Keith Ward: Beethoven, Brahms … and Descartes’ revenge

As things get increasingly serious during Holy Week, this is a time at which our thoughts inevitably turn (or at least ought to turn) to the Big Questions of religious belief, issues of life, death and ultimate meaning as we in our communities of faith reflect upon and re-live the momentous events in first-century Palestine that we regard as foundational for our very identity. Here at the American Church in Paris we have however also been exploring such Big Questions from a scientific angle in the context of a series of evenings supported by the Templeton Foundation’s Scientists in Congregations Ministry Intiative, focusing on the dialogue between Christian theology and contemporary science. These culminated last week with three stimulating lectures by Oxford philosopher Prof. Keith Ward (video now available by clicking here), the last of which also featured a lively round table discussion with Rev. George Hobson (Canon to the Bishop for Theological Education to the Anglican Diocese of Europe), the brilliant French polymath Jean Staune, and myself as in-house moderator.


Keith Ward is one of Britain’s most prolific theological writers both at the academic and popular level, author of a spate of recent books including Big Questions in Science in Religion, The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus through the Lens of Philosophy, Is Religion Irrational? and More over Matter. One of the most vociferous opponents of the New Atheism and singularly unafraid of being targeted by irate bloggers sniping in online forums hosted by the British press, Ward’s work is both consistently creative, uncommonly lucid and – something of a rarity for a professional philosopher – frequently highly entertaining.  Undaunted by current philosophical fads, he seems to have made a speciality of arguing, highly cogently if also often provocatively, for the rehabilitation of unfashionable figures from the classical philosophical tradition (Plato/Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel) and positions regarded by many as defunct. Perhaps the most counter-cultural of these is Ward’s commitment to philosophical Idealism, set out extensively in his More than Matter: What Humans Really Are, in which he contends that mind/consciousness, not materiality, is the ultimate metaphysical reality, and that the dimension of our existence linked with subjective experience (the inner life of thought, feeling, memory, notions of value and purpose) is not simply to be dismissed as an illusion generated by electrical activity in our brains. Here, Ward openly affirms his alignment with that most reviled of philosophical currents – Cartesian dualism:

‘Dualism, the original sin of Descartes, is not yet dead. Dualists can be found hiding in the philosophical undergrowth, slightly cowed perhaps, but still defiant. The heart of dualism, in the sense relevant to this discussion, is that mind and matter are two distinct sorts of thing. Minds do not exist in space, whereas matter is defined in terms of its location and extent in space. Minds think, feel, and perceive, and matter does not.'[1]

Some initial qualifications are perhaps in order here. Ward is not proposing a wholescale return to Descartes; you will not, for example, find him endorsing the French philosopher’s now infamous statement in Discours de la méthode that the goal of natural science is to make men[sic] ‘masters and possessors of nature’ [maîtres et possesseurs de la nature], which, as Jürgen Moltmann and others have shown, is an illegitimate extension of dualism which has had disastrous results in terms of the exploitation of the natural realm.[2] Ward is not proposing a ‘pure’ duality which would divorce mind and body entirely, nor is he arguing for a strict conceptual separation of human beings from a nature devoid of all subjectivity; rather, not unlike Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred North Whitehead, he espouses what he calls ‘dual-aspect idealism’. This is the idea that the material processes of evolution are the outworking of the potentialities of Mind which gives them their directionality: events have both an ‘outward physical appearance ‘ and an ‘inner aspect’ which is their ‘causal driving force’, leading them towards the realization of ‘consciously created and appreciated values’.[3]

‘The inner reality exists, but it could not exist fully and properly as it does without the outer expression. Materialism and idealism both err if they deny any existence to mind or to matter. Both must go together, but for an idealist the driving force of the whole process is in the end the mind-like, the conscious and the intentional, with its values and purposes. It is to that existence that the material cosmos points, and in which it finds the fulfilment of its inherent potentialities.'[4]


In this scheme, the world cannot be viewed as a mere aggregation of its material properties; any account of reality also needs to make room for the non-material considerations that make our conscious human experience meaningful. To illustrate this Ward uses two intriguing musical examples which are worth quoting; the first refers to the fact that music is not only sound in the sense of physical waves but heard sound – it is the element of human perception which allows us to talk about artistic beauty. Here, Ward insists, the factor of human consciousness leads us inevitably into the realm of non-physical emergent properties, an example of which might be a chord played by the orchestra in a Beethoven symphony. The only ‘physical stuff’ is ‘waves at a specific frequency whose physical properties can be specified accurately.[..] But when those waves hit the ear and get transmitted to the appropriate area of the brain, hey presto, a beautiful sound appears.'[5]

Conscious minds, Ward contends, perceive properties such as ‘specific timbre, pitch, and emotional tone’, which are meaningless terms in relation to unheard sound waves but are ‘non-physical’ properties which are intrinsically linked to the interaction of sound waves with our brains:

‘We say that some sounds are beautiful. But what we mean is that we experience them as beautiful. This new property of heard sound, with a pleasing or displeasing character, is not some new behavioural principle that applies to complex arrangements of fundamental particles, whether or not they are being perceived. It is an actual occurrent feeling of something being experienced as emotionally resonant.'[6]

In other words, Ward is arguing that aesthetic experience has a non-physical dimension; his contention might be made still more persuasive by adding that in the case of Beethoven’s final period, the mental element is even stronger, given that the composer’s deafness meant that sound waves played no part in the generation of the music. It can naturally be asserted that Beethoven’s aesthetic sense could not have arisen in the first place without his experience of such physical waves, but their subsequent internal memorization was such that music could be generated in the composer’s mind once the physical component of sound had become inaccessible to him.

Secondly, musical composition consists of endowing the physical properties of sound with structure and purpose in terms of the ordering of successive events, a factor that physics alone cannot explain. Ward illustrates this point by means of the musical example of a Brahms symphony; whilst admitting that such a work ‘can be fully expressed in the physical structure of a compact disc’ as binary digits, it is clear that the symphony is not reducible to numbers. As Keith Ward puts it, ‘a recital of the string of binary digits that make up the compact disc would not sound as attractive as hearing the symphony. Brahms was not trying to write strings of binary digits. He was trying to write beautiful music.'[7] This contrast between the symphony as an aesthetic sounding reality and its reduction to a mathematical pattern is seen by Ward as analogical to the irreducibility of our mental processes to neuronal firing. There is more to thinking than a succession of brain states, as the latter – if what we are talking about is essentially a combination of ‘on-off’ binary patterns, however complex – cannot on their own spontaneously generate, say, a logical argument.

To continue with Ward’s analogy, the idea that a coherent symphony could simply arise through a random self-assembly of ‘1’s and ‘0’s seems obviously ridiculous (here I might add that John Cage might well disagree, but he’s not Brahms): ‘If I suggest that the binary strings just organize themselves without even having any conception of what music is, and by chance they happen to play a Brahms symphony, it would be hard to take me seriously.’  The form of a symphony as a coherent structure implies a basis in artistic purpose. Ward compares this with what goes on in our brains if we try to solve an equation: the mental acts involved ‘can be translated into physical brain states, but it is the purposefully directed acts that decide the order in which brain states occur. Theydo not just put themselves into a certain order, which miraculously makes me argue in a correct deductive way.’ Just as the string of digits on a CD needs a CD-player to translate it back into a Brahms symphony, the neuronal firings ‘then have to be translated back into mathematical symbols, understood by a human mind to be an argument with premises and a conclusion.’ This is evidently something that the neurons on their own cannot achieve without the intervention of higher-order structuring:

‘The brain’s operations are all purely physical, but its structure, the ordering of its successive states in a logical argument, and the understanding that what has gone on is an argument, and not just a succession of physical states, are all non-physical.'[8]

Ward’s central contention, therefore, is that minds really do exist and cannot be reduced to their material substrate of the brain considered as ‘an electrochemically active lump of porridge'[9] (although mental activity is of course intimately correlated with the stirring of this sticky mixture). Clearly this is a broadside not only against his own teacher Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (a work which famously critiqued the ‘Cartesian myth’ of a ‘ghost in the machine’ in its attack on mind-body dualism), but against scientific materialism as represented by another of Ryle’s pupils, Daniel Dennett. So although only the final pages of More than Matter deal with overtly religious issues, the whole book should be seen against the backdrop of Ward’s more general concern to provide a rational Christian riposte to the reductionist agenda of the New Atheism. Here the humanities have a key role to play, the existence of art being bound up with questions of beauty and value which strike us as absolutely real but which cannot be explained away by purely physical accounts of reality. The fact that we consider them not to be wholly arbitrary would seem to be a strong pointer to their rootedness in purposeful creativity as an aspect of their ultimate metaphysical foundation:

‘the arts can be seen as participation in the creativity of the cosmos, in a power beyond the finite self that yet works through and can heighten the insights and skills of artistic endeavour. Great works of art, music, and literature will be disclosive of what George Steiner calls “real presence”, communications of transcendent mind as perceived by the immanent and embodied minds of human beings.'[10]


Jean Staune

In its stress on the non-physical aspect of reality, Ward’s thought converges strongly with that of Jean Staune (who himself gave an electrifying presentation in our series on March 8th), another prolific thinker no less courageously provocative than his Oxford counterpart, whose recent books Au-delà de Darwin, Notre existence a-t-elle un sens and La Science en Otage have generated considerable debate within France. Staune’s Platonic arguments for the existence of dimensions of reality not reducible to space-time, matter and energy in some respects resemble those of Ward – whose seminal Big Questions in Science and Religion was translated into French under Staune’s guidance – , but are primarily drawn from mathematics and experimental science rather than philosophical reasoning. Jean Staune’s current work, like Ward’s, sees scientific materialism as an inadequate paradigm requiring correction in terms of an appreciation of the role of rationally comprehensible structure in a natural order which cannot reasonably be considered as purely random. Staune focuses particularly on the evidence for the part played by natural laws in evolutionary development which appear to provide natural selection with a set of constraints leading to the repeated appearance of archetypal structures in nature[11], as well as phenomena such as quantum entanglement[12] which suggest  forms of non-local causality operative in the universe for which our current understanding of the laws of physics is insufficient.

In his emphasis on the huge implications for science of acknowledging the existence of non-local causation in the natural world, Staune in turn holds much in common with the Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel, author of the recent Consciousness Beyond Life: the Science of the Near-Death Experience (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), which sold 100,000 copies in the first year of its publication in Dutch as Eindeloos Bewustzijn as well as being nominated in the Netherlands for Book of the Year in 2008. Like Staune and Ward, Van Lommel sets out a compelling case for a major revision of the dominant materialist scientific paradigm, having headed the first large-scale scientific study of near-death experiences (NDEs) to have its findings published in an internationally respected peer-reviewed journal (in a much-publicized article appearing in The Lancet in 2001 which is given much expanded treatment in Consciousness Beyond Life). Van Lommel is a pioneering researcher in a field which has hitherto been largely regarded as the preserve of devotees of parapsychology but which is rapidly moving into the scientific mainstream, being discussed at major gatherings such as the September 11, 2008 United Nations/Nour Foundation/Université de Montréal symposium, ‘Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness’. The strength of the arguments building in favour of a serious scientific appraisal of near-death experience is such that many feel that NDE research will in due time sound the death-knell of a reductionist materialist approach to the question of human consciousness.

In essence, what Van Lommel is arguing, similarly to other near-death researchers such as Bruce Greyson (Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia), Kenneth Ring (Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Connecticut), Mario Beauregard (Neuroscience Research Center, Montreal University) and radiation oncologist Jeffrey Long, that there are compelling reasons to believe in the possibility of lucid consciousness on the part of persons in cardiac arrest whose electrical brain activity is recorded as totally flat by EEG measurement. If the considerable evidence put forward by Van Lommel receives the corroboration that many expect from current research programs such as Dr Sam Parnia’s AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study at the University of Southampton, then the case made out for the irreducibility of mind to brain – or, to use religious categories, the existence of the ‘soul’ – by Keith Ward will be at the very least hugely strengthened, and perhaps even conclusively demonstrated.


For the moment it must be said that the majority of the evidence in favour of taking near-death experiences seriously is based on personal testimony. However, as Greyson, Van Lommel and Long variously point out, this testimony frequently contains elements which are open to verification (information provided NDErs regarding objects or events perceived while unconscious, both in the vicinity of their body and away from it, or concerning the identity of deceased relatives of whose existence they had been unaware prior to the NDE). It is therefore a legitimate object of scientific inquiry and should not be dismissed as purely subjective and therefore impossible to evaluate. Furthermore, following Keith Ward’s line of reasoning in More than Matter, an acknowledgement that some aspects of human experience are by their very nature irreducibly subjective would suggest that testimony should not be rejected out of hand as an evidential category, especially when, as I hope to show, NDE reports are highly convergent across geographical, cultural and temporal boundaries.

If it is suggested that the striking similarities between NDE accounts is an indication that all NDErs are simply repeating a stereotyped narrative (primarily centred around an experience of the interconnectedness of all things and an encounter with a ‘Being of Light’ radiating unconditional level) which could be nothing more than a cultural constructn, it is perhaps worth paying special attention to those accounts whose character is strikingly counter-intuitive in terms of their lack of correspondence both to their author’s prior expectations or metaphysical convictions.  And it is at this point that we need to return to just one such counter-intuitive report: the remarkable and gripping NDE found in the book My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life by Howard Storm to which I alluded in my previous post ‘Eyeless in Paris’. But beware: this is certainly one case where the reader should be prepared for a wild ride …

In the meantime, here are some resources which those interested in the contemporary debate concerning the mind-body relationship may find helpful:



[1] Keith Ward, More than Matter: What Humans Really Are (Oxford: Lion, 2010), 112-113.

[2] ‘As long as the acquisition of power is the concern prompting the scientific search for knowledge, power will be the very mould in which the sciences are cast: power will be the actual form they take.[…]Moreover, through this method, the human being confronts nature from the outset and in principle as its ruler. He is no longer one member of the community of creation; he confronts creation as its lord and owner.[…] The Cartesian dualism of res cogitans and res extensa is the theory that prompts this modern process of differentiation between man and nature, and the purposes behind that process’ (Jürgen Moltmann, God and Creation: a New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993),  27).

[3] Keith Ward, More than Matter, 102-103.

[4] Ibid., 136.

[5] Ibid., 114.

[6] Ibid..

[7] Ibid., 144.

[8] Ibid., 145.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Ibid., 190.

[11] See Notre existence a-t-elle un sens and Au-delà de Darwin, passim.. Staune and Ward both draw on Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris’s pioneering work in the field of ‘evolutionary convergence’ (see Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: CUP, 2003)), the idea that the laws of nature provide evolutionary processes with directionality by steering them towards certain solutions such as the camera eye which arise repeatedly in evolutionary history in organisms in a way that cannot be entirely explained by their common ancestry.

[12] Staune’s Notre existence a-t-elle un sens originally contained a chapter on near-death experience which was subsequently not included out of a desire to restrict discussion to topics where the scientific evidence is uncontestable, which is not yet the case for NDE research. However, Staune’s text on the subject has been published (in French) on his website: as a stimulus to further investigation.


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