Coffee At Richard Swinburne’s Apartment

When my wife and I were in Oxford in September 2016, we were honored to have the opportunity to go to the house of Dr. Richard Swinburne and have coffee.

For those who know my Clarkian persuasions, and for those who are familiar with the scholarly work of Dr. Swinburne, it might come as a surprise that I would want to spend a good part of my one day in Oxford with a flaming empiricist.  But I assure you that my reading of the works of Richard Swinburne has been well worth every second.  It is always a privilege to read philosophers who carefully define their terms and proceed logically and carefully and the writings and lectures of Swinburne are wonderful in that regard.  More on that some other time.

Anyway, I had 4 things that I wanted to ask him and we covered one and a half before we ran out of time.  Because Swinburne is an empiricist, I was dying to ask him how he believed that sensations could be combined into perceptions, and then finally into ideas or propositions.  This foundational question was one of Gordon Clark’s chief challenges to the empiricists, and the only modern empiricist he knew of to ever try to give a satisfactory answer was Brand Blanshard.  I think Swinburne has some ideas on this, but I didn’t get time to ask.

Secondly, since he is a substance dualist and a correspondence theorist, I wanted to ask him how he thought non-physical propositions could “correspond” with physical reality.  I didn’t get time to ask.

Thirdly, Dr. Swinburne believes that a man can have infallible access to his own intentions.  When I read this in Swinburne’s writings, I was surprised; thinking that Swinburne would not affirm that man has infallible knowledge of anything; even the contents of his own mind.  I have always found Clark’s criticism of self-knowledge to be very convincing, so I asked Dr. Swinburne if he believed in self-deception.  He said yes.  Then, I asked him if he’d read Lord of the Rings.  He said that he reads it to children; which I thought was really nice.  So I recounted the situation where Gandalf and Bilbo fight about whether or not Bilbo should leave the ring to Frodo.  Eventually, Bilbo realizes that Gandalf just wants what is best for him and concludes:  “The ring will go to Frodo.”  Then he grabs his bag and walks to the door.  Then Gandalf says:  “Bilbo…the ring is still in your pocket.”  Bilbo realizes that the ring is still there and then leaves it and goes on his way.  Both Dr. Swinburne and I understood this to reflect two conflicting intentions in Bilbo’s mind.  Bilbo intended to leave the ring, but he also had a stronger unconscious intention to keep the ring.  I suggested to Dr. Swinburne that Bilbo had no infallible access to this unconscious intention.  Dr. Swinburne said that Bilbo probably could have reflected for a bit and have infallibly drawn out this hidden intention.  However, Dr. Swinburne continued and said that if Bilbo was “suppressing” this intention, then he might not be able to readily draw it out but that he, nevertheless, must know that he has the intention that he is suppressing, otherwise he could not effectively suppress it.  Then, I backed the objection up one more step and suggested that the suppressor of intention IT might also be suppressing the fact that he is a suppressor of IT.  Here, I will try to honestly describe Dr. Swinburne’s response as best I can.  He told me that I was pressing him on a very difficult point.  He also said that he’d though of this many times before and he thinks that it might be a valid objection to his theory.  Then he said that he still believes that we can at least have infallible access to some of our intentions.  Dr. Swinburne’s book, Epistemic Justification, is one of the hardest books I’ve ever read.  Forgive me for feeling a little proud for having understood his theory of belief well enough to make an objection that he couldn’t immediately shoot down.

Fourthly, I wanted to ask him about his use of “probability.”  I think that the majority of modern philosophers, Swinburne included, formulate justification in terms of probability.  On this view, one is justified in believing P if P is probably true given the evidence.  However, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the probability.  Gordon Clark thinks that talk of probability of most beliefs being true is simply nonsense since probability is the fraction of the affirmative cases over the total cases.  How would one assess the probability of the proposition Jesus died on a cross?  What is the numerator?  What is the denominator?  Since much of modern epistemology seems to be based on the idea that probability of beliefs being true is a meaningful concept, it would have been extremely helpful to discuss this with a scholar of Swinburne’s caliber.  Unfortunately, we barely touched on this issue, but we spent some time discussing a related objection.  This was the idea that a probability cannot be infallibly known.  If I say P is probably true, I have to justify that P is probably true.  So, don’t I have to argue that P is probably probably true?  Then also that P is probably probably probably probably probably true.  Then, even if the probabilities are rather high (say 0.9) the probability of P will approach zero since 0.9*0.9*0.9… approaches zero.  Dr. Swinburne pointed out that this is only the case for some types of probability series and gave the counterexample that if P1 =0.9 and P2=0.99 and P3=0.999, etc, then the product of the probabilities does not approach 0.

Then we spent some time talking about his argument for the probability of the resurrection and he gave me some recommended reading and then he told us that he needed to get some work done so we had to go.  He then recommended some sites to see and allowed my wife to take a picture of me and him together.  The last time I went to visit a favorite author of mine, I surprised him by giving him a hug in the picture.  This was James White.  This time, I refrained from pulling the hug stunt and took a regular picture with Dr. Swinburne.  What a morning!

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