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The Justification of Theism

Richard G. Swinburne in Truth Journal Vol. 3 (1991)

Why believe that there is a God at all? My answer is that to suppose that there is a God explains why there is a world at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why humans have the opportunity to mould their characters and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries men have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else. In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience, and it does so better than any other explanation which can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true. This paper seeks to justify this answer; it presents in summary arguments given in more detailed form in my book The Existence of God,1 and seeks to rebut criticisms of those arguments given in J.L. Mackie’s book The Miracle of Theism.2

I. Inductive Arguments

Each of the phenomena (things in need of explanation) which I have
mentioned has formed the starting point of a philosophical argument for
the existence of God, but all that philosophers have tried to do is to
codify in a rigorous form the vague reasons which many ordinary men have
had for believing that there is a God. These arguments seem to me to
have a common pattern. Some phenomenon E, which we can all observe, is
considered. It is claimed that E is puzzling, strange, not to be
expected in the ordinary course of things; but that E is to be expected
if there is a God; for God has the power to bring about E and He might
well choose to do so. Hence the occurrence of E is reason for supposing
that there is a God. E may be a large phenomenon, such as the existence
of the Universe, or something a lot smaller, such as our own individual
religious experiences.

The pattern of argument is one much used in science, history, and all
other fields of human inquiry. A detective, for example, finds various
clues — John’s fingerprints on a burgled safe, John having a lot of money
hidden in his house, John being seen near the scene of the burglary at
the time when it was committed. He then suggests that these various
clues, although they just might have other explanations, are
not in general to be expected unless John had robbed the safe. That
each clue is some evidence that he did rob the safe, confirms the
hypothesis that John robbed the safe; and the evidence is cumulative —
when put together it makes the hypothesis probable.

Let us call arguments of this kind arguments to a good explanation.
Scientists use this pattern of argument to argue to the existence of
unobservable entities as causes of the phenomena which they observe.
For example, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, scientists
observed many varied phenomena of chemical interaction, such as that
substances combine in fixed ratios by weight to form new substances (for
example, hydrogen and oxygen always form water in a ratio by weight of
1:8). They then claimed that these phenomena would be expected if there
existed a hundred or so different kinds of atom, particles far too small
to be seen, which combined and recombined in certain simple ways. In
their turn physicists postulated electrons, protons, and neutrons and
other particles in order to account for the behavior of the atoms, as
well as for larger-scale observable phenomena; and now postulate quarks
in order to explain the behavior of protons, neutrons, and most other

To be good arguments (that is, to provide evidence for their
hypothesis), arguments of this kind must satisfy three criteria. First,
the phenomena which they cite as evidence must not be very likely to
occur in the normal course of things. We saw in the burglary example
how the various clues, such as John’s fingerprints on the safe, were not
much to be expected in the normal course of things. Secondly, the
phenomena must be much more to be expected if the hypothesis is true.
If John did rob the safe it is quite likely that his
fingerprints would be found on it. Thirdly, the hypothesis must be
simple. That is, it must postulate the existence and operation of
few entities, few kinds of entities, with few
easily describable properties behaving in mathematically
simple kinds of way. We could always postulate many new
entities with complicated properties to explain anything which we find.
But our hypothesis will only be supported by the evidence if it
postulates few entities, which lead us to expect the diverse phenomena
which form the evidence. Thus in the detective story example we could
suggest that Brown planted John’s fingerprints on the safe, Smith
dressed up to look like John at the scene of the crime, and without any
collusion with the others Robinson hid the money in John’s flat. This
new hypothesis would lead us to expect the phenomena which we find just
as well as does the hypothesis that John robbed the safe. But the
latter hypothesis is supported by the evidence whereas the former is
not. And this is because the hypothesis that John robbed the safe
postulates one object-John-doing one deed -robbing the
safe-which leads us to expect the several phenomena which we find.
Scientists always postulate as few new entities (for example, subatomic
particles) as are needed to lead us to expect to find the phenomena
which we observe; and they postulate that those entities do not behave
erratically (behave one way one day, and a different way the next day)
but that they behave in accordance with as simple and smooth a
mathematical law as is compatible with what is observed. There is an
old Latin saying, simplex sigillum veri, “The simple is the
sign of the true.” To be rendered probable by evidence, hypotheses must
be simple.

II. Arguments from the Existence and Order of the Universe

My first phenomenon which provides evidence for the existence of God is
the existence of the universe for so long as it has existed (whether a
finite time or, if it has no beginning, an infinite time). This is
something evidently inexplicable by science. For a scientific
explanation as such explains the occurrence of one state of affairs S1
in terms of a previous state of affairs S2 and some law of nature which
makes states like S2 bring about states like S1. Thus it may explain
the planets being in their present positions by a previous state of the
system (the Sun and planets being where they were last year) and the
operation of Kepler’s laws which state that states like the latter are
followed a year later by states like the former. But what science by
its very nature cannot explain is why there are any states of affairs at

My next phenomenon is the operation of the most general laws of nature,
that is, the orderliness of nature in conforming to very general laws.
What exactly these laws are science may not yet have discovered-perhaps
they are the field equations of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity,
or perhaps there are some yet more fundamental laws. Now science can
explain why one law operates in some narrow area, in terms of the
operation of a wider law in the particular conditions of that narrow
area. Thus it can explain why Galileo’s law of fall holds-that small
objects near the surface of the Earth fall with a constant acceleration
towards the Earth. Galileo’s law follows from Newton’s laws, given that
the Earth is a massive body far from other massive bodies and the
objects on its surface are close to it and small in mass in comparison.
But what science by its very nature cannot explain is why there are the
most general laws of nature that there are; for, ex hypothesi,
no wider law can explain their operation.

That there is a Universe and that there are laws of nature are phenomena
so general and pervasive that we tend to ignore them. But there might
so easily not have been a universe at all, ever. Or the Universe might
so easily have been a chaotic mess. That there is an orderly
Universe is something very striking, yet beyond the capacity of science
ever to explain. Science’s inability to explain these things is not a
temporary phenomenon, caused by the backwardness of Twentieth Century
science. Rather, because of what a scientific explanation is,
these things will ever be beyond its capacity to explain. For
scientific explanations by their very nature terminate with some
ultimate natural law and ultimate arrangement of physical things, and
the questions which I am raising are why there are natural laws and
physical things at all.

However, there is another kind of explanation of phenomena which we use
all the time and which we see as a proper way of explaining phenomena.
This is what I call personal explanation. We often explain some
phenomenon E as brought about by a person P in order to achieve some
purpose or goal G. The present motion of my hand is explained as
brought about by me for the purpose of writing a philosophical paper.
The cup being on the table is explained by a man having put it there for
the purpose of drinking out of it. Yet this is a different way of
explaining things from the scientific. Scientific explanation involves
laws of nature and previous states of affairs. Personal explanation
involves persons and purposes. If we cannot give a scientific
explanation of the existence and orderliness of the Universe, perhaps we
can give a personal explanation.

But why should we think that the existence and orderliness of the
Universe has an explanation at all? We seek for an explanation of all
things; but we have seen that we have only reason for supposing that we
have found one if the purported explanation is simple, and leads us to
expect what we find when that is otherwise not to be expected. The
history of science shows that we judge that the complex, miscellaneous,
coincidental and diverse needs explaining, and that it is to be
explained in terms of something simpler. The motions of the planets
(subject to Kepler’s laws), the mechanical interactions of bodies on
Earth, the behavior of pendula, the motions of tides, the behavior of
comets, and so forth formed a pretty miscellaneous set of phenomena.
Newton’s laws of motion constituted a simple theory which led us to
expect these phenomena, and so was judged a true explanation of them.
The existence of thousands of different chemical substances combining in
different ratios to make other substances was complex. The hypothesis
that there were only a hundred or so chemical elements of which the
thousands of substances were made was a simple hypothesis which led us
to expect the complex phenomenon.

Our Universe is a complex thing. There are lots and lots of separate
chunks of it. The chunks have each a different finite and not very
natural volume, shape, mass, and so forth-consider the vast diversity of
the galaxies, stars and planets, and pebbles on the sea shore. Matter
is inert and has no powers which it can choose to exert; it does what it
has to do. There is a limited amount of it in any region and it has a
limited amount of energy and velocity. There is a complexity,
particularity, and finitude about the Universe.

The conformity of objects throughout endless time and space to simple
laws is likewise something which cries out for explanation. For let us
consider what this amounts to. Laws are not things, independent of
material objects. To say that all objects conform to laws is simply to
say that they all behave in exactly the same way. To say, for example,
that the planets obey Kepler’s laws is just to say that each planet at
each moment of time has the property of moving in the ways that Kepler’s
laws state. There is therefore this vast coincidence in the behavioral
properties of objects at all times and in all places. If all the coins
of some region have the same markings, or all the papers in a room are
written in the same handwriting, we seek an explanation in terms of a
common source of these coincidences. We should seek a similar
explanation for that vast coincidence which we describe as the
conformity of objects to laws of nature-for example, the fact that all
electrons are produced, attract and repel other particles and combine
with them in exactly the same way at each point of endless time and

The hypothesis of theism is that the Universe exists because there is a
God who keeps it in being and that laws of nature operate because there
is a God who brings it about that they do. He brings it about that the
laws of nature operate by sustaining in every object in the universe its
liability to behave in accord with those laws. He keeps the Universe in
being by making the laws such as to conserve the matter of the Universe,
that is, by making it the case at each moment that what there was before
continues to exist. The hypothesis is a hypothesis that a person brings
about these things for some purpose. He acts directly on the Universe,
as we act directly on our brains, guiding them to move our limbs (but
the Universe is not his body-for he could at any moment destroy it, and
act on another universe, or do without a universe). As we have seen,
personal explanation and scientific explanation are the two ways we have
of explaining the occurrence of phenomena. Since there cannot be a
scientific explanation of the existence of the Universe, either there is
a personal explanation or there is no explanation at all. The
hypothesis that there is a God is the hypothesis of the existence of the
simplest kind of person which there could be. A person is a being with
power to bring about effects, knowledge of how to do
so, and freedom to make choices of which effects to bring
about. God is by definition an omnipotent (that is, infinitely
powerful), omniscient (that is, all-knowing), and perfectly free person;
He is a person of infinite power, knowledge, and freedom; a person to
whose power, knowledge, and freedom there are no limits except those of
logic. The hypothesis that there exists a being with infinite degrees
of the qualities essential to a being of that kind is the postulation of
a very simple being. The hypothesis that there is such a God is a much
simpler hypothesis than the hypothesis that there is a god who has such
and such a limited power. It is simpler in just the same way that the
hypothesis that some particle has zero mass or infinite velocity, is
simpler than the hypothesis that it has of 0.32147 of some unit of mass
or a velocity of 221,000 km/sec. A finite limitation cries out for an
explanation of why there is just that particular limit, in a way that
limitlessness does not.

That there should exist anything at all, let alone a universe as complex
and as orderly as ours, is exceedingly strange. But if there is a God,
it is not vastly unlikely that he should create such a universe. A
universe such as ours is a thing of beauty, and a theatre in which men
and other creatures can grow and work out their destiny. The
orderliness of the Universe makes it a beautiful Universe, but, even
more importantly, it makes it a Universe which men can learn to control
and change. For only if there are simple laws of nature can men predict
what will follow from what-and unless they can do that, they can never
change anything. Only if men know that by sowing certain seeds, weeding
and watering them, they will get corn, can they develop an agriculture.
And men can only acquire that knowledge if there are easily graspable
regularities of behavior in nature. So God has good reason to make an
orderly Universe and, ex hypothesi, being omnipotent, he has
the power to do so. So the hypothesis that there is a God makes the
existence of the Universe much more to be expected than it would
otherwise be, and it is a very simple hypothesis. Hence the arguments
from the existence of the Universe and its conformity to simple natural
laws are good arguments to an explanation of the phenomena, and provide
substantial evidence for the existence of God.

III. The Argument from the Evolution of Animals and Men

The other phenomena which I have mentioned are also phenomena best
explained by postulating the existence and creative activity of God, and
so add to the cumulative case for His existence. Consider now the
evolution of animals and humans. In the middle of the last century
Darwin set out his impressive theory of evolution by natural selection
to account for the existence of animals and humans. Animals varied in
various ways from their parents (some were taller, some shorter, some
fatter, some thinner, some had beginnings of a wing, others did not; and
so on). Those animals with characteristics which made them best fitted
to survive, survived and handed on their characteristics to the next
generation. But, although in general resembling their parents, their
offspring varied from them, and those variations which best fitted the
animal to survive were again the ones most likely to be handed on to
another generation. This process went on for millions of years
producing the whole range of animals which we have today, each adapted
to survive in a different environment. Among the characteristics giving
advantage in the struggle for survival was intelligence, and the
selections for this characteristic eventually led to the evolution of
man. Such is Darwin’s account of why we have today animals and men.

As far as it goes, his account is surely right. But there are two
crucial matters beyond its scope. First, the evolutionary mechanism
which Darwin describes only works because there are certain laws of
biochemistry (animals produce many offspring, these vary in various ways
from the parents, and so forth) and certain features of the environment
(there is a limited amount of food, drink, space, and so on). But why
are there these laws rather than other laws? Perhaps because they
follow from the most fundamental laws of physics. But the question then
arises as to why the fundamental laws of physics are such as to give
rise to laws of evolution. If we can answer this question we should do
so. There is again available the same simple answer — that there is a God
who makes matter behave in accord with such laws in order to produce a
world with animals and men. To develop my earlier point-God has an
obvious reason for producing men. He wants there to be creatures who
can share in His creative work by making choices which affect the world
they live in and the other creatures who live in that world. By the way
we treat our environment and our bodies, bring up our children and
influence our governments, we can make this world beautiful and its
other inhabitants happy and knowledgeable; or we can make it ugly and
its other inhabitants miserable and ignorant. A good God will seek
other beings with whom to share in his activity of creation, of forming,
moulding and changing the world. The fact of a mechanism to produce men
is evidence of God behind that mechanism.3

Secondly, Darwinian theory is concerned only with the physical
characteristics of animals and men. Yet men have thoughts and feelings,
beliefs and desires, and they make choices. These are events totally
different from publicly observable physical events. Physical objects
are, physicists tell us, interacting colorless centers of forces; but
they act on our senses, which set up electrical circuits in our brains,
and these brain events cause us to have sensations (of pain or color,
sound or smell), thoughts, desires and beliefs. Mental events such as
these are no doubt largely caused by brain events (and vice-versa), but
mental events are distinct from brain events-sensations are quite
different from electro-chemical disturbances. They are in fact so
different-private, colored or noisy, and felt-from public events such as
brain events, that it is very, very unlikely indeed that science will
ever explain how brain events give rise to mental events (why this brain
event causes a red sensation, and that one a blue sensation). Yet brain
events do cause mental events; no doubt there are regular correlations
between this type of brain events and that type of mental event, and yet
no scientific theory can say why there are the particular correlations
there are, or indeed any correlations at all (why did not evolution just
throw up unfeeling robots?). Yet these correlations which science
cannot explain cry out for explanation of another kind. That is
available. God brings it about that brain events of certain kinds give
rise to mental events of certain kinds in order that animals and men may
learn about the physical world, see it as imbued with color and smell
making it beautiful, and learn to control it. Brain events caused by
different sights, sounds and smells give rise to different and
characteristic sensations and beliefs in order that men may have
knowledge of a beautiful physical world and thus have power over it.
Darwinism can only explain why some animals are eliminated in the
struggle for survival, not why there are animals and men at all with
mental lives of sensation and belief; and in so far as it can explain
anything, the question inevitably arises why the laws of evolution are
as they are. All this theism can explain.

IV. Outline of Arguments from Miracles and Religious Experience

There are many reports of occasional miraculous events, events which
violate laws of nature. Some of these reports are no doubt false,
spread by unreliable witnesses. No doubt when men have claimed to see
others levitate (float on air) or recover instantaneously from some
disease, some of these reports are just false. Sometimes, too, when men
have reported correctly some very strange event, although it seemed to
be a violation of natural law, it was not. Magnetism might once have
seemed miraculous to some people, but it is a perfectly orderly
scientific phenomenon. But laying aside all such cases, there is, I
suggest, a residue of apparently well-authenticated highly unusual
events apparently contrary to laws of nature, but such as a God would
have reason for bringing about (for example, a spontaneous cure of
cancer in answer to much prayer). Above all, there is the supreme
reported miracle-the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. There
is no space to discuss here the historical evidence for the Resurrection
(or any other reported miracle). My only point here is that in so far
as there is good historical evidence of the physical resurrection of
Jesus (as I believe that there is), it is evidence of the occurrence of
an event which quite clearly violates the laws of nature and so calls
for an explanation different from the scientific. That is available:
God raised Christ from the dead to signify his acceptance of Christ’s
atoning sacrifice, to give his stamp of approval to his teaching, to
take back Christ to Heaven where he belongs, and thereby to found a
church to draw all men to himself.

Theism is able to explain the most general phenomena of science and more
particular historical facts, but it is also able to explain our own
individual religious experiences. To so many men it has seemed at
different moments of their lives that they were aware of God and His
guidance. It is a basic principle of knowledge, which I have called the
principle of credulity, that we ought to believe that things are as they
seem to be, until we have evidence that we are mistaken. If it seems to
me that I am seeing a table or hearing my friend’s voice, I ought to
believe this until evidence appears that I have been deceived. If you
say the contrary-never trust appearances until it is proved that they
are reliable, you will never have any beliefs at all. For what would
show that appearances were reliable, except more appearances? And if
you can’t trust appearances, you can’t trust them either. Just as you
must trust your five ordinary senses, so it is equally rational to trust
your religious sense. An opponent may say, you trust your ordinary
senses (e.g., your sense of sight) because it agrees with the senses of
other men-what you claim to see they claim to see; but your religious
sense does not argue with the senses of other men (they don’t always
have religious experiences at all, or of the same kind as you do).
However, it is important to realize that the rational man applies the
principle of credulity before he knows what other men experience. You
rightly trust your senses even if there is no other observer to check
them. And if there is another observer who reports that he seems to see
what you seem to see, you have thereafter to remember that he did so
report, and that means relying on your own memory (again, how things
seem) without present corroboration. Anyway, religious experiences
often do coincide with those of many others in their general awareness
of a power beyond ourselves guiding our lives. If some men do not have
our experiences, even when our experiences coincide with those of
others, that suggests that the former are blind to religious realities-
just as a man’s inability to see colors does not show that many of us
who claim to see them are mistaken, only that he is color blind. It is
basic to human knowledge of the world that we believe things are as they
seem to be in the absence of positive evidence to the contrary. Someone
who seems to have an experience of God should believe that he does,
unless evidence can be produced that he is mistaken. And it is another
basic principle of knowledge that those who do not have an experience of
a certain type ought to believe many others when they say that they do-
again, in the absence of evidence of mass delusion.

The case for the existence of God is a cumulative one. I claim that the
existence and continued operation of God (normally through the laws of
nature, but sometimes setting them aside) can explain the whole pattern
of science and history, and also men’s most intimate religious

V. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism

The defender of theism has of course to rebut arguments from the
atheist. The most famous argument against theism is the argument from
evil-does not the occurrence of pain and wickedness show that there is
not a good God in control of the Universe? I do not think that it shows
that at all, but in a short paper I can only refer to my arguments on
this point elsewhere,[4] and to the arguments of others. It would,
however, be appropriate, in concluding this paper, to discuss objections
to my line of argument developed at some length in J.L. Mackie’s
posthumous book The Miracle of Theism.5

Mackie has many criticisms of the exposition of my arguments in my book
The Existence of God, but most of them are variants of three
main counter-arguments. Two of these involve a claim that my theistic
hypothesis is not nearly as simple as I suppose. His first argument for
this, which occurs in a number of places in his book (especially pp.
100, 129f., 149), is that my category of “personal explanation”
(explaining a state of affairs as brought about intentionally by an
agent) is not a simple one. For, he writes:

The key power involved in Swinburne’s use of
‘personal explanation’ is that of fulfilling intentions
directly, without any physical or causal mediation,
without materials or instruments. There is nothing in our
background knowledge that makes it comprehensible, let alone
likely, that anything should have such a power. All our
knowledge of intention-fulfillment is of embodied
intentions being fulfilled indirectly by way of
bodily changes and movements which are causally
related to the intended result, and where the ability thus
to fulfill intentions itself has a causal history,
either of evolutionary development or of learning or of
both. Only by ignoring such key features do we get an
analogue of the supposed divine action.[6]

Mackie is right to draw our attention to the fact that humans normally
execute their purposes indirectly. When I intentionally move my hand,
my purposing to move my hand causes the motion of my hand via causing a
brain state which in turn causes the hand motion. Although humans
directly cause their brain states, they normally do so under a
description which describes a brain state in terms of its effects. When
I move my hand indirectly, I bring about directly that brain state which
causes my hand to move. If that were not so, humans would never through
their purposes make any difference to the world; events and actions
would never be explicable by the purposes humans were seeking to
achieve-which is absurd.

Certainly the purposes of humans are focused not on their brain states,
but on the effects of their brain states-that is, they execute their
purposes indirectly. But nothing of importance turns on this. Humans
could easily learn to bring about brain states described in terms of
their intrinsic nature, and seek so to do. When scientists tell me
which neuron has to fire in order to cause my hand to move, I can then
learn to make that neuron fire directly. Contrary to Mackie, there is
plenty “in our background knowledge which makes it comprehensible,”
indeed “likely that anything should have such a power.”

Anyway, contrary to Mackie, the simplicity of a hypothesis is not a
matter of the familiarity in the world of experience of its constituents
or the relations to each other which the hypothesis claims to hold. We
could understand and judge to be highly simple the notion of two
(logically) distinct variables being linearly related to each other
(that is, x and y having the relation x =
ky where k is a constant), even if all actual
observable variables were related in more complicated ways. And the
model of billiard balls interacting by collision remains a simple model
even if it is proved that actual billiard balls never really touch but
exert on each other some force at a distance. Whether the relation
between purpose and its realization without causal intermediary is
simple has nothing to do with whether that relation is instantiated in
the world. It is a very simple relation-the occurrence of an event
E being brought about by a person purposing to bring about
E under a description thereof built into the purpose. The
world of mediate experience may prove to be complicated, but it draws
our attention to the possibility of simple patterns of causation of
kinds exemplified in the world in more complicated ways. Indeed, it is
just the complexity of the world which leads us here, as elsewhere in
science, to postulate simpler causes at work “behind the scenes.”
Seeing indirect personal causation at work in the world, we see that
personal causation is a type of causation and so personal explanation is
a type of explanation. We see that its simplest form would be direct
personal causation, and so are led to postulate that at work to explain
the complexities around us. The naturalness of the connection between
the purpose to bring about E and E allows us to
explain Es which are puzzling because they are diverse and
complex-for example, the array of puzzling connections between brain
states and the mental states which they cause such as sensations; and
so, the answer to Mackie’s questions
are “Yes” and “No” respectively.

Has God somehow brought it about that material
structures do now generate consciousness? But then is this
not almost as hard to understand as that material structures
should do this of themselves?[7]

A different counter-argument of Mackie’s to my claim that the theistic
hypothesis is very simple is that the “particularity,” the detailed
features of the phenomena to be explained, has not been removed by
postulating an intention in God to bring about those phenomena:

The particularity has not been removed, but only
shelved; we should have to postulate particularities in God,
to explain his choice of the particular universe he decided
to create.[8]

The structure of my counter-argument to that was already there in
The Existence of God. A perfectly free, omnipotent and
omniscient being can only do what is best to do (or do one among many
equally best actions). In so far as an agent believes that some action
is the best action (that is, what there is most reason to do), he will
do it-unless he is subject to irrational inclinations, or desires, which
make it hard for him to do what he believes best. God, being perfectly
free, is subject to no such inclinations. Further, being omniscient,
God will know what is best (that is, what there is most reason to do);
He will not have false value-beliefs. Hence, unlike us humans, he will
always act for the best. So His freedom is a freedom to choose among
the very many equal best actions open to Him. Now we humans are often
ignorant and morally insensitive, and in consequence our judgments about
which actions are for the best must be tentative. But we can see that
it is a good thing that God should make a universe containing men, and
(once we have thought about it-as I argued in The Existence of
) we can see that it is good that God should allow men to suffer
to a limited extent for a short finite period for the sake of the
greater goods which that makes possible -that is, the opportunity for
free choice between good and evil, and the opportunity to show patience,
courage and compassion. But there are surely certain evils, for
example, undeserved suffering of infinite intensity or duration, which
God would not be justified in bringing about for the sake of some
greater good. Hence the hypothesis of God’s existence has the
consequence that there will not be such evils. This is not an
additional “particularity” which we attribute to God, but follows from
His essential nature.

Further, the occurrence of some one rather that any other of a number of
equally good states of affairs is made more comprehensible if it is seen
as resulting from a personal choice rather than from some random
mechanism-for personal choice among equally good alternatives is a
mechanism which we see intuitively to be a simple and natural mechanism
for selecting alternatives; for it is a mechanism, indeed the only
mechanism, of which we have inside experience and whose operation is
thus comprehensible.[9] So, for these two reasons (among others), in
postulating God we come to a starting point of explanation in which the
complex particularity we find around us has a simpler cause from which
the complexity flows-and that is always a hallmark of a well-justified
explanation. That is why we postulate electrons and protons, neutrons
and quarks to explain the miscellaneous data of physics and

As well as criticizing my claim about the simplicity of the theistic
hypothesis, Mackie claims in various ways that the evidence of
observation is not nearly as improbable a priori as I allege-
not nearly as unlikely to occur in the normal course of things, that is,
if the theistic hypothesis is false, as I allege. In particular, I
argued that the totally regular and simple ways of behavior of physical
objects; or, as we should say in order to avoid hypostatizing laws of
nature, the vast coincidence that there are objects of a very few kinds
(electrons, photons, and so forth) all of each kind having identical
powers and liabilities, is a very striking coincidence, which is a
very unlikely. And I went on from there to argue that the
hypothesis of a common creator explains the coincidence, since He has
the power to bring it about and reason to do so.

Mackie objected:

Inductive extrapolation would not be reasonable
if there were a strong presumption that the universe is
really completely random, that such order as we seem to find
in it is just the sort of local apparent regularity that we
should expect to occur occasionally by pure chance, as in a
series of random tosses of a coin we will sometimes get a
long run of heads, or a simple alternation of heads and
tails over a considerable number of throws. Swinburne
holds, and his argument requires, that inductive
extrapolation is reasonable, prior to and independently of
any belief in a god. But, I would argue, this would not be
reasonable if there were a strong presumption that the
universe is completely random. So he cannot consistently
say that, without the theistic hypothesis, it is highly
improbable a priori that there are any
regularities; for the latter assertion of improbability is
equivalent to saying that there is a strong presumption of

Mackie’s argument seems to be that in holding that the regularities
which we observe are typical of wider regularities in regions of space
and time outside the region immediately observed (as I do in rebutting
the suggestion that we are observing an untypical segment of space and
time) I am already committed to denying the strong presumption of

Before showing what is wrong with Mackie’s argument, it is worthwhile to
show it in action in another case. Suppose that there are before us,
ready for use, many packs of cards. On examining some of them at random
we find that they are all arranged in order of suits and seniority.
That allows us to infer that the other packs which we have not examined
will also be so arranged. Any normal observer would then immediately
suspect that these coincidences are to be explained in terms of
something beyond themselves-for example, an agent or a machine
constructed by an agent which arranged the packs in order. Mackie,
however, if we are to take his argument seriously, would not so react.
The mere fact that we can reasonably predict that the unobserved packs
will be arranged in order shows that order in packs of cards is a normal
thing to be expected, not in need of further explanation.

What has gone wrong? Mackie has misconstrued the argument for design.
There is indeed a strong presumption of randomness. But then we observe
the regular and simple behavior of all of the many objects which we
observe. We argue that if all objects behave in regular and simple ways
(h1) our observation will be made; but if only a few objects
behave in regular and simple ways (h2) our observation is very
unlikely to be made. Although a priori h1 has a much smaller
probability than h2, the observations are so much more likely
to be observed if h1 than if h2 that the posterior
probability of h1 (that is, the probability of h1,
given our observations) significantly exceeds that of h2. We
then inquire how such an unlikely hypothesis as h1 comes to be
true; we seek a higher hypothesis which explains it. Faced with the
choice between saying that there are simply brute coincidences in the
behavior of objects, and saying that their behavior is brought about by
a common cause, a person-we choose the latter on the grounds that its
simplicity is high and it gives some probability to what we observe.
That after all is how we argue with regard to the packs of cards.
Analogy demands that we argue in the same way with respect to the
regularities in nature.

It is very unlikely indeed a priori that there should be a
Universe made of matter behaving in totally regular ways, giving rise to
conscious beings capable of changing themselves and others, making
themselves fit for the Heaven of which they have a glimpse in religious
experience. Hence the reason which we use about science and history
demands that we postulate a simple explanation of these phenomena in
terms of a creator and sustainer God. Mackie’s reasons for rejecting
that view are not adequate.


  1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. The first four sections of this paper
    are taken from my booklet Evidence for God, Christian Evidence
    Society, London 1986.
  2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
  3. Recent science has drawn attention to the fact that the initial
    conditions of the Universe (e.g., the initial velocity of recession of
    its components) at the time of the “Big Bang,” and the physical
    constants (e.g., the ratio of the electron mass to the neutron mass)
    occurring in the laws of nature had to lie within very narrow ranges if
    intelligent life was to evolve. For full-length development of this
    theme see J.D. Barrow and F.J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological
    (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986); and for a theistic
    argument developed on the basis of this evidence see John Leslie,
    “Anthropic Principle, World Ensemble, Design,” American
    Philosophical Quarterly
    19 (1982): 141-151.
  4. Existence of God, chapters 9, 10, and 11.
  5. The rest of this section is a shortened version of a paper of mine,
    “Mackie, Induction, and God,” Religious Studies 19 (1983): 385-
  6. Mackie, Miracle of Theism, p. 100.
  7. Ibid., p. 131.
  8. Ibid., p. 100; see also p. 149.
  9. See my The Existence of God, p. 103.
  10. Mackie, Miracle of Theism, p. 148