The success of the New Atheist books has spawned an industry of book-length, pro-religion replies. I have read quite a few of them at this point, and have emerged far more confident in my atheism as a result. Some of the books, like David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion, were obviously the work of hacks just trying to cash in. Others, like Alister and Joanna McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion or John Haught’s God and the New Atheism were written by folks who I regard as serious scholars. That they failed so completely to make a cogent case against any of Dawkins’ (or Hitchens’ or Harris’) main arguments was vaguely comforting to me. Seriously, I could have written a better refutation of The God Delusion and I consider Dawkins a hero.
I had mostly washed my hands of the whole genre when I saw a reference to Keith Ward’s entry Why There Almost Certainly is a God at another blog. That blogger had referred to the book enthusiastically as the best of the bunch. I had previously read Ward’s book God, Chance and Necessity (Short review: Interesting, but unconvincing) and so figured he was worth listening to. Ward is a former professor of theology and philosophy at Oxford.
So I decided to check it out. I’m glad I did. Ward’s book is the best I have seen on this subject, and he is worth reading if just for the clarity of hs prose (not something you can count on from either philosophers or theologians). Surely if there were a convincing case to be made on behalf of the reasonableness of traditional religious belief Ward would be the one to present it. That he did not do so is telling us something about the hopelessness of the enterprise.
As a place to start, let us consider Ward’s strange interpretation of Occam’s Razor. Referring to the possibility of multiple universes Ward writes:
It has to be admited, however, that this is a very extravagant theory. It completely contradicts the principle of Occam’s Razor, which says that you should not multiply entities unnecessarily. One of Dawkins’ main motivations is to explain the complex in terms of simpler parts and general laws. But that motivation disappears completely if we have an infinite number of universes, and every possible combination of laws. Dawkins resists this conclusion by saying that `if each of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable’. That sounds like a despearate attempt to save a failed theory. The hypothesis that every possible universe exists is the most extravagant hypothesis anyone could think if, and it breaks Occam’s rule of simplicity with a resounding smash. If the simple is good, then the fewer universes there are the better.
Skipping ahead a bit:
I agree with Dawkins that it would be preferable to have a simpler, less extravagant theory, if we could. Luckily, such a theory exists. It is God. If you introduce God, you can say that all Platonic turtles do exist, but they all exist in the mind of God, who is not a turtle at all.
This is all perfectly absurd, of course. By such logic we should prefer to explain disease via one demon over many bacteria.
The entities Occam encourages us not to multiply are not physical entities or even types of physical entities. It is assumptions or postulates that are to be minimized. You don’t invoke extravagant, implausible hypotheses when mundane ones will do. A corollary to Occam’s Razor would be that if physical entities and processes that are known to exist are adequate to explain something, you should not invent an all-powerful supernatural being to explain the same something.
We know our universe exists. The multiple universe hypothesis just says there is more of the same. (As an aside, we should mention that there are many multiverse hypotheses, and not just the specific one Ward considers). It can claim support from both inflationary cosmology and string theory, and it is worth noting that physicists have been seriously speculating about multiple universes since long before anyone noticed the anthropic principle had rheotrical value in arguments with atheists. Occam said not to multiply entities unnecessarily, but modern theories of physics are increasingly making multiple universe seem very necessary indeed.
And while we are at it, is there any particular reason to think there is only one universe? Whatever it is that makes universes, whether some sort of quantum fluctuation or an all-powerful God or something else entirely, could surely have made more than one. You can argue that this is all highly speculative since we have no direct evidence of those other universes, and I would agree. But since the God hypothesis suffers from the same defect I hardly think this is a strong point against the multiverse. Why is it simpler to think that there is one unique universe, rather than think that ours is just one of many universes, produced by some simple process to which we do not have access?
Against the more-of-the-same hypothesis Ward places the God hypothesis. This, he claims, is the simple, satisfying explanation for which we have been looking. Right, because what could be simpler than a disembodied, eternal intelligence capable of bringing worlds into being with an act of its will?
This is where I really part company with religious people, Ward included. They seem to think it is the most natural thing in the world to hypothesize into existence an entity with the powers typically attributed to the Christian God. Ward writes,
The God hypothesis says that there is a consciousness that does not come into being at the end of a long physical process. In fact it does not come into being at all. It did not just spontaneously appear out of nothing. It has always existed, and it always will. There 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.
And skipping ahead:
Could there be an unembodied mind, a pure Spirit, that has knowledge and awareness? I can see no reason why not. 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.
I can think of some reasons why not. For starters, the idea of an unembodied consciousness is flatly contradicted by everything we know about consciousness. It looks like an oxymoron to me.
Regardless of the philosophy of mind to which you adhere, it seems absolutely clear that for us physical creatures a lot of complexly organized matter is essential to consciousness. No complexly organized matter, no consciousness. Thoughts and ideas may themselves be non-material entities, but as far as we know they require a physical substrate in order to exist.
Then there is the idea that God, while being himself immaterial, can interact with matter to the point of being able to bring whole universe into existence. This, again, is something utterly contrary to everything we know about intelligence. Here in the purely physical world something as simple as telekinesis is, as far as we know, impossible. There is a deck of cards on the desk in front of me, but I can not budge it with the power of my mind alone. How then does God interact causally with the material universe?
It is natural forces and processes that are constantly surprising us with their fecundity and creative prowess. Intelligence, by contrast and to the extent that we have experience with it, is utterly indequate to the task of creating universes and fiddling with fundamental constants.
Then there are all the trappings that come along with intellgence. The inevitable boredom that comes with insufficient stimulation, the search for meaning and purpose, the need for the company of beings like ourselves. Apparently God is not afflicted with any of these problems. How does God keep from getting bored? How does He find meaning to His own existence? How has the sheer monotony of eternal existence not driven Him mad? How does He withstand the awesome loneliness of being the only one of His kind?
I do not know about you, but if I have to spend twnety-four straight hours in my house I start going stir-crazy. Even your average dog has enough brainpower to get bored. But not God.
Anything is more plausible than the existence of such an entity. It is simply incredible to me that Ward can so casually describe the idea of an eternally-existing, omnipotent, disembodied super-intelligence as a satisfying final explanation for the universe. There is nothing satisfying about it. The very idea of something existing eternally and necessarily is already highly unsatisfying. Can you really inagine something that cannot not exist? That we seem to be stuck with it nevertheless pretty well guarantees that there is no ultimately satisfying explanation for the universe.
At least materialism only relies on entities and forces I know exist, and says that the sorts of physical forces that have adequately explained ninety-nine percent of everything in our lives are also adequate for the remaining one percent.
Ward’s explanation says that not only am I stuck with the manifest absurdity of eternal, necessary existence, but the thing that has always existed is itself a conceptual mess and is something that is incomprehensible and contrary to all of our experiences.
It is not that atheism or materialism are easy to believe as ultimate explanations for anything. They just make the fewest demands on my credulity.
Ward has partially anticipated me, of course:
The first question is whether a pure consciousness, without any material context or basis can exist. I confess that I cannot see much force in the statement that a pure consciousness is impossible. There is no contradiction in the idea. We can think of being aware of trees, people, thoughts and feelings without having a physical body.
Really? You can picture having thoughts of trees without a physical body? I certainly can not, and I frankly do not think Ward can either. Thoughts of trees depend on having had experiences of trees, which requires a whole physical apparatus for receiving and processing information from my surroundings. What is it, exactly, that is doing the perceiving and the information processing if I lack any physical body?
And an immaterial consciousness influencing a physical universe?
Somteimes people ask, `How can such a pure mind, even if it is possible, cause matter to exist?’ But the proper answer to that question is to ask how anything, physical or otherwise, can cause — bring into existence — anything at all! We simply do not know how anything can cause anything else. For a mental state to produce a physical does not seem any more difficult than for one physical state to produce another, or for a physical state to produce a mental state. All causal relations are a mystery to us.
It would seem that Ward’s completely satisfying ultimate explanation for the universe leaves a rather large explanatory hole right at the beginning. Sure, he says, we don’t know how mental states can bring matter into existence, but we don’t know how physical states can do that either!
This is not much of an answer. Quantum mechanics tells us that pairs of virtual particles are constantly coming into existence (and usually disappearing almost immediately) so our confusion over precisely how notwithstanding it would seem that physical forces can bring matter into existence. I am happy to grant, though, that the best answer we can currently give regarding the origin of matter in the universe involves a shrug of the shoulders.
Ward’s answer also leaves us with the difficulty we discussed earlier. All the mental states in the world will not move that deck of cards on my desk. The question is not simply how an immateiral intelligence can bring matter into existence, it is how that intelligence can manipulate the matter once it exists. All of our experience tells us such things are impossible. (For some reason I am picturing Patrick Swayze in Ghost right now).
But let us go along with Ward for a moment and assume that the God hypothesis is reasonable. Here is part of what he has to say on the subject of religious revealtions. Please forgive the lengthy excerpt, but I think it is worth considering in full.
We know that there are many fraudulent claims to have seen apparitions. There are many cases of people who are deluded into thinking they have been abducted by extra-terrestrials or are really Napolean. So we are wise to be careful. But if there are fraudulent and deluded claims, it is logically possible that there could be genuine claims by people who are not immoral, or who are not in general ‘mad’ (suffering from mental beliefs that make them unable to run their lives effectively or happily.)
If there are genuine communications from God by means of mind-constructed visual images or ‘words’, we might also want to say that the information they convey should extend knowledge and should have important spiritual significance. If the Virgin Mary just said, ‘The cigars up here are great,’ we might well wonder if we were not, after all, having a vivid daydream. But if she said, `I am alive and will pray for you,’ that might convey the significant truth that those who have died on earth (or at least some of them) do exist in some form after death and do care about us.
I am not saying that all visions of the Virgin are genuine. Nevertheless, having made as many reality checks as we can, we must conclude that a claim to see an apparition made by a sane, moral, rational, critically aware person has to be considered as a candidate for a genuine communication of truth from God. That is only so if belief in God is not ‘mad’. It has to be a reasonable postulate. If it is, it may well be confirmed by visions or voices.
In most religions, some visions or inspired words are considered to be ‘revelations’. This is a rare and definitive communication of importnat spiritual and moral truth about God, through a human intermediary or prophet. It seems highly probable that, if there is a God, there will be some such communication of God’s nature and purpose. There will be revelation, or a finite communication of divine truth through a medium of great beauty, wisdom, moral insight and spiritual power. It may be a text or a person, or a text communicated through a person who has an especially close relationship to God.
Again, we have to judge as well as we can whether a person has such a close relationship to God. We wil examine their lives for moral heroism, inspired wisdom, spiritual peace and joy, a sense of union with the supreme Spirit, and liberation from self. But it is reasonable to think that some humans will have an especially close and intense knowledge and love of God, or that God will take some human lives and unite them closely to the divine in knowledge and love. They will become the channels of divine revelation of what God is and of what God desires and for the world.
I agree completely. If we believe God exists it makes perfect sense to think that he would at times communicate with us poor humans. He would want us to have some indication that He is there. Let us take that as a working hypothesis.
Why, then, is He so stingy with his revelations? Why are so few of us so honored? If, as Ward suggests, revelations should extend knowledge, why does it seem that claimed revelations so rarely do so? Where are the revelations containing scraps of scientific insight, or a warning of some impending catastrophe? Why do we only get vague nonsense like “I am alive and I will pray for you?” How about, “Basic sanitation will help you prevent disease”?
It gets worse. Not only is God very stingy with his revelations, but He also gives different and contradictory revelations to different people at different times. Moreover, these misunderstandings play right into a great many human weaknesses, like our instinctive xenophobia, thereby leading to an almost endless supply of war and bloodshed. God could have communicated with us in ways that were unambiguous. Instead He has chosen to do things in a way that seem guaranteed to lead to tremendous human suffering and waste. Is this consistent with an all-good God who wants his creations to know the truth about His will and His purposes?
Throughout the book Ward tries very hard to pretend that he is just building a purely logical case for God based on what we know of the world and on some reasonable extrapolations and assumptions. But the more you read the more you realize he is just rationalizing ideas he wants dearly to believe. There is no sound basis for going from, “Something must exist eternally and necessarily,” to “That something must be an omnipotent being.” Having made that leap, there is absolutely no basis for thinking that being is omnibenevolent. Having made both leaps, he then dutifully tries to explain why the sheer relentless awfulness of human and animal existence does not pose a challenge for his theory. He wants to create room for religious revelations, so he invents a lot of argle-bargle about what God would or would not do, and simply ignores the enormous harm that has been done by God’s unwillingness to communicate clearly what He wants from us.
In short, he is making it up as he goes along.
There is much more to say, but we will save that for a different post.