Professor Sudduth

Philosophy 500

31 February 2014

 Hume and Swinburne’s Fine-Tuning Argument

In this paper, we will discuss Richard Swinburne’s article on the fine-tuning argument and whether his fine-tuning argument is vulnerable to Humean critique. I will defend Swinburne’s version of the fine-tuning argument against the objections David Hume raised in his critique of William Paley’s classical design argument.

To begin, we shall open up with Richard Swinburne’s argument from fine-tuning. Swinburne’s fine-tuning argument evolved from Paley’s original Argument from Design from Natural Theology (2). In short, Paley used an argument from analogy to describe the similarity between a watch and the universe to infer the existence of a watchmaker for the watch and God as the designer of the universe. Paley’s argument, basically, involves inferring a watchmaker upon discovery of a deserted watch, moreover, what he is pointing at is that things have explanations for their existence; from this thought, he infers the existence of God as the designer of the universe.  The fine-tuning can be summarized as, “[the] fact that the Universe’s physical laws and initial conditions (at the big bang) are calibrated within a very narrow range so as to make the Universe conducive to life.” (6) Swinburne writes that if the initial constants of the universe,

“increase or decrease in these respects by one part in a million would have had the effect that the universe was not life evolving… if the Big Bang had caused the chunks of matter- energy to recede from each other a little more quickly, no galaxies, stars, or planets, and no environment suitable for life, would have been formed on earth or anywhere else in the universe. If the recession had been marginally slower, the universe would have collapsed in on itself before life could have been formed.” (7, p.109)

He argues that the best explanation for this data is theism.  He defends that theism leads us to expect fine-tuning and he warrants this argument ontologically by arguing from God’s nature, namely, his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. Since God has these properties, he has the knowledge, moral reasons, and power to create a fine-tune universe with intelligent life form such as animals and human beings to enjoy the beauty of his creation. Succinctly, Swinburne maintains theism to account for fine-tuning because, “if some hypothesis T is the best explanation for some data F, then F are evidence for the truth of T.”  Here, T refers to theism and F refers to fine-tuning. (6)

Moving forward, he argues that the fine-tuning of the universe is best explained by theism because it offers a more simplistic explanation. Swinburne argues that the materialist’s hypothesis to explain the fine-tuning of the universe is more complex than theism, in the aspect that, the materialist position requires continual explanation, thus, an infinite regress of explanation would occur; theism on the other hand has an ultimate explanation in God. Therefore, the simpler alternative is the better explanation or the ultimate explanation. Ultimate explanation refers to a complete explanation in which all factors involved have no further (partial or full) explanation, moreover, ultimate explanations are unavoidable because there must be a terminus of explanation. (4) Materialism is complex in the sense that it postulates a great number, possibly an infinite amount, of material objects to provide a complete explanation of the universe. (4) Theism, on the other hand, postulates a single personal clause of the universe, therefore, incredibly much more simpler. (4) On theism, God is a person who is endowed with an infinite degree of power, knowledge, and freedom, and so forth. Swinburne advocates an infinite degree of X is simpler than a finite degree of X because we become committed to presupposing further limits of X if S were to possess X.

Attributing God as an eternal being in contrast to a non-eternal being is simpler for two reasons. First, if God were non-eternal, meaning he was created, some other powers or entities would be responsible for bringing God into existence and for the existence of the universe. Second, if God were to cease to exist some time in the future, some other entities or powers would be responsible for conserving the universe.  These two explanations are more complex than maintaining that God is eternal because it would lead to a infinite formulation of other causes or reasons as a result of God being non-eternal. Now that we roughly outlined Swinburne’s position, we shall look at potential objections against theism as the ultimate explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe.

David Hume raises three objections against the classical design argument and whether it refutes Swinburne’s argument from fine-tuning, moreover, we will explore possible rebuttals to the objections. Hume’s first objection is that the designer need not be God. (1) Even granting that the universe has a designer, Hume argues that the designer does not have to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good because a designer or designers who do not have these qualities would suffice. This argument mainly deals with Hume’s theory of causation, he proposes that the cause of an effect must be proportional to the effect. In terms of the cause of the universe, to impose an infinite cause, namely God, is to postulate something more than is sufficient, which is a finite cause.

Nevertheless, Swinburne’s fine-tuning argument seems to be immune to this objection for the following reasons. First, according to his argument from simplicity, he argues that God necessarily has to have the attributes of power, knowledge, and moral goodness in the infinite degree by the very ontology or nature of his being, and moreover, “a finite god is less simple as an animate explanation than is a God with infinite knowledge, power, and freedom.” (4) Second, attempts to assign a finite designer as the cause of the universe leads us in an infinite regress of who designed the designer. A finite designer is not the ultimate explanation to account for the universe because the designer is limited in the same way that the universe would be, in that, the finite designer would be contingent. A designer that is a necessary cause, which is commonly ascribed to God, would suffice as a ultimate explanation, hence, relating to the first point, simpler. Third, Swinburne is probably defending God who is a personal being, and one feature that a person possesses is the power to act in causal relations. In this sense, God has the freedom to cause a different type of effect that is finite instead of infinite in its nature. God as a personal being, instead of creating a infinite universe, would have the freedom to create a finite universe that is fine-tuned for life.   

Hume’s second objection deals with the fallacy of composition, which states that one cannot ascribe that X as a whole has a particular quality Y based on a part of X having the quality Y. His argument is that we cannot infer that the universe as a whole has been designed because we observed part of the universe as being designed. (1) This objection crushes Paley’s argument from design because he specifically uses parts of the universe, namely houses, watches, and human creations, to infer the existence of a designer. However, this objection does not move Swinburne’s fine-tuning argument for the reason that the fine-tuning of the universe applies to the physical law of the entire universe, not just parts of the universe. Factors conducive for complex life forms, such as the law of biology, chemistry, and physics all fall under the umbrella of the fine-tuning of the universe. In this respect, Swinburne’s argument for theism, or God as the designer of the cosmos bypasses Hume’s objection completely since it deals with the whole universe instead of part of the universe.

Lastly, we will discuss Hume’s objection to the inference of a designer by causation beyond sense experience. (3) The topic of causation, I would argue, goes beyond Hume’s empirical judgements and expertise. If we were to grant this objection, contemporary physics, astronomy, and cosmology would be deconstructed and defeated because most of their theories depend on making inferences to unobservable entities such as molecules, electrons, and the quantum vacuum and so on. (3) Hume maintains this objection by attributing uniqueness to the universe, namely that, the universe is a special cause since there were no prior impressions of how universes came into existence from our sense experience. But then again, we can argue that the universe isn’t unique and exempt from the causal relationships we experience within our universe. I see no reason why we cannot infer God as the designer of the universe by trusting our experience of cause and effect; that everything that exists has an explanation within itself or outside itself for why it exists. In fact, assuming God to be the designer of the cosmos fits snuggly by arguing the existence of the contingent fine-tuned universe from the necessary cause that is God.

In closing, Swinburne’s argument from fine-tuning remains resilient to Hume’s objection of the classical design argument formulated by Paley. We have seen how Hume’s objection that the designer need not be God has been addressed with the notion that God provides the more simplistic explanation than proposing a designer who doesn’t possess the common attributes of God (omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence). Secondly, Hume’s argument from composition fallacy is effective in disarming Paley’s argument from design, but it does not affect the fine-tuning argument which apply to the physical laws of the universe, hence, denoting the entire universe and not just sections of the universe. Lastly, Hume’s objection from causation beyond sense experience. Here, we discussed how his argument depends on the uniqueness of the universe, however, this doesn’t warrant that the universe is exempt from the causal relations we experience within our universe, moreover, the hypothesis that God is the necessary cause of the contingent fine-tuned universe provides a better explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe.


  1. Hume, David. “On the Argument from Design”. Readings in Philosophy of Religion: East Meets West. Blackwell Publishing. 2008.
  2. Paley, William. “Evidence of Design”. Readings in Philosophy of Religion: East Meets West. Blackwell Publishing. 2008.
  3. Sudduth, Michael. “Observations on David Hume and the Argument from Fine‐Tuning Handout.”
  4. Sudduth, Michael. “Richard Swinburne on the Simplicity of Theism”
  5. Sudduth, Michael. “Richard Swinburne’s Theistic Argument from Order”
  6. Sudduth, Michael. “A Terminological Guide to Contemporary Cosmology”
  7. Swinburne, Richard. “How the Existence of God Explains the World and Its Order”. Readings in Philosophy of Religion: East Meets West. Blackwell Publishing. 2008.