‘Unbelievable: Why we believe and why we don’t’ by Graham Ward (I.B. Tauris, 2014)
Reviewed by Robert M. Ellis
I took up this book because I read in a review that it was influenced by Iain McGilchrist and probed beneath the surface of belief. It promised to be a book that goes beyond the sterile discussions of belief as mere conscious proposition that one usually finds in analytic philosophy and theology. It promised to take our embodiment seriously. This is a book by the Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford, but it keeps reassuring us that it is not a book of theology, but rather a more basic multi-disciplinary exploration of belief.
For the first hundred pages or so I was intrigued and gripped by a subtle, synthetic, widely-informed intellect at work, who not only assembled a case about the depths of our beliefs which drew widely on science, arts and humanities, but did so with some engaging examples and metaphors (beginning with a ghost sighting that divided ‘belief’ in Ward’s own college). For quite a while I did believe that this was not really a book of theology, but by the end was ironically finding the book living up to its own title. By the end, in fact, I was profoundly disappointed with a book that had failed to live up to its earlier promise, and seemed to have slid back into all-too-familiar theological habits of seeking ever new and subtler weapons, often appropriated from the enemy, in an ongoing dualistic entrenchment against secularism.
But before I get onto its failings, let me start with what I positively learnt about belief from this book. Ward writes a good deal in the earlier parts of the book about human origins, and about the metaphor of a cave as the way of understanding the embodied roots of belief. He uses this to explore an account of belief as disposition or seeing as, that is, as an underlying attitude to the world that informs our attitudes and judgements. That belief cannot just be a conscious phenomenon is something I have long ago concluded in my own work, but Ward provides a good account for those who may not have considered this possibility before. He draws on Iain McGilchrist to also explain the distinction between explicit, linguistically-focused beliefs based in the left frontal lobe, as opposed to the right frontal lobe’s unconscious models, used for example when a man threw himself into the water in response to a mother’s look, before realising that she had been looking at a drowning child and that he had responded to an inference from her horror without conscious processing.
Belief, then, is not just left-hemisphere explicit belief, but also a much more intuitive and implicit right hemisphere response to conditions. Apart from automatic actions, the phenomenon of implicit right hemisphere belief can help us to explain the significance of the cave paintings that early humans used to provide deeper orientating responses to their worlds. Belief is not just knowledge without certainty, as the left hemisphere tends to perceive it, but a mode of relating, an implicit trust in our experience that reflects the action of mirror neurons in imaginatively constructing what another person may be feeling. Ward locates the key moment in the evolution of human belief in a moment of trust between two people, where mutual responsibility developed in spite of limitations of mutual knowledge.
At the intellectual high-water mark around the middle of his book, Ward recognises that
If cultural history does reveal to us a cognitive contention, with evolutionary consequences for adaptation…then it demonstrates the human brain works, like the human body, towards a homeostasis of the right ordering of right- and left-hemisphere activities.
Here we have also the promise of a value for judging beliefs built on a recognition of how belief relates to brain lateralisation: i.e. that more integrated beliefs (not solely left hemisphere certainties) are more adaptive, more effective, and address conditions better. But about this point in the book is where the big disappointment begins. Ward completely fails to capitalise on this insight or develop it into an account of how to differentiate between beliefs. One can only guess at the root reasons for this: perhaps he wrongly sees an explanation of better and worse beliefs in terms of the brain as necessarily reductive, perhaps he is enslaved to academic conventions of descriptivism and is in some way afraid to put forward new moral or epistemological criteria, or perhaps the territory just feels too unfamiliar for him to see the implications clearly enough.
From this point onwards, Ward very strikingly also fails to connect over-certainty of left hemisphere belief with anything at all that goes on in Christianity, even though he is eager to identify that narrow certainty with secular reductionism that he opposes. Fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and clerical dogma simply fail to get any kind of mention or acknowledgement despite their obvious relevance and the wide-ranging nature of the discussion otherwise. This is a rather striking omission that it is rather hard not to see as offering a one-sided or even bowdlerised implicit version of Christianity.
Instead, Ward wants us to connect religious faith with the intuitive processes of the right hemisphere, where terms like ‘transcendence’ and ‘metaphysics’ have their fangs pulled and are presented as mere outgrowths of embodied confidence. We need to believe in metaphysical values such as external realities, ultimate subjects with consciousness and freedom, and ultimately God, Ward argues, because we need “to point ahead of ourselves, into what is hidden in the invisibility”. In this respect Ward makes some good points about embodied confidence and the way we need to project ahead of our immediate experience. But here Ward strikingly fails to acknowledge the ways that intuitive religious faith usually comes packaged with metaphysical belief of the most over-certain left-hemisphere kind.
He also apparently not interested in exploring what might be the result if we removed such over-certainties from religious faith. There is no mention of a Don Cupitt style non-realist interpretation of religion even as a possibility, even though he is willing to say such apparently agnostic things as “Whatever God is (or may be) is a name we give to what we don’t understand”. Despite much rather uninformative discussion of myth, there is no engagement with archetypes or the role they might play in making sense of religion without metaphysical absolutes. If we are to take Ward’s main thesis seriously (that religious faith needs to be recognised as an intuitive process) he also needs to show that it is, or at least could be, just an intuitive process without disruptive cognitive elements, and this he signally fails to do. Instead he idealises faith.
‘Unbelievable’ is thus unbelievable because it represses all the problems with ‘belief’ that it implicitly raises but fails to address. Instead, it adopts rather an appropriative approach to the arts and to meaningfulness in general. Although it acknowledges the role of the body and the right hemisphere in producing meaning, meaning is not clearly separated from belief at any stage, and as a result, Ward effectively makes a takeover bid for the whole of human meaning as being grist for the mill of ‘belief’ (which, if not explicitly Christian, at least depends on a Christian model of what ‘belief’ is).
There is indeed a continuity between our most deeply-rooted sense of meaning, actuated by our desires, and beliefs of all kinds, but to fail to draw any lines across that continuum, and treat it all as implicitly ‘belief’, is to lay it open to manipulative appropriation by absolutising left hemisphere beliefs at the far end of the continuum. Instead, I think we need to be clear that not all meaning involves belief, even of an implicit kind. Much of our deeper experience of archetypal ritual, religious experience and the arts contributes to our lives by providing potential resources that could be used in assembling a wide range of beliefs. This meaning is not ‘belief’, even of an implicit kind, because it does not involve any assumptions that form the basis of action one way or the other. For example, my appreciation of a work of art such as Vermeer’s ‘Arnolfini Marriage’ can subtly influence my outlook on life, but it does this by providing recurring images, characterisations, colour combinations, a cultural sense of the context, and so on. This may not directly influence my behaviour in any way, but it nevertheless enriches my life. Such non-belief operative meaning is just not allowed for in Ward’s account of belief.
It is only when we start to make practical assumptions that belief proper begins, and even then we can still make considerable distinctions between beliefs of different degrees of provisionality. I may have an idea that something may the case, but it be very provisional because conditional on other factors that I may recognise as operating or not through my experience. For example, I may very provisionally believe that the bird singing outside is a blackbird, but when I go outside and look find it to be a thrush. If my experience suggests it, I may be able to let go of such a belief with relative ease. Such practical and provisional beliefs are still in turn some distance away from absolute beliefs that I might unconditionally assume always to be the case, with considerable reliance on explicit formulations. One could not let go in the same way of a belief in the existence of God.
Ward has the tools ready in his hands to start making such distinctions – between meaning, provisional belief and absolute belief. He has McGilchrist’s brain lateralisation, of which he has a thorough understanding, and he also has great awareness of the role of creativity and (implicitly) of provisionality (though he does not use the word). There is much discussion of the ‘suspension of disbelief’ in novel reading, which effectively requires provisional beliefs dependent only on certain conditions. But somehow he cannot bring himself to use such ideas prescriptively to challenge the dominance of absolute belief – presumably because the outcome would be creative agnosticism rather than ‘belief in God’. He talks about freedom, but assumes our freedom involves a metaphysical assumption, rather than being something we experience in the process of keeping our options open and beliefs provisional. Nettles remain ungrasped and bullets unbitten.
At the end, then, Ward has nothing new to offer us beyond the same old assumptions – that we somehow require absolute metaphysical beliefs to make sense of our lives; with the accompanying hollow and unsupportable claim that our lives will somehow be less fulfilled and less meaningful if we fail to adopt such beliefs. Such assumptions are completely incompatible with the psychological evidence for which Ward has shown such careful respect earlier in the book. As he himself charts, we get our sense of meaning from our bodily experience, not from our metaphysical beliefs. One would have thought it was then not such a bizarre, unimaginable thesis to consider that merely abstract beliefs that take us away from rootedness in that intuitive meaning are the ones that are most damaging to us. But no, Ward employs a practised theological sleight of hand to bring us right back to those metaphysical beliefs, by assuming (entirely without evidence) that they are somehow even more deeply rooted than our bodily experience. The biggest evil is presented as the biggest good, merely by habitual association. A more bizarre and incoherent view of the matter could hardly be arrived at, if such a view was not sanctified by Western tradition and deeply entrenched in its philosophical conflicts.
There is an alternative, and it lies in the Middle Way, including the recognition that the rooting of intuitive beliefs in deeper experience needs to be accompanied by steadfast agnosticism in metaphysical matters. It involves the recognition that the practice of the Middle Way itself, not metaphysical beliefs, creates the conditions for both meaningful life and more justifiable beliefs. Ward could be contributing to the development of that alternative in the Christian tradition, where it is badly needed as a counter to damaging absolutism of many kinds: but instead it seems that he has set out and travelled a short distance on that road, then turned back in fear of what he might encounter.