Keith Ward

Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins

Review by Todd McAlster, 2009

Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins, by Keith Ward. Lion. Oxford. 2008. 159 pages. $14.95.

Mind, then matter? Or matter, then mind? Like the chicken and the egg, Keith Ward asks “Which came first?” In his view, Ultimate Mind (God) is the essential source of all that is. But, after Richard Dawkins gained attention by arguing for an opposing view, Ward wrote this book to respond.

In the Preface, Ward describes his background as a Professor of Philosophy and how, after being appointed by the Queen to the Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford, he took on a new role as a theologian. At Oxford, he engaged in debates with Dawkins and others on the basis for believing in God. He continues the debate in this book, and states: “I want to challenge his arguments, to show that they are not at all strong, and to show that there are much stronger arguments in favour of believing in a God” (11). The book is organized in three parts, responding to Chapters 2-4 in Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

In Part 1 (Chapter 1), Ward gives an overview of points he will consider in defense of “The God Hypothesis”. He agrees with Dawkins’ definition of God, as “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” (11). And he articulates a question he describes as the “central point at issue”: “Is intelligent mind an ultimate and irreducible feature of reality? Indeed, is it the ultimate nature of reality? Or is mind and consciousness an unforseen and unintended product of basically material processes of evolution?” (12)

He identifies two weaknesses he sees in the atheist position. One is that, as physics has become more complicated, materialism is no longer the “simplest” explanation. With fundamental concepts such as space, time, matter, and energy not well enough understood to offer a legitimate explanation of reality, he asks “What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is?” (15) The other is the problem of consciousness, and that no one yet has any idea of how thoughts and feelings can arise. He recognizes that the brain is essential for consciousness, and he sees human consciousness as having emerged via evolution. But he asks: “Do we know that no consciousness could exist without being tied to such a physical process?” “it would be hard to rule that possibility out” (17). He describes “personal explanation” as an alternative to scientific explanations of why things happen as they do. In this, just as intangible human desires can prompt actions, he feels that God, as ultimate mind, also has wishes and desires, and these are causes of what occurs.

Ward addresses Dawkins’ contention that, when it includes claims regarding events, the God hypothesis becomes a scientific question. (Could a virgin, actually, bear a child? Could a man rise from the dead?) Ward sees this as a “mind boggling” misunderstanding or mischaracterization. He says that, while “the question of God is certainly a factual one”, there is no way of knowing, historically, what actually occurred, and the meaning in such stories is in personal experience (30). He sees a clear effect of God, in providing a world with purpose and moral standards and a human ability to perceive beauty and the divine, but he says the God hypothesis is metaphysical, not scientific nor historical. “It does not make factual claims that will be conclusively verified” (28).

In Parts 2 and 3 (Chapters 2-8) Ward responds to Dawkins’ Chapters 3 and 4, “Arguments for God’s existence” and “Why there almost certainly is no God”. He takes on Dawkins’ dismissal of the “argument from improbability” by explaining that, while he agrees that natural selection could potentially have led to our current world, he feels odds of this are small and a designer God “would make it much less improbable” (40). Ward disagrees with Dawkins’ statement that “any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation”. He responds, first, by explaining why complex entities are not necessarily less probable than simple ones and, second, that God, in fact, is simple – one consciousness, not composed of separate parts, one cause of all existence. He turns the Occam’s Razor argument back against Dawkins, saying that, if concepts such as multiverse are required to make a materialist position plausible, then this view is not necessarily more simple than the God hypothesis, and is as improbable as a deity.

In response to the question, “Who made God?” Ward says, simply “That question is unanswerable” (51). He explains that God “is part of a personal [not scientific] explanation” and he calls it a delusion to claim that a personal dimension does not exist (61-62).

Ward considers potential objections, and replies. Can pure consciousness exist, without any material basis? He sees no reason why not. How can pure mind cause matter to exist? He acknowledges this as a mystery, but no more of one than how matter could produce consciousness. He feels the problem of evil is no problem, since God’s creation does not have to be perfect to be good.

Ward finds Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs of God’s existence to be convincing, and he finds it reasonable that God would reveal spiritual truth through prophets. He sees the sense of the infinite, the moral impulse to be good, and “a real spiritual presence and power” in the experience of Christ, not as proofs of God, but as confirmation of a reality that includes more than material things (138).

Overall he sees the God hypothesis as deeply rational, coherent, and plausible. And, since it can account for the purpose and value in the universe, as well as for existence of physical things, he feels it is stronger than the materialist view.

Keith Ward shows many qualities that are desirable in an honest debate. He is well-versed in theology and science. He recognizes and addresses important issues and provides clear reasons that support his views. With occasional humor and self-deprecation and consistent respect for opposing views, he avoids the arrogance or certainty that limits some other discussions on this topic.

Because of this, it is both puzzling and revealing, when he gives limited and, for opponents, inadequate, responses to Dawkins’ challenges. Rather than responding to the question of how a designer may have created the physical universe, he asks, instead, whether the physical universe is the ultimate reality. And even if it were granted that Ultimate Mind just is and always was, he gives no reason, apart from revelation (which pre-assumes the presence it explains) for believing it has the goodness, omniscience, and purpose he assumes.

Did he really not understand the questions being asked?
Or, did he choose for strategic reasons not to respond?

Dawkins wants theists to acknowledge that religion does make claims about things that are legitimately part of science. If an immaterial mind may, in fact, cause miracles that do not follow natural laws, this shapes our view of what may be possible in the world. Ward feels this misses the point. And, since misguided questions seem irrelevant, he does not feel obligated to respond on Dawkins’ terms. Ward also recognizes that “If you are a materialist, then obviously the very idea of God, an immaterial conscious being, is nonsense” (145). So, if the possibility of God is ruled out from the start, no argument will be persuasive, and no response would therefore be worthwhile.

For believers (his main audience) Ward gives well-thought out ways of countering atheist questions. But, as he makes his case, he states clearly that serious consideration of some of his arguments requires prior acceptance of the premise they seek to defend - “that personal explanation is a proper and irreducible form of explanation and that the existence of an ultimate mind as the source of all reality is a coherent and plausible notion” (104). And he acknowledges that non-believers may find them unconvincing.

Ward points to some issues that atheist authors tend not to consider, such as the mystery of consciousness and the presence (in thoughts, feelings, and other realms) of non-material aspects of reality. He identifies limitations in materialistic views, and he makes a case that, without a sense of a divine (a focus for or spark toward Ideals), emotional life and cultures may be poorer. But, with his unwillingness or inability to respond to Dawkins’ challenges, this book stands as a strategic argument defending the theist view, and not a real engagement in debate.

Other than for those who began this book by agreeing with its premise, Ward falls short of his goal of showing that “there almost certainly is a God”. But, as he identifies some limitations in atheist views and describes perspectives that shape the theist position, he contributes ideas that can help to advance a debate that almost certainly will continue.