Rosenhouse on Ward on God

Jason Rosenhouse has many talents, but he’s particularly good at reviewing books.  He takes hold of a book like a dog grabs the postman’s leg:  he worries it, chews on it, and doesn’t let go until he’s gotten everything he can from his mastication.  Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason has just posted part I of his review of Why There Almost Certainly is a God, Keith Ward’s response to recent atheist attacks on faith.

I’ve read several of the anti-new-atheist books that Jason mentions, including the execrable God and the New Atheists, by John Haught.  And, like Jason, I haven’t found much substance in them.  While uniformly decrying atheists’ lack of theological sophistication, they offer no substantive response to our most trenchant critique: there is no evidence for any divine being, or for the fact claims of any faith.  Absent that evidence, theologians and faitheists can argue until they’re blue in the face, but we still won’t consider that a “response.”

According to Rosenhouse, Ward doesn’t succeed any more than the others, although he gives it a game try:

Ward’s book is the best I have seen on this subject, and he is worth reading if just for the clarity of hs prose (not something you can count on from either philosophers or theologians). Surely if there were a convincing case to be made on behalf of the reasonableness of traditional religious belief Ward would be the one to present it. That he did not do so is telling us something about the hopelessness of the enterprise. . . .

[much critique snipped]

. . . Throughout the book Ward tries very hard to pretend that he is just building a purely logical case for God based on what we know of the world and on some reasonable extrapolations and assumptions. But the more you read the more you realize he is just rationalizing ideas he wants dearly to believe. There is no sound basis for going from, “Something must exist eternally and necessarily,” to “That something must be an omnipotent being.” Having made that leap, there is absolutely no basis for thinking that being is omnibenevolent. Having made both leaps, he then dutifully tries to explain why the sheer relentless awfulness of human and animal existence does not pose a challenge for his theory. He wants to create room for religious revelations, so he invents a lot of argle-bargle about what God would or would not do, and simply ignores the enormous harm that has been done by God’s unwillingness to communicate clearly what He wants from us.

In short, he is making it up as he goes along.

Part II is forthcoming (Jason is not an exponent of short reviews!)

36 Comments

  1. Posted August 28, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I always start out intending to write short reviews, but somehow I never quite manage to pull it off. Thanks for the link!

    • Posted August 28, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      The hell with short reviews – I say go for thoroughness. Jerry’s TNR reviews aren’t famous for their brevity, and a good thing too!

      • santitafarella
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        Ophelia:

        Ah, don’t you keep saying to me, “Keep it short”? Do you want in depth discussion of issues, or not? Make up your mind. Or is it only people you agree with who you want to see talk in any extended fashion on these issues?

        —Santi

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        There is a difference between Jason and Jerry on the one had and you on the other, troll Santi – they use logic, reason, evidence and critical thinking. You use repeated nonsense and a word salad of verbal diarrhea that says little.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        on the one hand…

      • Posted August 29, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        Santi

        Ah, yes I do – but for one thing, you are commenting; there is a difference between comments and posts.

        But for another thing, I’m afraid Bob is right: the real difference is one of quality. It’s not actually agreement/disagreement that is the issue; it is quality. Your comments are way out of proportion to their quality. They’re speculative rather than argumentative; they muse more than they think. I’m sorry, but there is an air of self-indulgence about them – they convey the impression that they are so long because you enjoy the sound of your own voice (as it were) rather than because you really have anything cogent to say.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Yes, I agree with Ophelia, go for thoroughness.

      If people don’t want to read it all then their attention span is the problem, not the review.

    • Wes
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      I third the two comments above. I always enjoy reading your book reviews, no matter how long they are. Keep it up! 🙂

  2. tomh
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I am in awe of people like Jason, or Jerry Coyne, who have the patience to slog through these religious rationalizations, which have to be among the most boring tomes ever written. If I started one of them I’m afraid all I would be able to think about is how short life is. I do enjoy the reviews, though, including the quotes, which are just as much of these books as I need to read.

  3. foolfodder
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I’d love it if someone would write a response to the imaginary book “The Fairy Delusion”. I wonder if that could be made genuinely interesting or funny.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 28, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      That’s a hilarious idea.

  4. hempenstein
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    “clarity of prose (not something you can count on from either philosophers or theologians)”

    Amen, brother!

  5. entertaining.doubts
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    “Argle-bargle?” Clearly I’ve not read enough philosophy, as this is the first time I’ve run across this technical term. 😉 Perfectly describes the endless circumlocutions and rationalizations of “sophisticated” theologians, which amount to precisely squat.

  6. Posted August 28, 2009 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    “Something must exist eternally and necessarily”

    Sounds like someone who works for AT&T.

  7. Posted August 28, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    The theologians do seem to make it up as they go along.

    They’re really no different, in that respect, from many New Age people.

  8. nick bobick
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Many years ago I determined that it was not worth my time (or the concomitant brain torture) to read any more books by religious apologists explaining why their particular god simply had to exist. Thank you anyway, but I prefer reading reality-based non-fiction.

    If any rational argument ever appeared for such claims, anyone in a non-vegetative state would not be able to miss it.

    I do thank Jerry and Jason and others for exposing their valuable brain cells to these poseurs and giving us synopses though.

  9. Michael K Gray
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Jason’s polite & thoughtful review is far too kind to a delusional professional nutter who chooses to share his mental poison in public, as far as I am concerned.

    I would have had far harsher things to say.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    While uniformly decrying atheists’ lack of theological sophistication, they offer no substantive response to our most trenchant critique: there is no evidence for any divine being, or for the fact claims of any faith.

    Of course there is no evidence, why else would we have to endure theology?

    Which brings me to my main complaint on how that tomfoolery is perpetuated, the showcasing of intellectual laziness while knowledgeable atheists like Dawkins or Coyne do the heavy work in this garden. They dig in and uncover the roots of the weed as it has actually grown, while theologists complain on the vapors.

    As long as “sophistication” stands for emptiness, avoidance and emotive reaction, theological argumentation can’t be taken seriously.

  11. MadScientist
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    So Ward is a New Age Aquinas? I hope he’s not as dreadfully dull as Aquinas – not that I’d care to waste money on his book or waste time reading it, but in almost 1000 years surely someone must be able to paraphrase Aquinas in such a way that the reader does not contemplate self harm.

  12. santitafarella
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne:

    I’m sorry, I can’t agree with you when you say: “[T]here is no evidence for any divine being . . .”

    God belief, like atheist belief, is an inference that people make when they look at the universe whole. Both the theist and the atheist have a reaction to existence and surmise to themselves” “There must be a God!” or “There must not be a God!” And if you are an agnostic like me, you look at the universe as a whole and say: “I genuinely can’t decide. I see serious problems with both the theist and atheist leap. I don’t know if mind precedes matter or matter precedes mind.”

    Below is a quote that I believe provides an example of what I mean. In 1984, at the age of 78, and thirteen years prior to his death (he died at the age of 91), Nobel Prize winning Harvard biologist, George Wald, made this confession before a meeting of the Quantum Biology Symposium:

    “It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions [the origin of mind and the origin of life from nonliving matter] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself.”

    Dr. Wald was a lifelong skeptic who, late in life, came to infer the existence of mind prior to matter. Science, for Dr. Wald, was not in the service of atheism, nor of theism. Science just returned answers to questions we ask of nature, and he thought about those answers and drew inferences.

    Until God, like a UFO, lands on the White House lawn and says “I’m here!”, or science returns non-question begging materialist solutions to the riddles of the universe’s and life’s origins (as well as the origins of the laws of physics, information, mind, and free will) there’s plenty of room for atheistic and theistic inferences. At least there is for an agnostic like me. I simply don’t see any smoking guns presented by either side, and I see a lot of holes in both sides attempts to account for all that we actually observe in the universe.

    I wonder, for example, what it is that makes you such a confident atheist. What is that smoking gun piece of evidence for you that makes you an atheist?

    —Santi

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 29, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Once again, the creationist troll Santi has his thoughts mixed up into non-reality.

      Again for troll Santi, the simpleton:

      There is no atheist belief, it is a lack of belief in any gods.

      There is no atheist belief, it is a lack of belief in any gods.

      There is no atheist belief, it is a lack of belief in any gods.

      …is an inference that people make when they look at the universe whole

      What utter nonsense. Wishing it does not make it true. Also stop projecting your bizarre thoughts to us sane people.

      I don’t know if mind precedes matter or matter precedes mind.”

      The it is again, such stupidity that makes the entire world laugh at the troll Santi. No one agrees with you at all, troll Santi.

      As far as the Wald stuff – so what? One biologist has nutty ideas that the other 10,000,000 scientists disagree with.

      Still, there is no proof of your God, troll Santi and not one piece of evidence of your idiotic mind precedes matter crap.

    • Posted August 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Santi –

      The ‘mind first’ view of the universe was respectable in the 17th century, but now, not so much.

  13. momus
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Do I have this correct? Ward says atheists are theologically unsophisticated because they can not transcend the need for evidence?

    Once upon at time didn’t the Hebrews require evidence? The burning bush, people turned to pillars of salt?

  14. santitafarella
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    New England Bob:

    I’m asking Professor Coyne the question, not you. I realize I can’t stop your ugly posts, and its obvious that Professor Coyne has no intention of blocking them from his site, (despite my requests that he do so), but I would ask you, in future, to stop making me the target for your harrassment and abuse. You bring down the discussion with your persistent ad hominem static. And I never respond to your posts, so why put so much energy into them? It would be nice if people could talk with civility here (even as they hold strong positions).

    I wonder if anyone visiting these threads agrees with me. Should discussion be civil and avoid the ad hominem?

    —Santi

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 29, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Sorry troll Santi, but I will not stop exposing your ugly, abusive, obfuscatory, posts of verbal diarrhea.

      I have publicly asked here for banning you since you ruin every discussion with the same inane garbage.

      As long as you continue to ruin these discussions with your nonsense I will target every one and expose your pretentious, erudite fakery for what it truly is.

      The reason you do not respond to me is due to you having no facts, no evidence, no reason, no logic and no critical thinking. You have no answers, just nonsense and your beliefs in the supernatural which then you untruthfully claim to be agnostic.

      There is a reason Professor Coyne ignores your requests. Like the rest of us, he probably sees you as an ignorant child looking for attention. Several people here have clearly stated they look upon your posts as laughable amusement.

      Apparently I am getting you angry. This is a good thing.

      • santitafarella
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        New England Bob:

        Harrassment is not argument. What you are doing is engaging in harrassment. I never respond to your posts, but you persist in trailing my own posts (which are not addressed to you).

        A troll is somebody who represents themselves as somebody that they are not. I do not do that. I’ve always said I’m an agnostic, and not an atheist.

        The effect of your insults and ad hominem is static. I don’t respond to what you say because you don’t say anything interesting to me, nor do you engage with people with anything like basic civility and decency.

        You do make me angry. I feel abused by you. I want you to stop maligning me as a human being. I want you to stop the cruelty. And you do not. And Coyne does not stop you. But I have things I want to say, and so I speak to others here through the static. But I deeply resent the scurrilous nature of your personal attacks on me as a human being. I believe that you are indulging in libelous levels of innuendo and abuse, and I want it to stop.

        If you are not registering what I am saying very clearly, I hope that Professor Coyne is.

        —Santi

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        As usual, troll Santi, you see the world different than everyone else. Reality escapes you.

        I respond to your points. That is not harassment. You, on the other hand, say the same nonsense over and over again and ignore the many comments by many people here thoroughly refuting what you say. That is being a troll, and you are one.

        Definition of troll from Wikipedia:

        In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community.

        Yes, that is you, troll Santi. Maybe I should edit Wikipedia and add your picture. Do you have one I can use?

        Basic civility and decency:
        Do you even read the inane garbage you spew forth? How many times do you insult individuals and classes of people? Most of your premises and tone are offensive. This is the pot calling the kettle black. You also must have a hay field in your yard because of all your straw man issues.

        You want me to stop responding to your posts? Then either stop posting or cease posting your untruths, faulty logic and nonsense harangues that say the same thing over and over in thousands of words. Stop claiming you are agnostic when you clearly believe in supernatural woo. Stop spouting “mind precedes matter” nonsense when you have no evidence. Stop defining atheism as a belief system.

        Look at the name of this blog – “Why Evolution is True”. It is about science and reason and logic and critical thinking. Sometimes it is about religion and how it interferes with science and logic and reason and critical thinking. Rational discourse is wanted and except for you and a couple of other trolls and woo believers, it is a great place to learn and discuss the appropriate issues. If you want to spew your garbage, do it on your own blog where you are virtually alone.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 29, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      santitafarella: And if you are an agnostic like me, you look at the universe as a whole and say: “I genuinely can’t decide. I see serious problems with both the theist and atheist leap.

      What is your state while you are undecided? If you have chosen your null hypothesis correctly, in that period of indecision, you in fact do not believe in any god, and therefore are an atheist.

      Since there is no reliable, convincing evidence for any god, atheism is really not much of a leap at all.

      • santitafarella
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Reginald:

        I wouldn’t mind the atheist tag—if that is what I was. Atheism has a more than respectable intellectual pedigree and it has brought enormous levels of freedom and intellectual intelligence into the world. I wouldn’t want to be in a world without atheists. I feel the same way about theists. But, alas, I am still not an atheist or a theist. I am an agnostic.

        I would offer an analogy. I am agnostic about bacterial life on Mars. I know that there are people who are highly confident about this question, but I am not certain bacteria on Mars exists, and I’m not certain it does not exist. I simply don’t have sufficient information to know for sure. I feel the same way about God belief. Agnosticism leads me, obviously, not to engage in specific religious practices, but it also leads me to critique overconfident atheist arguments.

        From my vantage, the great question of existence is this: Does mind precede matter or does matter precede mind? I don’t have a clue what the ultimate answer to this question is. And I’ve never heard an answer to this question that does not end in question begging. So why decide? Why not be Socrates and keep an open mind till we know more?

        —Santi

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        But you, Santi believe in mind precedes matter supernatural woo. That is your own form of theism. You are not agnostic at all.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        Lets all take the troll Santi’s advice and believe in something stupid like the Flying Spaghetti Monster as the supreme ruler of the universe.

        No evidence or logic is needed in his troll world, just claim to not know and be agnostic about it and then you can claim anything ad derail the discussion into nonsense.

  15. santitafarella
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Ophelia:

    You said (index finger held to the wind): “The ‘mind first’ view of the universe was respectable in the 17th century, but now, not so much.”

    But Spencer, the most popular of the pro-Darwinian philosophers of the 19th century, entertained it. And Darwin himself entertained it.

    Harvard biologist George Wald entertained it in the 20th century. Both Ken Miller and Francis Collins entertain it today. And it is quite easy to find physicists who believe that the laws of physics necessarily (and apparently inexplicably) precede the existence of matter.

    And when you speak of “respect” you need to specify: Respectable to whom? Atheists scientists and philosophers? Well, isn’t that a tautology? Of course atheist scientists and philosophers will not regard mind prior to matter a respectable position.

    And taking a poll is not an argument. What, for you, are the merits of strict naturalism? And why is that idea so much more compelling than the idea that mind cannot be reduced to matter, and may precede it ontologically?

    Can’t both premises adequately account for what it is that we actually experience of the universe? I, personally, think that both strict naturalism and theism having gaping holes in explication. Why don’t you?

    And don’t you, for example, want to retain free will? And what makes you so cocksure that the reduction of mind to matter is not a category mistake? Where did you get the idea that there can be one, and only one, ontologically mysterious existent in the universe (matter)? Aren’t you simply engaged in circular reasoning to insist in advance the very thing you say that you wish to prove?

    You don’t even have to offer a long reply. How about just a book (by an academic publisher) that makes the strict naturalist case that you can refer me to. What book do you think makes the most compelling case for strict naturalism?

    —Santi

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 29, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      What, for you, are the merits of strict naturalism? And why is that idea so much more compelling than the idea that mind cannot be reduced to matter, and may precede it ontologically?

      The former is reality, the latter is pure fiction. Those of us who live in the real world can actually see it. Test it.

      And what makes you so cocksure that the reduction of mind to matter is not a category mistake?

      Reality. Unlike your woo fiction.

      The world still waits for even one bit of evidence of your nonsense position. I guess it will never arrive, just more inanities pushing the same garbage.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted August 29, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Also once again, the troll Santi derails the discussion and puts words in Ophelia’s mouth that she never said and then asks her to prove his straw man that she was not involved in.

      Is this sick or what?

  16. Sven DiMilo
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if mind precedes matter or matter precedes mind.

    Seriously?
    I mean…seriously?

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted August 30, 2009 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      At least the “I don’t know” bit was accurate.


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