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Serious about delusion #4

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Keith Ward: Why there almost certainly is a God

Keith Ward: Why there almost certainly is a God

I have to keep reminding myself that Keith Ward’s book is not called Why there just might be a God.

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

See also Serious about delusion #1; #2; and #3

The God Hypothesis

Ward asks us to be ‘fair’ to the God Hypothesis:

[T]he reality of God is usually said to be infinitely greater than that of any human-like mind that we can imagine. God is not just a projection of a human mind onto the sky. What theistic philosophers usually say is that God is not less than a mind, with consciousness, knowledge and will. The divine reality may be infinitely greater than that, but if we are going to think of it at all, we will not be seriously misled if we think of it as a mind – recognising that we are using a model suitable for us, but one that does not literally apply to God.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is just talking about the concept of God, not shedding light on whether or not God exists. To say ‘God is not just a projection of a human mind’ will convince no one who isn’t already convinced, because that is exactly what the concept of God appears to be to someone not already convinced. As Ward says, God

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.

Why would anyone think God has thoughts, feelings and perceptions, if not because we do? This concept of God is a mixture of attributes both human (thoughts, feelings, perceptions) and non-human (has always existed and always will; no physical body or brain). It is intriguing to wonder why Ward feels qualified to say ‘if we are going to think of [the divine reality] at all, we will not be seriously misled if we think of it as a mind’. Perhaps we will be completely misled?

Ward asks:

Could there be an unembodied mind, a pure Spirit, that has knowledge and awareness? I can see no reason why not.

OK, but to repeat a truism from the previous post, the possibility that something might exist does not mean it does. He goes on:

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.

This kind of talk baffles me. My instinct is to think: I can’t let him get away with this. But it is hard to think of a fully adequate rejoinder, without saying the same thing over and over again. I’ve tried to tackle Ward’s attacks on matter and materialism in Serious about delusion #2.

Ward asks:

What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is?

I would reply: in order to be materialists, must we know exactly what matter is? Must a theist know exactly what God is? If so, then a lot of people who think they are theists are not as theistic as they thought they were.

I feel quite happy being materialist – in the sense of thinking that, on balance,

mind is reducible to electrochemical activity in the brain, or is a surprising and unexpected product of purely material processes,

without knowing precisely – or indeed extremely imprecisely – what matter is.

Matter could be very mysterious indeed, but you can’t solve a mystery by just adding another mystery to the mix. As I tried to explain in Serious about delusion #2, if we don’t need to bring in God to explain how rainfall happens or how stomata work, then I cannot see why you need God to explain how consciousness happens.

Consciousness (17th Century)

Consciousness (17th Century)

The explanations of rainfall and stomata are fundamentally in terms of matter – which, let us agree, we cannot explain. There was a time when we had no explanation of rainfall or of stomata, and now we do – even though we do not know what matter is. So there could come a time when we will have just as adequate an explanation of consciousness, but still no better understanding of what matter is.

And even if we take the view that we may never understand how consciousness happens, this is likely to be because we are ourselves conscious, and are trying to understand consciousness using our own consciousness. This may well be impossible. But even if it is impossible, I cannot see how its impossibility moves us any closer to thinking a God must exist or that mind must be an irreducible component of reality.

Observant readers will have noticed how much I have repeated myself in the last few blogs. At the risk of flogging this poor point to death, I shall try to sketch three scenarios. They are intended to be mutually exclusive, but I am not claiming they exhaust the possibilities.

Crucially, the scenarios are about what is the case, not about what we know now; or about what do not know yet but may know in the future; or about what we may never know.

Scenario 1: Materialism

Matter (whatever it is), or something like Gribben and Davies’ ‘mysterious and unknown substratum’ (see Serious about delusion #2), gave rise to mind – both consciousness and self-consciousness. This happened by the same process of gradual, non-teleological, evolution (see Scenario 3: Teleology below) as gave rise to – for example – seed dispersal, protective mimicry, and the beaks of finches. If we are ever to understand what mind is and how it arose, the knowledge we will need is scientific knowledge: physics, chemistry, biology, neurophysiology, psychology, cybernetics, informatics and so on.

On this assumption, then certainly as far as the ‘living world’ is concerned – the flora and fauna of planet Earth – there was a time when there was no mind, no self-consciousness. There was a time when there was ‘awareness’ or ‘sensitivity’, in the sense of specialised sense organs, and this was before there was full self-consciousness. Similarly there was a time before there was any awareness or sensitivity because the appropriate sense organs hadn’t yet evolved – just as there was a time before there were any living things, in the sense of self-replicating entities.

In this scenario we have reached a point where self-consciousness has evolved. But this evolved self-consciousness has a particular feature: that it presents itself to itself as an irreducible component of the reality it is conscious of. This is because its consciousness of that reality is inextricably bound up with its consciousness of itself. It may be a necessary feature of self-consciousness. How it was achieved we do not know – yet. Or we may never know.

Scenario 2: Anti-materialism

In this scenario mind (incorporating for the sake of argument both consciousness and self-consciousness) is an irreducible component of reality. Features of human neurophysiology etc which support mind may have arrived by a process of evolution, but mind itself has an irreducible aspect which cannot be explained as a product of evolution.

Because mind is an irreducible component of reality, there was never a time in the history of the universe when there was no mind.

Scenario 3: Teleology

This is a distinct scenario, although it includes features of both the other two.

As in Scenario 2: Anti-materialism above, mind is an irreducible component of reality, but mind and self-consciousness may not be quite the same thing.

Evolution is also involved but, unlike in Scenario 1: Materialism above, the evolution – and in particular the evolution of self-consciousness – has purpose behind it, and is therefore directed towards a specific goal.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

This scenario has a number of variants, associated with eg Hegel and Teilhard de Chardin. Both shared a vision that cosmic, geological, biological, technological, political and cultural history was (and is) in some way the gradual and directed realisation of mind’s (or spirit’s) purpose to become conscious of itself. If ‘mind’ is seen more as a principle of rationality the scenario has some affinity with Herbert Spencer’s universal natural law of progress (see Great god progress).

Having sketched these scenarios, my point is this. From the perspective of an individual self-consciousness (a living person) the phenomenological data itself which is available to that person gives no reason for rejecting any of the three scenarios. Crucially, the appearance, to that person, that that person’s mind is an irreducible component of that person’s experienced reality is just as evident in Scenario 1: Materialism as in Scenario 2: Anti-materialism. Therefore it cannot be a justification for Anti-materialism over Materialism.

This does not ‘prove’ Materialism. But phenomenological data aside, it is the scenario with the fewest unjustified assumptions. It treats mind as a phenomenon in the world, and is in line with the best available scientific knowledge. That knowledge cannot yet give a fully satisfactory account of how mind emerges from matter. But nor can Scenario 2 explain how mind is an irreducible component of reality or why it has to be. Scenario 2 includes the additional unjustified assumption that somehow mind was around at a time in the history of the universe when no living creatures had evolved to be conscious, and therefore is committed to speculating as to how this might be possible.

Similarly Scenario 3: Teleology includes an unjustified assumption that there is a purpose and a direction, and is committed to speculation as to where these may have come from, or how they are inextricably bound up in reality.

Scenario 1 acknowledges purpose, but only in the context of the evolved self-consciousness. Purposeful action is an undeniable feature of that evolved self-consciousness. Again Scenario 1 cannot give a fully satisfactory account yet of what purposeful action is and how it evolved. But nor can Scenario 3 explain where its purpose comes from, whose purpose it is, how it operates, and what its relationship is with the only mode of purposeful action we do have experience of, which is our own.

Bottom line: the three scenarios are all possible, and as far as I know there is no piece of currently available information which disproves any of them. If one is true, the other two are false. (Or all three are false, and the truth is something else.) But the fact that all three are possible does not make them equally sound. Scenario 2: Anti-materialism and Scenario 3: Teleology both rest on assumptions which have no independent justification. Scenario 1: Materialism does not.

The fact that we do not yet know how mind evolved does not undermine Scenario 1, any more than the fact that we do not yet know what mind was doing in the universe before conscious animals evolved undermines Scenario 2; or the fact that we do not yet know how purpose operates in the universe undermines Scenario 3. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What undermines Scenario 2 is the unwarranted assumption of the real unique irreducibility of mind. What undermines Scenario 3 is the unwarranted assumption of real purpose in the universe outside ourselves.

La lucha continúa…


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

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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