Review of Keith Ward’s Why There Almost Certainly Is a God
Connecting the Dots: Aquinas to Ward
As I set off to review this book it may be just as well to say, at the outset, that I can no longer find much sense in typical philosophical arguments for the existence of God. They tend to be, not only far-fetched and implausible, as they seem to be to Richard Dawkins, for example, but even simply unintelligible. Keith Ward suggests that Dawkins’ treatment of Aquinas’ famous Five Ways (of proving the existence of God) is unacceptably brief. In fact, he tells us that Dawkins does not discuss Aquinas at all, but rather five arguments of his own (102). This may well be true, though Ward’s own discussion of Aquinas’ Five Ways in Chapter 6 of this book is, he claims, also similar, in that he will propound five arguments of his own, and not of Aquinas’, devising. This is strictly necessary, he says, because we cannot really discuss Aquinas’ arguments intelligently, since Aquinas lived and thought at another time, with categories which made sense to him, but not to us. More than that, Aquinas’ arguments depend on Aristotle, and, as we now know, “most of Aristotle’s opinions about physics were mistaken.” (103)
Now, this is a serious problem, if true. It may mean, in fact, that the arguments, despite Ward’s claim to the contrary, are, as Dawkins thinks, in fact (in Ward’s words) “easily exposed as vacuous.” (102) Ward himself gives us some encouragement to think that this is true. As he says, in explaining what a ‘proof of God’ would be like, since a conclusion cannot give us more information than we are supplied with in the premises, no mater how psychologically surprising the conclusion may be, if one rejects the premises, then, as he says, “clearly it will not prove anything to you.” (103) Yet, in fact, each of the arguments deals with a form of argument which is, on the face of it, inadequate to come to the conclusion intended, because the last step in each form of argument is to something which, in the very nature of the case, we can arguably have no acquaintance with or even understanding of, and therefore the conclusion is always, in some sense, a step too far, since it could not, being inaccessible to finite mind, be contained in the premises.
This can be clearly illustrated from Ward’s book, for throughout the book he uses a form of argument which is a near cousin to Aquinas’ Five Ways (Summa Theologica, Question II). Let us first consider one of Aquinas’ arguments. We begin with the Second Article, the preamble to the Five Ways, where Aquinas asks whether we can in fact conceivably demonstrate the existence of God. As with all of Aquinas’ arguments, he begins with objections, and then replies to them, concluding, of course, that the objections do not hold, and the thing to be demonstrated can be demonstrated after all.
The first objection, then (to the introductory question whether the existence of God can be demonstrated), is that “the existence of God cannot be demonstrated. For it is an article of faith that God exists. But what is of faith cannot be demonstrated, because a demonstration produces scientific knowledge.” The second objection is that “essence is the middle term of a demonstration. But we cannot know in what God’s essence consists.” The third objection is that God’s existence could be known only by his effects, but the effects of God are entirely disproportionate to the cause (which, in God’s case, is infinite), and in such a case the effects, not being proportional to the cause, give us no understanding of the cause, and therefore cannot prove its existence. (Summa Theologica, Q II, Art 2, Obj 1-3) Notice that each of these objections raises the question that Ward himself asks, whether the conclusion in fact will include more information than we can possibly have in the premises.
Now, these objections nicely sum up what I have already said, that the arguments all take a step which, in the end, takes us beyond anything that we can possibly know into a realm that we cannot really understand. Aquinas responds to these objections in several ways. We cannot, he says, know the essential nature of God, the propter quid, or the reason why, of God. All we can know are the effects of God. This knowledge is by way of a preamble to the articles of faith (Reply Obj 1), for while not faith itself, “faith presupposes natural knowledge.” For since we cannot know God’s propter quid, that is, the middle term of the syllogism purporting to demonstrate the existence of God, or the reason why God is what he is, that is, the essence of God, we must be able to know something which can at least give us some form of knowledge of it. We will not have perfect knowledge, for God is, by definition, inaccessible to finite minds, but we must have some natural knowledge which points definitively to, and in a sense, adumbrates, that which cannot be fully known. This is what the Five Ways set out to do. It is also, by the way, what Ward, in his book, sets out to do as well, and it is probably important to remember that he is trying to carry out the programme established by Aquinas, which is no doubt why he takes such grave objection to Dawkins’ rather peremptory dismissal of Aquinas’ arguments, a dismissal which, in other cases, philosophers have called careless and amateurish. But we will set these complaints aside.
In order to make good on his promise to demonstrate the existence of God, Aquinas makes several assumptions, which depend on the man whom Aquinas named simply The Philosopher, namely, Aristotle. (The habit of appealing to authority was deeply engrained in Christian theologians, and indeed still is, so it should not be surprising to see the sacredness normally reserved for canonical scripture migrating to the best known and most highly respected philosophical texts of the time.) The first, and most important assumption, is that the cause of an effect contains within it an important aspect of the effect itself. Causes must contain within themselves the ability to move something (the effect) from a state of potentiality to actuality. This, according to the First Way, is what cause is and does: “… motion is nothing else than the reduction of something [the effect] from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality [the effect], except by something in the state of actuality [the cause].” (Q II, Art 3, Obj 2) So, if A is the cause of B, then the actuality displayed by B – its moving from the potentiality of state B to the actuality of state Ba – must be due to something present in the cause that was not previously in the effect. So A actually transfers to B a measure of its actuality (or essence), and thus provides the propter quid, that is, the reason why, it became thus and so. So A must really be Aa – that is, it must already be in its actualised form – in order to reduce B from that state of potentiality to the state of actuality Ba.
Of course, from our view this is very puzzling, since from the time of Hume we have recognised that the term ‘cause’ is the name we give to anything which explains, in a relational sense, the regular occurrence of an event or series of events, say the movement of billiard balls on a table. The case of billiard balls makes Aquinas’ meaning particularly clear, since it seems in some sense actually the case that one ball (the cue ball) conveys its actuality – viz., its motion – to the next ball, and so on, because it is already in a state of motion (actuality), and the other balls are at rest (though with the potentiality of motion). But this is not so obvious when we come to such things as the earth, the moon and the sun, for the forces involved, and that are conveyed over great distances, do not so obviously act on each other, and yet the whole solar system is based upon the balance of forces of large bodies in relation to each other which cause them to move in the way that they do, and cause is not something that we use in reference to actualities and potentialities, but to the regular order that we can discern and confirm by prediction or experiment. However, we can see from the billiard ball example why Aquinas, and Ward as well, think that, in fact, the world as we know it, in order to be precisely as it is, must be caused by something in which is actualised all the manifold parts of the world and their relationships which are reduced from potentiality to actuality by that cause, so that all the many distinguishable features that we can discern in the world around us could have come to be as they are. This is doubtless why Ward himself holds that the whole idea of cause is completely mysterious to us. (85)
It is therefore not surprising that Ward takes a very similar view to that of Aquinas, for he holds “that creativity and mind, value and purpose, have to be included in any final explanation of the universe. Materialism is deficient as a philosophy because it cannot include them, and has to argue them out of existence.” (88) Ward’s reason for saying this is indeed remarkably similar to Aquinas’ idea of causation and explanation. There can be nothing in the effects which was not first in the cause, because the cause is bringing to actualisation in the effect something which is already actual in the cause. Creativity and mind, value and purpose, then, cannot result from simpler, non-creative, non-purposive entities, and to suppose that they do would be to suppose that they are ‘nothing but’ non-creative and non-purposive, and therefore, in a strict sense, reducible, without remainder, to such merely inanimate matter. They thus, in a sense, disappear into their cause. In this way, Aquinas’ arguments can be seen to run by themselves, for there is nothing that he needs to add, once it is assumed that everything that exists, exists solely because it already existed in some prior form in its cause, and in that sense, the argument to a single, completely explanatory cause is inevitable, since in that case no matter how many simple causes may actuate more complex aspects of actuality, they would, without some supreme first cause, containing within itself all possible actualities, simply be a disordered, chaotic assembly of simples with no consistent or intelligible relationship to each other. But this is, in case the reader has not noticed, to take mind as in some form already presupposed. In this sense the argument is a tautology. This is called begging the question.
Now Ward strictly believes that this is true about everything in our world, not only the existence and order of the Sun and the planets in their courses, but also the existence of the manifold kinds of life forms that exist as well. Ward thinks, just as Aquinas did, that the reality of all this (apparently) purposeful life must, in some sense, already exist (be actualised) in some cause. In fact, he calls it, the “New Argument for Design.” (38) Ward believes that “the design argument still lives, as an argument that the precise structure of laws and constants that seem uniquely fitted to produce life by the process of evolution is hugely improbable. The existence of a designer or creator God,” he concludes, “would make it much less improbable.” (40)
Being Very Sure: Adding Some Dots
The next step in the argument is to move from great improbability to certainty. It seems that it is almost impossible for the world as we know it to exist. Ward goes through a long series of ‘there might have been nos’: no habitable planet in a goldilocks zone, no origin of life, no buildup of complex replicating molecules, no stable environment for the long periods necessary for evolution to take place, no eucaryotic cells, no consciousness or intelligence. In fact, he says, this “set of ‘might-have-beens’ is so immensely long that the existence of intelligent life on this planet seems immensely improbable.” (40) What could possibly have overcome all these many improbabilities?
The answer, says Ward, lies in the laws of nature. The improbabilities of the last paragraph could be made to look far less daunting if there were a cause which made them much less improbable, a cause which – though he does not say this – contained within itself the actuality of those laws. And here, in order to see the point, we have to sift out two different probability sequences. Taking the evolution of life on earth – and completely ignoring the fact that the universe probably evolved in a similar way by forming a structured order of stars and planets and galaxies by a process not dissimilar to organic evolution – we may think of organic evolution as happening in either of two ways. In the first one, the one championed by the biologist Stephen J. Gould, evolution is a wholly chance driven process which, if it could be run again – if we could, as it were, rewind the tape and replay it – would be very unlikely to take the same course or reach the same destinations that it did the first time. There might, for instance, not have been, in a second rerunning of the process, the existence of creative intelligences. Our hominid ancestors, for instance, might well have become extinct, or that particular genetic line might not have started developing at all, because groups of the original chimpanzee like ancestor were not sequestered from the gene pool, and therefore did not evolve separately from the original ancestral form. Gould’s theory involves a very “strong sense of ‘chance’, which supposes that no complex life-forms may evolve, or that if they do, they may take a whole host of different forms, very unlike humans, for example.” (34)
Dawkins, on the other hand, according to Ward, is wedded to a much weaker sense of chance, which takes the development of complex life forms “to be more or less inevitable, given the basic laws of physics.” (35) He thinks this theory, where the development of creative intelligence seems to be virtually certain, is “much more compatible with theism than is the view of biologists such as Gould.” (35) He even scolds Dawkins for neglecting to tell us how controversial his view is in contemporary biology, that is, “the view that the whole process is more or less bound to happen, somewhere or other in the universe.” (35) This is actually not Dawkins’ view, since he clearly does not think that the process of evolution, no matter how probable each stage of the process may be, is in any sense predetermined. In fact, he tells us, quite clearly, in his new book The Greatest Show on Earth, that “there is no evolutionary justification for the common assumption that evolution is somehow ‘aimed’ at humans, or that humans are ‘evolution’s last word’.” (TGSE, 158)
Of course, we can see what Ward is aiming at here. If there are laws in place which make the evolution of life as we know it to be almost certain, then, it seems, we need to have a reason why it should have taken place in precisely this way. What Ward has here, he thinks, is a kind of wedge, with which he can separate Dawkins’ theory of evolution from its apparent dependence upon chance. In fact, Ward argues later that if the end product of the evolutionary process is almost certain, then it is not less probable than the evolutionary steps that it takes to reach it, and what Dawkins calls Mount Improbable is not really that improbable after all.
As Ward says a few pages later: “But if the existence of complex organs such as eyes is actually made highly probable by the basic laws of nature, then it is not, after all, obvious that the simple is more probable than the complex.” (44) We might find, in fact, says Ward, that “the formation of life on earth was absolutely necessary.” (44) Indeed, Ward wants to go much farther than this, and on two densely argued pages, he concludes that “there are no grounds for saying that simple things are either more or less likely to exist than complex things.” (47) This is a crucial stage in Ward’s argument, since Dawkins’ argument is that God, being highly complex, must in fact be far more improbable, counting up each of the improbabilities of each of the many (comparatively simple and more probable) evolutionary steps, taken one by one, that brought conscious intelligences into being. How does Ward get to it?
He begins with electrons and spin. The probability that an electron has a specific spin is .5 or 50%. Compare that with DNA molecules, which have an enormous number of different parts – strictly speaking, discrete sequences of information, delimited by stop characters. Now, says Ward, the assumption is that the probability of a particular DNA sequence is very low, but this, he says, “is the wrong assumption.” Because, when we are faced with a DNA molecule, we also have a lot of background information. “There is a past history of evolving development, and the likelihood of intrinsic correlations that very often afford an explanation of how that particular configuration was found,” as Dawkins tells us (according to Ward) in Climbing Mount Improbable. All this is governed by laws, which means that much “more is involved in a true calculation [of probability] than simple combinations of uncorrelated factors.” Even so, it would seem that the probability of predicting the electron’s spin will still be higher than predicting “the specific ordering of the parts of a large molecule.” (46)
Now, Ward says, let us assume that we have no background information at all. In this case we could make no judgements of probability. In fact, in this case, since presumably there are more complex states than simple ones, “it is rather more likely that any state that exists will come from the much larger sub-class of complex states,” and so, in that case, “The complex will be more probable than the simple!” But Ward thinks it would be better just to say that in such a situation there will be no ground for speaking of probabilities at all. And so we come to the clincher of Ward’s argument, in direct refutation of Dawkins:
It is not true to say, as Dawkins does, that ‘the laws of probability forbid the existence of intelligence without simpler antecedents.’. [TGD, 147] The laws of probability forbid nothing of the sort. It is the laws of the nature of our actual universe that forbid such a thing. And they certainly do not forbid it absolutely. They forbid it only for finite intelligences in this space-time. The laws of probability either have nothing to say about the existence of God, or they will say that God is not more improbable than the existence of a few simple electrons. (47)
The assumption behind that last claim is the one made earlier, namely, that if we do not have any background information about the existence of gods (or anything else, for that matter), the language of probability simply will not apply. Ward goes on from this point to speak of the way in which God may be thought to be simple, and not complex, so that, in fact, if the laws of probability did apply, we can assume that God is as probable as any other simple that we care to name.
Now, it is just at this point that my mind bogs down, and refuses to go any further. The reason for this, I think, is that I simply cannot make sense of the idea of universal or ultimate mind, which, in Ward’s philosophy, as well as Aquinas’, and so many other religious philosophers, is taken as the explanatory ground for the order and apparent purpose of all that we see around us. And this depends, as Ward says, on a simple metaphysical decision. If you are a materialist, he suggests, you will be unable to find a place for a transcendent consciousness as the ultimate ground of things. If, on the other hand, you are an idealist, as he claims most philosophers have been, and perhaps – the suggestion is suspended in the air just above the pages of the book, waiting for the reader to breathe it in – still are, then the supposition that there is a God is not only natural, but inevitable, since, for the believer in God, everything seems to fit so nicely into place. Things are as they are because purposively created by an intelligent being. Moreover, they are created, Ward claims, because of God’s “one, ultimate, simple intellectual act [of] the knowledge and choice of goodness for its own sake.” (49) And this is the kind of explanation, Ward believes, that the evidence requires.
Recall Aquinas’ notion that there must be as much reality in the cause as there is in the effect. Now, take the physical universe, whatever, in the end, physics determines that it is composed of. Right now, as Ward says, we seem to be left with something very mysterious. It may be, as apparently John Gribbin and Paul Davies claim, in their book, The Matter Myth, “that matter is a sort of illusion or appearance produced by some mysterious and unknown substratum in interaction with the human mind.” (14) (Something very like Kant’s noumena, one might think.) Physicists apparently talk about weird things that are, in fact, hard to conceptualise, let alone to visualise. And it may be that matter, as such, is a veiled mystery in the way that Bernard d’Espagnat suggests – and for saying which, he apparently won a Templeton prize. Gribbin and Davies, and d’Espagnat too, I shouldn’t wonder, if Ward represents them reliably, must be wrong, for it would not, in that case, be matter that is the illusion, but what we see is an illusion or what might better be characterised as a model of what would be salient features of the world for beings like us produced by the interaction of mind with whatever it is that mind interacts with, and it is not really an illusion, as suggested by the interpolation about modelling, but a useful adaptation which helps beings like us find our way around in such a world, so composed. The whole discussion of the mysteriousness of matter is, in one sense, entirely irrelevant to Ward’s argument, since his point is that, whatever matter is composed of, reality, as we know it, is irreducibly composed of that, mysterious something, plus mind. And mind, he believes, cannot be explained by reference to matter, however understood (though one might have thought, if matter is so mysterious, perhaps there is the promise of something here which does show that mind and matter are somehow more closely related than Ward thinks). If mind is an irreducible characteristic of reality – that is, if it cannot be reduced to, and expressed in terms of, language about matter, or the mathematical equations that describe it – then it must, Ward believes, exist prior to the existence of the material world, no matter at what stage it came to expression within it.
As an aside it is perhaps germane to remark that Ward’s earlier argument, that matter, since the explanation of matter is obviously so very complex and mysterious, such that it “no longer has the advantage of giving us a simple explanation of reality,” (15) is really irrelevant to the argument that he makes later in the book, and it is not at all clear that it is true. For no matter how complex matter may be, if mind is a property of material things, and not a separate metaphysical realm of being, then, if the astonishing complexity of mind could be explained by showing that it has a physical basis – never mind the mathematical complexities of the explanation of matter – then it would provide, despite its complexity, a more satisfactory explanation for the existence of the universe as we know it, than the very peculiar, non-empirical hypothesis, of a transcendent mind, of which we can, in the nature of the case, know nothing at all.
However, Ward wants to claim that mind is a wholly separate kind of reality than physical things, and that, if it is, mind stands “in need of an explanation that cannot be reduced to physical terms alone.” (79) It is important that it does not depend on his argument to the complexity and mysteriousness of matter, which, as I have already suggested, if it is truly so mysterious, may in fact eventually provide a basis for the explanation of mind. But for Ward the necessity of finding an explanation for mind derives solely from his conviction that the ultimate nature of reality is mind. Now, if this is the ultimate nature of reality, then, he says, since “It is hard to imagine that there could be conscious states within [my emphasis] the universe before brains evolve, … such states would have to exist outside our space-time, or as some sort of potential-for-consciousness to be realized when physical conditions have become complex enough.” (79-80) We can see here a very direct line of development from Aquinas to Ward.
As such, however, mind, the existence of conscious states or potential for conscious states, must be, in some sense, prior to matter. And if it is prior to matter and not reducible to it, it seems, Ward thinks, that the most economical explanation for the existence of matter is the hypothesis that there is just one mind and that that mind brings the physical universe into existence because it is something that that ultimate mind desires and enjoys. This is the God hypothesis, which, in its simplest form, “is the hypothesis that personal [intentional] explanation is not reducible to scientific explanation, and that it is prior to scientific explanation.” (80)
Ward goes on to add some detail to the hypothesis, imagining that this primordial mind contains knowledge of all possible worlds, and that it is also able to distinguish from amongst these possible worlds those that are most interesting and beautiful, and can then “decide to make some of them exist precisely because of that discernment, and then can just enjoy them for what they are.” (81) Which provides, we are told, a good explanation for the existence of the universe, and, in fact, suggests to Ward that, “if there is a final explanation for the universe, it virtually has to be God!” (81) It is worthwhile adding that there is not a single reason why the God hypothesis should be developed in any of these ways.
At this point, my mind is putting on the brakes, big time! It just won’t go there. One of the reasons that it won’t go there is because the universe, as we know it, and as life has developed within it, is so far from being so gloriously interesting and beautiful for so many of the life forms that exist within it, that it is hard to think that any mind might have created it sheerly for the sake of its goodness. That seems to me the fundamental reason for believing that the whole argument up to this point is simply spinning its wheels. The whole process of evolution is so prodigal and wasteful and also cruel, as Karen Armstrong has so helpfully pointed out, that it is hard to believe that any mind, and especially not a mind that is able to conceive fully and to create any possible universe, should have chosen to create this one for its pleasure and enjoyment.
The other point that I think needs to be addressed is the one that is raised by the emphasised word ‘within’ in the quotation above about the existence of conscious states within the universe before brains had evolved. If mind is irreducible, says Ward, then such states must exist prior to their evolution within the universe, so they must in fact exist outside our space-time, whatever this individuating word means in this context, and must in fact so exist, even after they have been expressed somehow ‘within’ our space-time. This is something that Ward does not seem to notice. And this is, I think, the precise problem. For Ward seems to see no problem in the existence of conscious states in the absence of physical states, and it seems to me that there are serious problems here to which Ward has not paid sufficient attention. One other way of putting the problem might be that Ward has not paid enough attention to Parmenides, for Parmenides’ paradoxes of motion and infinity are just what one would expect by the confluence of eternal mind with finite being (though I will have to leave that as an intriguing line of thought to be followed up another time).
In Chapter 5: Objections and Replies, Ward asks whether pure consciousness can exist, and he states quite plainly, at the outset, that he “cannot see much force in the statement that a pure consciousness is impossible.” (83) But, in fact, given his understanding of consciousness, it is hard to understand how such consciousness becomes embodied. Perhaps Ward’s mind simply bogs down at this point, just as mine bogs down at the point where Ward is going ballistic. However, I think he has to do better than that, and better than this as well, where he says: “We can think of being aware of trees, people, thoughts and feelings without having a physical body.” In fact, for Ward, this is the primordial nature of consciousness. But, like Jason Rosenhouse, I cannot see how this makes sense, and certainly just saying it doesn’t settle the matter, nor, I think, is it very helpful to put the onus to show that it does make sense on someone who finds this impossible to conceive. It is not altogether clear what would be necessary in order to show whether this was so one way or the other, but I think, since the whole point of modelling the physical world as we do is to enable us to navigate our way through it, it is very hard to guess how a non-bodily consciousness would do this, since it would have no such need. And surely this has some implications too for the ability to conceive of possible worlds.
As Ward says, “The mind of God would not be like any human mind. Human minds are dependent on brains, on a physical environment, and on being given information. A divine mind would be totally independent. It’s information would not come from outside, but would be part of its own being.” (83) Precisely! And so, it would be limited entirely to a kind of inner directed contemplation of itself, since what could possibly be more attractive or enjoyable to such a being than its own infinity? It would not, in other words, have perceptions at all. And the idea that such a mind could conceive of worlds in which perceptions are possible is by no means clear, for what meaning could be given to the idea of worlds where there are none, and no possibility of receiving information about them? In fact, insofar as God, so conceived, is genuinely simple, such a mind would, it seems to me, be entirely restricted to bare thought itself, whatever that might be, not even to the Cogito, even without the ergo sum.
All this is, I think, why my mind keeps getting bogged down at this point, because it is not clear what good intentional explanations would be for a disembodied mind. Intentional explanations (or what Ward calls personal explanations) are useful to us because they refer us to the actions of other intentional beings like ourselves, explanations which actually hook into the world in meaningful ways, and so might have quite simply physical, not only intentional, follow-on effects. But what reason could a disembodied mind have to do anything, even if it could conceive of something to do? If it were not simply internally simple, and included a perfect but complex balance of goodness (whatever that might mean to such a being), then the greatest enjoyment for such a being would doubtless be to contemplate itself, as Aristotle thought. What greater joy could there be than contemplating perfect goodness?
It seems the only way we could give such a mind a reason for doing anything at all is if we could think of something of great value that such a mind might want especially to create for its own enjoyment. And there seems, on the face of it, no greater value than we give to ourselves, which is precisely why, in most stories of creation, the creation of humankind has been at the centre, as the chief purpose of God’s creation. We find it very hard to think of anything else that would motivate universal mind to act, though, to be sure, intuitively, this is a far cry from any of the values which a god already could enjoy just by contemplating itself.
This may sound like a weak argument, because it suggests that, for someone like me, it is simply impossible to understand how mind, however conceived, can be thought to be prior to the physical universe. As many theories of the origin and development of religions now suggest, there are many reasons, connected with our cognitive processes, and the way they function in often bewildering and dangerous environments, why we should have ascribed agency to the world around us. It would not be surprising, as civilisation progressed in complexity and intellectual sophistication, to suppose that these earlier ascriptions of agency should develop, in time, into full-fledged philosophical theories of universal mind which, in fact, tends nicely to turn the tables on the position of our ancestors. Earlier hominids responded as they did because of the mystery and danger of the universe they encountered. Developing these ideas of agency, as we have done, is to go on to ascribe greater reality and power, and, consequently, dangerous potentiality, to something that we cannot see, to something that is, moreover, not linked to any particular thing that we can see. Our ancestors, on the other hand, apparently, ascribed a peculiar kind of spirit agency to very real dangers out there in the world. and that ascription, we might suppose, actually helped them to brave the dangers of their threatening environment, and so enabled them to flourish in it.
For this speculative theory of the development of religion, it seems to me, Dawkins provides some reasonable basis. Unintentionally, I think, Ward himself provides some evidence. At the end of a section of Chapter 5, entitled, interestingly enough, “The Delusions of Materialism,” Ward says something which, in a sense, gives the game away. He had just spoken of the reality of a supreme consciousness “that creates worlds for the sake of the emergence of new sorts of goodness.” And he goes on immediately to add:
Scientific investigation will not provide such perception. It is a fundamental ontological stance, confirmed by the experience of millions of wise and good people. It provides a personal explanation for the cosmos, a form of explanation with which present science is not concerned. (96)
What gives the game away is the reference to millions of good and wise people. Of course, there are all sorts of good and doubtlessly wise people who believe deeply in God and God’s goodness, and who look to God for comfort and assurance on their journey through life. It may even be a fundamental ontological stance, dictated by generation after generation of cognitive processes as described by the theory of religion. But none of this indicates that any of it is true. Just as consciousness developed as one end point – and no one knows, at this moment, whether there are more astonishing endpoints along this developmental continuum yet to come – of one line of evolutionary development, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that belief in other consciousnesses is an evolutionary development of convergent lines of cultural evolution; but it would not follow that that particular development has any truth value, however much comfort it may bring to millions of wise and good people. In just the same way, the ascription of spirit agency to aspects of the natural world, while it may have helped our ancestors cope with the dangers around them, did not have any truth value. It was a way of assessing, responding to, and accommodating the dangers that, unchecked, might have led them to extinction because simply unable, because of fear, to venture beyond their primitive hideaways in caves and forests. And this is precisely why I think that Ward’s way of expressing his beliefs in terms of good and wise people really, in a sense, gives the game away.
That, of course, is not an argument, and certainly not a proof that there is no such creative consciousness, and I do not want to claim that it is. It is, however, suggestive. And what it suggests to me is that the conception of such a being comes at the end of two long and very complex processes of evolutionary development, first, a biological one, and then, a cultural one (a memetic one, if you are given to the language of memes). Moreover, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it seems to me that it is very unlikely that such complex physical beings or ideas could possibly come into existence without the long, slow, ramble up the gentle back slope of Mount Improbable, in which, at each step of the journey, physical (or memetic) mutations occurred which made the bearers of them more likely to survive than others of the same species which did not survive and pass on their genes.
No Fear is Felt, and Death is Generally Prompt
As we have already seen, Ward thinks that Dawkins’ conception of evolution makes it almost certain that we should be here, that we are, in fact, not improbable at all, contrary to Dawkins’ claim that we are very improbable indeed, and that any conscious intelligence, because so improbable, must come late in the history of the universe. Dawkins holds, as do many atheists, that positing the existence of God is not a solution to the problem of the existence of the universe, because God is in fact so complex that God’s existence itself would be in need of explanation as well. And if it is said in response to this, as it often is – and Ward does not disappoint us – that God is simple and self-explanatory, the other tack that is often taken is to say that, if we are going to stop explanation at a particular point, then we might as well stop at the universe, at some simple, earlier stage, say, and suppose that it is self-explanatory too. Where do questions of truth get a look-in at this rather unedifying scuffle? Because we could go on saying ‘Tu quoque’ all day long and be none the further ahead.
I have to admit that I don’t know what a proof would look like here. I can make some gestures and guesses, and that seems about all that anyone can do, because this kind of argument has been going on now almost since people were able to put pen to paper, and who knows but that some prehistoric ancestor ‘pooh-poohed’ the idea that there were demons that really caused the house to fall at that precise moment. So, scepticism on this point has probably as long a history as belief, though belief, as the dominant meme, has done everything possible to make not believing a source of precarious survival for a long time. Now that atheism is looking like an advantageous strategy on dating sites on the internet, perhaps the long hegemony of belief in supernatural consciousness is passing, but there are indications that those carrying the meme for religious belief are not going to leave the scene without a fight, so the odds are still uncertain.
However, simply on the basis of argument, I think that Dawkins has the stronger case. I have several reason for saying this, so I will state them as plainly as I can. First, I do not think that consciousness and physical existence are independent sorts of being, and I suspect that showing that they are is, as things stand, not going to be possible. Since we know too little (or too much!) about matter, it is hard to say how, in the end, brain and mind states will be seen to be related. Some have tried already to show that they are identical, but this is by no means a settled question. However, the idea that there is a radical dualism of mind and body – what philosophers call substance dualism – makes some very severe demands on our language of mind and body, and this alone makes it seem likely that they are closely, and perhaps necessarily related in some way, and not just contingently related, as Ward thinks. As John Searle says:
It is important to understand what an extreme doctrines substance dualism is. According to substance dualism our brains and bodies are not really conscious. Your body is just an unconscious machine like your car or your television set. Your body is alive in the way that plants are alive, but there is no consciousness to your body. Rather, your conscious soul is somehow attached to your body and remains attached to it until your body dies, at which time your soul departs. You are identical with your sole and only incidentally and temporarily inhabit this body. (Mind, 43)
If, as Ward claims, religion depends upon a fundamental ontological stance, namely, that mind is independent of body, then we are left with a very curious conception of our bodies, which are, in terms of this fundamental stance, simply matter, without consciousness. In this case, consciousness cannot be a product of evolution, whatever evolutionary biology might say. It must have been independently introduced at some point, from the outside. That, after all, is what those ideas outside of our space-time were doing. They were, as Ward says – out there – as “some sort of potential-for-consciousness to be realized when physical conditions have become complex enough.” If they were emergent products of physical being – a possibility that Ward recognises in a confused way – then there is no need to posit an existence outside of our space-time of states of consciousness, or even a potential-for-consciousness. What part of the idea of emergence does Ward not understand? Unless Ward can think of another reason why thoughts, or the potentiality for them, must have some sort of independent existence, the kinds of bodies and brains that we have will do just nicely. And if we take the existence of finite minds as a given – as it is – that’s all we need for the ability to speculate about infinite ones. Ward is all the evidence we need for that. I have a suspicion that Ward’s relationship with Aquinas is altogether too close. He really does not believe that anything can be truly emergent. Its potential must be somewhere in its cause, which, in order to reduce its effect (brain) to actuality (mind), must already be actual (mind).
Second, then, Dawkins’ point, that mind comes at the end of a developmental continuum seems to make more sense, because there is no question that, in this way of conceiving of mind, the mind, or consciousness, is simply something that bodies do. It is the adaptation of an organism, and something that is characteristic of some bodies. As such, it is the end point of a train of evolutionary events, beginning with simple organisms and only coming upon bodies with consciousness after millions of years of evolution.
And that leads to the third point, namely, that this is the only mind or consciousness that we are aware of or know the characteristics of. As Ward himself says, the concept of human mind is inapplicable to God. But what other conception is there, and can we be sure that we have a real conception of it when we take it out of the only context in which we have seen it operate, and move it into another context whose parameters we cannot even begin to describe? As I have tried to say, if not to show, it is not at all clear that the idea of a disembodied consciousness is unproblematic, and so it is hard to see how it could become the basis for any kind of an explanation for anything, even itself. It may of course be, in the logic of the word ‘god’, that to understand what it means is to recognise that it must necessarily exist, (122) but that is merely a matter of how religious people use the language of ‘god’, and has nothing to do with reality.
Fourth, personal (or intentional) explanation, which provides an account of the reasons that might be given for a conscious being to act in any particular way, works, so far as we know, only for the kinds of conscious beings that we know. We have no evidence whatever for any other kind of conscious being, and so we have no way of saying what kinds of intentional explanation would be appropriate for them. We have trouble enough, sometimes, to know quite why we did something, to be able to say what a being quite unknown to us, might do.
And fifth, while we may not yet have a Theory of Everything, we can adequately account for a great deal that we can see by means of scientific explanation, which obviously includes, as a subset, intentional explanation, insofar as intentional explanation is used to understand the behaviour of human beings (and, to a certain extent, of animals), in psychology, sociology, economics, ethology and so on. And the search for further explanation of this sort continues. We do not need to introduce, at any point, the hypothesis of a God or supreme consciousness. In fact, when such an introduction is made, it usually has the effect of bringing enquiry to a halt. Even though, in a general sense, it may be held to provide an overall explanation for everything, when brought to bear in particular cases, it adds nothing to what we have already said more adequately by means of science or history, philosophy or ethics. In fact, the God hypothesis is used as often to stop discussion as to enlarge it, and as often to restrict freedom as to enhance it.
This is particularly clear in the case of the problem of evil, which is the God hypothesis’ own home-grown problem. After I have said a few things about this issue, as it relates to Ward’s book, aside from a few incidental remarks, I will conclude my review. There are so many things wrong with the few things that Ward says about pain and evil, that it is hard to know where to start. He has two short sections on this issue in Chapter 5, “Why Does Evil Exist?” and “Is This Universe Good?” It is probably important to remember that the God hypothesis includes the claim that universal or ultimate mind – which is what God is – already includes the sum of all possible perfections, and the knowledge of all possible worlds. The hypothesis also claims that ultimate mind creates for the sole purpose of bringing about good universes for its enjoyment and pleasure, even though there is no reason to suppose that we can have this kind of knowledge of what universal mind might be like. It is vital to bear these aspects of God, including the speculatively additional ones, in mind.
In the first section Ward tries to convince his readers – though he did not convince this one – that, “in order to actualize new forms of goodness” it is not possible for God to create a universe with intelligent life without any evils at all. (92) Yet it must be the case that these evils do not outweigh the goods. It is not altogether clear why Ward introduces the qualification regarding intelligent life (which, as we will see, he drops in a moment), especially in view of the fact that, even if it had been the case that no intelligent life had developed on the earth – and there is, despite the claims made by Ward, no necessity involved in this – we were, as Dawkins says, not planned for or aimed at – there would still have been a preponderance of evil over good, of suffering over pleasure. The process of evolution itself would guarantee this, as Darwin was perhaps the first to recognise (though, in The Origin of Species, he tried very hard to soften the blow by supposing that animals in the wild do not feel fear and die quickly. (Origin, 1859 edition, 79). So, in the second section, where it is asked whether this universe is good, Ward suggests that, while this may not be, as Leibniz thought, the best of all possible worlds, it may be the best world in which the particular values that can be realised by the existence of carbon-based forms of life. And he adds, for good measure: “God may well desire such life-forms. In that case some evils must exist in our world.” (93) What he should have said, of course, is that God does desire such life-forms, for here we are, and in Ward’s argument, we are here because God desired us to be here so that he could enjoy the particular values that our being here provides.
However, even Ward recognises that this is not enough. He knows full well that the pain and suffering endured by people – and Ward recognises that there is no need to limit ourselves just to the suffering of self-conscious life (although many if not most religions have done so) – is simply too great to be dealt with in terms of this world alone. So, he goes on to suggest, at once, that God could still redeem the evil that exists in this world, the evil that must exist in any world in which carbon-based forms of life like our own are to be found. It might be that God could “ensure that no evil – no pain suffered by any sentient creature – was utterly useless, or without good effect, not only for the universe in general, but also for the suffering creature itself.” (93) I do not think this, and the specificity he adds to it, sufficiently deals with the problem of evil.
It is very important to take note of the words that Ward uses in the course of attempting, unsuccessfully, in my view, to defend God. The words ‘would’, ‘might’, ‘may’, and ‘could’ predominate. For instance: “A perfectly good God would never desire suffering, but might perhaps be able to use suffering for the good of the sufferer as well as for others.” (93) Or: “But I do mean that suffering could be used to realize a form of good that otherwise would not have existed.” (93) For example, since God is the source of all existence, “God could give the sufferer a new form of existence in which new sorts of good exist, for the sufferer herself, that have their precise character because of the suffering that has been endured.” (94) (The last qualification, of course, is to get round the problem, that if God could create a better world, then why didn’t he do it straight away, rather than forcing creatures to undergo such great suffering first.) Considering the quite horrendous levels of suffering that people (and animals too) in this world suffer every day, that is a quite outrageous suggestion. Think of the person burned to death by the Inquisition, or the person tormented to death by experimentation in Auschwitz, or the animal caught in a trap in the wilds of northern Canada, or the teenager trapped in a burning car on the freeway. Does it really make sense to speak of a new form of existence whose precise character, in each case, depends on the – note the word – precise character of the suffering endured? For what else on these terms but the precise character of the suffering could dictate the precise character of the good? If this makes sense to you then I am quite frankly appalled. And I am appalled to think that anyone thinks there might be a super intelligent mind who could take pleasure in the creation of lives that are known beforehand will suffer such miseries as these, no matter what distant redemptive purpose there might be in so creating them. It so offends my sense of anything that might be considered good, that I do not at all wonder that people have done such horrid things in the names of their gods.
Keith Ward pretends, from start to finish, to be a kind, thoughtful guide to the mysteries of religious belief and to the wacky ideas of those who oppose it. He poses as someone who is on the side of what most people think, and of what most thoughtful people, like professional theologians and philosophers, or at least a majority of them, have always thought throughout history. He also makes a great show of being right up to date about what is being thought about in physics and cosmology, and attempts to show that the God hypothesis makes a pretty good showing in this company. He makes every effort that he can to show that Dawkins is not only amateurish in the way that he deals with questions concerning religion or philosophy, but that he is also astonishingly ignorant of things that, as a scientist, he should know. For example, he even says, of one thing that Dawkins says about religion: “I have to say that this is one of the most obviously false statements in the history of human thought.” (61) And on the very next page he tells us that Dawkins is mistaken, “astonishingly – about the history of science.” (62) These are remarkably harsh judgements, even for a little book of Christian apologetics.
So, I will end with a few remarks about these things. What did Dawkins say that Ward thinks so obviously false? Well, here it is. “Religion teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” (TGD, 126) Or, as he puts it a few pages later: “If you don’t understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it.” (TGD, 132) Fair enough. Those are, indeed, belligerent words, and perhaps Dawkins might have expressed himself more moderately. But that is not what Ward is asking for. He claims that this is one of the most obviously false statements in the history of human thought! All he needed to point out, Ward suggests, is that, while God may give us a perfectly good explanation for the existence of the universe, since we have no access to the mind of God, the God hypothesis can make no testable predictions, and therefore empirical questions are the province of science, not religion. There, case closed.
But is it really as simple as all that? It would be nice to be able to say that it was, but it’s not. There are indeed some expressions of some religions about which this can be said, where empirical questions are entirely left to the province of science, but it cannot be said of all religions, of any religion at certain points in its history, nor of all expressions of any religion today. And Dawkins is a biologist who specialises in evolution, and this is an area in which, for practically every religion, there are large segments of it which will not leave biology to get on with its work. There are significant, and worrying proportions, of Christians and Muslims who do think that empirical questions are the province of religion. And it is just a bit silly for Ward to ignore this, as though this were not a fairly large and continuing problem amongst his own co-religionists, though possibly even more of a problem with Islam.
It is all very well to say, very breezily, about Newton, that “Newton was inspired to search for the general laws of motion and mechanics precisely by the thought that the universe was designed by God, in which case its laws would be both intelligible and elegant.” (61) But it is hard to think of a more biased perception of the scientific revolution of the 17th century than that one, though on the strength of it he is prepared to say that Dawkins is astonishingly ignorant of the history of science. There is no space to go into it fully here, but there was so much intellectual ferment in the 16th and 17th centuries that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be attributed solely or even chiefly to Christianity, that it is preposterous to speak in terms of Newton’s specifically Christian inspiration to search for the laws of motion.
Scientific thinking is, indeed, a very peculiar kind of thought, one that is exceptionally difficult to adapt to and employ with rigour. It would take far more than Christianity to inspire scientific thinking, especially since, to such a large extent, Christianity is still bound by rules of precedence and tradition. One only has to watch the farrago of the Anglican Communion tearing itself apart over the question of whether gay and lesbian Christians can be accepted within the Christian fellowship, to recognise how difficult it is for a religion to change its mind, and how much damage it can do while it tries. Scientific thinking does not come naturally, and it is especially difficult for religious people to master, but not only for religious people. Chinese civilisation, which was arguably technologically far in advance of 16th and 17th century Europe, and had been so for some time, never discovered the special critical methods of scientific modes of thinking. Indeed, it was arguably the breakdown of Christianity at the time of the Reformation and Renaissance that helped to incubate and nurture the very tender shoot of scientific thinking that had begun to develop, but was even then by no means secure, as many examples of exile, punishment and the indexing of books testify. Had Rome still been in untroubled command of Europe, it is very doubtful that science would have developed when and where it did. That of course is too brief a response to Ward’s uncharitable judgements, but it will have to do.
All in all, while this book is written with verve and style, and with some humour, not all of it kind, it seems to me that Ward has not made his case. The God hypothesis is still a hypothesis, and there does not seem to be much reason to suppose that it is either reasonable or true.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica.
Armstrong, Karen. Man vs. God. Wall Street Journal.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press; Facsimile of 1 ed edition, 2001.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
—. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. London: Bantam Press, 2009.
Searle, John R. Mind: A Brief Introduction. Oxford: University Press, 2004.
Ward, Keith. Why There Almost Certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008.
Note: All references are in the text. Page numbers alone refer to the book under review. All other by name or initials, e.g., TGD = The God Delusion, except Summa Theologica: Question = Q, Article = Art, Objection = Obj, Reply to Objection = Reply Obj.