Serious about delusion #1
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
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.
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.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.