Keith Ward on God, Consciousness, Materialism and Reason

It seems that I lean more towards a religious-scientific materialism than Keith Ward does, and am willing to view consciousness as an emergent property. Be that as it may, this is still a stimulating and at times humorous lecture by Ward. I’m posting it to encourage discussion, and would be very interested to hear why you find his arguments persuasive or unpersuasive.

  • Anonymous

    is a transcript avialable?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Not that I'm aware of, but if someone finds one, please let us know!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    Great find! "If I stuck my head in the accelerator, I wouldn't know a Higg's Boson if I saw one!" I normally don't watch videos, since they're so much slower than text, but this one really entertaining.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14209118115977821617 Brian Small

    I think he did a great job of showing that many of the assertions of atheists are merely "faith" statements.

  • http://homebrewedchristianity.com tripp fuller

    i love keith ward! i have read a bunch of his books and generally agree with him. of course i have much stronger idealist leanings than materialist ones. more than that this dude knows how to own a lecture. he has tons of them online and his weird reading of Descartes is almost convincing.

  • James

    Consciousness is a not a big deal. It emerges in the order of evolution some time before fish. And in fish and us, it's obviously dependent upon brains. Not to say "qualia" aren't real enough, and Dennett too reductionist about them. Is to say no brain, poof, they go away.

  • skepticmatt

    Compelling? I would have settled for coherent. I’ll mention a few specific problems with his arguments.Mr. Ward seemed to say that not believing consciousness can exist outside the brain is a faith belief. That is a clever sidestep, but specious. Lacking belief in something is not a faith claim. Dawkins (and many others) do not believe in an extra-corporeal consciousness because no scientifically testable evidence for one has ever been presented. This is not to say that it is impossible, but only that without evidence we withhold belief.Bizarrely, he then goes on to say that it is possible that some consciousness-without-form may have existed before the physical world. First of all, there is not one shred of evidence to suggest that there ever was a non-physical world or a world without matter; and none to suggest consciousness could have existed in such a state. Is it possible? Sure. But other than liking the idea, there is no possible reason to believe it.Mr. Ward also says that to a materialist, consciousness plays no part in what people do. That is patently absurd, and unless Mr. Ward is unforgivably ignorant of his topic, a blatant lie. To a materialist, consciousness is comprised entirely of chemical reactions in the brain, yes; but it does exist and informs actions and decisions. Materialists simply do not believe that human consciousness exists without physical form.He then says that believing science will one day be able to understand consciousness is a faith. It isn’t. It is an extrapolation based upon the massive progress that has already been made in the field of neuroscience. He then says that all materialists have faith, apparently because in his mind a materialist must believe that everything is not only explainable by science, but that it will be explained by science, and that that belief is faith. Bullshit. First of all, not all materialists thing that everything can or will be explained by science, and second, even those that do believe have reasons (the progress already made and being made) for believing it.It was at this point (27 min) that I could no longer tolerate his outright lies. I may try again later, but this whiny insistence that atheists or materialists have faith or dogma is so obviously false to anyone who knows anything about either position, that it is hard to credit anything the man says with truth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01825630853478631690 Chris

    "Lacking belief in something is not a faith claim. Dawkins (and many others) do not believe in an extra-corporeal consciousness because no scientifically testable evidence for one has ever been presented."This is true, however Dawkins and others like him don't simply lack belief in God, they claim that there probably is no God and everything is just material. Whenever you make metaphysical claims such as these you are making faith statements. We don't know if everything is just material, just ask physicists!!"He then says that believing science will one day be able to understand consciousness is a faith. It isn’t. It is an extrapolation based upon the massive progress that has already been made in the field of neuroscience."It is a faith statement because science has not answered all questions yet. Just because there has been massive progress doesn't mean that it can answer everything, time will tell. A faithless statement would be, we don't have all the answers but we are working on it!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    @skepticmatt – In the specific sections you mention, he was using some very common theist arguments:1) Theism, and indeed most philosophers throughout human history, posit the existence of a "necessary being". That's a factual claim made by Keith Ward, which is easy to verify. You clearly find the idea of a "necessary being" absurd, but just asserting absurdity is not much of an argument. Dawkins isn't a philosopher, and neither are you. Keith Ward is a philosopher.2) To a strict materialist, thoughts are determined by physical causes, so it's meaningless to talk about subjects or intentions. He used the word "intention" multiple times, which is a code word for a whole class of arguments about the relation of materialism to intentionality. The fact that you didn't pick up on that cue suggests that you're not really familiar with the discussions about materialism and intentionality. If you were, you would know that it's not so simple to rebut as you seem to think. Only Dennett even tries, and he himself admits that he has to presuppose idealism to hope to get from materialism to intentionality.3) Materialism is a dogmatic belief that there is absolutely nothing active in the universe which cannot be reduced to physical causes. If you are agnostic about the possibility that some things might not be reducible to physical causes, then you are, by definition, not a materialist. There is nothing controversial about this. You can't be open minded about the potential for unreducible phenomena and still call yourself a materialist."even those that do believe have reasons"I think you're confusing "faith" with "blind irrational belief". Nobody ever said that the materialists don't have reasons or rationalizations for their faith. But it is a dogmatic faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    I had several problems on first hearing. First, of course, Ward avoids the hard questions by arbitrarily ruling them to be non-questions, which is a merely form of begging the question.Second, he seems locked into a frequentist notion of probability, when a more appropriate approach is Bayesian. There one can make relative probability statements–prior to posterior–without the frequentist-based problem Ward invokes.Third, in my view he misrepresents Dawkins argument about the necessity of a creator god being more complex than the created universe. My understanding is that Ward agrees with Dawkins that the purported creator god had both the cognitive capacity to represent not only the actual universe but also a sheaf of alternatives. That cognitive ("conscious") representation is a mapping of all those hypothetical universes in some kind of consciousness–it represents them and thus has the same level of complexity as all those universes would have if they were instantiated. In addition, that creator god has the cognitive capacity to choose among all those alternatives it has represented in its "mind" and has the necessary powers to somehow manufacture the chosen universe in matter and energy. Hence, Dawkins concludes, that creator is more complex, and therefore more improbable, than any one of the potential universes.How does Ward handle that problem? He defines it out of existence!It also seems simply incoherent to me to claim that this creator/consciousness does/did not exist in time and space, and therefore did "nothing" before the Big Bang, but while doing "nothing" simultaneously somehow visualized all those potential universes, picked one (why just one?) from among them, and somehow instantiated that one (or many) in matter and energy. And that's an explanation? Fooled the hell outta me.In all, an extended exercise in begging the question (where 'begging the question' has its original meaning, not the current usage as a bastardized synonym for 'raising the question.'

  • skepticmatt

    Perhaps I should have given the definition of faith that I was using and where it came from. I was using the christian definition (Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.)That may be the source of our discrepancies, Chris and JS. allen. That being said, Chris, I entirely agree that a more correct statement should be (as you said) “we don't have all the answers but we are working on it!” Well put.JS allen. I was not attempting to rebut Mr. Ward’s philosophical argument. I was merely pointing out that he is a disingenuous liar. And yes, I did the make the mistake of using the christian definition of faith in regard to the statements you referenced. My apologies and thank you for the clarification. I must correct you on your 3rd point, however and point out that it is not only possible, but common to be an agnostic and skeptical materialist –e.g. to hold the position of materialism until evidence to the contrary presents itself. If you think otherwise than you either have never met or read the works of an intelligent materialist, or you yourself are a dogmatic person of faith and cannot conceive of people who are not.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Ward's presentation was interesting, but I'm very skeptical of disembodied consciousness. The consciousness you experience isn't found somewhere but it is the product of an interaction of physical parts. I presume to be conscious your conscious of something. Your memories, thoughts, sensory inputs, all require material things. If God is considering all the possible states of the universe with what is he processing this information with? where does he store the memory? I don't think a god could be conscious before creation, its consciousness would be a thing that would need to exist in some sort of space/time. Also what would be the parameters of God's determining possibility? If God is bound by any sort of logic then God would be an inferior being to these concepts, they, not God, would be the supreme being. if God is not bound by logic then there is no necessary aspect to creation and everything is God's choice so he is responsible for all the potential misery of the universe. Volcanoes, pain, viruses, entropy, are not necessary but something God would have made for some arbitrary reason. I don't think God's consciousness preceded his material existence anymore than my consciousness preceded my physical existence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    @skepticmatt I was not attempting to rebut Mr. Ward’s philosophical argument. I was merely pointing out that he is a disingenuous liar.OK, sorry I misunderstood. Can you elaborate on the part about him lying? What, specifically, did he say about this issue that is false? I understood him to be saying that the vast majority of atheist philosophers do not consider Dawkins argument about the complexity of a "necessary being" to be valid. I've read a tremendous amount on the topic, and Ward seemed to be saying something that is factual and non-controversial. The rebuttal of the Dawkinites to this observation is typically to say that philosophy is useless, not to challenge the veracity of the observation.e.g. to hold the position of materialism until evidence to the contrary presents itself. Can you give some examples of the sort of evidence that a materialist would accept that would refute materialism? How would an "agnostic materialist" go about testing the hypothesis of materialism?In addition, what should we think of a theist who says, "Of course I'm open minded! If God tells me that he doesn't exist, I'll believe him!"If you think otherwise than you either have never met or read the works of an intelligent materialistTo the contrary, I have both met and read many intelligent materialists. I'm not aware of any who deny the fact that materialism is a faith commitment of the sort we're discussing here. Even Dawkins admits that materialism, like theism, is unfalsifiable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09708981993708509662 Robert Oerter

    I'm no fan of Dawkins's arguments (what little I have heard of them), but Ward is a complete disaster. In addition to what Matt said already (times and quotations are approximate):17:00 "Most quantum physicists hold that there is consciousness that precedes the universe." Either Ward only knows one quantum physicists, or he is lying. As a quantum physicist myself, I can state that this statement is an outright absurdity.38:00 "Dennett is lying when he says most philosphers are materialists." A recent survey of philosophers by PhilPapers had 56% accepting "physicalism." Link:http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.plSo Ward is ignorant, or is lying.41:30 "You can't give a physical explanation of something that is not in space and time." Quantum gravity theories attempt to deduce space and time from some underlying structure. So this claim may eventually be proven false.Ward goes on to say that you can't ask "What caused God?" because "cause" only applies to things that happen in space and time. But by his own argument, you can't ask "What caused the big bang?" because the big bang isn't something that happened in space and time.49:00 "God is simple because he is pure consciousness and not made up of bits."This is begging the question: we do not know of any instance of a conscious being that is not made up of bits. So saying God is not made of bits is assuming the contrary to what Dawkins is arguing – taking a position on faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09708981993708509662 Robert Oerter

    Oh, yeah, one more right near the end: Ward says you can't say God is improbable because you have nothing to compare to determine the probability. He's right about this.But the same argument applies to the universe: we don't have other universes to compare. So we have no way to determine whether our universe is improbable or probable. So the argument from "fine tuning" fails.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07506760065211015603 CJO

    Only Dennett even tries, and he himself admits that he has to presuppose idealism to hope to get from materialism to intentionality.Where does Dennett admit this? Or, alternatively, what definition of "idealism" are we talking about?I'm confused. "Idealism" is usually used in a sense that opposes Materialism, and Dennett is, if anything, a materialist. And the whole point of his Freedom Evolves is an effort toward a materialist account of intentionality. It's been a while since I read it, but I don't recall him admitting any prior commitment to idealism, again, unless you're using that term in a way I don't understand.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    @CJO – I meant to say "intentionality". This is from his essay, "True Believers: The Intentional Stance and Why it Works". Dennett believes that you cannot explain the physical stance without resorting to the intentional stance (which is kind of obvious). As a philosopher, I think Dennett comes closest to addressing the problems with materialism, and cannot be called a strict materialist. I have some sympathy for his argument about "mother nature" being the "original intentionality", although there are certainly detractors.The eliminativists (i.e. strict materialists) have fallen out of favor, and materialism in philosophy seems to be unpopular these days. As I mentioned before, I most often see strict materialists these days responding to the pilosophers' critiques by claiming that philosophy is stupid. It's pretty difficult to argue with the philosophers on their own terms.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    @Robert OerterGood call on the comment about his saying "quantum physicists are the cleverest people I know", and then saying they believe in a "consciousness" that created the universe. I couldn't figure out what he meant; is there even a single quantum physicist that has said anything remotely like this?Also agree that his rebuttal of the "improbability" argument cuts both ways, and rebuts "fine tuning". Has Ward actually ever used the "fine tuning" argument, or are you just preemptively rebutting arguments that others might make? "Fine tuning" seems like a very poor argument to me, and can be rebutted in other ways.Ward goes on to say that you can't ask "What caused God?" because "cause" only applies to things that happen in space and time. But by his own argument, you can't ask "What caused the big bang?" because the big bang isn't something that happened in space and time.This is true. Has Ward ever used the "what caused the Big Bang" question to rebut materialism, or are you again preemptively rebuffing arguments that others might make?A recent survey of philosophers by PhilPapers had 56% accepting "physicalism." Link:http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.plIt sounded to me like Ward was taking pains to avoid confusing materialism (he kept saying "hard" or "hardcore" or something like that) with physicalism for his lay audience. Philosophy is his area of expertise, and modern philosophy makes a distinction between physicalism and materialism. In fact, "physicalism" has emerged as a term because materialism has taken on negative connotations.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09708981993708509662 Robert Oerter

    @JS Allen:Re quantum mechanics (QM): I suspect he is thinking of interpretations of QM that assert that consciousness is needed to collapse the wave function. D'Espagnat – the only physicist Ward mentions – may be one of these, I don't know. Then one could argue, "QM describes the origin of the universe, and consciousness is a necessary part of QM, so consciousness is needed to explain the origin of the universe." This is pure guess on my part, though.Re fine tuning: As I understand it, Dawkins was using his "God is just as improbable as the universe" argument as a rebuttal to some kind of fine tuning argument that says, "The universe is improbable unless God exists." I haven't read Dawkins so correct me if I'm wrong.Re "What caused the Big Bang?": See his discussion around 41:30-45:00. He argues that God provides a personal explanation for the beginning of the universe, and therefore Dawkins is wrong to say that God adds nothing in terms of explanation.Re physicalism and materialism: According to Wikipedia, "Physicalism is a philosophical position holding that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties; that is, that there are no kinds of things other than physical things."This sounds like the position Ward is arguing against. Wiki also says, "Physicalism is also called "materialism"…." I can't tell the difference between the two. I would be grateful for any help you can provide. But of the options on the survey for the nature of Mind, physicalism seems to be closest to materialism, and it is clearly the majority opinion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    @Robert Oerter -Ward was apparently responding to Dawkins's "The God Delusion: Why there almost certainly is no God", and in that portion of the presentation,, was probably referring to Chapter 4. The summary of Chapter 4 of "The God Delusion" is here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_Boeing_747_gambitDawkins was not responding to the fine-tuning argument; he was challenging the argument from design and the argument from complexity. The fine-tuning argument is easy enough to challenge, though, so perhaps Dawkins felt it was unnecessary.Regarding materialism vs. physicalism, Wikipedia's page on Materialism says, "As a theory, materialism is a form of physicalism and belongs to the class of monist ontology". So materialism is a subset.In the same article, in the section titled "Defining Matter", there is a discussion of why "materialism" as a subset of physicalism has fallen out of favor http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Materialism#Defining_matter"Some philosophers feel that these dichotomies necessitate a switch from materialism to physicalism. Others use materialism and physicalism interchangeably."In the section after that, the article explains that "Philosopher Mary Midgley[25], among others [26][27][28][29], argues that materialism is a self-refuting idea, at least in its eliminative form."Basically, the word "materialism" denotes strict materialist reductionism, which is probably self-refuting. Not many philosophers have the stomach to stick with something that is open to ridicule, so it seems like the softer "physicalism" is in vogue. Of course, physicalism still is not dualism or idealism, but it's getting harder to see how it avoids sliding toward one or the other.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I've often thought that the quantum argument would work better as an argument against the existence of God. I've long expected someone to say that observation by a sentient being collapses the wave function, and since prior to humans observing there seem to be uncollapsed wave functions, therefore there are no other sentient observers, and thus no sentient omniscient divine observers.Of course, one can argue that a divine observer doesn't affect the wave form and thereby perhaps undermine this argument, but presumably it would also undermine a quantum argument for the existence of God at the same time.At any rate, I'm delighted that Ward's video is stimulating interesting discussion!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07506760065211015603 CJO

    Not many philosophers have the stomach to stick with something that is open to ridiculeI thought that was their job…Humor aside, ridicule, on what grounds? Neuroscientists don't seem to be worried about it, and there's no solid evidence whatsoever that nonmaterial entities or forces are needed to explain anything, so what are philosophers so scared of?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    Humor aside, ridicule, on what grounds? Ridicule for holding to something that is widely seen to be self-refuting. Professional philosophers would prefer to have arguments that are difficult to understand, refute, or falsify. It's a matter of job security. :-) Neuroscientists don't seem to be worried about it, It's not a neuroscientist's job to explain how intentionality can derive from the physical, which is why they aren't worried about it. A neurologist could believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and still have job security, since his belief about materialism's relationship to mind is irrelevant to his job.and there's no solid evidence whatsoever that nonmaterial entities or forces are needed to explain anything, That's a bold statement. Even the poster boy of materialism, Daniel Dennet, acknowledges that intentionality is required to explain materialism. If there is "no solid evidence whatsoever that nonmaterial entities or forces are needed to explain anything", what exactly do we use to "explain anything"? Dirt? Without intentionality, it is, by definition, impossible to explain anything. You don't need philosophy to understand that; it's common sense.(And that's ignoring the tautological nature of the statement "there is no solid evidence to refute materialism". Again, one might as well say, "God never said He didn't exist")

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07506760065211015603 CJO

    Well, if you define intentionality as necessarily non-material, you're just begging the question. Why can't intentionality be an emergent property of certain kinds of material systems that encompass dynamic representations of their environments and their own place within them?And I'm not sure you did anything but paraphrase Dennett saying something to the effect that you need the intentional stance to make sense of what can be described but not explained at the level of the physical stance, which I think you're misinterpreting. He's not making a statement about the ontology of intentionality, he's saying that "why" questions aren't answerable from the physical stance. He's talking about levels of description and what constitutes "explanation".My point about neuroscientists was just to say that they continue to make inroads into the material, neurological bases of perception, cognition and awareness, blithely unaware that their failure to take into account anything immaterial fatally dooms the project.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    Why can't intentionality be an emergent property of certain kinds of material systems that encompass dynamic representations of their environments and their own place within them?I don't know that it can't. It sure doesn't seem that hard to model a scenario where intentionality emerges from the physical; and I already said that I'm somewhat sympathetic to Dennett's point about "mother nature" being our higher-order intentionality.What we were talking about is your assertion that there is "no evidence that anything beyond material is needed to explain anything". To the contrary, we have zero evidence that the physical can explain anything about intentionality or anything else above it. We have a hope that the material will one day be able to explain these things, but not a shred of evidence (yet).We don't know whether or not intentionality will some day have a plausible material explanation. But in the meantime, we know that intentionality is capable of explaining many higher-order things, while materialism is not. And yes, these are distinct "stances". You are in either one or the other, regardless of which direction any eventual supervenience relation takes.blithely unaware that their failure to take into account anything immaterial fatally dooms the project.Who said that neuroscience was doomed by materialism's failure as a philosophy? Neuroscience will continue to make progress, no doubt. It seems like you're trying to change the subject or set up a straw man.We've known that there are material bases of cognition for at least 5,000 years.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X