Richard Swinburne on Explanations

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 bookIs 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].

Ellis proposes a thence “pragmatic” thesis in respect to the endeavors of science:

(1′) Science aims to provide the best possible explanatory account of natural phenomena; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it belongs to such an account. [9]

This perspective would seem to be in line with an empiricist or scientific realist point of view, but scientific realists might not “accept this pragmatist defence of their position, since most of them would accept a correspondence theory of truth – not a pragmatic theory” [10]. What are some other perspectives in regards to scientific explanations? Are philosophers suggesting something a bit otherwise?

Gordon Clark in his book The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God [11] argues insistently that

The philosophy of science, in distinction from science itself as ordinarily understood, must consider the significance of scientific law. Does science explain anything? Must we not go beyond science, and if we do not care for occult qualities, must we not, like Newton, explain the origin (at least) of the solar system as the result of a Supreme Intelligence? Must we not proceed from physics to metaphysics? Surely we want to know more than the path of the planets and the acceleration of a free falling body. Facts such as these are interesting and important. But a statement of fact is not an explanation. It is the very thing that needs to be explained. Viewed in this light, science explains nothing. [12]

Clark even goes on to say that “[s]cience may not be able to explain what makes a body fall, but it can answer [ … ] how a body falls [ … ] Science answers how. Any other question is nonsense” [13]. George H. Smith (himself an atheist) in his critique of Clark’s book writes that one of Clark’s main contentions is that

science requires a philosophical framework from which to operate – which is correct – but then we come to the tour de force: science, we are told, “leaves us in ignorance of the workings of nature”; the laws of physics in particular are “not true as an account of what nature is and how nature works.”  Since, therefore, science “is barred from all descriptive application to reality,” it cannot challenge the alleged truths of Christianity – which neatly disposes of any threat that science may pose to religion. [14]

Thus, the “Thomist will despair of its Calvinistic paroxysms as much as the atheist.  And those Protestants enamored with alleged scientific evidence for a god will be disgruntled with Clark, for his skepticism in science cuts the ground from under their position as well” [15]. Whether or not I agree with Clark’s thesis (which I think is far too strong for my personal scientific epistemological position) or even Smith’s critique of Clark is irrelevant, but I do think Smith considerably raises interesting points against the claims in Clark’s book [16].

Richard Swinburne’s Account of Scientific Explanation

Swinburne analyzes the respect in which explanations throughout the physical sciences are carried out, which can be identified as an inanimate explanations. These sorts of explanations can be understood as “initial conditions plus law of nature causing event” [17]. Of course, Swinburne recognizes that to reduce all sorts of scientific explanations as to the (“over-simplified”) definition given above would indeed be a bit crude.

However, some further cognitive grasp of these terms are available. Initial conditions can be understood as something along the lines of, “why did the explosion go off?” and thus the initial condition would be: “Someone lit the gun powder causing the dynamite to explode.” However, the law of nature aspect of this particular example of course is a local one, itself derivative from more generalized laws of nature. However, initial conditions and their respective relationship with laws of nature are only one example of how to explain things. There is also another form of explanations and that is in terms of the actions of persons.

“Why am I here?” in respect to some point of local position (a movie theater, school, an airport, etc.) has an explanation of terms of the beliefs and actions you’ve constructed in order to reach your point of local position (i.e., you were told that x would be there, you walked, etc.). Swinburne contends that the latter form of explanation is something that cannot be reached in terms of the traditionally understood forms of scientific explanations. In other words, considering the following:

  • (1) Full Explanations
  • (2) Partial Explanations
  • (3) Complete Explanations

In respect to (1), Swinburne simply means that a full explanation is an explanation of an event in which is such that “given the substances and the conditions in which they occur, their powers and liabilities to act (or beliefs and purposes), which the explanation cites, the event must inevitably occur” [18]. By (2), a partial explanation of an event is one which “makes the occurrence of the event only probable; this may be because it does not mention all substances, etc. involved in the causal process, or because the substances involved have only a probabilistic liability to produce the event in question” [19]. And lastly, (3) a complete explanation:

By a ‘complete explanation‘ of an event I mean a full explanation , which cites causes with their most fundamental powers and liabilities (or beliefs and purposes). To use the terminology of ‘laws of nature’, complete inanimate explanations will invoke the most fundamental laws. [ … ] A complete personal explanation will invoke powers and beliefs, and purposes which do not derive from simultaneous higher-level powers, purposes, and beliefs. (Swinburne 2010: 23)

An interesting exposition of this subject can be found in Swinburne’s debate in Amsterdam (2012) with Herman Philipse, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utrecht (go to about 20:00).

Thus, to finish, we can ask ourselves the question: “… what justifies a claim that so and so is the cause of some event and such and such is the reason why it had the effect it did? [20]” A claim that some proposed law is really a law of nature, is justified to the extent by which:

  • (1) It leads us to expect (with accuracy) many and varied events which we observe (and we do not observe any events whose non-occurrence it leads us to expect).
  • (2) What is proposed is simple.
  • (3) It fits well with our background knowledge.
  • (4) We would not otherwise expect to find these events (e.g. there is no rival law which leads us to expect these events which satisfies criteria (1-3) as well as does our proposed law).

Thus, these criterions in light of Swinburne’s analysis of their application, suggests that “[a] true application of an event will involve not only the correct scientific theory, but also correctly described initial conditions” [21]. More over, these “same four criteria are at work in judging the worth of personal explanations” [22]:

In explaining some phenomena as caused by persons, we seek a hypothesis which leads us to expect the phenomena which we would not otherwise expect to find, as simple a hypothesis as possible, and one which fits in with background knowledge. [ … ] In assessing a much wider picture of phenomena in terms of their causation by human persons we build up a picture of the phenomena as caused by human persons with a constant  powers and purposes and beliefs with change in regular ways [ … ] as we can. (Swinburne, 32-33)



  • [1] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford University Press: 2004) Book Description
  • [2] Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford University Press: 2010)
  • [3] Swinburne 2010: pp. 1-2
  • [4] From P. Churchland and C. Hooker (eds.), Images in Science (Chicago University Press: 1985) pp. 48-74
  • [5] Ellis, 173
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ellis, 169
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Gordon Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (Trinity Foundation: 1964)
  • [12] Clark, 36
  • [13] Clark 37
  • [14] From Libertarian Review, Vol. 4, No. 10, October 1975, pp. 1-2.
  • [15] Smith, 2
  • [16] You can find the review here, at
  • [17] Swinburne 2010: p. 22
  • [18] Swinburne, 23
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Swinburne, 24
  • [21] Swinburne, 31
  • [22] Swinburne, 32

2 responses to “Richard Swinburne on Explanations

  1. Pingback: Richard Swinburne on Explanations | THINKAPOLOGETICS.COM·

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