Science, Mind, Religion, and Reality (Full Interview)
Keith Ward sat down with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought in San Diego, California in July of 2013. In this full interview, Ward comments on a variety of issues pertaining to CCT’s 2012-2013 theme on Neuroscience and the Soul.
I’m Keith Ward. I was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. I’m now Senior Research Fellow Heythrop College in London. I’m a fellow of a British Academy and I’m married with two very grown up children. [uplifting music] I suppose primarily I’ve been a philosopher always so that means in particular that I’m more interested in problems than in solutions. And I’m more interested in making things more confusing, complex and interesting than in giving simple answers.
And that dissatisfies some people both religious and nonreligious and they misunderstand what’s going on because I think that Christianity is a mystery in the deepest sense that of course it’s rational and makes good sense. But it’s not something that the human mind can encompass and give a simple explanation about. So, that’s always been my approach in philosophy. And in fact, that approach to philosophy which derives from Wittgenstein historically, led me as it led many of his pupils towards Christianity.
And then, I’ve discovered after being a Christian in fact, I discovered that most people just completely misunderstand the intellectual history of Christianity. There’ve been great philosophers Anselm, Aquinas. In fact almost every major classical philosopher has had some form of theistic belief. And that’s something that seems to be not very well understood in the modern world or Eastern Europe.
So, part of what I try and do is just recover that tradition. Were they being stupid when they talked about God? Or are there really good reasons to think there’s a spiritual basis to reality? And I think philosophy shows there is such a basis. And I spend most of my time now trying to sort of expand this or at least get people to talk about it. But as I say to see the problems of all philosophical views rather than to say here’s a solution to all your problems. Just believe this, you’ll be all right. I believe there is such a thing as absolute truth. I mean I do believe for example there is a God and that God was revealed in Christ and we are called to eternal life.
So I have some very definite beliefs. But when you come to ask about how I could convince other people of that. Are there objective reasons that I could convince any reasonable person that these were true? I think the answer has to be no because clearly many of my most intelligent colleagues have different beliefs. So, a philosopher immediately has a problem. Why do people believe such different things? They know the same information. They’ve thought about it as deeply as anybody ever has and they still come to different conclusions. And that’s the question which has always deeply intrigued me. Which leads me to think that reason is not actually the ultimate arbiter of truth. What you believe has to be reasonable.
But human reason alone is not gonna tell you what is true. You do your best I suppose really. But you always say well I don’t claim to have the absolute truth. I believe there is one. I’m as near to it as I think I can get. But maybe it’s a long way beyond me. [uplifting music] I think we’re in a crucial changing point in the sciences now.
There was a huge revolution in the 16th century when Aristotle’s authority was overcome until that time in Southern Europe where Aristotle was thought to be the person who had understood the Universe better than anyone else. But his authority was overthrown and we got the rise of experimental observational mathematically based science and I think that’s had a fantastic run. But it’s now being seen by lots of people to have major limitations and they’re rather mechanistic or what people call the clockwork view of the Universe that goes along with some popular presentations of science.
It doesn’t look as though it fits what life is like now. In quantum physics, in molecular biology, in information theory and technology. There are lots of other complications to a mechanistic view. It looks as though it’s finished in fact. So I don’t think we’re in a position to say how science will go.
I personally view as Roger Penrose who was professor of mathematics at Oxford when he said that whatever future science will be like and that future is pretty near, it’s gonna have to take consciousness much more seriously than it has done for a while. And I think people who ignore consciousness are actually the reactionaries now. [uplifting music] I think since what you might call Newtonian science began there’s always been a major problem about how free actions or conscious intentions or purposes could exist in nature because the Newtonian view is you’ve got laws of nature. They don’t have any purposes in them. They’re just mathematically stateable laws like the inverse square law and gravity.
And of course for Newton, God made the laws but he made the laws like making a clock. So you make he laws but the clock itself doesn’t have any purposes. God had a purpose in making it. But the purpose is not in nature. So that was a a huge change from Aristotle who thought that everything had a purpose that it sought to fulfill. It had some state that it ought to aim at. Now in that, in Aristotelian context human purposes, human free actions made a sort of sense because you could say well, humans are just like other things. They’re aiming at the good life. So you think what is the purpose of the good life? And how can I attain it? What are the virtues?
But once that view changed about nature and you just had laws of nature then ideas of purpose got lost and so one half of science I think only one half of it has become more and more purposeless that is to say mechanistic. And it would actually seek to eliminate any idea of purpose or goal or value or morality or consciousness from nature. So that leaves you with a reductivist materialist view where everything can be analyzed down to its basic material components. And that’s all there is that explains everything there is. And then you can’t explain what mind is. I mean you can say you can do it.
Philosophers like Dan Dennett pretend they know. But actually no fully informed person would say that any neuroscientist has explained how it is that consciousness arises or what it is. We have to say the subject’s in its infancy. And everything is open. But what’s interesting from the philosophical point of view is that very few philosophers are convinced that materialism is true. That is a reductive sort of materialism which says you just explain consciousness, purpose and value in terms of laws, physical laws of the interactions of very small physical particles. I think that’s a totally unconvincing view.
It’s defended by some good philosophers. They had to be good to make any sense of it at all. But in fact I doubt whether their view will have any lasting influence. If you think about having a purpose think of a person who’s thinking what to do and what you do is you think about future possibilities. So that’s already a very difficult thing if you just have a material account of the world because how can you have an event in the present which is some how oriented towards the future? If you think of the future then that seems to be difficult for a purely material thing, you know. Here’s a table. It’s purely material. There it is. There’s nothing future about it. But if I think about my future possibilities what I might do tomorrow I’m having a brain event but it’s somehow connected to the future in a special way. So that’s a big problem.
How do you, it’s called, in philosophy intentionality or aboutness, you know, you have a thought which is about something. Well how on earth can you give a descriptive account of a material state which includes aboutness? It’s not only a state but it’s about something else. So I think there is a, that’s one of the major difference between a mental description and a physical description. The sense of aboutness. And then of course the other part of that is that you decide to do something for the future. If you have a purpose you decide to do it.
And again, decisions are very difficult to account for. If you’re talking about laws of gravity you don’t normally think things are making decisions about whether to be attracted to other objects or not. So there’s no where to get this language in. So decision, aboutness, thought, feeling too, all those things are very difficult for a materialist to explain. They have to try to do it of course. But I don’t think anybody’s really quite satisfied with it. [uplifting music] I don’t think there’s any serious doubt that consciousness if a function of a highly complex integrated human brain. Well, and could be animal brains as well.
But certainly intelligent rational, moral sorts of consciousness seem to correlate with the existence of a very complex brain. And of course we can identify parts of the brain which if you eliminate certain capacities are eliminated so you correlate capacities with events in the brain. So there no, I don’t want to doubt that at all. The question I think that is really most interesting is whether this is a necessary connection.
That is to say whether the connection between a brain state, neurons firing in your brain and you having a feeling or a thought, a private experience really that other people don’t know about. One goes along with the other. So I’m not doubting that as as correlation. There’s a, when I have a thought, I have a brain state. And when I have a brain state of a certain sort I have a thought. That’s true. But is this contingent and by that I mean is it just a matter of fact which could have been otherwise. Could I, to put it really bluntly, could I have thought without a brain?
Or I couldn’t, maybe. Could there be thought without a brain? I don’t want to bring God straight in to this but obviously if you want to think of a case of thought without a brain God would be such a case. I mean, presumably God thinks in some sense and I presume God doesn’t have a brain. But you could say that’s just fantasy language but it seems to make sense to most people. And I think it does make sense. There could be thoughts without a brain. They wouldn’t be fully human thoughts. They wouldn’t be just like our thoughts. But why can’t you think of even, say I’m sitting here and having a view of this room.
That view is correlated with the state of my brain and the fact that my eyes are functioning and I’m getting electrical impulses from my eyes to my brain. All that’s happening. But why couldn’t it be possible, this is a philosophers dream. You know a philosophers thought experiment. Why couldn’t it be possible for me to have this view of this room but not be an embodied agent at all? Just to have a view. You can even think of cases of this when you watch television or something like that.
Then you can see things which from a point of view where you’re not. I mean it’s as though you were on the Alps climbing up but you’re not. It’s just a picture that you’re seeing. Well I find no differently in thinking that there could be beings but just have pictures like that. But they weren’t actually located or embodied in the picture. In fact, let me give you another case, dreams. You have a dream and you think well, things are happening. But you’re not embodied in that dream. These are images. Visual sometimes sounds as well. Which you have. But you’re not embodied there.
So a key question. Some people think it’s a silly question but perhaps philosophers are silly people. I think the real question is could you have experiences when you were not embodied? And I don’t see why not. Okay, now to be quite honest I don’t know whether you do or not, right? I don’t know whether you physically could or not. But I don’t see why I don’t see that it’s an impossible. So if somebody comes along to me and says there couldn’t be experiences without a brain and I would say well, according to the laws of physics that we have, that’s true.
But of course there could be a universe in which there were experiences without brains. And that’s not a totally silly thought because if you think of it most religions and most philosophers throughout the world have thought that this happens after death. That when you’re dead your physical brain is not the same brain exactly as the one you had when you were alive because it’s decayed. It’s ceased to exist.
So a lot of people can make sense of saying you can have experiences without your physical brain. And a lot of people believe it’s true. And I’m one of them. You do have such experiences. So philosophically, my view would be this. Brain states are correlated with human experiences. Thank goodness that’s true ’cause otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sort out, you know, how my thoughts corresponded to where my body was. I have a body. I am an embodied being.
But I think I’m not unnecessarily embodied being. And to put it in Christian terms I think. There will be as said, Paul put it, in 1 Corinthians 15 “a totally different kind of body.” He calls it “a body of spirit” doesn’t it? Soma neumatikon which is a spiritual body or a body of spirit. And he says it’ll be quite different from his physical body. This physical body decays. It’s corruptible. But that resurrection body will be not subject to decay.
My translation of that which is not quite in the New Testament is it’ll be a body which is not subject the the second law of thermodynamics. And I think you might say well, that’s not to amount experience without any body. But it’s the experiences of the same person with a different sort of body. And I think it’s part of the Christian faith. It’s obviously part of faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism et cetera which believe in reincarnation. So if a philosopher comes along and says well all that is not only false, it’s nonsense I think that philosopher is almost certainly wrong. [uplifting music] ♪ La, la, la, la ♪ ♪ La, la, la, la ♪ ♪ Ooh ♪
I think thought experiments are very important. When Einstein, Albert Einstein the great physicist thought of the theory of relativity he thought of it by doing a thought experiment. He thought, “What would it be like “if I was moving at the speed of light?” And then he just imagined this. And good scientists have good imaginations. And they’re very good at thought experiments.
But of course they can confirm usually, not always they can usually confirm their thought experiments by real experiments. Now if you have a thought experiment about could I exist after I’m dead it’s a bit difficult to see how I’m going to confirm that until it’s too late to tell anybody about it. So there is that slight difficulty. But nevertheless I don’t see why thought experiments shouldn’t be valuable. And I have to say, if you’re a Christian you think actually there has been evidence and that is the resurrection of Jesus.
The people saw Jesus alive after he died. And he talked to them and people like me and millions of people throughout the world would say we actually experience the personal presence of Jesus Christ and well, we’re either mad or insane or here’s a possibility which has a certain amount of evidence in personal experience and in historical testimony. And if you’re not a Christian anyway of course there these are not the only cases of people who have claimed to have experiences of people after death.
There are actually huge numbers of accounts of that. And I think you, careful about this. You have to sift it carefully. The way I’d put it is there’s a lot of very poor evidence for it. But a lot of very poor evidence. And I think that is worth something. You got to say look, people are obviously not getting very clear about the facts and they’re clearly subject to misinterpretations. Some of them must be. Nevertheless there is a lot of data there that can’t be explained in purely materialistic terms. I have no interest in life after death.
As a philosopher I’d be happy to die and that’s that. I’ve got not interest in going on. As one of my colleagues in Cambridge, Bernard Williams once said if he went on forever and ever he’d get bored to death. But there is one thing I feel strongly about. I do think there is a God. I do think there is a spiritual reality behind the whole of the Universe. I don’t know God very well.
And I’d really like to know God a lot better. I don’t love God as much as I should. I’d really like to get better at that, too. So lots of things I’d really like to do with regard to knowing God. And knowing the purpose of human life and knowing the ultimate goal of the Universe. I’d like to know, so from that point of view I think there’s a strong motivation for thinking that there could, that there would be life beyond this if it were possible.
And of course if you believe in God you’ve got no problem about knowing that it’s possible. So I think it all derives from belief in God, actually. If you press me I’m going to say well, there’s all this strange evidence some of it’s lunatics some of it’s very odd. Some of it’s quite impressive. But a whole lot of it. I’d remain agnostic.
But if I had a belief in God on other grounds that I believe I experience God in Christ or in some other way then I have, I think, very good evidence for me personally that if there is such a God a God of love then there will be life beyond this life. So, I would regard that as good evidence. [uplifting music] I think the biggest problem in philosophy as a whole is the question of whether everything in this Universe is purely material. That it’s unconscious originally and it is without any thought or feeling or purpose or value. It’s just things, lumps of matter with mass and position and velocity which exist.
Whether that’s true or whether there’s a mind like reality which is conscious and valuable and purposive at the root of everything that exists. Now that’s a huge problem with which philosophers have always dealt and most of them have been idealist. In this rather wide sense an idealist, in a very wide sense, is a person who thinks that mind or mind likeness, something conscious and intelligent perhaps capable of thought and feeling, is at the basis of reality. Is the most real thing that there is. And that matter is somehow dependent on that. Or expresses that consciousness. Or matter wouldn’t exist without it anyways. So that’s an idealist. Where as a materialist is the opposite who thinks that mind might not exist at all. It’s an illusion. Or it’s, or mind depends totally on material reality.
And it’ll cease to exist when matter ceases to exist. Okay, so that’s your big question. And for me philosophy is a lot of different questions of course but they all center around that one big question. Mind, matter, which one has priority. And perhaps are they separable? If you look through the list of philosophers I mean people like Plato and Aristotle thought they were just separable.
That matter, the Universe, just exists always. Doesn’t depend on any spiritual reality. But on the other hand there is spiritual reality. God perhaps or for Plato, the good. Which we call the ultimate value, supreme value. And they just both coexist. And that was the earliest philosophical way of putting it, I suppose. And I think a lot of good philosophy is a spelling out of this. Usually idealists, there are some materialist philosophers, many… Right, where do I go from there? Well I’m British. So, I was brought up, you can’t help things like that, I was brought up in a tradition called British Empiricism. Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.
And they start their philosophy by asking what is the basis of knowledge? Where do I start to know things? And you start, and they say you start to know things by experience. You see, you hear, you touch, and you build up your knowledge from these primitive experiences. And they were idealists. That’s not usually admitted. But they were idealists because they thought that ideas, what they call ideas, that is a visual sensations, tactile sensations, auditory sensations. These sensations are what you build up your picture of the Universe from.
And they have two main characteristics though they have lots of characteristics. Two main characteristics of these ideas is that they’re private, that is, my ideas aren’t your ideas. I can never know exactly what your ideas are if you didn’t tell me. I don’t know what you feel now. If you aren’t gonna tell me. I wouldn’t ever know. But you know. So they’re private ideas. And also they’re very difficult to make fully objective. I think the best example for this is you feel a pain. Say you got a tooth ache. You feel a pain. You say there’s something I know that nobody else knows. I’ve got a toothache. I locate it somewhere and I feel its intensity. So I know I’ve got a toothache. I never have a toothache that I don’t feel.
I mean there aren’t toothaches wondering around the world. Only when I feel a toothache does it exist. So then I make a distinction between the things I feel, like toothaches, and the things that tell me something about the world. Like if I look at you I may say oh well, I’m having private sensations but they’re telling me there actually is a you out there in the world. So you get the subjective objective debate or duality, really. How do your perceptions, your ideas relate to the objective world? And the British empiricists start that. That’s where they start their philosophy.
And so that was how I started and I still sympathize with that point. I’m an empiricist and an idealist. Empiricist saying well, all knowledge beings with experience. Experience is private and personal really and you build up a public world from that. And that means that in some sense experience is well that’s mind like rather than matter like. Matter is the world you build up out of these experiences. But those experiences are private to you. They’re known by you. They’re part of your mental world. So that turns me into an idealist. [uplifting music]
In your experience with the world there is more than just physical objects. That when you see a beautiful sunset even, something like that or I’m look at now a beautiful sky and sea. Then this communicates with you in a personal way. I’d now say this is God speaking through nature. But before I thought about things like that I still had a sense of personal encounter, if you like. The philosopher Martin Buber talks about this. He calls it having an I-Thou relation with the world. As opposed to an I-It relation.
If you have an I-It relation you treat things as objects. You manipulate them and you use them. If you have an I-Thou relation you respect them. You respect them for their innate beauty or worth. And you try to conserve them. I mean, I think ecology is a movement which is making much of this. That you’d regard the world as in a sense sacred. Well I think that’s a very basic sense before you start doing philosophy. Anyway, I had that.
And I think most children have it, frankly. But they’re told that it’s false [chuckles]. Not to be silly. But that’s a root of religious belief because now in my more philosophical terminology I’d say well there actually is a personal presence behind everything in the world. And that’s God. [uplifting music] I suppose Bishop Berkeley is the British Empiricists philosopher that most people think denied there was any matter at all. I mean, he pointed out I think quite justly that the visual perceptions of the world we see, the way we see the world doesn’t represent the world as it actually is. You’ve got an appearance reality distinction. But most people think Berkeley then said, “but there isn’t any matter actually. “There’s just your ideas.” and when you’re not looking at things they don’t exist. That’s the popular representation of Berkeley.
Don’t look at them and there’s nothing there. Well, that’s not really what he said. And that’s not what I would think. I think intelligence intellect is required to give you knowledge of the world. As a matter of fact, all scientists think this. Without intelligence you wouldn’t really know there were any atoms or electrons. It takes a lot of thought to work that out. So thought’s involved in this. But it’s also, as in any scientist would agree, the world in itself as it is when it’s not being observed, there is a world but it’s not like the world that we observe.
We select a number of wavelengths of light to see. And the fact that we see colors is due to the particular structure of our brains and in fact, because those colors are just wavelengths of light, they’re electromagnetic waves, they don’t have color. They have a particular amplitude of wavelength. So I think most scientists would agree that the world as it is though it exists there is an objective world out there. It’s not like the world that we see.
Appearance is different from reality. But they might say and science tells you what reality is like. I agree with them [laughs]. I agree with them. As an idealist, I agree with them. Because I’m, and I think Berkeley did too. That you’re not saying there’s no reality out there. You are precisely saying the reality that is out there is not like reality as it appears to you. But you’re not saying there’s no reality. Then the question would, well what is that reality like then? Is it, and here we come to the same old question. Is it totally impersonal? Or is this something which already carries a spiritual component to it? And again, that’s a huge philosophical question to it. And there are many different answers to that.
My own view however, just to say what it is, is that there is an independent physical world who’s nature well, to go along with one side of the account might well be and 11 dimensional set of wave functions in Hilbert space. All right, so something pretty mysterious but that’s out there. But what I think is that this world would not exist, that sort of world would not exist without a vast intelligence which maintains it in being. So just as my experiences, which are appearances, wouldn’t exist without me, without my mind. So I think that objective reality wouldn’t exist without the mind of God.
And that’s what Berkeley was in fact saying. So this is a form of idealism. But it doesn’t deny an objective world. It only says that objective world itself depends upon an intelligent mind. I happen to call mine dual aspect. That’s because of certain questions that arise in modern philosophy about what’s the relation between human feelings and thoughts and states of the human brain.
And a dual aspect view would be one which says well, there really are experiences and they’re different from brain states. They have different properties. But one goes along with the other. It’s picking up on the correlation. It’s not that the mind is something quite different doing all sorts of interesting things that the brain doesn’t know about. It’s not that. They’re very closely correlated but it’s a contingent correlation. It is physically necessary, if you like. That’s the way God has made the world. So it has to be that way. But it didn’t have to be that way. And when we die it won’t quite be that way. It’ll be some other way.
I discovered half way through my philosophical career that people hated Descartes and thought that whatever Descartes said was wrong. And if he was a dualist, dualism is wrong. So dualism is out. And despite my learned colleague, Richard Swinburne, that’s still the general opinion. So if you say the world dualism everybody’s gonna hate you. So I don’t say the word dualism. But dual aspects strangely enough they don’t mind. So [laughs] to tell you the truth, they’re the same thing.
You know, dual aspect it just means there’s a mental aspect and a physical aspect. They’re connected together and that’s exactly what Descartes said. I’m just using idealism to mean mind has priority. Without mind there wouldn’t be any matter. So all Christians are idealists in my view. And if they disagree with that it’s because they have a slightly different view, you know, interpretation of idealism. Some of philosophy is sorting these things out and saying look, exactly how are we using this word?
So if you wanted to call what I believe theism that’s fine by me. I mean, yeah, but it means there wouldn’t be, there is a Universe but it wouldn’t exist without a mind. Without the mind of God. [uplifting music] Let me put it this way. That water is H2O, right. It’s hydrogen and oxygen. Now hydrogen and oxygen are different things. They’re different substances.
But when you stick them together as H2O you’ve got one substance, water. Now that’s exactly what Descartes thought and I’ll give you a nice quotation from “Meditation”. “For I think,” I haven’t got the book with me but it’s one of the six meditations. I think it’s four. In which he says in a sentence which Dan Dennett misquotes, interestingly.
One take out says he, it’s in French of course, but he says, “It is not the case “that the mind, the soul “is in the body as a pilot or a captain “is in a ship. “It is not the case but,” he says “they are inextricably confused and intermingled “so as to form one thing.” Now those are the words of Saint Descartes. So really people shouldn’t say that he thinks minds the body of two things. It’s two substances forming one dual aspect reality. He was a pretty Orthodox Catholic after all. That’s more or less what Thomas Aquinas was saying. The word substance has confused everybody because if you think there are two different substances they can’t get together. But just remember oxygen and hydrogen.
Two different substances, they do get together and they form water. That’s one thing. But they’re still separable. And I now quote Thomas Aquinas, “The soul of the body could be separated but if they were “this would be unnatural and improper.” [melancholy orchestral music] I’d want to say that human beings really are embodied. They are flesh and blood. But they’re more than flesh and blood. They’re also responsible, intelligent agents. And that agency that intelligent agency could and I believe will exist in a different form. But I don’t want to deny that of course in this world in which we are a lot of our mental activity and capacity depends upon whether our brain is functioning properly and whether our bodies are functioning properly. Obviously, if we fall very ill our capacities are limited.
And so, I don’t think neuroscience although it’s done amazing things, I don’t think it’s revealed anything specially new about the mind body problem at all. It just says the obvious like if you cut bits of your body off you can’t use them anymore. Your capacities are changed. But so will the brain. If you cut bits of the brain out there are things you can’t do anymore. I’m not very surprised by that really. So although I think it’s wonderful what neuroscience has done I myself don’t think it’s made materialism one jot more reasonable.
It just says well, your body and brain must be working for you to be thinking. Well, we’ve all been known that. [melancholy orchestral music] The materialist philosophers that I know tend to say that if your conscious events are correlated with your brain events and if your brain events are parts of a causal chain which is physically determined how could there be any nonphysical influences on those physical processes? So it’s, they don’t see how you could have a causal chain which included nonphysical events.
And I think my response to that would be that I don’t think they should have as much confidence in the view that there is such a thing as a closed physical causal chain. I don’t see that there’s much evidence that there is such a closed causal chain. And I don’t want to rely here simply on what happens at the subatomic level but even at the ordinary level of physical laws it doesn’t seem to be the case that physical law, our statement of laws of physics gives a complete description of all the causal factors there are involved.
Let me give you one example. Which is that it’s pretty widely thought by physicists that there are non-local causal factors at work in the Universe. So that you could have well John Polkinghorne puts it like this, you could have a photon coming into existence at the other side of the Universe. That would have some effect on everything in the Universe. I mean, it be infinitesimal effect but it would be a some sort of effect.
So, it isn’t possible to I’m saying it isn’t physically possible or even logically possible given the finite nature of the human mind, for us to get enough information to know every causal factor that is at work in any one point of the Universe. Some philosophers used to put it like this, to know anything, you’d have to know everything. So to fully know everything about something you’d have to know about the total context in which it existed. And we never could do that. It’s too complicated to do. So that’s one thought. That you just couldn’t ever get such information as to say, I know there’s a closed causal framework operating here because I know every cause that’s operating in this case.
I’m making an empirical claim which I’m getting from physicist and saying no, we can prove the Bell theorem, reasons why we can prove that you couldn’t possibly know every causal. Even the fact that we don’t know much about dark energy and dark matter and that we admit that we don’t know much about it says that we can’t be sure that we know everything that’s happening. All that does is open the door to causal influences that we haven’t taken in to account. And it seems to me obvious that there are things in empty space or in controlled conditions in laboratories where we keep as close a control on causal factors as we can.
So we eliminate all personal factors in those situations and we say well, so they’re now operating. I’ve got no trouble with that. But what about cases like the brain where we say, actually as well as physical influences we sometimes decide to do things, suppose, the best example that appeals to me is doing mathematics. Suppose that you’re doing a very complicated mathematical problem and you’re solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.
And while you’re doing that if somebody said to you all that’s happening is certain laws of physics like the law of gravity and shredding as equations and things like that are working and they’re producing this, you trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem and I think the response would be well, I don’t care what the laws of physics are. What I’m trying to do is solve this theorem. I’m trying to perform a logical operation.
And it strikes me as fantastically implausible that a logical operation should correlate with laws of physics. Which are not operations in logic at all. Laws of physics is just regularities that happen in accordance with certain mathematical principles. They’re not laws of logic. So how on earth could you say that when you’re trying to think intelligently that is actually just laws of physics producing this affect. And that seems to be totally implausible.
So, my first point would be we don’t know enough about laws of nature to really say there’s a closed causal chain. There’s a lot of evidence against this being true. And we certainly know we couldn’t show that it was true. Then my second point is, it’s vastly implausible to think that performing rational or mathematical operations is something that could be totally explained just by physical laws.
I think there’s a powerful argument, they do seem to me to be, and so I think there’s a very plausible case to be made that there are nonphysical causal influences operating in the brain which are not physical. So the brain is not purely physical. And the nonphysical part does have in my dual aspect view there are causal influences between the physical and the mental, obviously.
But there are also causal influences between the mental and the physical. And that seems a commonsensical view and a plausible view. And a view which I don’t think science is committed against. Perhaps I can put that point very simply by saying when somebody says that nature consists of a closed set of purely physical laws which it could in principle be totally enumerated by human minds. I think the evidence in science is against that. [uplifting guitar music]
I think there are lots of sciences. The mistake is to think they all reduce, it’s reductionism, okay. The reductionism is every science reduces to physics and that’s the one that tells you the truth. All you have to do is find some science which doesn’t reduce to physics. Psychology, economics. What about history? Is that a science? Geography, people say it’s a science. You get all these, even biology. It’s not quite clear. Theory of evolution. Is that a science like physics?
I think there are just lots of different scientific approaches and they don’t reduce to one sort of activity. In other words, there’s nothing scientific to be said in favor of reducibility. But there is a dogma, I agree. I mean, there’s a, it’s pleasingly simple to say oh, well we could explain everything in the Universe if we could just get these few laws, a few simple elements. Well, dark energy and dark matter have destroyed that hope and as has quantum physics really. You just have to say well these things are a lot more complicated than we thought.
And we can’t even interpret them intelligibly yet to everybody’s agreement in science. So we’re not at an age where we’ve got a few agreed axioms. And from them we can explain everything that happens. We’re nowhere near that at all. I don’t want to get into tough science here but if you’re talking about information theory and the way that say DNA is a code for constructing proteins which build bodies, it’s actually, code is like a it’s like, but more complicated than the codes you use for digital computers. And those are not just physical things, you know.
A string of notes and ones on a computer doesn’t mean anything. But it’s a code. And I think a lot of scientists are now thinking there’s something very odd about a universe which seems to be shaped in terms of codes of information. Because information is not purely physical. It is embedded in the physical. But if you play a whole sting of notes and ones you don’t know it’s Beethoven’s 9th symphony. And yet it is, if you have the code. And that’s a totally new component in science.
So my view about science is talking to a lot of scientists I just think well, it’s too dogmatic to say we know that there could be no causal influences which come within our present physical understanding. It would be too dogmatic to say that. And then, the other half of this point if you think about how humans live is that freedom, free will, doing what I want, intending, trying hard to do things. That’s just a common human experience. It would need a very, very well established theory to show that this is an illusion. Right?
Interviewer: Yeah. So I think common sense ought to win. It’s the science you should be skeptical about. Or it’s not the science. It’s the materialistic philosophy which people, some people think derives from the science that you need to be skeptical about. Because it doesn’t fit, you know. If you’re starting philosophy from human experience one of your basic experiences, the most basic experience is the difference between doing something and having something done to you. Action and passion or you know.
So that sense of action is very primitive. It’s very, and you gotta say if you’re in science you would have to reduce that to just affect, everything will be in effect of something else. We would not be making real decisions which changed things that happened in the future. [uplifting music] ♪ Oh, oh, we, ah ♪ I think no empiricist is gonna be a materialist. If you’re an empiricist you start from ideas, sensations, visual, oral. If you’re a materialist you argue those away and say they’ve got to reduced to physical things which you don’t experience at all. You don’t experience atoms. You don’t experience electrons.
So I think materialism is the opposite of empiricism. So I think empiricism should lead you to some sort of idealism. And the fact that it doesn’t these days just people are hypnotized by science. And so people actually have a conflicting view, very paradoxical view. On the one hand all knowledge begins with experience. Then people say yeah, that’s true.
On the other hand science tells you the truth about the world. People say yes, that’s true. They don’t see that these two view are in total conflict. Empiricism doesn’t tell you that we live in an 11 dimensional hyper spacial world, right? Science does, apparently. So materialism is a very sophisticated highly technical theoretical postulate. Empiricism leaves you, Hume was a, not a theist. Berkeley was, obviously.
But you don’t have to be, empiricism could just leave you. You could be an empiricist and just not push it. Just say you got ideas. Even God, A.J. Ayer the great empiricist in England or the well known empiricist, anyway, in England who taught me, incidentally, would not have talked about God because he thought he didn’t experience God.
Or he thought nobody did. So you could be an empiricist and not a theist. Okay, that’s the thing. But you couldn’t be a materialist either. And I think we’re in a very funny cultural situation in our world where people think science is giving us the goods. It must be true. But most people don’t know what science is saying anymore.
They don’t realize how very weird a lot of science is. How far from common sense and from empiricism. So there is a split. But it’s not quite the one between religion and empiricist, materialist science. That’s not where the split comes. It’s a split between thinking science is the only thing that tells you the truth. And thinking no, experience is what really tells you the truth. Though science helps to understand some of the complexities of underlies purely physical phenomenon. So we’re all living in a sort of false consciousness world. We don’t realize what science is saying anymore.
How many people know about quantum theory? Very few. And mostly you can ignore this. I mean if you’re a biologist, you would ignore quantum theory, mostly. Not totally in molecular biology. But you don’t really have to get in to it. So I’m suggesting that actually fundamental state of the art science is much more weird, you know. I mean Richard Feynman said if anybody thinks they understand quantum theory, they’re lying [chuckles]. So it is quite weird. And it’s a long way from empiricism.
So I actually agree with Bishop Berkeley who I think was a rather good philosopher who said that his view was entirely commonsensical. As an empiricist. So you, you’d say as an empiricist I, how do I know I’m free? Because I know that when I try to raise my arm, I raise it. And when I don’t try, I don’t. And I know that that matters. That’s, I experience that as a matter of fact. What would it take to show that it wasn’t true? Well, it would take a very dogmatic belief in [chuckles] science as the total explanation of everything. Anyway, that’s how I see it. [uplifting music] ♪ La, la, la, la ♪ I mean a lot of people think that somehow empiricism is more scientific than other philosophical views.
Or even that it’s linked in some way to a materialistic view in science and that is almost the opposite of the truth. It’s true that the logical positivists in Vienna, the early 20th century thought that empiricism would be the basis of science. But in fact, empiricism makes modern science almost impossible because empiricism is the view that all human knowledge begins with perceptions with sights and sounds. What Ayer called sense data. And that all your knowledge must be built up from this.
And of course, scientific knowledge, which says there are atoms and electrons and quarks and multi dimensional realities and maybe even many universes, is as far from that view as you could get. And you say a scientific view now of the world if you say what is quantum reality really like? Won’t be anything anybody can ever ordinarily experience. So empiricism is more like a common sense view really. Although it’s not quite common sense.
But it uses the word experience in terms having perceptual or sensory information and starting from there. Now an empiricist doesn’t have to be a theist at all. A.J. Ayer certainly wasn’t. You could say there are just sensory experiences. In fact, Ayer himself said that you don’t ever have experiences of God. Say it’s, God isn’t a sense experience. So if you limited your basis of knowledge as sense experience you wouldn’t get to God, that’s true.
So you don’t have to be a theist. But you would be stuck with sense experiences. Of course A.J. Ayer also said there isn’t a such thing as a mind which has experiences. There are just experiences. That’s a very weird view but anyway, it is a view he held. There are just experiences with no mind. So, on those two things an idealist might differ from a empiricist. An idealist would say minds exist and they have experiences. And God is the super mind, experiences everything. And you don’t have to say that.
But still, I would say empiricism is nearer to idealism than it is to scientific materialism because at least in idealism you’re dealing with, even with God, something like perceptual knowledge. It’s not gonna be perceptual of course but it’s not a million miles away. It’s knowledge of somethings that exist and can be perceived.
Whereas in modern science you’re dealing with quarks which could never even be separated from each other and so can not be possibly individually observed. And that’s just a very long way from ordinary perceptual experience. You might get there by a lot of arguments. But it, very abstract theoretical argument. So I think from empiricism to materialism is a long abstract road. From empiricism to God is a pretty direct road. But one you’re not forced to take. Anyway, the upshot is you can not be an empiricist and a materialist. [uplifting piano music] One of the important questions about persons I think is the question of why you should give persons a special dignity.
And why you should have human rights. I presume human rights really means personal rights and that anything with free moral responsibility and intelligence would have the same sort of rights that humans have. We just don’t know or don’t think perhaps that other things have. But why should you give such dignity to people? I think that’s a very difficult question. I myself believe that if I thought that people were just very complicated physical mechanisms and nothing more I would give people really no more respect than I would give to atoms. I mean I might give some respect to an atom. I don’t know how I’d do that. But, I don’t know. Quite, no I have no idea what I’d do.
But why should I give respect to people? It’s not just that I’d like to have people around or I may not like to have people around but that whatever I like or don’t like about people I have to try to preserve their freedom and their life and their health. And I should care for every person to as great a degree as I possibly can. So, what I think there has to be some foundation. I don’t think you could just say I just decide to do that. Because then somebody could just say okay you decided to do that. I decide to do something different. There must be a foundation. There must be a reason.
It’s got to be a metaphysical foundation. That is to say, it’s gotta be founded in the nature of human persons. So what is in the nature of human persons that makes you give them respect. And I think at this point I have to say something rather nasty. Which is that most human persons are very dislikable. Present company excepted, of course [chuckles]. That people really are pretty vile and they do terrible things to one another.
The number of wars we have in the world. The violence we have in the world. The competitiveness, the sheer bloody mindedness of people towards one another. Personal relationships always breaking down over property and over money and over what they want. So people just viewed as organisms you may think they don’t seem to deserve much respect. If respect depended upon the sort of personalities that had not everybody would get respect. Very few people would.
So it must be something more than that. It must be something more than are people likable or so here’s your problem. And to cut a rather long story short I think you could only say that if persons are have some ultimate value which is placed upon them, as it doesn’t arise out of our own actual character that they’re developing, and the most natural and shortest way to say this, if there were a God who had created everything but had created persons specifically to have an eternal destiny, fellowship with God, and that was their destiny and God wanted them to achieve that, that was God’s purpose.
And you would be frustrating God’s purpose if you didn’t help them to achieve that destiny. That would give a good justification for respecting human persons as persons who were valued by God for what they could become. Not just for what they are because that might be not very good at all. But for, you have to cherish what they are because of what they are meant to become and what they are able to become with God’s help.
So, I think if you believe in God you have a good reason, a good foundation for saying persons have inherent dignity put upon them by God’s purpose for their lives. You take that away and say there is no purpose for their lives at all, they’re purely physical organisms, I wouldn’t really say that I would believe in human rights. And the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it very well when he said, “Talk about human rights is nonsense “and talk about inalienable human rights “is nonsense on stilts.” [chuckles] And that makes me tremble. [piano music] There’ve always been materialists in the world even long before scientists.
And there’ve always been idealists in the world. The people who think they know that purpose and value are part of the constituency of the physical universe. And it’s the same in ethics. There’ve always been people who think ethics morality is basically founded on human decisions about you can live together with other people. But you decide that and you set it up. And people who believe there’s sort of an objective moral law whether God or whatever else it might be that you ought to adhere to. So, that’s I suppose the difference between objective ethics, you know, there it is. It’s true you ought not to kill babies. Whatever you think. And subject of ethics.
Know people have the sentiment that they want to kill babies and that’s how, grows up. When Aristotelian approaches to the world to do, putting purposes in the world basically were overthrown by the birth of modern science that had an effect also in the world of ethics. It took away the notion of objective purpose. So you could no longer ask what is the purpose of human life or what is a good life? As though there were some objective standard of a good life. You had to make it up yourself. And then you had the question well, how can you make it up?
And utilitarians were people who thought well, the obvious thing is pleasure and pain. You try to do what brings pleasure. Avoid what brings pain. And so that was very much bound up with a chain with the rise of science really. At the same time utilitarianism of course was an empiricist morality. That is, it was very much bound up with thinking my pleasure, my pain. This is something I feel. Pleasure and pain don’t exist out there.
So it’s very much to do with human experiences. So, utilitarianism is bound up first with the rejection of Aristotelian purpose of view of nature and secondly with the rise of empiricism, a concentration on human experience as the basis of reality. It’s not bound up with materialism, okay. So it’s bound up with the early empiricist view but taken in a nontheistic direction. I mean, I think certainly utilitarianism is a way of trying to get a mechanical model of ethics.
I mean, Bentham even had a calculus to calculate how much pleasure there was in reading poetry and I’m much, they weren’t having a hot bath. You can’t get more mechanical than that. So, yeah, it was a mechanistic sort of philosophy. It’s developed a lot since then but that was Bentham’s original idea. [melancholy orchestral music] I think there are a lot of philosophers maybe most moral philosophers today think that morality is autonomous meaning it doesn’t depend on your other beliefs about the world. It doesn’t depend upon the will of God. It doesn’t depend upon your believing in God. And I think this is quite wrong, really. I think there is a basic morality.
There is a basic moral agreement you can get whether or not you believe in God. Nevertheless, a morality based on belief in God is very different from a morality which is not based on belief in God. And the root of that difference is I think belief in whether there is any purpose or goal in the existence of the Universe and particularly, where there’s any goal for human beings. Is there a way that human being ought to live? Whatever they think. Is there a goal that it is proper for them and possible for them to aim at? Whatever they think. That’s the point.
And I think a nontheistic morality can not say there is such a goal. It doesn’t make sense within that world view. So you’d have to work it out in terms of well, what makes for the most acceptable sort of life as that actually is in this world. Whereas, a theistic morality, one that is based on belief in God, is both easier and harder in different ways. It’s easier in the way that you do think it is nice to think, it is comforting, if you like, to think there is a goal in human life which God could help you to achieve.
Or at least it gives you a sense of optimistic purpose the long run. And something to aim at. But comforting is not quite the right word for that because it’s also much harder to live that life. And you have to well, in the worst cases of course be prepared to give your life. To be a martyr. To give many things up. As Jesus said, “You must take up your cross. “Then follow me.” So you’ve got this balance in a theistic morality between while it gives you a sense of purpose which is good but it may lead you to die and Jesus of course was primary example of this.
As somebody who had a sense of purpose, the Kingdom of God and it’s advent. And also, he died because of this. So theistic morality both in its sense of striving for a purpose even though you know it probably won’t succeed in this life. Not giving up. And in the sense of being prepared to die for the sake of your moral beliefs. These are things which a non-theist would find very difficult to justify. I’m not saying impossible because humans can think their way through almost anything.
But it’s not easy to see how if you really thought there was objectively no way that humans ought to live. Why should you try very hard to live in a particular way? Unless you felt like it. And then, one day you might not feel like it. And so, what would be wrong with that? And I think the best example of a non-theistic morality is someone like Jean-Paul Sartre who just said, ended up by saying, “Hell is other people.” [chuckles]
There’s no way out really. You’re just stuck with this life. You make up a purpose but you know there isn’t any purpose. You’re bound to fail. He was quite a depressive character, really.
Interviewer: Yes, indeed.
And so, I think there is a big difference. I think belief in God does make a difference and indeed, I do think that most human beings do have a sense that there are things they ought to do. And there is a way they ought to live and that it’s worth striving morally even if what you’re striving for is gonna fail. And I think that is a good argument for God. Because none of those things really make sense without a belief that there is a purpose which could be achieved. So, that’s why I favor a theistic morality.
Although, as I say, most moral philosophers assuming there’s no God, have to find some other basis and I think that’s very hard to do. I think there are two parts really. At least two parts to a theistic morality. One is the sense of purpose. There is a goal to be achieved. And it will be a fulfillment of human capacities in a human life. Not a diminishment of it. The other thing is that there is an objective reality of goodness. That is that God is perfectly good.
So, God is a being who fulfills all desires. In other words, there is something to love. I mean if you think morality’s a matter of just doing your duty, you’d do it because it’s wrong. Well, that’s okay to do that. Yes. If you think it’s about of loving other people. Well if you look at them hard that’s gonna be difficult to keep up for long. But if you think it’s a matter of loving God who is supremely perfect and who loves you and you’re responding to that love, that’s a completely different approach. So you can actually love you do what is right because you love the person who tells you to do it.
And that’s a completely different motivation formality. I don’t see how a non-theist could have such a motivation. So I do not think that an atheist has to me immoral. I don’t think that at all. I think they just find it hard to justify morality and they lack that element that there is love as well as duty in morality. And I think Christians have that enormous privilege of saying we love because we are loved. Sounds like the end, doesn’t it?
Interviewer: It does sound like– [Keith laughs]
Interviewer: Can you– [soft piano music]