure to hold a true belief that there is a God could lead to the loss of everlasting life... whereas failure to hold a true atheistic belief could involve at most the waste of a short finite life. This seems to be the one correct point in the argumentation of Pascal's Wager." (Pg. 81)

But he continues, "As Pascal presented the wager nothing seemed to turn on the exact probabilities ... unfortunately the probability of the Christian religious system being the true one crucially affects rational conduct... Roughly we may say that belief in the Christian God will be rational only if the Christian religious system... is more probable than any other system which postulates an after-life. A further difficulty is whether Pascal has correctly stated the gains and losses under the Christian system... Is the threat of punishment the threat of a punishment which literally lasts for ever? And is the reward offered to those who force themselves to believe things which their reason tells them to be false and then in some way act on those beliefs?" (Pg. 95)

He summarizes, "So far in this book I have ... analyzed what it is to have a belief that so-and-so is the case, when belief is `rational' in various senses of `rational,' when it matters what we believe, and what we ought to do about our beliefs. I claimed that it matters greatly that one should have a true belief about whether there is a God, and what he is like and what he has done. However, the virtue which the Christian religion commends is not belief but faith. What is faith, and what is its relation to belief? The faith which the Christian religion commends is basically faith in a person or persons..." (Pg. 104)

He asserts, "Christianity does indeed require ... that a man have a good character if he is to attain salvation. But... the development of a good character often takes a long time and is achieved by attempting to do good works over a long period. I shall suggest ... that the good purposes involved in the good character need to become rather more specific before a man can finally attain salvation. They need to be the purposes to attain the goals of religion, i.e. salvation for oneself and others, and the rendering of due worship and obedience to God." (Pg. 114)

He points out, "in the Heaven depicted by Christian theology a man will be performing actions of supreme worth ... However, he will only want to be there doing those actions if he has a certain character. The man who wants to be applauded for what he has not done, who wishes to see the good humiliated, and to get pleasure out of the company of similarly malevolent persons, would not want to be in Heaven. The man who has the wrong character, for whom the life of Heaven is not natural, would clearly, even if he got to Heaven, not have the well-being possessed by those who want to be there." (Pg. 133)

He also suggests, "It might be urged that no man would ever be allowed by God to reach such a state of depravity that he was no longer capable of choosing to do an action because of its overall worth. But in that case God would have prevented men from opting for a certain alternative; however hard a man tried to d_mn himself, God would stop him. It is good that God should not let a man d_mn himself without much urging and giving him many opportunities to change his mind, but it is bad that a man should not in the all-important matter of the destiny of his soul be allowed finally to destroy it... plausibly even God has no... right to prevent men destroying their own souls." (Pg. 154-155)

Perhaps surprisingly, he is sympathetic to the notion of Limbo: "there seems nothing wrong in God sending unbaptized babies to Limbo rather than Heaven. Babies do not have a character capable of enjoying Heaven, any more than do goldfish. And there seems to be no more obligation on God to give them such a character than always to create men rather than goldfish. There is nothing wrong with God creating lesser beings capable of lesser joys, of keeping such in being, rather than making only persons fitted for the highest joys... Whereas there would be something horribly wrong in the unbaptized babies going to Hell." (Pg. 170)

He summarizes, "my earlier volume, `The Existence of God... concluded... that it is more probable than not that there is a God. But all that is necessary for weak belief in the Christian Creed is a much less probable belief---say... that there is a significant probability that there is a God... The next stage is to show that if there is a God it is more likely that the other items of the Christian Creed are true than that the other items of some rival creed are true... We need to show that it is more probable that God became incarnate in Christ than that Muhammad was his chief prophet; that the way to worship regularly is by attendance at the Eucharist rather than by five daily prayer-times, and so on. The choice between religious systems .... turns on a judgment about which is the true revelation of God. For the grounds for believing... are normally that God has revealed these truths through the mouth of some human intermediary..." (Pg. 175-176)

He acknowledges, "Christianity has regarded the Old Testament as in a sense ... licensed by Christ. He took it largely for granted in his teaching, and the Church which he founded proclaimed it... The Old Testament in telling in Genesis 1 and 2 the creation stories seems to presuppose that animal species came into being a few thousand years ago virtually simultaneously. The theory of evolution showed that they did not... But it seems odd to suppose that the religious message of what is evidently a piece of poetry was concerned with the exact time and method of animal arrival on the Earth... Their message concerned... the ultimate cause of that arrival." (Pg. 182)

He asserts, "The Mormon or Jehovah's Witness who knocks so unwelcome at our door is entitled to a small initial amount of serious attention. But I suggest that for most of us there is not nearly so much point in investigating the creedal claims of religions which have not spread throughout the globe and into which we do not bump, as in investigating the other religions. The failure of the former to spread among those who do come into contact with them is some evidence that they are not worth more serious attention." (Pg. 196)

Swinburne's books---and this trilogy in particular---are "must reading" for anyone seriously studying the philosophy of religion.
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on July 12, 2015
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