Richard Dawkins reviews Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford, 1996) here. What follows are the meatiest excerpts from Dawkins' review together with my critical comments. I have bolded the passages to which I object.
Swinburne is ambitious. He will not shrink into those few remaining backwaters which scientific explanation has so far failed to reach. He offers a theistic explanation for those very aspects of the world where science claims to have succeeded, and he insists that his explanation is better. Better, moreover, by a criterion likely to appeal to a scientist: simplicity. He shows that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. But then comes the great banana skin experience. By an amazing exploit of doublethink, Swinburne manages to convince himself that theistic explanations are simple explanations.
It is not true that Swinburne offers an explanation for those very aspects of the world where science claims to have succeeded. Part of what Swinburne is saying is that there are aspects of the world that theism can explain but that materialism cannot explain. But let's back up a bit.
Swinburne rightly points out that "intellectual enquiry demands that we postulate the smallest number of brute facts." (49) But on a materialist explanation there are more brute facts than on a theistic explanation, and Swinburne takes this as a point in favor of theism. One thing that science cannot explain but that theism can explain is the fact that every electron has the same causal powers and liabilities as every other one in the universe. Indeed, the same goes for every kind of particle and every kind of macro-object as well: tigers here behave like tigers elsewhere, bread nourishes an Eskimo no less than it nourishes a Mexican, etc.
A rational enquirer, however, cannot just accept that it is a brute fact that every electron has the powers and liabilities of every other one. Reason demands an explanation of that fact. Swinburne offers the following analogy. "If all the coins found on an archaeological site have the same markings, or all the documents in a room are written with the same characteristic handwriting, we look for an explanation in terms of a common source. The apparently coincidental cries out for explanation." (50) Now back to Dawkins:
Science explains complex things in terms of the interactions of simpler things, ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles. I (and I dare say you) think it a beautifully simple idea that all things are made of different combinations of fundamental particles which, although exceedingly numerous, are drawn from a small, finite set. If we are sceptical, it is likely to be because we think the idea too simple. But for Swinburne it is not simple at all, quite the reverse.
His reasoning is very odd indeed. Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence for so many to have the same properties. One electron, he could stomach. But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity. For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other. Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time, but would be expected to change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment. That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs. Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation.
[I]t is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now. (Is There a God? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 2. [Dawkins gets the pagination wrong. This passage is on p. 42.])
Now where does Swinburne say what Dawkins attributes to him in the bolded passage? What Swinburne is saying is that science must take it to be a brute fact that electrons (e.g.) have the same powers and liabilities everywhere and everywhen. He is not saying that their natural tendency is not to have the same powers and liabilities. In other words, Swinburne does not invoke God to explain why electrons don't follow a natural tendency to collapse into irregularity; he invokes God to explain why they are regular. Returning to Dawkins:
Enter God. God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralising their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation. That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all, that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond. It is because God is constantly hanging on to each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.
It seems to me that Dawkins, whose tone betrays an unwillingness to grapple seriously with what Swinburne is saying, simply does not understand Swinburne's point. It is not that the fundamental particles are inclined to erratic fluctuation and that God must be brought in to keep them in line. It is rather that the fact of their regular behavior cannot be explained by science but must be taken to be a brute fact -- in violation of the principle that animates all science and inquiry, namely, to push explanations as far as one can and to admit as few brute facts as possible.
Swinburne, impressed by the regularity of nature, asks why it is regular. Dawkins, however, takes the regularity for granted and considers it to be a brute given. Thus at any time the regularity of nature has no explanation. But it is worse than this since over time there can be no explanation of why things having certain powers exist at all. As Swinburne puts it, "The present powers of objects may have been brought about by a past cause, but their present continuing in existence is -- on the materialist hypothesis -- an ultimate brute fact." (42)
In other words, the materialist must take to it to be a brute fact that the universe continues to exist.
Theism is arguably superior to materialism because it explains more with less. Its explanation is relatively simple whereas that of materialism must postulate innumerable separate objects that just happen to have the same powers as each other.
The materialist, one could say, tolerates an unacceptable amount of brute-factuality. Consider all the samples of boiling water that have ever existed. Not only is it a brute fact that all of these samples exhibit the propensity to boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea-level, but is is also a brute fact that each of these samples exists. But it is worse than this since each sample is composed of H2O molecules which are composed of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which are composed of electrons, protons, and so on down the line, where at each level there are inexplicable regularities and inexplicable existences.
I don't say that Swinburne's case for theism is absolutely compelling, but it is quite reasonable, and indeed more reasonable that Dawkin's case for materialism. But even if you disagree with me on the last point, I hope I have convinced you that Dawkin's critical remarks contra Swinburne are quite worthless.