God, Chance and Necessity by Keith Ward, Oneworld, 1996.
A takeover of the debate about the origins and purpose of the cosmos, which was once the property of theologians and philosophers, has in our day been completed, by and large, by scientists. Astronomers, physicists, Darwinian biologists, evolutionary psychologists, mathematicians, have all of them something to say, and they are usually ready to dispense, explicitly and summarily, with any hypothesis of God. Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, emerges, as David against the Philistines, to take on scientists such as Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking and Michael Ruse.
However he does not have to put his trust only in the sling of simple piety, for he has been scouting behind the enemy lines for ideas to deploy in the counter-arguments for theism. In the context, for example, of the highly improbable, but actualised, mechanism for DNA replication, ‘the hypothesis of God who designs the basic laws … makes the existence of replicators much more likely than does the materialist hypothesis, and it is therefore to be preferred.’
A propos of the origins of the universe, of the laws of mathematics and physics, of evolution, God, far from being an obscurantist postulate is a reasonable, even an elegant hypothesis, illuminating understanding and encouraging investigation. God actively upholds the functioning universe, and has a complex purpose for it of which Ward attempts a sketchy account. ‘This purpose is to realise intrinsic values among persons in relationship and community. Further, this is the purpose of a supremely good (worthwhile and desirable) being, whom it is our deepest fulfilment to know and love. I should aim at goodness because that is the objective purpose of my existence.’ Ethics then, rather than survival is normative, and although not every one will agree with the ‘objectivity’ of the claim, this like the argument from design, is derived from God.
At times Ward’s speculations suggest a mysticism reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin, as when he tells us that ‘the goal is likely to lie in the realisation of a conscious relationship of the cosmos to its creator.’ His own model is often expressed in terms that, notwithstanding the comment on ethics, seem to give pride of place to aesthetics, and to an exalted state of consciousness not dissimilar to that of G E Moore: ‘A beautiful state causes the best sort of pleasure, and pleasure in the contemplation of beauty is one of the highest forms of goodness. Thus one arrives at the best reason for the existence of this universe.’ If some readers will find this too intangible, others will suspect that ugliness, injustice, blood, toil, sweat and tears are being relegated too easily to the margins. Discussing this, Ward advances the ‘necessary cost’ argument that the nature and value of the goal imply, if we can only understand them, the high transit charges of humanity’s free will and troubled nature.
In some ways Ward is surprisingly forthcoming, in a book of apologetics engaged on terms called by scientists, about Christian dogmatics, referring now to angels (‘different sentient beings which live in different environments’), now to the eschatological ‘continuation of personal lives beyond the confines of this universe’. But the Christian reader looking for a more rounded statement will find little information on the divine initiatives of revelation or incarnation, or on the relevance to theodicy of redemption. Ward’s appears to be a meliorist dialectic, and there is no mention of Jesus Christ, the Logos, surely fundamental to the Christian discussion of cosmology. The earnest agnostic could well ask what are the grounds, or in traditional language by what authority, the ideas are proffered.
The scientists, for their part, are willing enough to stick their necks out, Dawkins arguing in The Selfish Gene that all biological mechanisms preserve and extend the existence of genes. ‘It is just like saying that the important goal of cookery is the production of recipes.’ Ward unearths another example in Peter Atkins’ Creation Revisited which attempts an explanation of origins as a ‘cosmic bootstrap’. Non-spatio-temporal entities are brought into being by time, and ‘spacetime generates its own dust in the process of its own self-assembly.’ The ultimate explanation, Ward gleefully points out, tells us nothing. These things can be tricky, and Ward occasionally lays himself open to the charge of looseness of expression, as when he has the Creator obliged to make use of number, and selecting, rather than inventing, the fundamental laws.
With national press coverage, the first impression of this book sold out in a few days. 140 years after The Origin of Species it seems that questions are still being asked about the fit of religious faith with scientific theory. Ward’s is a spirited foray by a theologian into the territory of atheistic scientism, and a lively contribution to debate about the alpha and omega of everything.
The Christian Literary Studies Group in association with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship