Keith Ward on Materialism, 15     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14

Ward thus begins to refute the argument directly produced by what he rightly finds to be the main drive behind materialism, the rage at the injustice, suffering and evil we find in the universe. This really requires a whole theodicy, and this is also what he proceeds to set forth in outline in the next few paragraphs. It contains several classical themes.

“In a universe generated in such a way, chance and necessity, the conditions of open creativity and intelligible structure respectively, may be bound together in a complex way. Perhaps the general structure of the universe has to be the way it is, because the forms of its being are necessarily laid down in the basic mathematical array of possible worlds.”

As I have already tried to argue, the basic array of possible worlds, in which the forms of the universe’s being, of its being the way it is, cannot possibly be conceived as exclusively mathematical. It is not clear how closely the conception of the necessity of the general structure of the universe is for Ward tied to the mathematical nature of the array of possible worlds. If it depends on it, the argument would, it seems, be untenable. It then has to be rethought so as to make possible the conception of the necessity in terms of non-formal forms, as it were, in the basic array determining the general structure of the universe.

“And the selection of actual universes”, he continues, “may be determined by goals that are worthwhile but hard to achieve and unavoidably susceptible to failure.” This introduces the question of the nature of the goals. And this is a vast issue, involving problems of the philosophy of history and of eschatology. Depending on how the goals are conceived – in terms of a secular futurology of wholly immanent, desirable states of affairs in human society, or in terms of a spiritual culture open to the transcendent dimension – the argument may be acceptable or not.

“Plato and Aristotle struggled with this problem at the beginning of the European philosophical tradition. Their proposal (or one of them) was that the cosmic mind does not create matter, but shapes it to imitate and participate in the divine perfection as far as such a thing is possible. The material realm is one in which chance and necessity combine to form a structure with definite limits but also with possibilities for a certain amount of free creativity. The divine mind shapes the material in accordance with the intrinsic values of beauty and perfection that are inherent in its own being. But even the divine mind cannot annul the elements of chance and necessity that are inseparable from any material universe.”

Plato’s and Aristotle’s teachings on matter are complex. What is translated as matter is not the same as the matter of classical materialism. But it is possible to isolate and identify to an extent that is sufficient for this argument that which is comparable with it. If “elements of chance and necessity” are to be ascribed to this matter as such, however, we must again raise questions about its nature and indeed about whether such a thing exists at all. And, in general, rather than speaking in philosophical analyses of a material realm or universe, with the tacit assumptions or implications of such a concept, what we should perhaps say, and what we can safely say, is that there is a phenomenon, something that we as finite beings experience as matter, and to which elements of chance and necessity may be ascribed. But of course, Ward here speaks of a Platonic and Aristotelian conception.

“What seems to be cosmic injustice or indifference to suffering may be in fact”, Ward suggests, “an unavoidable consequence of the interplay of chance and necessity, inseparable from any material world, influenced but not wholly determined by the attraction of a divine mind that seeks to draw all things towards itself.” Via Plato and Aristotle, we have moved here from the basic (mathematical) array of possible worlds to an actual world of “matter”. But it is the former that determined the latter, inasmuch as the forms of its being are necessarily laid down in it. Yet is is not wholly determined by the divine mind. The latter must thus be more than the basic array, although the array must be conceived as part of it. While the basic array of possibility determines the interplay of chance and necessity in actual “material” universes, the part of the divine mind that is not identical with the array seeks to draw the actual universe (“all things”) to itself, an influence which cannot be a complete determination because of the nature of the array. Again, it is clear that the divine mind must be more than the basic array if the latter is conceived purely in terms of mathematics. But even if it is not, even if it is conceived in terms of “non-formal forms”, the divine mind must be something more than it.

And again, there arises the question of what the drawing of all things to the divine mind means more precisely, with regard to the worthwhile goals and intrinsic values, the state of the realized goals and values. Is “matter” going to be somehow perfected in itself by the imitation of and participation in the divine perfection, by the closeness to the divine mind in a future scenario, or will that which lives in matter, that which experiences matter, the finite beings, transcend matter altogether through this drawing? There are important differences of worldview implied in the different answers to these questions. Either the “material” realm becomes translucent with the intrinsic values, and the worthwhile goal is a state of matter itself as thus perfected. Or the intrinsic values are merely guiding and ever imperfectly realized ones in a “material” universe – any “material” universe – which knows no such definite goal but remains finite and ever to some extent imperfect, so that the orientation of the finite beings that is indicated by the intrinsic values is primarily and ultimately the purely transcendent one towards the divine mind itself and as such (the divine mind that has more dimensions than that of the basic array of possibilities of universes), quite regardless of any accidental relation to phenomenal universes.

“In general, this philosophical approach does provide a robust theoretical response to the reproach that good and bad fortune are wholly accidental, or that no alleged cosmic consciousness could seriously intend to create a universe containing so much suffering. A universe in which free creativity and genuine personal relationships are important has to be a world in which chance (undirectedness by some determining force) has to play a part – though chance always works within the limits of a more general determinate structure.”

Again, chance and necessity are “bound together in a complex way”, since it seems chance cannot be explained by reference to “matter” itself but must somehow be part of the basic array of possibilities which determines any actual universe. Good and bad fortune are not wholly accidental but they are partly accidental, and the cosmic consciousness intended to create the actual universe as it is, as partly determined and partly accidental, since the basic array of possible universes in its own mind is the way it is. Free creativity and genuine personal relationships are part of the goals and intrinsic values, and they require chance in the sense of “undirectedness by some determining force” (a discussion of freedom could be added here). But given the premises with regard to the original source and nature of chance and necessity, the meaning of the creation in terms of an actuality of “matter” would seem somewhat unclear if the source and nature are not exclusively conceived in mathematical terms. There arises the question of the distinctive properties of the experienced materiality as a defining part of actual universes. There are of course many kinds of actual universes or phenomenal worlds that can arise within the divine mind or the cosmic consciousness from its basic array of possibilities.

“And the primordial creative mind does not intend to create suffering. Suffering is a possibility that cannot be eliminated from the necessary set of possibilities in the divine mind. Some suffering is unavoidably necessary in any universe that generates personally created values by beings that are an integral part of a developing, creative, dynamic and interconnected physical system. And much suffering is intensified in kind and degree by the self-centered choices of finite, free intelligences.”

While Ward seeks to refute materialism, I have asked some further questions about the nature of matter or the “physical system” mentioned here. I have also asked some questions about the nature of the goal, and thus the purpose, of creation as Ward loosely conceives it in the Biblical tradition, questions which I have discussed at greater length elsewhere in direct connection with Biblical theology and eschatology. It seems to me these questions are important for the precise understanding of the “personally created values”, the beings that are the persons creating them, and the nature of the “system” of which they are parts. The residues of Biblical theology in terms of “material” creation produce some philosophical difficulties. But on a general level which can be identified apart from the worldview differentiation introduced by these questions, I think I agree with this formulation of Ward’s.

But Ward says “some suffering” is “unavoidably necessary” in “any universe” with the specified intrinsic qualities. It would seem this suffering must then be part not only of the process leading to what Ward considers the “goal” of “creation”, but of that goal itself, of the universe as already drawn to the divine mind etc., if the goal is indeed the goal of the universe itself. It is then a matter of the definition of this suffering. But if the goal is that of the finite beings only and not wholly of the universe itself, the transcendent goal of the finite beings as distinguishable from the universe, the transcendent goal that is not reducible to the universe’s determinating structure, there would be no unavoidable necessity in it of the kind of suffering Ward has in mind.

Ward says that philosophy “cannot take us much further than this”. With regard to the specific questions I have raised, I would be so bold as to suggest that philosophy, as distinct from Biblical theology, can take us a little further. But these are not the questions that are central to Ward’s position, and his answers can be reformulated as applicable within the framework of a philosophy that takes us a little further with regard to my questions.

“But it may suggest that if there is a cosmic mind that is inherently perfect, yet has knowledge of every actual event, knowledge of suffering will be transmuted in the divine mind by its conscious inclusion within a wider and deeper experience. Since the divine mind has infinite time at its disposal, and intends the existence of distinctive values, there is some reason to hope that evil can eventually be overcome and eliminated, and might even be used to generate distinctive sorts of values – so that, while evil can never be justified by its consequences, all evil may nevertheless be turned to some otherwise non-existent good.

Here it seems to me that “evil”, if there is reason to hope it can be overcome and eliminated, must be distinguished from “some suffering” in the preceding paragraph. The main question that arises here is, again, the one about where and when precisely, in terms of Ward’s ontological categories, or rather, metaphysical levels, the eventual overcoming and elimination takes place, especially if we continue to speak of a matter that still, after the refutation of materialism’s view of matter, is still somehow distinctive enough to define a particular kind of “created” universe.

Ward further explains his position: “Finally, it seems possible that the divine mind could enable finite intelligences to share in this divine experience of ‘redeemed’ evil. If that could be, materialist objections to the pointlessness and injustice of life would be overcome by giving all sentient beings a share in a supremely valuable reality, to the precise nature of which they had made an important contribution.” It certainly seems possible that the divine mind could enable finite intelligences to share this experience. But does it imply that, as a result of a temporal processes, the whole of the actual “material” universe, i.e. the universe of or with finite intelligences, will at one point be without as yet unredeemed evil (but only  with some suffering), that such evil will then be forever a thing of the universe’s and the finite intelligences’ past alone? That there will be in the totality of reality, i.e. in the divine mind conceived as all-inclusive cosmic consciousness, a state where there is no longer any as yet unredeemeed evil in the (or any) actual universe? And is the acceptance of such a state necessary for the tenability of Ward’s theodicy? Elements of a Biblical eschatology and the historical mode of thinking that it leads to seem to produce here a position that is not really needed for the validity of the general argument.

It also seems there are other positions, having to do with the freedom – and the meaning of the freedom – of the finite intelligences (Ward only briefly mentions one aspect of this above), that could be adduced here in order to account for the existence, without any such cosmic history, in the totality of reality of such parts of it in which at least periodically the injustice, suffering and evil which produce the primarily psychological reaction that produces materialism are indeed experienced. But sufficient stress should certainly be placed, with regard to the finite intelligences that primarily experience this, on what Ward here says about the general possibility of their being enabled to share in the divine experience of it as “redeemed”, and their contribution, through their experience and their way of dealing with it, to a supremely valuable reality.

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