Belief Is Not Dead: Science, Theology, and Culture in Graham Ward’s Unbelievable – By Sarah Lane

Sarah Lane on Graham Ward’s Unbelievable

Graham Ward, Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t, I.B. Tauris, 2014, 288pp., $32
Graham Ward, Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t, I.B. Tauris, 2014, 288pp., $32

The topic of belief can seem an awkward guest in contemporary discussions of epistemology. Tacitly or openly assumed to equate with opinion, hope, or fancy, belief is often assumed to be something altogether less than what might credibly pass for knowledge about reality. Seen as a kind of placeholder for empirical knowledge, belief must be progressively discarded as one advances in education and knowledge about the world. The value of belief is undermined by an assumption that critical thinking leaves no room for that which cannot be seen, measured, or otherwise inferred through the use of mathematics and scientific methodologies. Even among those who self-consciously value beliefs (religious or otherwise), belief is often spoken of as something other than real knowledge; hence the usage of phrases like “leap of faith” or “I can’t prove it, but I believe it.” Belief, then, is often defined by what it is not: not empirical, not justified, not a valid mode of knowledge.

Academically, of course, belief takes on a myriad of nuanced definitions, depending on the discipline in question. A general consensus suggests that belief has something to do with the mental representation of what a person experiences as true about reality. As one might expect, much of this sense-making appears to be subconscious and pre-rational. A growing body of literature suggests that religious belief in particular is an evolved and natural phenomenon, evident in evocatively titled books like The Science of Superstition, The Believing Brain, and Born to Believe.

Evolutionary biology and psychology, anthropology, cognitive science, and the various neurosciences have all theorized about natural processes involved in the phenomenon of belief, effectively undermining assumptions that individual belief is freely and rationally chosen. If it is true that belief is an evolved sense-making capacity that is largely pre-conscious and pre-rational, it is understandable that one might assume belief to be necessarily inferior and subject to the liberating forces of fact-based empiricism, reason, and the scientific method.

Graham Ward takes issue with this assessment of belief in his Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t. In his view, belief is anything but an inferior substitute for real knowledge; it is necessarily involved in all embodied human knowledge.

A theologian by training and trade, Ward opens his interdisciplinary exploration into the nature of belief with a ghost story, of all things — an account of a supposed ghost sighting in the academically elite halls of Cambridge. The incongruity between the setting (Cambridge) and narrative (a ghost story) serve to highlight the oft-overlooked coexistence of intellectual rigor and deep pre-conscious beliefs and assumptions about reality.

More interesting than the specifics of the sighting itself, of course, is what the multitude of subsequent explanations (psychological, technological, theological, etc.) reveals about those who put them forward. The intense visceral reaction elicited by such events reveals just how deep beliefs — materialist and supernatural alike — can go and how deeply unsettling it can be when those belief systems are challenged.

Far from being a primitive mode of epistemology to be discarded in the contemporary age of scientific supremacy, the disposition to believe is truly inherent in Homo sapiens; only the criteria for valid epistemological norms have changed. While some will critique Ward’s sprawling reach and occasional lack of disciplinary specificity, Unbelievable’s main arguments are well-founded, making this work a valuable contribution to interdisciplinary discussions about the relationship between science and religion.

The crucial point of Ward’s interdisciplinary analysis is that belief is first and foremost a natural, pre-cognitive, and innate human capacity to form judgments about reality; believing is “an anthropological condition.” This capacity is not primarily religious, nor is it optional. Rather, belief is a biologically-rooted and mentally-expressed disposition towards the world; it has everything to do with the human drive to make sense of one’s environment and the necessarily mediated nature of experiential knowledge. Recalling such scholars as Wittgenstein, Gadamer and Hanson, Ward says that “all seeing is seeing as.

Kozarnika Cave, Belogradchik, Bulgaria. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Kozarnika Cave, Belogradchik, Bulgaria. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Ward relies on two main strands of argumentation in developing this main assertion that belief is an inherent disposition in human beings. The first involves archaeological and anthropological research in human evolution. Decades of research suggests that at least some pre-human Homo species developed the ability to understand and communicate symbolically, intentionally, and ritualistically. Ward argues that such intentional activity, evident in cave art and burials, is indicative of primitive belief about the way the world is and operates. In other words, humans have, from the beginning, “accommodated themselves to the material in and through the … immateriality of ideas, stories, image and icons.” From the beginning of our anatomically modern species, it seems, human beings have endeavored to make sense out of the world and engage with unseen or future processes and forces in an embodied, intentional, and symbolic way. This disposition is the essence of belief. If this line of argumentation is unpersuasive, it is due to the large amount of interpretive license required to say anything substantial about the mental experiences of our ancestors, given the paucity of actual evidence.

Ward’s second strand of argumentation involves the neurobiology of belief and is much stronger due to the comparative wealth of research at his disposal. Put simply, Ward argues that all perception, experience, and empirical knowledge involve interpretation and, thus, belief. All knowledge is necessarily mediated, if for no other reason than that we do not have access to the full set of facts regarding the objects of our experience.

Drawing upon neuroscientific research involving perception, Ward makes the point that our brains perceive, process, form (not necessarily religious) beliefs about, and lead us to act upon information acquired from our environments — and the vast majority of this sense-making activity never reaches conscious awareness. In other words, we become conscious of what we already believe; our bodies and brains actively engage with and make sense out of the world in a complex and nuanced way that is only partially brought to conscious awareness.

Belief and perception seem to engage in a sort of psycho-physical feedback loop, wherein experiences form beliefs, which in turn alters the way humans perceive and experience the world. As Ward puts it, “believing moulds the neural networks of the brain for belief. Believing gives rise to behaviors that, in turn, modify the psychobiology of the human beings who believe.”

Given the neurobiological claims made here, it is perhaps odd that Ward does not draw more heavily on contemporary research into neuroplasticity. Indeed, a multitude of recent neurobiological research projects have suggested just such a mental-perceptual feedback loop: experiences and beliefs can alter the structure and function of the brain, affecting what is selectively and consciously perceived. Belief, in this light, is essentially learned. As an organism engages with its environment, those experiences are integrated into preexisting beliefs about the world, which in turn form the basis for future interactions with and perceptions of the environment.

In any case, Ward’s basic point here is worth highlighting: belief, a disposition toward judgments about reality, necessarily plays a part in all human intelligence and knowledge. He draws upon psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist’s work on brain lateralization to support this argument. Best known for his formidable (but controversial) book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist gives a comprehensive neuroscientific account of the specific differences in the brain’s hemispheric functioning. Most relevant for Ward is the suggestion that, while the left hemisphere’s analytical and cognitive functions have been championed by Western culture’s trust in all things empirical, the right hemisphere is equally vital, participating in knowledge formation in a more “inchoate, diffuse, ‘big-picture’ manner.”

McGilchrist’s work is supportive of Ward’s thesis, because it seems to give neurobiological warrant for acknowledging pre-conscious intuition and imagination as part of a valid epistemology. Working as one, “the left and right hemispheres of the brain make believing a mode of cognition associated with imagination, motivation, desire, intuition and feeling.” These beliefs are “deeper, earlier, and more primitive than ‘reasons for,’” and perform the function of shaping what we perceive and how we act. Most importantly, belief is not optional but a naturally inherent part of human engagement with the world.

Much of Ward’s argument to this point is fairly standard. To say that belief as a disposition towards judgment about reality is pre-rational, embodied, and evolved is really nothing new. Evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and many other fields have been arguing this in various ways for quite some time. For example, scholars studying the evolution of religion suggest that religion might have played an adaptive role in human evolution, with shared beliefs providing early humans with the group cohesion and sense of control necessary for an evolutionary “edge.”

Ward’s unique contribution to the discussion involves his emphasis that the dichotomy between belief and unbelief is a false one. While contemporary scientists recognize that pure knowledge is elusive because of the human’s inherently embedded and embodied context, many would still assert that belief is nothing more than an unfortunate reality to be minimized or eliminated wherever possible — certainly not to be relied upon as an element of valid epistemology.

Ward, however, maintains that secularism itself is a belief system, a historically particular manifestation of the disposition to believe. It is not that we have moved into an age of reductionist materialism wherein belief is unnecessary, but rather that the objects and structures of belief have evolved with culture. Belief has not been removed, just relocated. What we find believable has changed, and the criteria for knowledge have shifted with the remarkable success of the scientific establishment. Secularism itself has become so pervasive as an epistemological scaffolding that it no longer occurs to us to question the foundations and assumptions on which this scaffolding rests. The point is that the epistemological primacy of reductionist materialism is neither a foregone conclusion nor self-evident; the assumption that there is a necessarily “hierarchical distinction between knowledge and belief” is just that: an assumption.

This critique of secularism need not undermine the remarkable efficacy and success of the scientific enterprise. Rather, Ward is urging readers to pay attention to “the normative conditions that make a belief believable: the trust in the authority of those authoring the discourses that persuade us.” Of course, we need to remember that if (reductionist) scientific knowledge has assumed an authoritative role as the arbiter of real knowledge, it is because it has simply been so successful. The primacy of science is neither arbitrary nor an epistemological fad of sorts; science has simply won our trust. In fact, one possible critique of Ward’s work is that it underestimates materialism’s remarkable effectiveness at producing testable hypotheses and explanations about the natural world. Debates around critical realism and the extent to which scientific measurement really corresponds to true reality abound, but the burden of proof does seem to appropriately lie with those undermining the validity of materialism as an epistemological framework — at least to the extent that science is linked with a reductionist methodology.

It is worth remembering that some belief systems and mythic structures become so embedded in culture that we forget that they are founded upon metaphysical presuppositions; they seem self-evidently true and authoritative. It is only when individual or collective cognitive dissonance occurs, when we recognize that present experience clashes with existing belief systems, that we question the mythic belief systems that frame our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Here Ward follows philosopher Mary Midgley’s more technical definition of myth, “Myths are not lies…they are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world.”

Under this definition, the commitment to reductive materialism can be correctly understood as a mythic narrative that shapes our perception and actions, convinces us of the “natural, normative state” of things, and is forced to engage with alternative myths. Indeed, when one’s beliefs about the world no longer fit with present scientific knowledge or personal experience, those beliefs are pressured to change as the person attempts to make sense of the world and maintain homeostasis.

Here Ward makes the point that once we are aware of belief’s inescapable and foundational nature, we are then free to clarify or alter those beliefs through “more abstract cognitive processes.” In short, awareness of belief’s role as a part of intelligence effectively exposes that belief to the rigors of rational analysis and allows it to be self-consciously shaped.

Religion has a special role in acknowledging and even lauding this belief-awareness. For Ward, religious belief involves the self-conscious acceptance and valuing of the natural propensity to belief that is part and parcel of being human. The essential experience of religious believers and atheists, then, becomes different only in the object and valuing of belief. It seems that Ward is ultimately calling not for an abandonment of scientific knowledge, but rather a re-balancing of cognitive or scientific analysis and intuitive, imaginative knowledge.

Religious faith, then, is an acceptance of “not knowing” and believing anyway, rather than an active commitment to not believing. In articulating how such belief is formed, Ward makes heavy use of the experience of reading, of Samuel Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” that allows readers to become immersed in the truly believable worlds of literature. Religious faith parallels that embrace of “willing suspension” — a suspension of disbelief that allows believers to embrace belief as the way of experiencing and truly knowing that which is not visible. There is more than a touch of apophatic theology here, not to mention the trendier narrative theology gaining traction in many circles. But Ward seems to be onto something. Once belief is recognized as a necessary and valid avenue of embodied knowledge, it can be engaged with in a self-directed, imaginative, and self-critical way that works with our neurobiology in creating a felt sense of that which is made present in belief (literary and otherwise).

Ward repeatedly insists that this book is not a work of theology. This is understandable, as his discussion of religious belief is certainly subsumed under an analysis of belief as an anthropological, sense-making norm. Nevertheless, it takes very little expansion of the term “theological” to make this work quite at home in a theological library. Indeed, one could argue that true theology must be interdisciplinary in nature and scope, engaging with the best that philosophy and the natural sciences have to offer.

The danger of Ward’s renunciation of the theological label is that it makes him vulnerable to specialists within the disciplines on which his work relies. In other words, if this is decidedly not a theological work, it is open to being evaluated (and perhaps not favorably) as a work of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, or even cognitive science. Ward is in the perhaps unenviable position of tackling an inherently interdisciplinary subject that requires critical engagement with a number of disciplines. Unfortunately, the choice to engage with all the relevant subject areas necessarily leaves him open to critique on multiple fronts. A sweeping engagement with everything involved in belief sacrifices critical analyses of the particulars. For example, even the term “belief” has specific connotations depending on the academic field in which it is being used; specialists in neuroscience, philosophy, theology, and anthropology might all find themselves frustrated with Ward’s interdisciplinary gloss on terminology and sprawling reach into various disciplines.

Yet there are times when one is exceedingly sympathetic to the overall aims and even conclusions of a project, and it is precisely for this reason that I am more critical of its execution. Such is the case with Unbelievable. A work of ambitious proportions constructing a refreshingly interdisciplinary account of human belief, its attendant shortcomings in field-specific depth need not preclude its inclusion on bookshelves in any discipline.