on 8 October 2010
I thought long and hard about how to write a review of Keith Ward's book, 'Why there almost certainly is a God?' precisely because reviews of theistic books are normally perceived as being merely partisan - 4-5 stars from theists and 1-2 stars from non-theists - and it's not my desire to write a merely partisan review, so I want to detail, clearly, those things that I believe to be the most egregious failings. So, beyond the fact that I don't find Ward's book even slightly persuasive, what is one to make of it?
The title is borrowed from one of the chapters in Dawkins' book, 'The God Delusion' with, in Ward's words "... one little difference: I have changed the word 'no' to the word 'a', because I think that change reflects the situation more accurately."
So, this is partly a 'response' to Dawkins' book but, more importantly, it is also an attempt to justify the claim that 'there almost certainly is a God'. Does it succeed? Well, firstly, I don't doubt that Dawkins' book is flawed, in some respects, and that a competent philosopher ought to be able to illustrate 'why' Dawkins' book will not be the last word on the subject of 'God' but, then again, it wouldn't take a professional academician to accomplish that. With reference to the rather more ambitious project of demonstrating that 'there almost certainly is a God' does Ward succeed? No - of course not.
On that score, Ward's book offers approximately the same combination of questions gone begging (i.e. circular arguments) and arguments from ignorance that one has come to expect from any book attempting to defend theism. The reason for the two stars, then, is because this is not absolutely terrible and certainly not comparable to the dross that creationists routinely produce but, yet, there are more weak (indeed, very weak) links in Ward's reasoning than one should expect from a philosopher of Ward's credentials. As a skeptic, is it unreasonable of me to ask that Ward put together at least a moderately 'persuasive' argument, rather than merely asking me to suspend my critical faculties altogether?
Although Ward is obviously a theist (a Christian theist), most of his arguments are, in fact, Deistic in nature. Even if these arguments were persuasive (and they aren't in the least), he would, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, still have all of his work in front of him. Rather than critique each and every one of Ward's assertions and ineffectual arguments, however, I'll try and focus on the fundamental reasons why, I believe, this book, and others like it, are simply doomed to fail.
There are a couple of jokes that I used to like, as a child that go something like this:
Q: How does an elephant hide in a cherry tree?
A: It paints its toes red. [Cue laughter].
Q: How does an elephant get down from a cherry tree?
A: It sits on a leaf and waits `til autumn (or fall). [Cue hysterical laughter].
My point is that these jokes have no chance of being funny to somebody who does not understand that the idea of an elephant sitting in a cherry tree is nonsensical, in the first place. If anybody has actually got so far as to persuade themselves that elephants *are* capable of hiding in cherry trees, it's unlikely that they're going to be easily dissuaded from this viewpoint and so, I suggest, it is with theism.
Ward's book is predicated on the fundamental presupposition that "there is a consciousness that does not come into being at the end of a long physical process. In fact it does not come into being at all. It did not spontaneously appear out of nothing. It has always existed, and it always will. There is something that has thoughts, feelings and perceptions, but no physical body or brain. Such thoughts and perceptions will be very different from human thoughts." This is, to Ward's mind, 'The God Hypothesis' and, yet, he cannot offer any reason whatsoever for supposing it to be so. Many objections against it can be raised, but two points come to my mind immediately:
1. Ward goes to some length to illustrate just how poorly understood is the idea of 'consciousness'; in fact, 'consciousness' does not even have an agreed definition, never mind a sufficient explanation.
2. Having asserted, then, that we know close to nothing about what 'consciousness' is or from whence it arises, he then goes on to assert that whatever 'it' is, this self-same mysterious phenomenon (called 'consciousness') does, in fact, exist (contra-Dennett, for example) and that it is the basis of the 'God Hypothesis' - except with the important proviso that "[s]uch thoughts and perceptions will be very different from human thoughts."
So, 'God-consciousness' is the same as human 'consciousness', but different, right?? So, in what sense, can it still be referred to as 'consciousness'? Remember, 'consciousness' is a word for which we have no sufficient definition, in the first place, so it can - essentially - be used to mean *whatever* Ward wants it to mean.
Ward's book is plagued by this kind of nonsense but, to be fair, he's somewhat handicapped by his theistic belief set; Elephants in cherry trees, anyone? So, to summarize Ward's position:
1. We know precious little about what 'consciousness' actually is or from whence it arises.
2. What we do know, which relates entirely to human beings, could lead one to the (incorrect, according to Ward) conclusion that 'mind' and 'brain' are, in fact, inseparable.
So, then - if a) we don't know what 'consciousness' is, and b) 'God-consciousness' is not much like 'Human-consciousness', in any case - is Ward *really* in a position to even speculate about the reasonableness of a) substance dualism and b) the likelihood that 'God' is some form of 'consciousness'?
Methinks Ward may be extrapolating just a teensy weensy bit beyond what his data set can reasonably bear. Ward seems to think that, if he can sell 'substance dualism' the rest of his theistic enterprise will follow straightforwardly but, I suggest, that a) he can't sell it (to anyone who hasn't already bought it) and b) the rest doesn't follow, in any case. Substance dualism really is a pretty tough sell to just about anyone who isn't already a committed theist, for the fundamental reason that there simply isn't any good reason to suppose that it's true.
He writes: "Could there be an unembodied mind, a pure Spirit, that has knowledge and awareness? I can see no reason why not."
Let's pause here, for a moment, to ask 'just what *exactly* does Ward mean when he asserts that he "can see no reason why not."?' Does he mean, for example, that he cannot see any 'logical' reason 'why not'? Ward's entire case hinges on the plausibility of this claim; in fact, Ward's entire case cannot even get off the ground, because he cannot offer *any* good reason to suppose it to be so. He cannot - surely - be suggesting that there is no 'physical' reason why not - how could he possibly know that? So, it must be the former. Ward, therefore, actually seems to be arguing that because *he* cannot see any 'logical' reason why it couldn't exist that therefore *it might actually exist*. This is truly a fantastic assertion and fantastically vacuous.
As remarkable as this line of 'reasoning' is, he goes on to assert that "The God hypothesis has at least as much plausibility as the materialist hypothesis. Both are hard to imagine, but neither seems to be incoherent or self-contradictory. Either might be true."
Really? This is simply laughable! We *know* that 'material' (comprising matter and/or energy) entities exist, even if we do not understand, in totality, exactly what this entails. We do *not* know, however, that anything 'immaterial' exists at all, not least because we don't even have a meaningful ontology for the non-concept (as things stand) of the 'immaterial', i.e. the word 'immaterial' is presently meaningless, except to distinguish something from that which is 'material' - but if we don't understand the limits of the 'material' world, to begin talking about 'things' that are 'immaterial' is question-begging *in the extreme*. Ward's entire theistic premise is, indeed, question-begging, which (in essence) he later admits, as we shall see.
What Ward is asking one to believe (just for starters) is that it is *logically possible* for me to continue to exist without my body or any part of it such as my brain. But - and this is an important point - 'possibility' is what is not inherently contradictory: if A does not entail logical contradiction, A is 'possible'. But how does one get from 'logical possibility' to actual 'being'? As such, 'logical possibility' is all but empty possibility; almost anything is 'possible' this latter way, depending only on the limits of conceivability, e.g. flying pigs, people with 5 arms and the idea that the planets, and their positions, have a crucial bearing on who we are and what we do, but 'logical possibility' alone does *nothing* to establish 'ontological possibility' - that would require reference to the physical world *as it really is* and would necessitate reference to what is actually known and understood - e.g. in chemistry and physics. When we then start to look at the reasons why 'unembodied consciousness', in fact, makes logically no sense at all - for example, if it were reasonable, by the same token, it would be similarly reasonable to speak about a 'whole body amputation' - what is one to think?
There are, I suggest, only two options, ultimately: One is to conclude that the knowledge (and logic itself) that we (presently) have is of no consequence, and has, in the final analysis, no bearing on the matter, because one already 'believes' it (a priori) to be true, or one must surely conclude that Ward's theistic enterprise is intrinsically irrational and based on little more than wishful thinking.
The 'idea' (such as it is) of 'unembodied consciousness' is, I suggest, one of those things that theists really have no choice but to just 'chalk it up to faith'. Such speculative reasoning *may* seem profoundly reasonable to someone who believes that elephants can be found hiding in cherry trees, so long as they haven't painted their toes but, really?? Who could Ward possibly imagine might be persuaded by such argumentation?
Things really don't get any better from here on in.
Ward draws on the arguments of Richard Swinburne; for example, his assertion that there is a class of 'explanation' that can be referred to as 'personal explanation', but he completely fails - indeed he doesn't even try, so far as I can see - to separate the idea of a 'personal explanation', which may be perfectly adequate for most everyday purposes - i.e. with reference to the intentional actions of *known* entities (human beings)- from a bad case of subjectivity and wishful thinking, when applied to things that are (currently, at least) beyond our scope. It's like trying to utilise 'commonsense' to reach conclusions about deep cosmology - i.e. profoundly daft.
At a deep level, Ward's 'argument' (and the theistic 'argument', at large) poses a fundamental epistemological question - 'if it were true, (how) could we know it to be so?' Since Ward strongly objects to Dawkins' suggestion that 'the God Hypothesis' is a scientific hypothesis - Ward even asserts that, "Of course, he [Dawkins] really knows this is not true." - it's very hard to see how he could possibly begin to construct a rational (i.e. non-circular) answer to this question.
To illustrate, as one reviewer (a one star reviewer, of course) of Dawkins' book wrote: "If you truly understood science you would know that science neither supports nor denies the existence of God. Science is properly relegated to the understanding of material things, laws etc. Science lacks the tools to inquire into the non-material being of God or to understand His possible interaction in this world."
So fantastically question-begging is this assertion, it pre-supposes (in addition to the non-concept of 'immateriality') that, although 'science' (the only reliable means humans have so far discovered of uncovering reality) "lacks the tools to inquire into the non-material being of God..." the reviewer himself, however, somehow and from somewhere *does* have "the tools to inquire into the non-material being of God..."
Amusingly, in the final chapter, Ward supposes that "for Dawkins, all this must seem like a wish-fulfilling fantasy." Personally, I can't possibly imagine why Dawkins might think such a thing!! He goes on to say - having spent almost an entire book arguing for 'Why There Almost Certainly Is a God' - that "The question of God is not purely an intellectual puzzle. It is bound up with the basic ways in which we see our lives, the cultural histories and traditions from which we spring and against which we often react, and the most fundamental values, feelings and commitments we have. It is not just a question of evidence, in the sense of clear public data that put matters beyond any reasonable doubt. It is a question of basic forms of perspective and action."
So, there we have it, in a nutshell! Having failed to demonstrate to you, dear skeptical reader, that there is any compelling reason whatsoever to cross the line from non-belief to believing what I (Ward) happen to believe, I'm going to lay it on the line for you - at the end of the day, it's not really all about evidence and reason, but about "basic forms of perspective and action." Blinding!