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Swinburne's Argument From Temporal Order

Updated: May 3, 2022

Recently, during a philosophy lesson, I was exposed to Richard Swinburne’s argument from temporal order. Personally, I thought the argument was lacking in a lot of areas so I thought that I would explain it and propose why I was not convinced. The argument is as follows:

Within Richard Swinburne’s paper The Argument from Design, he presents his abductive argument from regularity in favour of the existence of God. Swinburne holds that the fundamental laws of nature operate with such uniformity throughout the entirety of the universe that they must necessarily have an explanation; his reasoning for this is that the universe could have behaved in an infinite number of ways and that there is an extremely small chance of our universe existing the way it is. According to Swinburne, regularities of succession occur both as a result of the natural laws which govern our universe and as a result of human free will. In his eyes, these two explanations are important to distinguish between: scientific explanations or the natural laws are invalid as they rely entirely upon references to other scientific explanations, making them cyclical in nature, whereas personal explanations or human explanations as a result of free will or even the choices of any free agent can fully explain the regularities of succession without any such problem. Furthermore, Swinburne reasons that we would expect a universe created by chance, thrown together randomly, to behave in an erratic manner. However, the universe clearly does not, and it behaves in a very particular way which allows life to form. Swinburne believes that such specific conditions, despite their low chance of occurrence, to support life must have a personal explanation that is not only due to chance, that explanation being that we must have been intentionally created. Therefore, he goes on to say that “if there was a God who made us, he has a reason for doing that” and he suggests that reason to be “it is only if we live in an orderly universe that we can possibly handle it”. From this, he asserts that there must be a free agent with immense power, intelligence, and freedom to bring order to such a vastly complex universe so that life, specifically human life, would be able to form.

However, there are many problems with this argument. First of all, something that strikes me is his assumption that the universe is orderly when we have no point of comparison. Oftentimes, people argue that dismissing a philosophical argument from a unique case is absurd because scientists attempt to draw conclusions about the origins of unique and singular cases all the time. One illustration of this could be the human race, there is only one human race as far as we are aware, yet we still try to make inferences about our origin. However, there is one key difference in that we group together unique cases with others that have similar characteristics. Scientists can make inferences and conclusions about many unique cases by identifying similar characteristics, patterns, and evidence. Our current understanding of physics gives out at the big bang and personally, I cannot find any similar characteristics, patterns, and definitely not any evidence to suggest that we have a comparatively orderly universe. Perhaps we are one of the more chaotic potential universes but for the sake of argument, we shall suppose that we have a very orderly universe. Even then, this orderly nature does not require an explanation because even if the universe could have formed in an infinite number of different ways, it is a large assumption, based on no evidence, that they all have an equal chance of occurring; therefore, it is ludicrous to assume that the universe had an infinitely small chance of forming and that it must have been made for us. Additionally, it is worth noting that even if it coincidentally has a small chance of occurring, that does not mean that it could not occur and it gives us no valid reason to suppose that it must have been intentionally created because it did occur. If it had not occurred, we would not be in a position to marvel at its creation. Take the puddle analogy proposed by Douglas Adams:

“Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.”

Even though this analogy is highly satirical, it still effectively challenges the notion that we have been given a fine-tuned universe which revolves around us, that we are a necessary creation. Surely, it is more reasonable to propose that we have been fine tuned for the universe rather than the universe has been fine-tuned for us and even then, fine-tuned only in the sense of evolution, through mutations, happy accidents that allowed us to be more likely to survive which we have no reason to believe a God set in motion. Personally, and I think you will not find it hard to agree that it sounds quite self-centred, or at the very least, a desperate grab for purpose. Intelligent lifeforms like ourselves always try to look for patterns and explain our surroundings but when we do not have an understanding of an aspect of our universe, like its creation, that does not mean that we should turn to God.

Furthermore, a slight problem I have with Swinburne is his view of the two different kinds of explanation: scientific and personal. These two categories are not mutually exclusive so it is not justifiable to say that a scientific explanation should not be able to explain a personal one.

Another particular problem I have with Swinburne is his understanding of scientific explanations or the natural laws. Scientific explanations are more so descriptions than anything else; they describe the universe and the consequences of constants throughout it. In other words, the natural laws need no lawgiver, they need no explanation as to why they are the specific way that they are beyond chance and scientists do not attempt to personalise it in this way.

Of course, I am no expert but here were some of the flaws I picked out and I would love to hear if you can find any flaws in my own reasoning, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

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Very well argued. Concise and logical. Christian philosophers seem to confuse order with organization. The universe could absolutely be more ordered than it is now.

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