19 January, 2015Issue 27.1LiteratureNon-fictionPhilosophyReligion

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A Knack for Profundity?

Hugh Burling

Graham Ward
Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t
IB Tauris, 2014
£20 (hardback)
288 pages
ISBN: 9781780767352

The latest publication of Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity, Graham Ward, is a rich offering. It is simultaneously a work in philosophy of mind, epistemology, applied psychology, neuroscience, archaeology and bio-anthropology. Ward’s analysis of the way in which assenting to ideas and acting on them runs through, and is conditioned by, all human behaviour casts a wide net in search of stimuli. There are extended accounts of theories in evolutionary anthropology and neuroscience in Part I. Parts II and III are high- and low-cultural criticism in the modern theological vein at its best: suggestive and inspiring while remaining accessible. In one sense the scope of this book is ambitious, tying together so many and such diverse threads. In another, however, it is cautious, conservative even: Ward’s highly ambiguous style makes it difficult to discern what precise claims he wishes to defend, and this reader could never be quite sure whether they were more than unsurprising commonplaces with which few working in epistemology or philosophy of mind could disagree.

Perhaps these are not the people Unbelievable was written for. Nevertheless, there are surely standards of exposition and scholarship appropriate both to “academic” and “popular” books. When Ward cites evidence from fields he’s not expert in, does he choose uncontroversial figures to represent the consensus in those fields? If Unbelievable is a popularizing project, does he put lay readers in touch with illuminating further reading? The answer to both these questions is, sadly, no. There are no page references, despite extended quotations full of ambiguous terms. The bibliography doesn’t include all the works cited (or, at least, there’s no indication as to which of the works in the bibliography a citation is from). The scientific works cited are almost all coffee-table forays into the philosophy of mind or religion by neuroscientists and evolutionary anthropologists. One thing a non-specialist reader needs is confidence that the author understands the specialist material he is representing, and presents it faithfully. By the time Ward was quoting an archaeologist’s description of her own dreams as evidence that the Chauvet caves were the site of pre-historic mystery cults, most of my confidence had been undermined.

There’s no point, however, at which Ward tells us this is a book aimed to entertain a general intellectual audience, rather than those better acquainted with any of the debates at hand. There is a persistent, breathless rhetoric of innovation and urgency throughout, which suggests that Unbelievable may be a presentation of positive research, not just a way of inspiring a lay readership to think more carefully about their political and religious beliefs. Ward describes it as an “interdisciplinary project” and he does occasionally claim to be making an “argument”, an “investigation”, the conclusion of which concerns something which “is really at stake”. (The thinkers and scientists he draws on are almost all “groundbreaking”—I presume the intention here is to glorify the sources and let that reflect on Unbelievable. Perhaps Hegel was “groundbreaking” in 1807, but I suspect his glory is too far and faded to reach us now.)

So it seems that familiar standards can be legitimately applied when assessing how sound his “argument” is and how successful his “investigation”. Does he choose salient evidence for his conclusions? Are the conclusions warranted by that evidence? Are the conclusions stated precisely enough for us to know what it would mean for us to disagree with them? Ward uses a range of strategies to make these questions too difficult for readers to answer confidently. The most identifiable of these strategies is the use of the central terms of his discussion—”belief”, “disposition”, “intentionality”—in a deeply ambiguous way, their connotations and implications shifting from page to page. Fallacies of equivocation, not to mention just plain non sequiturs, sing their siren song in every chapter.

Part I sets out to give us an “archaeology” and “architecture” of believing. Ward claims that he wants us to think of “belief” as a “disposition”, but a disposition to do what? The most often implied answer is “a disposition to believe”, which leaves us none the wiser about how he’s using the term “belief”. He brings to the table lots of evolutionary anthropology to make the case that “belief”, construed in this way, is inevitable for human beings since the activities belief is a disposition to do are what distinguish us from animals (notice that circularities loom unless “disposition” gets defined differently from the way Ward uses it). His “architecture” of believing mixes in some cognitive psychology and neuroscience to push the well-established notion that beliefs, affections and bodily states are connected in all sorts of interesting, and problematic, ways. Ward advertises these views—a dispositional rather than attitudinal view of belief, and the interdependence of feelings, bodily states, and beliefs—as controversial and revolutionary using a well-worn strategy: find a group of analytic philosophers writing decades ago who pushed the initial, simple versions of a now discredited or much-refined view; identify all current mainstream philosophy with that view; reject that view. Now, as far as the non-specialist reader is concerned, the author is a revolutionary striking out against an obviously mistaken consensus.

This strategy works even better if the author can misrepresent the philosophical view, and recent science, enough to make it look as though the science discredited the philosophy. That way, he can make himself look like a man of the future and mainstream philosophers look like vain speculators. Ward readily avails himself of this technique, seeming to present the anthropology and neuroscience as empirical evidence for his views about the “architecture of belief”. Doing so, however, sits very ill with his postmodern jibes at the scientific method that crop up now and again: we’re told that “Enlightenment aspirations to objectivity have been shown to be myths masking various levels of human interest and cultural bias”, and psychobiologist David Lewis-Williams is castigated for believing in the hypotheses supported by his research in spite of the fact that his job and lab exist in a social context. It’s not at all clear how Ward can claim the scientific method is unreliable because it’s socially constructed, whilst also claiming its deliverances as good evidence for his views.

There are other hangovers from Ward’s days as a leader among the movement of postmodern theologians known as “Radical Orthodoxy”, which sought to cast all post-Medieval intellectual developments merely as heretical deviations from the manifest truth of Patristic theology. An undefined rationalist bogeyman lurks just beyond view at all times, totemically kept at bay with periodical repudiations of “Western rationalization” and “Post-Cartesian lenses”. There is the occasional sentence which appears to have been algorithmically generated by the Modern Theology Profundity Machine‚Ñ¢: “this is the origin of conscious belief: the going out of oneself—that’s a projection—towards a recognition of communication with the other that makes the self also understand something about itself.” Somewhat more irritating are the inventive discussions of the meanings of Greek words and one particular passage in which the grammar of Hebrews 11:1 is made out to have highly implausible phenomenological or metaphysical implications: Ward reckons that the “is” in “faith is the substance of things hoped for” is Paul’s description of “the ontological conditions within which the subject [faith] is located.” This strikes me as, at best, a confusing way to explain what that verb is doing here.

Parts II and III are more successful, possibly because appeals to scientific evidence imply one’s position is being held to a high bar for substantiation and precision. The exercise of unpacking music videos, Tolkein, and Graham Greene with the help of Sartre, Barthes and Merleau-Ponty is a different sort of intellectual activity, subject to subtler standards. Part II suggests that coming to assent to an idea and live by it requires imaginative work. This is an important proviso to the more familiar claim outlined in Part III that works of the imagination, far from being innocent entertainments or pristinely aesthetic objects, are thoroughly inscribed by ideology. Ward’s presentation of the way in which Lana Del Rey and Chris Brown appeal to messianic motifs to tie patriotism and romantic satisfaction up with moral victory and the hope of salvation is intelligent, plausible and exciting.

The latter two parts thus present a non-hostile variation on an old-fashioned Marxist hermeneutics of suspicion: Ward tells us not to take for granted our meaning-making structures, but not to presume there’s anything “behind” them, or that the one we have is not the one we should want. This is the sort of message which a general intellectual audience needs to hear. Those of us who aren’t sceptical about political messaging should be. Those of us who are already disciples of suspicion should recognise that the provenance or purpose of a superstructure does not necessarily make it misleading.

Finally, Ward attempts to argue, with the help of Merleau-Ponty (and insisting, but not showing, that the science in Part I supports this view), that the meaning-making, the filling in of epistemic gaps, in which we always and must engage even in looking at household objects and identifying them, goes beyond the “visible” in a way that allows beliefs in and about invisible objects (such as God) to be regarded as natural, legitimate extensions of what every atheist also does when they “see” the sides on the back of a cube. Expressed in the terms of mainstream epistemology of religion, rules of rationality which rule out theistic belief can be shown to lead to radical skepticism. But this, again, is a view at least as old as Thomas Reid and John Henry Newman.

Hugh Burling is reading for a PhD in philosophy of religion at St John’s College, Cambridge.