thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Serious about delusion #1

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Keith Ward: Why there almost certainly is a God

Keith Ward: Why there almost certainly is a God

At last – a Delusion-basher that actually seems worth reading.

First in a series responding to Keith Ward’s Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins1

As readers of this blog will know, I have come across a number of responses to Richard Dawkins’ The God delusion2, and found most of them mostly disappointing. But Keith Ward’s Why there almost certainly is a God appears to be in a different league. The book has much to engage with, and goes beyond the usual visceral recoil and consequent misrepresentation.

One reason could be quite simply that Ward conducts the debate in purely philosophical terms. He takes it that much of The God delusion – or at least much of those parts of the book which he wants to address – counts as philosophy, and should be evaluated as such:

My reply will concentrate on Chapters 2 to 4 of Dawkins’ book, because those are the chapters in which he enters into the territory of philosophy, of arguments about God and the ultimate nature of reality.

It is rare to find two philosophers in complete agreement about everything. That comes with the trade. But what also often comes with the trade is the fortunate habit of at least trying to understand what your opponent is saying.

The God hypothesis

Ward begins by agreeing with Dawkins’ definition of the ‘God hypothesis’, ie that

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.3

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

He then quotes Dawkins’ ‘alternative view’, that

any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.4

The ‘central point at issue’ is therefore:

Is intelligent mind an ultimate and irreducible feature of reality? Indeed, is it the ultimate nature of reality? Or is mind and consciousness an unforeseen and unintended product of basically material processes of evolution?

Ward then lists a number of big players (Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant and Hegel) who would all tend to agree with the first of those options – in fact ‘that the ultimate reality… is mind or Spirit’. Then he mentions others like David Hume, AJ Ayer and Thomas Reid who have held a variety of different positions on ultimate reality and what we can know about it: empiricism, logical positivism, and ‘common sense’. But within this entire illustrious group

there are very few materialists, who think we can know that mind is reducible to electrochemical activity in the brain, or is a surprising and unexpected product of purely material processes. [Emphasis added.]

Ward sees Dawkins’ materialist alternative as

a very recent, highly contentious, minority philosophical world-view.

One thing that struck me when I read through Ward’s list of names was that only AJ Ayer lived after Charles Darwin; and I think it is fair to say that even AJ Ayer was very little influenced by evolutionary theory. This is not to claim that Darwinian arguments support materialism, merely to ponder what Ward’s list of thinkers might have thought had they been fully aware of Darwinism, particularly in its 21st-Century form.

Keith Ward

Keith Ward

First however we should examine Ward’s assumption that Dawkins is a ‘materialist’.

My Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy characterises ‘materialism’ like this:

Perhaps the most familiar question in metaphysics is whether there are only material entities – materialism – or only mental entities, i.e., minds and their states – idealism – or both – dualism.5 [Emphasis added.]

Dawkins could be a materialist in this sense, although it is not 100% obvious he could not also be a dualist – in a sense. He could think for example that consciousness is something that arises from matter, but that from the point it has arisen, it does exist. The definition above only states that a dualist thinks that both material entities and mental entities exist, not that neither is reducible to the other, or that neither causes the other.

Which brings me to my speculation about what, say, Aristotle, or Leibniz – or even Kant – might have thought about the relation between mind and matter had they understood what we understand now about the evolution of organic life in general and of conscious and sentient organisms in particular.

Consider these two beliefs:

Belief 1: There was a time on planet Earth when there were no sentient or conscious organisms.

Belief 2: Mind is an ultimate and irreducible feature of reality.

I would like to exclude as arbitrary and unjustifiable any assumption that for all time there must have been at least one sentient or conscious organism of some kind on at least one planet in the universe. If we do exclude this assumption, then it is hard to see how someone can entertain both belief 1 and belief 2 without also entertaining something like:

Belief 3: God exists.

‘God’ here would represent something which is not an ‘organism’, but which necessarily possesses ‘mind’ and is necessarily eternal – or at least exists wherever and whenever reality exists.

That last clause stretches the meaning of just about every word it contains, so would be a struggle to defend against hostile attack. But that same hostile attack could arguably be directed against belief 2 itself – not that it is false, but that it may not be as coherent or meaningful as it appears.

To be continued…


1 Keith Ward, Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins, Lion Hudson, London, 2008.

2 Richard Dawkins, The God delusion, Bantam, 2006.

3 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 2 above; p 31.

4 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 2 above; p 31.

5 Robert Audi, Ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, second edition, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


8 Responses

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  1. Further to above: When I say my hunch is that mind is irreducible, I do not mean to imply that I think it belongs to another realm above and above the world of nature. And when I compare it to the energy/matter relationship, it is because mind seems in many ways to me like energy: we can only see its manifestation in the context of matter, just as it seems we can only be conscious in the context of our bodies. But we think it is energy that preceded matter, and I wonder if in a similar way, mind precedes body.

    I’m open to the possibility that this idea is totally off the wall when it comes to scientific reasoning. But so far I’ve not seen anything that convinces me either way.

    Now I’m off to watch cricket. Sometimes that seems enough of a brain game all on its own. Terry

    Terry Sissons

    19 July 2009 at 4:35 pm

  2. Chris – My problem with your comments is that I often need to take the time to think about them, which unfortunately is often delayed by practical events like flooded conservatories. Nonetheless, thank you for giving me the chance to turn these ideas over once again.

    I agree on what you call solipsism. I misunderstood your original thought. Yes, if we don’t agree simply to make the assumption that there is a publicly-accessible objective reality, there’s nowhere to go but around in circles.

    You say that objective reality does not presuppose the existence of mind. But the existence of mind (or consciousness or whatever we call it) poses a problem for science. We don’t have a credible theory about how it evolved. It’s not just a “missing link” in Darwin’s theory. Neither Darwin or anybody else has even an hypothesis about how mind emerges. As I say, perhaps someday we will. But I think it’s a big gap in the scientific view of the world. Bigger even than the basic disconnect between Quantum Mechanics and the Standard Theory.

    I don’t know if mind is irreducible in principle. It is, as far as I can see, at this point, an open question. What I am not willing to do is to pretend I don’t think it matters.

    My understanding of reductionism is that it represents the attempt to break down reality into its most basic component parts. It is not simply to translate between various levels of organization.

    But my basic problem with reductionism is that, valuable as it is, it is incomplete. To describe a person in terms of their component chemical parts does not describe the whole person. To identify an unusual deficit may contribute to our understanding of his physical or psychic state, but an exhaustive list of chemicals is not a complete description of “Tom.”

    As I write this, I wonder if you and I more or less agree on the questions and even on the extent to which they have or have not been answered. But I think our preferred leanings may be different. Is mind reducible? neither of us thinks we know, but your hunch is yes, mine is not.

    As a cognitive psychologist, I find that question just as interesting in itself. (Maybe it’s in our bio-chemistries? or the assumptions we were taught as children?)

    Mega-thanks for the chance to turn these ideas over.

    Terry Sissons

    18 July 2009 at 9:44 pm

  3. Hello again, & thanks again for the conversation.

    The dead end I was referring to was not to do with our capacity to understand, but the dead end which solipsism represents. For example if one’s position is that reality = knowledge of reality = experience of reality, then there’s no coherent way of getting outside that equation to a position where ‘reality’ can ever be something which isn’t being perceived. But that’s effectively saying reality can only be what I perceive, so my reality is the only reality I can be sure of. And this seems to me to be an essentially solipsist position, which Wittgenstein’s private language argument is a powerful argument against. I’m not sure the private language argument ‘proves’ that objective reality exists (how could it?), but I think it does establish that first-person experience is not a privileged perspective. By which I think I mean that the concept of an objective, public reality is no less coherent than the concept of a purely private, first-person reality. In fact it is probably more coherent. Hence the dead end.

    So, on the assumption that there is an objective, publically-accessible reality, then that kind of reality is the one which I would say does not presuppose mind. This is because we can quite coherently project back to a historical state of that reality in which mind did not exist – for example before minds of any kind evolved. That historical state may not have existed (as for example dinosaurs might not have existed), but it is not incoherent to conceive of it having existed. In fact the balance of evolutionary evidence suggests that it actually did exist.

    This objective, publically-accessible reality is the kind of reality which science describes quite successfully. But to say this does not imply that anything or everything that science says about that reality is necessarily true.

    A question about reductionism. Does reductionism necessarily imply ‘parts of a whole’? Doesn’t reductionism mean translating claims made in one type or level of discourse into another type or level of discourse? A classic example might be translating an explanation which happens to be in the language of chemistry into an equivalent explanation in the language of physics. Is there always something in the chemistry explanation which that physics explanation necessarily leaves out? & if there is, is it necessarily something at the holistic level?

    If not, then it’s not obvious to me that a biological explanation can’t be ‘reduced’ to chemistry & physics once all the relevant facts are known.

    To get back to Keith Ward (and I must get round to continuing this series!) he does seem to get close to arguing that mind is an irreducible component of reality because the language we use to talk of personal explanation (eg ‘I tapped my nose because I thought someone was being nosy’) is not reducible to the language of scientific causality (‘I tapped my nose because such and such set of muscles pulled in such & such a direction…’).

    What I find intriguing is that although (on the one hand), if someone wants to believe that mind is an irreducible component of reality it is very difficult (!) to come up with a conclusive demonstration that it isn’t, it seems far from obvious (on the other hand) why anyone would be justified in believing that mind is an irreducible component of reality. Phew.

    Thanks again, Chris.

    Chris Lawrence

    14 July 2009 at 10:26 pm

  4. Chris –
    Thank you for such a long and thought-provoking response to my comment. Before I respond, let me say that even I would say that some of my thoughts below are pretty wild. I run from what might broadly be called “New Age Spirituality” with a certain horrified terror, but I do fear that some of the possibilities that I at least entertain themselves sound pretty fantastical. My only defense is a quote from Einstein “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” (On the other hand, I fully appreciate that absurdity is no assurance of ultimately vindication.)

    With that in mind:
    I do not know if the mind/body dichotomy is parallel or analogous to the energy/matter dichotomy or not. It might even be a manifestation of it, or have nothing in common with it. I do agree, as far as we understand it, that energy seems to have existed – at least in our universe – before matter. If the mind/body relationship is analogous to energy/matter, then it might make sense to suppose that it is mind – not matter – which is the default setting. Perhaps the mind does continue to exist in some form after death.

    If so, I do not think what might survive is what Christian doctrine calls the soul. I do not believe in a spiritual world “above” this one nor in a “God” who presides over it. Though as I said before, rejecting this concept of god does not seem to me to eliminate the possibility that there is a “godliness” or “sacredness” immanent in the world. Perhaps this is the kind of god Einstein had in mind.

    Reductionism is hugely valuable, but in my opinion it answers only half of almost any question it solves. Identifying the component parts of everything from the atom to the evolutionary tree have been major contributions of a reductionist approach. But it does not address the fact that the whole is different from the sum of its parts.

    I suppose this is related to the question of whether there is evidence of some purpose in evolution. But the question that interests me is the one of consciousness, including self-consciousness which might actually be the same thing. Whether change occurs rapidly (as with the Big Bang) or gradually (over billions of years) doesn’t change the basic conundrum as I see it. We have no credible theory of how consciousness emerges out of matter.

    But yes, the essential limitation of trying to explain our own cognition is inescapable. Everything we perceive is the result not only of the object which we are perceiving, but of the nature of our capacity to know. I’m inclined to think that this is so fundamental a limitation that we must conclude that the universe is beyond our capacity to fully understand.

    However, I think it was Stephen Hawkins who said that although we can never fully understand the universe, our capacity to understand is unlimited. So we will never reach a dead end. Never reach a point where there is nothing more we can understand.

    Enough for now. I am already close to being in over my head. Thank you for your own thoughts which I found so stimulating

    Terry Sissons

    4 July 2009 at 10:47 pm

  5. Thanks Terry.

    I guess one could question why the mind/matter dichotomy should be necessarily parallel or analogous to the energy/matter dichotomy. It is possible to conceive of a physical universe back in time where there was matter but no mind. But it is difficult to know what a universe with matter but no energy would be like, let alone think it could ever exist.

    I’m also not sure why ‘reductionism’ is necessarily a bad thing or even undesired. It’s not obvious to me that a purely physical mechanism of high complexity cannot be self-conscious, just because we don’t yet know how it can be.

    One of the big new explanatory principles which evolutionary research & theory have brought us is gradualism: incremental development of complex structures under natural selection. We can trace the development of the wing from something that wasn’t a wing, to a quarter of a wing, to half a wing, to a wing. Ditto the eye.

    It’s not obvious to me why the development of consciousness & self-consciousness should be different in principle. The key issue seems to be that the faculty which would discover/propose/understand the explanation (cognition) is fundamentally the same as the thing to be explained (consciousness, cognition). And this isn’t something which it is possible to wish away.

    It is hard to know what it is like to be a frog. It is hard to know what it would be like to know what it is like to be a frog. I can see why that is a conundrum, and it might be an unresolvable conundrum, rooted in the very nature of consciousness. If that’s what ‘irreducible’ means, then mind might be irreducible – once it exists. But it didn’t have to exist. It does not show that mind is a fundamental component of reality. And it says nothing about God.

    If reality is by definition something that is known, such that ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge of reality’ are the same thing or at least inseparable, then mind is by definition a fundamental component of reality. But thinking like this seems to be predicated on a decision to stay within an essentially solipsist frame of reference – a dead end.

    Chris Lawrence

    3 July 2009 at 8:10 am

  6. Chris – Yes, for me too, the question is “can science come any closer than it is now to understanding the relationship between mind and matter.” The dualist position makes me uncomfortable because I have the feeling that the universe is a unity, and that we don’t need another “spiritual world” to explain this one.

    But so far, science has offered only a reductionist view. It was as recent as the 20th century that a version of Behaviorism argued that thought was no more than sub-vocal movements of the tongue. Today’s brain research is far more sophisticated, but doesn’t come any nearer to unravelling the mystery. It is still ultimately a reductionist position.

    But it was also only as recently as the 20th century that Einstein showed that energy and matter were not completely separate and non-convertible. Perhaps one day a scientist will do something similar for mind and matter. For now, though, I don’t see that even on the distant horizon.

    No, the philosophical arguments for mind as irreducible don’t convince me either. I’m learning to feel most comfortable in mystery. Where I expect to die. Though the shape of the mystery does keep changing.

    Terry Sissons

    2 July 2009 at 10:50 pm

  7. Thanks again Terry.

    Again I agree. Except I would probably add that the relationship between mind and matter is, if not the essential conundrum of all time, then perhaps of more times than our own.

    A big issue for me is what that ‘science comes no closer’ boils down to. I’d love to know if it means ‘science cannot come any closer because of what science is’ or just ‘science has not yet come any closer’.

    I’ve read philosophical arguments for believing that mind is an irreducible feature of reality, based on the difference in principle between a scientific causal explanation and a personal explanation of intention. But they don’t quite cut it for me. So I’m still looking!

    Chris Lawrence

    2 July 2009 at 9:24 am

  8. Chris – I rarely read your postings without having to think about them. Hard. The relationship between mind and matter is, for me, the essential conundrum of our time, the problem that won’t go away. A religious fiat that there is a god doesn’t solve the problem for me, but science comes no closer.

    Any resolution with which I would be content I think must be a philosophical one. And so I read your honest, well-thought out, and well-read examinations of the issue with great interest and appreciation.


    Terry Sissons

    30 June 2009 at 10:47 pm

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