The big Questions in Science and Religion

West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008. vi+282 pp. $13.56 (paper).

@sohail Nakhooda

Keith Ward, once the Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Oxford University, presents a richly illustrated book on the questions that harbor the domains of science and religion. The Big Questions is a brave attempt to weave a narrative of different philosophies, religions, and worldviews to answer ten questions that Ward thinks are the most important. The book is holistic while it tries to answer the questions it poses through science, philosophy, theology, and spirituality.

Ward mentions the purpose of the book when he writes, “So, while putting a case for a positive and healthy relation between religion and science, I have also presented the problematic points and the main opposing views as fairly as I can”5. Ward sweeps through the traditional issues on the subject such as cosmology, consciousness, morality, Divinity, evolution, and miracles. The reader will be very impressed how the discussion is engaged with the viewpoints of not only the Christian faith, of which Ward is a follower, but also the other Abrahamic faiths as well as the Eastern traditions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, a uniqueness which cannot be said of other books of the same subject. However, at some points in the narrative it feels the breadth of the material dilutes the depth of engagement.

Ward’s moderation of depth and breadth, while arguing for and against various points, is visible in certain parts of the book. An excellent example is on the chapter of the soul (chapter 6). On the scientific progress in neuroscience Ward highlights the misrepresentations by scientists on the subject. On claiming to read minds in a specific study, Ward exposes the falsity of the claim when he highlights that all the scientists did was to correlate certain things thought by the patients with brightening of certain parts in the brain scans (147)—far from reading minds in contrast to capturing data signals. In another instance he succinctly highlights the paradoxical nature of “ finding consciousness” when he writes, “[Neuroscience] has not reduced consciousness to observable states of the brain, and, in fact it seems to presuppose that there needs to be an independent mode of access to conscious states that is not open to experimental science” (150). Ward also covers the importance of artificial intelligence into the discussion of consciousness. While highlighting the example of John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment he further notes the important distinction between computers and human consciousness, the distinction being that of self-awareness and imagination (151–2). Furthering his argument on the soul, Ward mentions the top-down causation by phenomenological states onto matter by referring to the molding of brains from intellectual activity (154).
Ward also highlights a definitive division between mind and matter when he writes, “Phenomenally accessed data (obtained by introspection) are described in a different way from publicly accessed observations of brain activity. Whereas brain activity is, broadly speaking, atomistic and made of discrete parts, phenomenal perception is holistic and nodenumberable” (148).

Ward’s criticism against empirical dogmatism is not restricted to the chapterof the soul alone. Throughout the book one finds several highlighting examples of definitive critiques. For instance, he exposes the mathematical treatment of concepts by physicists. While highlighting the ability to treat time as another dimension on a coordinate system, he writes, “But then mathematics can represent almost anything as a set of coordinates or abstract relationships. . . . But it would be a mistake to think . . . that the mathematical formalism has captured everything of interest about real-world objects” (124). In another instance after clarifying the nature of multiverses, Ward highlights the violation of Ockham’s razor with the false binary between multiverses and an Intelligent Creator (235). However, Ward is equally critical of points that potentially favor his own worldview. An example is when Ward discusses the problems with verification of personal religious experience that is unobservable to public verification (211). In another part of the book Ward hints to the epistemological issue of accepting the Bible’s testimony for believers and then “thinking of some way of making its occurrences seem reasonable in the light of the alleged purposes of God” (90).