Reciprocity between Swinburne and Kant regarding the Question of God

Essay, 2006

18 Seiten


Table of Contents


1 Swinburne’s Principal Premise in his Introduction to Chapter

2 The Nature of Religious Experience

3 The Principle of Credulity

4 Kant’s Postulate of Practical Reason

5 Kant and the Aesthetic Approach to Religious Experience




The theme of this essay revolves around the post-Kantian debate on different attempts to unearth new arguments for the existence of God. One of the first analytic philosophers in the tradition of the philosophy of religion, RICHARD SWINBURNE (born 26 Dec 1934), caused a furor with the publication of his trilogy – The Coherence of Theism, The Existence of God and Faith and Reason. While his first book – The Coherence of Theism (1977) – addresses the question as to whether God can be conceived as internally coherent, his second book – The Existence of God (1st Edition 1979, 2nd Edition 2004) – explicates a detailed analysis of whether God’s existence is true or false.1 Assuming that God’s existence is not “demonstrably incoherent (i.e. logically impossible)”2, which he concludes from his first book, Swinburne’s main task is to analyze whether religious experience can provide specific information on God’s existence. With this in mind, Swinburne directs his arguments against Kant whom he mentions explicitly more than 35 times in his book.3 Kant, who with his critique of pure reason, casts the question of God’s existence out beyond the range of immediate experience, builds the fundament for Swinburne’s criticism and his aim to justify God’s existence through immediate experience. Kant emphasizes namely, that God is an idea conceived in the transcendental subject, but cannot be experienced or perceived directly.

This historical framework sets the scene for the present analysis. Although Swinburne’s arguments turn against Kant, I plan to show that there are formal parallels in their argumentative structure and thereby uncover the tacit formal structure that Swinburne in fact has in common with Kant. Through this parallelism it is possible to also show at precisely what point Swinburne draws on and differs from Kant. Both philosophers formally depart from the subject (i.e. the internal domain), in order to claim validity for the object.

In order to show the similarities and difference I will focus on Swinburne’s chapter 13 on The Existence of God and both Kant’s postulate of practical reason and the analytic of the sublime.4 -1-3 address Swinburne’s chapter 13 – Arguments from Religious Experience - where it becomes clear that Swinburne’s arguments are not merely empirical and/or cumulative5, but also rely on an a priori assumption.6 This paradox will be traced back to Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity (hereafter PC), which also draws on the causal theory of perception (hereafter CTP). The next step is to show Swinburne’s relation to Kant by analyzing Kant’s postulate of practical reason and showing how this principle draws on the empirical realm and seeks a posteriori or empirical validity. Paragraph 5 finishes with a brief exploration of Kant’s third critique and shows that in Kant there are ways to deal with religious experience by departing from empirical nature, which paves the way for an alternative Kantian approach to the question of the experience of the existence of God.

1 Swinburne’s Principal Premise in his Introduction to Chapter 13

In order to introduce the logical possibility of the existence of God, Swinburne begins with a general assertion that, if there is a God, then we can expect him to be concerned with the human race, do worthwhile things, reveal himself at particular moments, fulfill prayers of individuals, speak to them private etc. In his argument from religious experience Swinburne claims that this has often occurred and “many people have experienced God (or some supernatural thing connected with God) and hence know and can tell us of his existence.” 7

By outlining the formal structure of the two assumptions, we see that both are interwoven with each other. The first argument explicates that ‘if there is a God, then we must have a religious experience of him’, whereas the second turns the consequence into the antecedence and vice versa by expressing that ‘if there is an experience of God, then God exists’. Both propositions in their synthetic view enunciate a mutual relation between God and an experience of him, which Swinburne calls the CTP.8 In this case the burden of proof is, indeed, trivial. Swinburne either provides reasonable grounds for God’s existence and hence for the truth of religious experience or he gives evidence that people having religious experience are rationally justified9 and hence can witness God’s existence. The former would not make sense at all, since to argue for God’s existence by means of his existence is tautological. It serves rather as a supporting premise for the latter case, in order to indicate the type of relation that is being presupposed between God and his revelation to us. Hence, it is the latter premise – with its assumption of a CTP departing from the subject – on which Swinburne’s critical study must lay weight.

2 The Nature of Religious Experience

Once Swinburne has unveiled his premise he attempts to demonstrate that his empirical arguments are able to prove the rational status of religious experience. But are there criteria for this empirical assertion? To begin, he puts forward a definition of experience that frames his further analyses:

An experience is a conscious mental event. It may be described in such a way as to entail the existence of some particular external thing apart from the subject, beyond the stream of his consciousness, normally the thing of which it is an experience; or it may be described in such a way as to carry no such entailment. 10

In more simple terms, this indicates that experience is defined as intentional, whereas the object may or may not exist as an independent object of experience. An object which exists in-itself apart from the subject, and which Swinburne calls “external”, refers to the realm of the subject’s sensory perception. These “external descriptions”11 may be generally precise, but when it comes to religious experience such descriptions of the object can only work if there is no doubt about the fact that God really exists. Surely, a secularist would protest heavily says Swinburne against the possibility of describing God as an external or objective entity - as he is in-himself, he must therefore be internal to us. Ipso facto religious experience is to be described by means of internal descriptions, i.e. descriptions which do not entail the existence of the object per se, for internal descriptions refer to “those [experiences] that the subject believes to be of something outside himself, a normal way is to describe how things ‘appear’ or ‘seem’ to the subject” 12 These internally related terms have two uses that Swinburne, in reference to Chisholm, calls “comparative” and “epistemic”13. A full internal description consists of both types, whereas Swinburne concerns himself mainly with the epistemic form of description, which is about the direct apprehension in the experience of God. By applying this condition of an internal description to religious experience, religious experience is being defined as “an experience that seems (epistemically) to the subject to be an experience of God (either of his just being there, or saying or bringing about something) or of some other supernatural thing.”14

If we apply this statement to Swinburne’s methodical approach in general it becomes evident what his task must look like. He must merely demonstrate that people that have religious experience are rationally justified in doing so. In this way he may if he is justified in positing the validity of internal descriptions, then he infers that it must be possible to suppose the validity of their external existence. Under no other criteria would he be allowed to hold truth claims regarding a statement, such as he does on p.293, that if religious experience is true then people “know and can tell us of his [God’s] existence”.15 Whether this type of argument is generally justified is not the central concern at this stage.16 Rather, it is necessary to show how Swinburne attempts to justify God’s existence from religious experience – internally and as an immediate experience.


1 Swinburne, Richard: The Existence of God (second edition), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2004, p.1.

2 The Existence of God, p.1.

3 Of course, besides Kant, Hume is one of Swinburne’s main addressees. This essay, however, focuses solely on Kant, whose influence on modern religious thinking is still very pronounced. As Edwards Scribner Ames aims “it is a significant fact that this two-hundred years after his birth, the influence of Kant in every field of philosophy is intensively alive. Many current discussions in the domain of religion turn upon questions which he formulated and [...] settled.” Ames, Edward S.: The Religion of Immanuel Kant, in: The journal of religion, vol. 5, The University of Chicago Press, 1925, pp. 172. In spite of the enormous influence of Kant upon modern religious thought and Swinburne’s deep impact upon the philosophy of religion, I have found only very little research on their comparison. This essay intends to compare Swinburne and Kant, particularly focusing on religious experience, and hence break ground for further analyses.

4 As Gale explains, chapter 13 constitutes an exception since it is not cumulative but “appeals to an apriori presumptive rule” To expand on this aspect will be one of the main focuses of this essay. Gale, Richard M.: Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience, in: Reason and the Christian Religion: Essays in honour of Richard Swinburne, edited by Alan G. Padgett, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1994, p.42.

5 Cf. footnote 15.

6 Richard M. Gale summarizes Swinburne’s overall task by stating: “While Swinburne’s overall aim is to establish that the probability that God exists is greater that one-half, he does not want the probability to bee too high, for he fears that this would necessitate belief in God on the part of whoever accepts the argument, thereby negating the accepter’s freedom to chose not to believe.” (Gale 1994, p.39) However, for Gale many arguments put together do not formulate a better one. ( Gale 1994, p.42) This statement equally applies to Michael Martin.

7 The Existence of God, p.293.

8 Swinburne’s definition of the CTP is: “[...] S perceives x (believing that he is so doing) if and only if an experience of its seeming (epistemically) to S that x is present is caused by x ’s being present. So S has an experience of God if and only if its seeming to him that God is present is in fact caused by God being present.” (The Existence of God, p.296).

9 William L. Rowe defenses in his sophisticated arguments that Swinburne is right in assuming something like the PC, and that he is right in applying this principle to religious experience. However, in his view Swinburne is wrong in thinking that such an application is justified.

10 The Existence of God, p.293f.

11 The Existence of God, p.294.

12 The Existence of God, p. 294.

13 The Existence of God, p.295.

14 Ibid.

15 Richard Swinburne writes in his introduction: „In order to consider the cumulative effect of arguments, I shall consider them one by one [...], and ask how much the premisses of each argument add to or subtract from the force of the previous arguments. To give advance notice of some of my conclusions, I shall argue that (neither separately nor in conjunction) are any of the arguments that I consider for or against the existence of God good deductive arguments.“ (The Existence of God, p.13) If we consider this statement, we have to question the argumentation of chapter 13 even more critically. As has been shown Swinburne needs his CTP in order to infer the existence of God from religious experience. The PC takes this inference and argues from an internal perspective. This, however, is in contrast with what Swinburne mentioned above. Firstly, the argument in chapter 13 stands completely on its own, simply because the internal dimension has been deduced from a general assumption (cf. -1). The induction (i.e. the justification of the PC in order to draw a conclusion regarding an external dimension) merely attempts to reverse the foregoing procedure. However, the induction is not what Swinburne wants to sell it as. However, for Gale and Martin many arguments put together do not formulate a better one (Gale 1994, p.42; Martin 1986, p.92).

16 In Gale’s view the overall argument fails to bring about claims for religious experience on empirical grounds. The reason for this failure is “that the PC applies only to perceptual-type experience, and religious experience, on conceptual grounds, fail to qualify as perceptual.” (Gale 1994, p.43).

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Reciprocity between Swinburne and Kant regarding the Question of God
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Master of Philosophy Georg Oswald (Autor:in), 2006, Reciprocity between Swinburne and Kant regarding the Question of God, München, GRIN Verlag,


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