Review of More Than Matter by Keith Ward

Review of More Than Matter by Keith Ward May 12, 2012

Keith Ward is an author for whom I have a great appreciation. His book What the Bible Really Teaches was and is enormously important to me in helping me become comfortable in my identity as a Liberal Christian. I am thus always eager to read his latest book. But I admit to feeling some trepidation at the prospect of reading the copy of More Than Matter?: Is There More to Life Than Molecules? which Eerdmans, the publisher, kindly sent to me, and for which I am very grateful. The questions posed in the title, and the blurb and publicity material, gave me the impression that Ward might be seeking to defend the traditional view of an immaterial soul as a separate substance from the material body, a position that I have come to find untenable, like most people who’ve studied either what neuroscience tells us or the development in views on this matter within the Biblical literature, if not both. Would I have to have the disappointing experience of finding myself parting company with an author whom I admire and whose other writings I value?

As it turns out, my initial impression was wrong. Ward describes a good philosophy book as one which you believe for at least as long as you are reading it, and perhaps for a little while after finishing it (p.13). Having finished reading Ward’s book, I think that it is leading me to recategorize my worldview and my philosophical stance in important ways, which involve not a mere relabeling of what I already thought but a reconfiguration in important ways.

Ward interacts with a number of philosophers throughout the book, but his main conversation partner is Gilbert Ryle, who was Ward’s professor and adviser at Oxford. Ryle is less well known then Wittgenstein but had a similar approach to philosophy. He emphatically argued against Descartes and the idea that there is a “ghost in the machine.” Ward himself does not introduce a ghost, but nonetheless seeks to rehabilitate Descartes. (If there is something I would have liked to see more of in the book, it is actual discussion of Descartes’ own views in his own words, to clarify whether and to what extent they are in fact open to being understood in the manner Ward proposes).

After outlining a variety of views ranging from materialism through non-reductive physicalism to idealism, Ward situates himself towards the latter end of the spectrum, in a form of idealism which can also be accurately categorized as a form of monism and as a form of dualism. It could be called “dual aspect idealism” (p.103). Ward’s argument is not that there is a spiritual substance, but that consciousness is the “inner aspect” of matter, especially in particular configurations of matter (drawing here on process philosophy). And so it is monistic in the sense that he does not view consciousness as rooted in a separate substance which belongs to or resides in a separate world from matter. But it is dualistic inasmuch as consciousness and qualia are not reducible to material entities or describable in material terms, but have a genuine existence. And so, while many of us may have thought along similar lines and considered ourselves non-reductive physicalists, Ward argues that the viewpoint he advocates should not be considered “physicalism” at all in the sense that there is no way to describe thoughts, feelings, or perceptions in physical terms.

Ward argues the case powerfully and, in my view (at least for the moment) persuasively. The central point of his case is that the experience of seeing red (literally, but also metaphorically) is not reducible to any sort of physical description – whether wavelengths of light or firing of neural synapses. Enjoying the beauty of a symphony is a different sort of thing than any description of the frequencies of vibrations. Consciousness is its own sort of thing, it is real, and it adds properties to the universe, such as values and meanings. Far from being things that ought to be disputed based on scientific analyses, consciousness and its properties are in fact the things that we can be most certain of, because we experience them most directly. And so inasmuch as one understands his talk about the soul not as a spiritual “substance” but in terms of consciousness and spiritual “properties” not reducible to (even if inseparable from) physical things, Descartes can indeed be defended and rehabilitated.

Ward fills his book with humor (most of the time it is genuinely entertaining), such as when he says that “The extreme materialist view that consciousness is an illusion can only be consistently held by philosophers who are not conscious” (p. 34). And he puts things provocatively when he adopts older terminology to new uses – as for instance when he talks about whatever preceded the existence of the natural spacetime we inhabit – whether a set of quantum laws that allowed a universe to come into being, or something else – as being a “supernatural” reality – again, not in the sense that it is a giant tinkering person without a body, but in the sense that it transcends, precedes, is distinct from, and brings about the existence of the “natural.” Ward’s book seeks to rehabilitate the “soul” and idealism, but also the broader philosophical pursuit of metaphysics itself. He does so in a manner that embraces the insights of the natural sciences, while also explaining why the success of science should not lead to materialism. As he puts it towards the end of the book, “the exclusion of the personal from the realm of natural science does not exclude it from reality” (p.203).

The book also touches on matters of value and morality, and science fiction gets several mentions. The book ends by considering the relationship of idealist philosophy to religion.

Ward’s book is a fantastic and much-needed defense of the appropriateness of metaphysics and the need to do justice to the breadth and depth of our experienced reality in a non-reductionistic manner. Materialism ultimately fails to do justice to the fact that that which we are most certain of, that which we perceive directly, is perception itself and consciousness itself. Hopefully Ward’s book will stimulate discussions that will move intellectuals in a range of fields – philosophy, the natural sciences, theology, and various others – to have stimulating conversations around the need to find ways of thinking about the nature of reality and the nature of persons in ways that do justice to all that we know and experience ourselves to be. For as Ward himself puts it, “I think there is no more important question in the whole of philosophy and in the whole of life than that of what a person really is” (p.63). I heartily and whole-heartedly recommend this book.

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  • I must admit I bought Ward’s book, but it has remained unread on a shelf in my bookcase. Your review though has prompted me to take it out and begin reading.

    • Erlend, if you do read it, I will be interested to know what you think of it. Please do come back and leave another comment once you do!

  • At a less scholarly level: 

    “There are at least two kinds of reality: a ‘real world’ of
    material, physical objects and a ‘real world’ of invisible, interior personal
    experiences that happen somewhere (and somehow) in the mind. Both are real, but
    differently. The view of science for the past 300-plus years—the view held
    ferociously from the nineteenth century until now—has been that only material
    reality is ‘real’ reality. Anything that is not physical or quantifiable,
    according to this way of thinking, is dismissed as illusion or less believable
    than a solid object or numerical quantity. To say’ ‘It’s all in your mind’
    means that the it is not only unreal but unimportant.


    “Although this view makes sense when dealing with science and
    mathematics, it is obviously nonsense when dealing with the rest of life. Is
    loving someone less real than breaking your thumb with a rock? Is the political
    passion that starts a war less real than the broken buildings of a bombed city?
    Brain scans taken during deep prayer and meditation show activity in certain
    parts of the brain and demonstrate that something is happening; but the scans
    are neither prayer nor meditation any more than a book of photos is a trip to
    Niagara Falls. Consciousness and how it produces experience remain great


    “A near-death experience or deathbed vision is a real
    experiential event in the life of the individual who has it. Does its memory
    point to a ‘real’ reality of the material world? Could it be photographed? Any
    possible photos would be only of neural activity, not of the experience itself.
    There is no known geographical locality that matches what is described in these
    events. On the other hand, these kinds of experiences have real consequences,
    some of which may be physical, that are real enough to disrupt and reshape
    human lives. They influence whether a person is considered to have ‘a good
    death.’ They belong to a category of events that have been known and respected
    around the world through time.


    “A sophisticated young blogger makes some useful observations
    about cultures other than the Western:


    “The vast majority of human beings alive today, as well as
    those who have lived throughout history, never had a problem believing in
    supernatural activity that regularly affected their lives. Consensus never
    proves truth, but it should make us aware of our inevitable bias.


    “Most cultures do not operate with strict codes denoting the
    “physical” and “metaphysical” realms. For the Pentecostal Christian communities
    in the bush in Africa, the spiritualist aboriginal cultures in the Pacific
    islands, and the Shamanistic nature religions in the remote mountains of South
    America, humans and spirits walk the same ground and live life side by side in
    a way a westerner cannot fully grasp. Seemingly miraculous healings/exorcisms/
    demon sightings can and do occur—any cultural anthropologist will tell you
    this. But you will find alongside the “spiritual” explanation a “scientific”
    one that accounts for the same phenomena through psychology, deceit, or nature.
    Acknowledging these other explanations should not force us to choose either
    side. It should simply make us wary when determining what can and cannot exist
    based solely off of what we can and cannot observe in the material realm.
    ( ”

    From Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences 

  • smijer

    Had me going there until the qualia thing came up. There are a lot of problems (a lot) with Dreher’s Good and Real, but I don’t think you can read it and understand it and remain strongly convinced that qualia are irreducible. 

    • Thanks for the suggestion. Can you give more bibliographical information so that I can track the piece down? 

      I don’t see having read Ward how one can reduce a property of experience to a physical description, even a physical description of the thing experienced or the one experiencing. Could you perhaps say more about what has persuaded you otherwise?

      • smijer

        It is a book – and I misspelled Gary Drescher’s name – so sorry about that: 

        He argues from the neurological basis for conscious experience to a very narow notion of what experience is. 

        I’ve not fully accepted his viewpoint on the nature of conscious thought, memory, etc… , but it does seem clear to me that consciousness is something that could be modeled on a sufficiently powerful computer, and that anything that can be replicated through simulation is in that sense reducible. 

        Of course, what we have in mind when we say “reducible” could be different. I use the term (I believe) in the same way that Eliezer Yudkowsky uses it here:

        • I don’t think Ward would disagree about the computer. His point is not that consciousness and thought are not rooted in physical systems. His point is that when consciousness emerges it adds something genuinely new. If we take the “words” that you are now reading, any analysis of them in terms of pixels on a screen or even their shapes when on paper would not be adequate. The words convey meaning, as communication between conscious beings. It is not as though the words are not composed of letters which are made of pixels or ink or sound. But the presence of consciousness introduces meaning. It is something genuinely real and new and which cannot be adequately described in terms of pixels or shapes or any of that sort of stuff. I think (at the moment, at least) that Ward is onto something.

          • smijer

            His point is not that consciousness and thought are not rooted in physical systems. His point is that when consciousness emerges it adds something genuinely new.

            I fear I’ll be taken for a quibbler… but consciousness and thought are not “rooted in” physical systems. They are physical systems. Just as an airplane isn’t something non-physical with wings “rooted in” something physical (like quarks) that is wingless. I’m not sure if Ward and I truly disagree or not – yes, when consciousness emerges it adds something genuinely new. But, I quote another essay, “Taken literally, that description fits every phenomenon in our universe above the level of individual quarks, which is part of the problem.” (  Yes, with a little recursion, this new thing that emerges does find “meaning” in itself and in its like. But that is as much a map-level recognition as it is a territory-level fact. 

            I would like to read Ward’s book and see if there is truly a fundamental difference, but I took it that he holds “qualia” as irreducible phenomena in the real world, which seems to me to be very simply a confusion between the map and the territory. 

  • Robert

    I strongly recommend Irreducible Mind, which I think is the premier book to date on evidence for the non-reducibility of mind. It’s quite a tome, but it’s one of those books that stays with you for keeps. Also, Science and the Near-Death Experience by Chris Carter, is an excellent short treatment of the subject.

  • I’ll try to pick up Ward’s book later this summer; I’m certainly interested in explorations  of mind as an emergent property of our physical selves.

    But is it really “metaphysical” in the sense that most people mean “metaphysical”?

    I can’t help but feel that religious voices are creating a nonexistent boogie-man: the materialist – the reductionist – that thick-headed advocate of scientism who will never have any appreciation for love, or kindness, or moral value.

    I don’t know anyone of that description! The most strident atheists, I know – dedicated to a scientific view of the world, determined to rid our political sphere of supernatural thinking – would never argue that a mind is not more than the sum of its parts. Who doesn’t value music, love, art, reason, morality that seeks mutual benefit (not theocratic control).

    Over and over again, I hear religious voices trying to tell atheists what they think – “the logical end of your atheistic philosophy is nihilism!” I keep reading blogs and essays decrying “scientism”! Who embraces “scientism”? Nobody! It’s a pejorative term, for a fictional belief system held by a fictional reductionist whose value system sees all of life as meaningless, feelingless Descartian automota. 

    Are there materialists? Sure – I am certainly one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the emergent experiences of my own mind and others. I don’t pretend that scientific processes will be able to explain my love of jazz within my lifetime (not that neuroscientists shouldn’t be looking!). If seeing mystery in the universe means recognizing that we can never answer all the questions of the universe – then fine – I’ll grant mystery. But if seeing mystery means we begin subscribing to superstitious answers to questions, with no more explanatory power than than Halloween – then, no thank you – I’ll jettison the word.

    You want to see a real reductionist at work? Read William Lane Craig attempt to remove animals from the purview of theodicy by arguing that animals don’t really experience suffering. The only true reductionists I know are religious reductionists.

    I guess I’m getting a little tired of seeing the growing word battles against scientism and reductionism. Isn’t the easiest enemy to fight,the one that doesn’t exist and can’t argue back?

    • Hi Beau. I’d suggest hanging around some of the science blogs such as Jerry Coyne’s. The sort of reductionism/materialism that leads to a denial of free will and other aspects of conscious experience is amply attested there. It may not be that common but I don’t think it is a caricature. Perhaps such folks, as with religious fundamentalists, are a relatively small group that gives a much more widespread outlook a bad name?

      • I do hang around Coyne’s blog. Yes, he denies free will. He also loves LOLcats, Earl Scruggs music, and marshmallow peeps. The denial of free will is not a denial of the complexity and value of the human mind. As Coyne said in his recent “Chronicle” piece on free will:

        “So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely? Well, nihilism is not an option: We humans are so constituted, through evolution or otherwise, to believe that we can choose. What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others. That realization shouldn’t seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.”

        You may not like his denial of “moral responsibility”, but the idea does lend itself to a much healthier approach to our criminal justice system. Rather than basing sentences on perceived desert or (though we rarely admit it) vengeance, how about basing it on deterrence and rehabilitation?

        Coyne certainly continues to live within a framework of existence in which he “makes decisions”, and he admits this. It is at the philosophical/religious level where Coyne thinks that free will steers us toward notions like God, retribution, the ‘wages of sin’ and hell; not to mention the most popular Christian “solution” to theodicy. 

        Besides, haven’t you seen all the cute little kitten’s on Jerry Coyne’s site? If Jerry Coyne is the face of “scientism” or “reductionism”, then what on earth are we afraid of?

        • Well, I am not afraid of Coyne and appreciate much that he has to say, including about the cuteness of cats.

          BTW, Ward has a brilliant interpretation of Libet’s experiment on p.129, which is a study that is often appealed to as evidence against free will.

          • Yes, though I tell myself that I keep revisiting your site and Coyne’s for the intellectual content, I have to admit that Doctor Who and kittens are a major draw.

    • spinkham

      For the premier book on scientism, see “The Atheists Guide to Reality”.

      He embraces nihilism, at least sort of.  He still advocates for love, kindness, and moral value.  It’s a fascinating book whether you agree with it or not.

      One of the more mind blowing assertions is that from everything we can test, consciousness is a rear view mirror of what has already been decided, not the decider itself.  Whatever the “I” is seems to hear or see our thoughts after our brains produce them.  His subtle reframing/rewording of the “epiphenomenalism” view was enough to make me think quite a bit harder about the issue.

      The book is full of such moments, and though I give more weight to the emergence view than he does, I agree with a lot of what he has to say.

  • I found this quote hilariously true:

    a good philosophy book as one which you believe for at least as long as you are reading it, and perhaps for a little while after finishing it (p.13)

    Further, I’d add that a good book makes you feel like you understand something when you really don’t!  And it appears Wards book may do that.

    I read your essay with very high expectations after you said:

    I think that it is leading me to recategorize my worldview and my philosophical stance in important ways, which involve not a mere relabeling of what I already thought but a reconfiguration in important ways.

    But I am disappointed — first because you didn’t tell us how that happened. And second, as other commentors have mentioned, what I feel are some obvious devastating weak points of Ward’s book:

    (1) Misrepresentation of materialism and reductionism: “religious voices are creating a nonexistent boogie-man” (Beau – whose example of Craig is brilliant)

    (2) Confusion of describing how experiences happen vs having an experience — eg: watch a train blur past you as you stand near the tracks smelling the smoke and hearing its whistle rise and fall.

    This all appears as a mere battle over language — like so much of Liberal Christianity too.

    You said:

    Ward argues the case powerfully and, in my view (at least for the moment) persuasively.

    I would contend that this book may easily deceive those who want to remain comfortable embracing a few words/expressions and to reject others.  It is a battle of terms, not substance.  As you said, “he adopts older terminology to new uses”.  This is a common ploy of those that want to hang on to treasured ideas which have been largely gutted.

    As Beau beautifully tells us in his comment, experience of something is certainly far different than the description of the mechanism of an experience — all of us know that — it is not a heavy thought, yet Ward makes a whole book to repeat that?

    Describe a car manufacturing, its mechanics, the chemistry of gasoline and then watch “the emergence” of motion and traffic. Traffic is not “its own sort of thing”, Traffic is not “the inner aspect” of cars, and to declare Traffic as having “a genuine existence” is seems merely a desperate grab at the notion of “genuine existence”.  “Traffic” does not deserve a capital “T”. 

    This book sounds like it merely trying to “rehabilitate” the decade-old mischaracterizations of materialism, reductionism and other insights which have been tools to gut long-standing superstitions.  

    We can all still love the smell of a rose recreate boogie-mans — we have Zombie stories for that sort of fun.

  • James F. McGrath 
    I’ve read a bit of Jerry Coyne, but these areas are very weak for me.
    Nonetheless, I’d imagine someone can deny “free will” and yet not deny the conscious experience of it — albeit illusory.  No?

    • smijer

      One need not make it all the way to materialism to realize the problems with contra-causal free will. Materialism only rules out what I think of as “backward causality” for free will – in which a (presumably non-physical) mind causes the neural events which we experience as the will. 

      If the will is not a function of material processes, then it must be a function of something else. If that something else is caused, then it must be in a defining sense deterministic. If it is un-caused, then it is not the result of anything, and therefore is unconstrained. Unconstrained ~= Random. 

      Random will is not what I would call free will. 

      I haven’t settled for myself if compatibilism offers a useful appreciation of something rightly called “free will”.  I haven’t completely finished Drescher’s book – he promises a new take on the matter, but I expect it is a compatibilist take of some sort. At least compatibilist determinism (along with non-compatibilist determinism) offers causality, and therefore some usefulness and meaning to the concept of will. Without at least causality, the notion of will seems to go flat very quickly. 

    • Well, if consciousness is affirmed, it is in a radically different sense than those who grant the genuineness of our sense of free will and moral responsibility.

      Here is a good examplle of Coyne’s reductionist approach:

      • I would add that, while Coyne denies the validity of “moral responsibility”, he is, by no means, a nihilist or an anarchist. As he says, “there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others.” And he obviously cares about whether actions do hurt or help others.

  • Robert

    Free will is really the belief that I am an agent who can cause decisions and actions that are, in the final sense, caused only by me in that moment. Certain prior causes may have influenced my decision, but in the final analysis, the decision is mine. So free will says that I have the power to start truly fresh chains of cause and effect.

    That’s obviously not randomness. And it’s also not determinism, in that no prior causes control my choice.

    It sounds bizarre, like something is coming out of nothing. But if you closely observe our attitudes, speech, and actions, I think we all believe in it on a functional level, regardless of our intellectual positions.

    I think the reason for that is clear: We have a direct experience of willing things, of being that agent. We have a direct experience of moving our attention from one place to another, of setting our resolve in a certain direction, of willing our arm to move, etc. And that direct experience is ultimately undeniable, like all direct experience is. When you feel pain, that’s a direct experience that you can’t deny. Likewise, when you feel yourself making movements of will, choice, and attention, that’s a direct experience you can’t deny. And I don’t think anyone does, really.

    Obviously, many do on an intellectual level, but you have guys like Daniel Dennett denying that any of us are having conscious experience of any sort (his position is that qualia don’t exist). Does anyone seriously think he believes that on a functional level? What can that be but an ultimately insincere pose? I think the intellectual denial of free will is exactly the same thing.

    • smijer

      Free will is really the belief that I am an agent who can cause decisions and actions that are, in the final sense, caused only by me in that moment.

      Determinism is the view that you are an agent who is itself fully caused. Compatibilism says that both are true. It says that you are fully caused, and in turn you fully cause your own actions – or at least you *mostly* cause your own actions. 

      That’s obviously not randomness. And it’s also not determinism, in that no prior causes control my choice.

      If no prior causes control your choice, I cannot see how that is “obviously” not randomness. If not randomly, then how do you choose? If certain prior states or properties of you –  your values, for instance… or your identity.. or *something* controls your choice, then I cannot see how it is “obviously” not deterministic. 

      And that direct experience is ultimately undeniable, like all direct experience is. When you feel pain, that’s a direct experience that you can’t deny. Likewise, when you feel yourself making movements of will, choice, and attention, that’s a direct experience you can’t deny. And I don’t think anyone does, really.

      One needn’t deny the experience in order to classify it as an experience. No one disputes the experience of will. The question is whether that experience corresponds to something that is uncaused and undeterministic (and therefore random), or something that is causally determined (and therefore not “free” according to some metaphysical points of view). 

    • Robert

      I disagree.

      On a functional level I interact with solid objects on a daily basis. On an intellectual level, I know that they mostly consist of the empty space between atomic particles.On a functional level I know that objects fall down. On an intellectual level, I know that “falling” is only a movement towards the earth’s center of gravity and the perception would be different everywhere in the universe except the surface of our planet. (Our functional experience only caught up with this intellectual fact in the last century, when we travelled off-planet.On a functional level I get angry at the bee that stings me. On an intellectual level, I know that the bee has just committed Hari Kari, driven by predisposed neurological impulses that probably have little if any conscious recognition of what just took place.There are all sorts of modes of perception that are meaningful only at the scale of the human organism.

  • I agree with Beau

  • Oh, except that I think the threat of vengeance can be an excellent deterrent and that is why it evolved.  The problem, as we all know is that vengeance comes with a price.  So the question is:  Can we develop replacements that also deter without those externalities.

  • Scott__F

    Are there really still materialists out there who believe that non-physical entities are not “real”? Love? Mathematics? Ethics? Conciousness?  It seems to me that the mainstream of modern science is actively addressing the question of emergent and meta-properties.   That some philosophers do not carries me right back to the words of physicist Robert Wood: 

    “The difference between physics and metaphysics… is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory.”

    Does it really advance the search for truth to create a “separate world from matter”? This line of argument strikes me as an indulgence in the worst kind of metaphysics, the kind that luxuriates in a romanticism of unknowable mystery.  And I’m sorry, but when I hear these arguments, my balony detector starts humming if not actully ringing off the wall and I am forced to investigate the source. On Dr. Ward’s website he states that he “thinks that the material universe is an expression or creation of a Supreme Mind.”  Is his insistence that the mind is separate from matter an attempt to insulate his believes from an encroaching scientific enterprise, his philosophy driving his facts instead of the other way around. We all do it but the great ones constantly test the boundaries of there assumptions.  

    I am sure that Dr. Ward is a highly intelligent man but that may be his Achilles Heal.  After all, while it takes a clever mind to hold six impossible things in his mind before breakfast, it takes a truly brilliant one to create a framework in which its thoughts occupy a separate and loftier world. 

    • Ward is emphatic that he is not creating a “separate world from matter.” His point is that minds are a real and distinct sort of thing – ours are rooted in our material, organic existence, but that doesn’t mean that our experiences as conscious entities are simply reducible to description in terms of physical processes described objectively. Along the lines of process thought, he views subjective experience as the ‘inner aspect’ of material existence. Something that is genuinely real, but not a different world or something separate, if that makes sense.

  • spinkham

    Sounds like an interesting book.  I’ll add it to my (way too long) reading list.

    The most interesting book I’ve read so far on consciousness is this one:

    You can get a brief overview here:

    I haven’t yet staked out a position on the matter, only very large boundaries of what the evidence seems to constrain the answer too.  Anyone who claims to have *the* answer at the moment seems to be quite full of it. 😉

    I quite agree with Sabio: It seems so much of the current discussions are more semantic then substantive. We want desperately to rehabilitate words that had meaning in the past, when we would really be better served by new terms that reflect the current state of knowledge.