Monday, 5 December 2011

Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (2008)

Keith Ward's Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (Lion 2008) is a splendid book, a book of almost Pythonesque silliness. It is, as its subtitle says, a textual means of 'doubting Dawkins'. And since Ward is a former Professor of Philosophy from London, and is now Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford, I like to believe that he intends the whole thing as a joke: a confection of god-of-the-gaps and appeals-to-authority, mixed in with some marvellously stretched-out nitpicking and point-missing where Dawkins is concerned. God-of-the-gaps? There are, Ward asserts, two games in town: spiritualism or materialism. The latter won't do. Why?
We are no longer very sure what 'matter' is. Is it quarks, or superstrings, or dark energy, or the result of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum? It is certainly not, as the ancient Greek materialist Democritus thought, lumps of hard solid stuff -- invisible atoms -- bumping into one another and forming complicated conglomerations that we call people. [14]
It seems to me that this depends upon what we mean by 'hard', 'solid' and 'stuff'; but Ward is happy that he has herein completely demolished materialism as a viable philosophical position.
What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is? [15]
Parody doesn't get any sharper than this! Brilliant stuff. (Since not even Ward can claim wholly to comprehend the deity he worships, he is beautifully finessing the obvious 'What is the point of being a theist when we are not sure exactly what theos is?')

There's more: he says [23] that his decision to get up in the morning and write Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, rather than (say) stay in bed or have a cup of coffee, cannot be explained by science. Beautiful! 'How can my talk of knowledge, desires, intentions and awareness translate into statements of physics that only relate to physical states?' There are many rhetorical questions like this in the book; and Ward is aware that some scientists have set out to answer them; so although sometimes he's happy to leave his questions hanging, from time to time he fleshes out answers. Now, one book I personally admire very much, which addresses precisely this issue (that is to say, lays out how the physics of brain chemistry underpins human behaviour) is Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained. There's the possibility that the arguments of Dennet's book could undermine Ward's splendid rhetorical question ('how can my thoughts translate into statements of physics?'), and indeed his whole book.  But it's ok -- he's got that covered:
Daniel Dennett [believes] that conscious states are 'nothing more than' brain-states and brain-behaviour. Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained in which he defended this radical theory. Most competent philosophers were unconvinced and privately referred to his book as 'Consciousness Explained Away' [16]
No further engagement with Dennett is needful: for any philosopher who agreed with him would, by definition, be announcing their incompetence. But Ward's appeal to authority does not stop with certain unnamed philosophers. It also includes a large number of unnamed people who all agree with him about God:
If you are thinking seriously about the God hypothesis it will be very strong evidence if a large number of people, apparently well balanced, intelligent and virtuous, feel that God has met them in the proclamation of Christ's teaching, death and resurrection. [140]
Irrefutable! There are something like 2.5 billion Christians on the planet. That fact alone proves Christianity is true. Of course, there are also 1.5 billion Muslims, but you can disregard them: they are not competent philosophers -- in private we call their religion 'Isnotlam'.

It would be nice to be more serious about the arguments Ward puts forward, but, really, it's difficult to see how. The main spine of the book's thesis is the appeal to 'personal explanation': that human consciousness cannot be explained by science and must therefore be grounded in a primary, infinite, divine consciousness. His 'two big' objections to Dawkins are: 'the irreducible existence of consciousness' and 'the irreducible nature of personal explanation'. As to the first, it seems to me that nobody who has observed a loved-one diminish under the effects of Alzheimer's disease could ever genuinely claim that human consciousness can never be reduced. (Ward means 'reduced to scientific explanation', but the point holds, I think: if consciousness is a function of brain activity as Dennett says, then deterioration in the material capacity of the brain through disease or illness would lead to deterioration in the consciousness of the individual concerned. Which is precisely what we see). And when it comes to his second question, I'd say Ward uses 'irreducible' when he means 'distinctive'.  And anyway, the 'irreducible nature of personal explanation' has no bearing on the larger question. That's not only my view, incidentally: it's also Ward's: 'what human beings can imagine or picture to themselves is not a reliable guide to the ultimate nature of reality' [109].

1 comment:

Richard B said...

But this at no point links the God that 'must' exist with the God that Christ proclaims - even if you take Ward's argument that God must exist because I can conceive of Him (am I wrong or is that how it boils down? )does Ward address what bearing that has on our concept of the Old Testament deity?

Tying in Christian myth to the Creation myth means discussing the authority of Christ and the Bible, and that's a whole different argument...