on 3 September 2008
Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Oxford is certainly well equipped to write about religions and religious philosophies. He surveys and compares the great religions of the world and presents their key beliefs in everyday language, which is quite a feat in its own right. He compounds this feat by surveying science and gives a clear account of the very counter-intuitive state that frontier science has now reached. His main aim is to explore whether religions and modern science are compatible, which he does very thoroughly, drawing on immense knowledge and breadth of understanding of the subjects involved. For me, however, the most notable benefits are firstly, the formulation of ten 'big questions' about the nature of reality, and secondly the provision of the fruits of a vast amount of research in clear and understandable terms. The reader gains an up-to-date understanding that would otherwise require considerable ability and a vast amount of time to achieve. Given the facts and the uncertainties so clearly expressed, the reader can draw his own conclusions about his place in the world and respond accordingly.
I very much enjoyed reading this book because Christian theologian and philosopher Keith Ward is that rare person who is not only an expert in his field, the philosophy of religion, but is also very knowledgeable about science and religions other than his own. Such wide knowledge is necessary to presume to write such a book as this, and only a few people could justify the effort. Ward writes without cant and goes to great lengths to air out conflicting points of view. He is as fair to science as one can be who obviously believes in some non-scientific ideas such as the divinity of Jesus, the reality of miracles, and the notion of "purpose" in the universe. He has heard all the arguments and has read all the great names in science and religion and has spent decades thinking about these questions. So regardless of how the individual reader may feel about his conclusions or lack thereof, Ward is clearly worth reading. I believe he has gone a long way in this very interesting book toward clarifying the issues involved, if not in resolving them!
Professor Ward posits ten questions beginning with "How Did the Universe Begin?" through "What is the Nature of Space and Time?" and ending with "Does Science Allow for Revelation and Divine Action?" Each question has a subtext question, e.g., under "How Did the Universe Begin?" Ward asks, "Is There an Ultimate Explanation for the Universe?" Each couplet of questions has its own separate chapter so that there are ten chapters in all.
Sometimes the subtext question changes the enquiry considerably. In Chapter 6, for example, Ward asks, "Is it Still Possible to Speak of the Soul? along with "Does Science Allow the Possibility of Life after Death?" Clearly one may speak of the soul both metaphorically from a psychological point of view and idealistically from a philosophic point of view without bringing science into the discussion at all. But this example illustrates Professor Ward's intent. He, like the Templeton Foundation which sponsored this book, is intent on bringing about a consilience and understanding between science and religion.
I think this is an admirable and absolutely necessary endeavor if humanity is to find peace with itself; and indeed, such a meeting of the minds may be essential for long term human survival. Right now much of the conflict in the world is based on differences between religions or between a religious worldview and one based on empirical science. Unlike Richard Dawkins and others who feel that never the twain shall meet, Ward and the Templeton Foundation believe that science can be made compatible with religion and vice-versa. There is a third view, of course, that science is just another--albeit very powerful--religion itself.
I am brought to a sense of something close to melancholy when I think about the questions being asked in this book. Such questions as "How Will the Universe End?" (Chapter 2) with its subtitle "(Does the Universe Have a Goal or Purpose?)" leave me exasperated, in awe, humbled, and much diminished. I cannot think of a purpose or a goal that the universe may have, but Ward posits the idea that from a religious point of view a purpose might be "to generate many forms of goodness and many beings who can appreciate and create such forms of goodness." (p. 57) From a scientific point of view a goal might have "to do with the increase of knowledge, freedom, and intelligent life." (p. 58) From my point of view, "goodness" is hopelessly anthropomorphic while "freedom" is a puzzle, and "knowledge" and intelligence beg the question of knowledge and intelligence for what? As ends in themselves?
Furthermore it is difficult for me to imagine that we have a real understanding of some of the most basic ideas that necessarily come up in this book, such as infinity, randomness, eternity, the extent of the universe, being, nonbeing, God, etc. The God that is worthy of being the creator of the universe or outside of it or both seems to me to be completely beyond our understanding--which, by the way, is one of the reasons there is the idea of "faith" in religion.
I didn't care much for Ward's dismissal of David Hume's position on miracles, and was surprised at the vehemence he showed toward the great empirical philosopher (see pp. 92-93). I thought Ward misunderstood Hume, almost willfully. Hume's position is clear: when he says that miracles are impossible he means that if it happened, it wasn't a miracle. I don't think Hume contradicted himself. I think the source of Ward's disagreement is in not fully realizing the extent of Hume's empirical realism. Clearly as a Christian Ward wants to believe in miracles, and apparently does.
I also didn't care much for his discussion of time. I think that time has all the reality of a mathematical point and has no existence outside of matter and energy. The same can be said for space, or more properly spacetime. Ward seems to think that time "flows" and has a reality independent of events--or perhaps it is not clear what Ward thinks about time. In fact, so carefully does Ward present the various points of view on the various subjects that sometimes it is not clear where the general or historical view ends and his point of view begins! (Or perhaps I need to read more carefully.) At any rate, in Chapter 5 he writes "I am not opposed to putting logical limitations on divine omnipotence..." (p. 115); but later on intones, "God's acts fall under no general law...God just does not fit into our equations." (p. 264)
Can God square the circle? On the one hand, no, on the other, who are we to put limitations on what God can do? Our logic, Boolean or fuzzy or whatever, is surely a frail thing with which to constrain the might of an ineffable God.