Friday, May 4, 2018

A Review of Professor Keith Ward's The Evidence for God: The Case for the Existence of the Spiritual Dimension

Buy it here.

Note: I am reading more of Professor Ward's works, as I mention near the end below. They are challenging but very instructive, and like the work I review below, extremely well-written and thought-out. When I feel confident that I can review them competently, I will.

Rating: ★★★★★

I'm pretty sure that had Keith Ward taught at the University of Northern Colorado when I was an undergraduate there in the 80s, I would have either majored in philosophy or double-majored in philosophy and mathematics, the latter of which I did major in and ended up with a Bachelor of Arts in. Ward, you might have guessed, is a philosopher, but is also a top-shelf writer and teacher. I took lots of philosophy classes in school, enough to (almost) earn me a minor, but I couldn't stomach the philosophy department and eventually gave up that pursuit.

I can say without hesitation that I have learned more from Evidence for God: The Case for the Existence of the Spiritual Dimension (Darton Longman + Todd, 2014) than perhaps from the entire sheaf of philosophy classes I took at UNC.

You might be thinking that I'm confusing or conflating philosophy with theology, and perhaps I am a little. As far as I remember, UNC didn't have a theology department. Philosophers, if what Ward says about them in another book, do not like being put in the same category as theologians. Apologetics apparently aren't capable of independent, insightful analysis or logic.

Ward, as both a theologian and a philosopher, takes a look in Evidence at, well, the evidence for God. He does so largely by showing that evidentialism, that is, the idea that anything that should be called evidence must be objective, publicly accessible, and quantifiable, is insufficient to provide a complete and working definition of evidence. If you say, for example, that you dreamt last night of sitting on the beach in the Bahamas, there is no objective or public evidence of that. But that doesn't mean you didn't dream that dream. There just isn't evidence of the sort evidentialists, reductionists, and materialists demand.

Professor Ward's criticism of evidentialism provides a brilliant takedown of Clifford's Rule, which states:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

The problem is, if this rule were valid, then no one would have sufficient cause to believe anything. It would require that people, in order to believe in anything, had to be experts on virtually everything, which isn't possible. Failing that, it would require sufficient evidence that those authorities deemed experts in any field are indeed experts, which also isn't possible. After all, where do you draw the line? How do you define "sufficient"? For that matter, how do you define "evidence" or even "experts"? How do you ensure agreement among all interested parties?

Ward uses a much broader, more reasonable, less restrictive, and more forgiving idea of what evidence entails, then uses that notion to take a look at spiritual values in art and beauty, one's personal experience, morality, science, philosophy, and religion, and claims that, taken separately or together, they provide ample evidence for those whose worldview is so oriented that there is indeed a spiritual reality underlying the physical one.

That's the rub right there, one he repeats frequently throughout the text. Since this evidence isn't necessarily objective, publicly accessible, or quantifiable, and is many times subjective, many people won't accept it as evidence at all. There will be disagreement and discord--and that's assuming that we're talking about reasonable disputants. Most of the human species, as has been my long and painful witness to bear, are not reasonable.

Ward takes on materialism and its exponents by showing that there is a striking amount of agreement between what quantum physicists, including renowned atheist and trenchant materialist Stephen Hawking, talk about when they break down what time, energy, matter, and space actually are (which no one truly knows), and what theologians and Idealist philosophers have conjectured for centuries. He quotes Fred Hoyle, noted atheist and world-class astrophysicist, who said: "I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with the regard to the consequences they produce inside the stars." The implication here is clear and cannot be missed, nor can materialists and atheists dress it up or tear Hoyle down, as commonly happens when one of their own opens his or her mouth a tad too wide.

Ward doesn't throw scripture at you in these pages, which only strengthens his arguments and analyses. He does look at faith traditions around the world, and he does approach the question of evidence for God with a strong dose of Idealism, both tacks of which are highly appropriate and compelling. Materialism, to be sure, has very strong arguments going for it. Our modern world, our technology, our medicine, our architecture ... all are strong bits of evidence, if you will, that much of what materialists hold dear--science, engineering, mathematics--holds true. Mathematics, at the core of all these disciplines, works. Much of what seems like clockwork stuff actually is (at the macro-level, at least), hence our ability to build and fly jet airplanes, for example, or come up with vaccines, or build bridges. The list, of course, is endless. But at the quantum level, distinctions quickly break down, as does any easily understandable take on matter. Physicists can't even agree that the time we experience is linear or "imaginary." Matter and space lose their separateness and distinctness into something that transcends both, and time as well, and has been called "the quantum foam." Probabilities start skewing way, way beyond what seems reasonable. The universe's constants, for example, if tweaked just a fraction of a fraction of a millionth of a fraction, would make life impossible anywhere in the cosmos.

Moreover, the universe appears to be intelligible and continuously emergent towards consciousness and value. The fact that mathematics explains so many physical processes, for example: why is that true? The fact that the human genetic code can be interpreted or flat-out thought of as a language, as instructions--why is that true? That fact that Mind seems to be at the very basis of all reality: why is that true? Materialists, facing what they call "the hard problem of consciousness," have no answers. Or at the very least, none that are cogent or lucid.

Ward finishes by writing a gem of a chapter on the role of reason. In this age of ever-louder echo chambers, fake news, propaganda, hatred and trolling, this chapter should be required reading by every adult on the planet. I'd like to quote one of the paragraphs in full.

It is not the case, then, that beliefs are only reasonable if they are based on overwhelmingly good empirical evidence (that is evidentialism). I have suggested five major rules of reason which can and should be used in most non-scientific areas of human life and experience. First, we should aim to clarify our most basic beliefs, ensure that they are consistent in themselves and with all other well-established knowledge, and work out their main implications. Ideally, all our beliefs should be consistent. Second, we should try to get as fair and sympathetic an account of the beliefs of others as we can. Our beliefs should be empathetic. Third, we should welcome free and informed criticism of all beliefs, including our own. Our beliefs should be critical. Fourth, we should try to ensure that our beliefs promote human well-being and avoid needless harm. Our beliefs should be morally fruitful. And fifth, we should be aware of the historical context of our beliefs, aim at as wide-ranging and comprehensive a range of understanding as possible, and recognize that our own beliefs will be provisional in many respects. Our beliefs should be comprehensive and sensitive to their historical origins and contexts, with the limitations and possibilities this implies.

[Bold text Professor Ward's]

I have read The Evidence for God five times now cover to cover. I have also begun buying his other works, and will review those, probably after I've read them five times each. One of the great evils of modern-day life is the shallowness found in such things like learning or reading. People can't be bothered to do either, it seems; and when they do both, it's always the condensed version and the "ten easy steps" method. And so nothing is really learned--not deeply, anyway. As a direct result, in my opinion, our democracy is under direct threat.

The Evidence for God has been worth every moment I've put into its study. It doesn't matter if you're an atheist or believer, this wonderful work will challenge and enlighten you.

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