A divine package deal

God, Chance and Necessity
October 11, 1996

A popular misconception remains that somehow or other science and religion are in mortal combat. This misapprehension is fostered by the media attention given to certain scientists who combine clear and elegant accounts of their discipline with denunciatory, and often rather ignorant, remarks about religion. There are of course a good number of scientists who readily combine religious belief with scientific practice, but our writings attract less attention. In between lies what I believe to be the majority of scientists who neither dismiss religion out of hand nor yet feel able to embrace any particular faith tradition, often fearing (wrongly in my view) that this would involve some kind of intellectual suicide. In actual fact, religion has its reasons just as science does, but they are of a somewhat different kind.

Into this fray there now enters the regius professor of divinity at Oxford, Keith Ward. He is a philosophical theologian rather than a scientist, but that does not disqualify him since at the heart of the case presented by writers such as Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins lies the slide from physics to metaphysics, seeking illegitimately to annex the authority of science to the antireligious pronouncements of the authors. When we are assured that the only residual significance to be found in the process of the world is genetic survival, we know that it is not his knowledge of genetics which has told Dawkins that this is so, since science as science has imposed upon itself the self-denying ordinance of eschewing issues of purposeful meaning altogether. (Incidentally, it is interesting that reductionists always tend to give a little extra value to their own level in the pyramid of science. An elementary particle physicist might consider genes to be just complex collections of quarks, gluons and electrons.) Ward presents a witty, clear and probing critique of the atheist reductionists. "Their treatment of religion shows no dispassionate analysis, but a virulent contempt which can only be termed as prejudice." Many fallacies lie at the heart of their presentations.

One such is the fallacy, identified long ago by A. N. Whitehead, of "misplaced concreteness", the error of mistaking a theory for the reality of which it furnishes an approximate description. This mistake leads Atkins to the monstrous implausibility of saying that "physical reality is mathematics and mathematics is physical reality". Another error is the pathetic fallacy of ascribing human emotions to nonhuman entities, egregiously exemplified by Dawkins's rhetorical use of the phrase "the selfish gene". A fallacy of Ward's own naming is that of "cosmic promiscuity", the claim that if the universe is big enough and if you wait long enough, anything can happen and so nothing, however fruitful it may seem, is surprising or significant. On the contrary, it would have been possible for the world to be caught up in a limited and repetitive loop of eternal returns. Abuse of language can also lead to error. A quantum vacuum is a structured and active medium and if our universe emerged from it that was certainly not out of "nothing" as theo- logians understand it.

Ward's counterattack on atheism is based on insisting on a generous and adequate understanding of reality and of our access to it. Science's approach to knowledge is not the procrustean bed on which all other searches for truth and understanding have to be made to lie. The power of predictability and testing which science possesses gives it its formidable authority in its own domain but it is not a rational necessity to insist on this particular kind of method once one moves outside that narrow realm of impersonal experience. Our knowledge of persons and of God is to be found in other ways. "God is not a tentative hypothesis which one should always be seeking to test to destruction by actively seeking for counter-evidence. That is rather like saying that a good marriage is best achieved by always seeking evidence of infidelity."

Reductionists exclude by mere assertion what should be welcomed as signs of the multilayered richness of reality. They seem heedless of the implausibilities involved in this narrow construal. To treat genes as the sole source of significance is "just like saying that the important goal of cooking is the production of recipes". The cakes themselves are unintended by-products of the recipes. An important clue to the world in which we live is the existence of beauty in it. To explain the mystery of music by appealing to its survival value "requires a very high standard of story-telling or myth-making ability". The conscious experience of perceiving a patch of pink cannot simply be reduced to the entirely different phenomenon of the activity of neural networks. In Ward's view, consciousness "is a mystery which biology can never solve, because it is not a biological mystery". With the dawning of consciousness, values and purposes emerged as a new dimension of reality.

Added to an adequate and even-handed account of the rich variety of our encounter with the world, there must be an appropriate apprehension of how to make sense of such fruitful diversity. Ward is committed to the principle of sufficient reason, the search for a total understanding of experience. He thinks that belief in the existence of God provides the best basis for achieving this goal. The alternative, proposed by David Hume in the 18th century, of starting with the brute fact of the physical world will not do, for it makes consciousness, purpose and value unintelligible "happy accidents" of a fundamentally material process. Belief in God the Creator ties together in a satisfying way the multilevelled character of our experience. The rational beauty that science discerns in the pattern of the physical world is indeed the perception of the rational will and mind of its Creator. Our experiences of beauty are made intelligible as a participation in the divine joy in the value of creation. Our ethical intuitions - for it is highly significant that the world is the arena of moral decision - are intuitions of the Creator's good and perfect will. There is also the further layer of the human experience of encounter with the transcendent and the sacred. Ward defends the validity of direct religious experience: "Belief in God is an immediate and natural interpretation of experience as communicating an underlying personal reality, which is like us in some fundamental respects." We are to understand this as indeed an encounter with the divine presence.

All explanation and understanding have to start from some unexplained ground on which the subsequent development of the argument can rest. For Ward, our value-laden world is most naturally understood as the expression of the will of a personal Agent. He subscribes to a modified form of St Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of the divine being that which no greater can be conceived: "God is the only reality which, in being supremely intelligible or comprehensible to itself, explains itself."

Perhaps the greatest difficulty faced by theistic belief is the problem of evil. Does a world of disease and disaster and human cruelty really look like the creation of an all-powerful and benevolent God? The last chapter of this book is devoted to a brief discussion of the issue of suffering. Ward rightly sees that science has something mildly helpful to say to theology in this area. The more we understand the physical world, the more it seems like a package deal. Its processes interlock in the patterns that they generate and they cannot be disentangled so as to retain the good and eliminate the bad. The same processes of cellular mutation which have driven the great history of evolution will also cause some cells to become cancerous. The presence of malignancy is not just a piece of divine incompetence or callousness; it is the necessary cost of a greater whole. No candid religious believer could claim that this insight eliminates the problem of evil but it is of some help in understanding it.

This is a lively and important book. Ward rightly says that "theism does not compete with science, but it does with materialism". Materialism is a contentious metaphysical position which is here subjected to fair and discerning criticism. Very often, in television programmes and the like, Richard Dawkins chooses to present the religious point of view to which he is opposed through showing clips of remarks made by simple-minded creationists and fundamentalists. That is as disingenuous as it would be to present science through clips of remarks made by cranky inventors of perpetual motion machines. The debate between theism and materialism is of the highest significance and Keith Ward has made a worthy contribution to it.

John Polkinghorne has just retired as president, Queens' College, Cambridge.

God, Chance and Necessity

Author - Keith Ward
ISBN - 1 85168 116 7
Publisher - Oneworld
Price - £9.99
Pages - 212

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