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Serious about delusion #3

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Keith Ward: Why there almost certainly is a God

Keith Ward: Why there almost certainly is a God

Absence of evidence, evidence of absence… what would a chimpanzee think?

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

See also Serious about delusion #1 and #2

The Problem of Consciousness

This is the next section of the book, and it gets to the heart (or at least one of the hearts) of Ward’s counter-thesis to The God delusion.2 The mere fact that he actually offers a counter-thesis is something other antidelusionists could learn from.

The problem of consciousness is, he says,

so difficult that no one has any idea of how to begin to tackle it, scientifically. [My emphasis.]

We do not know

how conscious states… can arise from complex physical brain-states. … [or] if conscious states can have a causal effect on brain states, or if they are somehow reducible to brain states in some way we cannot yet explain.

All fairly unexceptionable. But then he takes a passing swipe at Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness explained3 – which apparently failed to convince ‘most competent philosophers’  because, in Ward’s opinion,

you could very easily have brain-states and behaviour without any conscious states at all.

Excuse me? He goes on:

Nobody can observe anyone else’s conscious states, and we cannot really be sure that anyone else has any conscious states at all.

The statement immediately above is of the classic philosophical problem of ‘other minds’. Happy with that. The problem is the apparent assumption that this in any way implies there could ‘very easily’ be brain-states without conscious states or vice versa.

There is of course an obvious sense in which there could be brain-states without conscious states, but this is small help to Ward’s argument. The brain could be dead, it could be boiled or dried out. That would qualify as a ‘brain-state’, but one that few would expect to be accompanied by any conscious state.

We need to get things in the right sequence. The materialist thesis is that conscious states depend on (arise from, are generated by) certain brain states (ie a subset of possible brain states), not that there is a conscious state corresponding to every possible brain state. The dependency is the other way round: the materialist thesis is that there are no conscious states without brain states.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett

Ward is certainly correct that this thesis is as yet unproven:

We have not yet got to the stage where we can just attach someone’s brain to a recording device and examine their thoughts without asking them to write examination papers, just by measuring electrical activity in their brains.

But to have any sort of discussion there must be agreement on a few axioms. We could for example presuppose that because an individual consciousness can have no proof that any consciousness exists outside its own (a position we might call ‘radical solipsism’), then any argument based on the assumption that ‘other minds’ exist is ruled out. If so, it is hard to see how either the materialist thesis or any counter-thesis could get off the ground. Whom would it be expressed to? What confidence could that individual consciousness have that the terms in which the thesis was expressed had any permanent reference or meaning? What, for that individual consciousness, is the significance of its ‘external reality’, a small part of which presents itself as ‘facts’ about (say) neurophysiology?

Ward continues later:

Few scientifically literate people doubt that human consciousness somehow emerges (we do not know how) from a long, complex evolutionary process. But do we know that no consciousness could exist without being tied to such a physical process?

If we assume an axiom of radical solipsism, that last question is beside the point. How would we know any other consciousness could exist at all, regardless of how it existed?

So we must agree some assumptions with a bit more content. We need to agree to assume (with whatever justification or lack of it) that there are other consciousnesses other than a single ‘first-person’ consciousness; that discourse is possible between at least some of those consciousnesses in at least one language shared between them; that there is an external, publically accessible reality about which meaningful statements can be made in that language; and that that same subset of consciousnesses can and do communicate meaningfully to each other both about that external reality and their private experiences.

In a world like that, then yes we have not yet got to the stage where we can examine people’s thoughts by measuring electrical activity in their brains. But we have a mass of evidence about the correlation between publically observable brain activity and reports of first-person conscious experience.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Ward then refers to a crucial bit of Dawkinsspeak. Richard Dawkins defines the ‘God Hypothesis’ as follows:

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.4

Dawkins then says:

This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.5

Ward renders this as follows:

Dawkins’ hypothesis says that consciousness ‘comes into existence ONLY as the end product’ of a long physical process. Further, ‘creative intelligences… NECESSARILY arrive late in the universe’. [Ward’s emphases.]

Ward goes on:

How does he know that? What sort of evidence could there be for thinking that it is absolutely impossible for any form of consciousness to exist except the sort of consciousness that humans have? The most we could say is that we have not come across such a consciousness. … [But] we cannot deny that there might be one. There might be a consciousness that came into existence in some other way.

The spin is subtle but important, because whole religions can be built on such minutiae.

Dawkins is not saying there is something about either consciousness or creative intelligence per se that necessarily make them things which could only have arrived late in the universe. The ‘necessarily’ refers to ‘being evolved’, which Ward excludes. Dawkins is saying that, as a matter of fact, creative intelligence arrived as an end product of evolution, and because of its production by evolution, necessarily arrived relatively late – ie after the beginning of the universe – and therefore could not have created it.

So to answer Ward, of course Dawkins does not know that ‘creative intelligences necessarily arrive late in the universe’ because that is not what he is claiming. The creative intelligences did not have to arrive at all, so there was no necessity in their arrival. What Dawkins is saying is that according to the only evidence we have, creative intelligence arose by evolution, and there is no evidence of any creative intelligence which arose in any other way.

Dawkins is not claiming to have any evidence that it is ‘absolutely impossible for any form of consciousness to exist except the sort of consciousness that humans have’. (In fact I am sure he would claim there is evidence of non-human consciousness – in the form of gorilla consciousness, chimpanzee consciousness etc. But I assume Ward meant something more like ‘except the sort of consciousness that humans and other conscious organisms have’.) Dawkins is only claiming there is no evidence for any kind of consciousness other than the kind of consciousness that humans and other conscious organisms have.

Of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But nor does anything exist just because it might exist. This is a necessary truth which our sanity and the horror film industry both depend on.

A luta continua


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 Daniel Dennett, Consciousness explained, 1991.

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

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

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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