Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review: Why There Almost Certainly Is a God

To put it bluntly, Keith Ward’s book Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins shows how ignorant Richard Dawkins is, in the bestseller The God Delusion, when he moves away from his expertise in evolutionary science into the field of philosophy and theology.

The back cover of Professor Keith Ward’s book summarises his credentials:

[He] was formerly Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. He is a member of the Council of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy on the same day that Richard Dawkins was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

According to Wikipedia his areas of interest are ‘comparative theology and  the interplay between science and faith’ and has written in this area.  He is not a Christian fundamentalist and has even published a book, What the Bible Really Teaches: A Challenge for Fundamentalists,  in which, according to Wikipedia, he argued that

fundamentalists interpret the Bible in implausible ways and pick and choose which of its passages to emphasise in order to fit pre-existing beliefs. Ward argues that the Bible must be taken seriously, but not always literally and he does not agree with the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy,saying that it is not found in the Bible…

In the Preface of Why There Most Certainly Is a God Ward tells how his

… arrival in Oxford was heralded by a letter from Richard Dawkins to a public newspaper calling for [his] resignation, on the ground that there was no such subject as theology, and that [Ward] was a particularly stupid example of a theologian anyway.

Why did Dawkins write the letter? Because he had taken a joke by Ward seriously, thinking that it was offered as evidence for the Christmas story! Ward goes on to write:

From that moment, the gloves were off. Even though Dawkins lived and worked in a university with one of the largest and ablest theology faculties in Britain, he went on refusing to admit that there was any such subject as theology. Despite the fact that he and I had entirely friendly and rational personal contacts — as he did with Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, and the vicar of the University Church in Oxford, and the chaplain of his college — he went on proclaiming that all religious believers were stupid, deluded and dangerous.

Following this interesting background about Ward and his relationship to Dawkins, Ward launches into a specific critique of three chapters in The God Delusion — Chapters 2, 3 and 4. The critique of these chapters constitute three parts of Ward’s book and they provide a devastating response to Dawkins’ inadequate understanding of theology and philosophy.

In Part 1, Ward responds to Chapter Two of Dawkins’ book in which Dawkins discusses the so-called God Hypothesis which is defined by him as:

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

Ward accepts this hypothesis and then goes on to discuss two arguments that, in his view, makes the existence of God highly probable. These two arguments are 1) the irreducible existence of consciousness and 2) the irreducible nature of personal explanation. Ward explains how Dawkins’ commitment to a materialist perspective results in a reductionist philosophy that is unable to coherently synthesise the two types of explanation – the scientific and the personal. In other words, Dawkins refuses to acknowledge that some questions might need to be answered by using different types of explanations.

Ward then proceeds to tackle Chapter 4 of The  God Delusion. Ward superbly demonstrates the inadequacies of Dawkins’ ‘Boeing 747 Gambit’; discusses the nature of the new Intelligent Design arguments (that are quite different to the original arguments from design); and clarifies Dawkin’s superficial understanding of simplicity/complexity in reference to the nature of God. Ward also clearly explains the new questions and suggestions raised by recent studies in cosmology and the inadequacy of imaginative theories about multiple universes that are more unlikely to be true than the God hypothesis. In doing all this, Ward provides a wonderful argument around issues to do with the existence of consciousness and the intractable challenges it presents for a materialist view.

After providing substantive arguments for point of view, Ward spends some time in answering potential questions that may be raised in response to his arguments.

Ward provides and excellent discussion of Aquinas’s Five Ways or ‘proving’ the existence of God. Essentially, Dawkins understands both the purpose and content of these arguments.

In the penultimate chapter, Ward turns to an exploration of the personal explanation. This chapter includes personal and subjective evidences arising from a personal relationship with the divine. These are:

  1. visions and voices
  2. the sense of the infinite
  3. the path of self-transcendance
  4. the Christian experience of Christ and the Spirit

The material in this chapter is balanced but, because of its subjective nature, it is difficult to see how someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God would be persuaded. The prior arguments in the book, in my view, are very powerful and the personal experience arguments derive their persuasive power from the philosophy arguments in the previous chapters.

The final chapter brings the argument to a conclusion by discussing why there almost certainly is a God. There is an excellent discussion on the nature of certainty and probability which needs to be taken into account when deciding on the God hypothesis. He finishes with an account of what it would look like if a person believes in God for good reasons.

Why There Almost Certainly Is a God is a superb read. Ward writes with great clarity, logical thinking, and intellectual humility — all of which is a significant contrast to the dismissive and superficial style of Dawkins’ writing on this subject. What makes this book so significant is that Ward is an expert in philosophy — the territory into which Dawkins has deigned to enter without the necessary understanding and scholarship.

If you are looking for a book that deals with Dawkins’ approach to the God Hypothesis, then this one is highly recommended. For those who do not believe in God, Ward shows how belief is not a delusion or stupidity and is, in fact,  deeply intelligent and supported by very sophisticated philosophy. For those who do accept the God hypothesis, there will be a strengthening affirmation that there are significant philosophical and scientific grounds on which to base a faith in God.

— Steve Parker

Book Details

Ward, K. (2008). Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins: Lion. (Buy)

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