Richard Swinburne on Explanations

Thanks to Steve Dunn at Hellenistic Christendom for this post

Professor emeritus of philosophy Richard Swinburne at Oxford University is one of the leading champions in regards to the analytic tradition and its association with the philosophy of religion. In his famous 1979 book, The Existence of God (second edition, 2004), Swinburne argues that ”the existence of the universe, its law-governed nature and fine-tuning, human consciousness and moral awareness, and evidence of miracles and religious experience, all taken together (and despite the occurrence of pain and suffering), make it likely that there is a God” [1].

This compelling thesis is shortened for a wider public audience in his recent 2010 book, Is There a God? [2]. Swinburne’s chapter on explanation is my main focus for this post. Interestingly, the approach Swinburne takes in respect to the question of God’s existence is something akin to the Leibnizian tradition of explanations. Swinburne in the introduction writes:

Scientists, historians, and detectives observe data and proceed thence to some theory about what best explains the occurrence of these data. We can analyse

the criteria which they use in reaching a conclusion that a certain theory is better supported by the data than a different theory – that is, is more likely on the basis of those data, to be true. Using those same criteria, we find the view that there is a God explains everything we observe, not just some narrow range of data. It explains the fact that there is a universe at all, that scientific laws operate within it, that it contains consciousness animals and humans with very complex intricately organized bodies [ … ] The very same criteria which scientists use to reach their own theories lead us to move beyond those theories to a creator God who sustains everything in existence. [3]

However, respectively in this post, I wish to answer the question: “What does Swinburne mean by an explanation?” and, “How do we explain things?”

How Scientists Explain Things

It is in order to address first what we mean by a “scientific explanation”. Philosopher of science Brian Ellis writes in his essay What Science Aims to Do (1985) that “any request for explanation is a request for information” [4]. Ellis thence goes on to outline four different types of scientific explanations:

◦Causal Explanation
◦Functional Explanation
◦Modal-Theoretic Explanation
◦Systematic Explanation

A causal explanation is “information about the causal history of something or about the causal processes which result in something” [5]. A functional explanation is “information about the role of something in some ongoing system – about the contribution it makes to sustaining it” [6]. A model-theoretic explanation is “information about how (if at all) the actual behavior of some system differs from that which it should have ideally if it were not for some perturbing influences and, where necessary, includes some information about what perturbing influences may be causing the difference” [7]. Lastly, a systematic explanation is “information about how the fact to be explained is systematically related to other facts” [8].

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