A Response to Edward Turner’s Review of I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism

I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism (Damaris, 2004)

Peter S. Williams (MA, MPhil)

Ed’s review of I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism (Damaris, 2004) is prefaced with comments about a debate he and I had at Liverpool University in March 2009. I will not respond to Ed’s comments about our debate, but will focus upon his book review as such.

Damning With Faint Praise

Ed has one point of praise for I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning:

‘The one (count it) interesting passage that had me thinking was Williams’ discussion of beauty: is it subjective or objective? Would the Mona Lisa still be beautiful if there were no human beings left on Earth to appreciate her?’

I’m glad I stimulated Ed’s thinking. However, I’m sorry he mistakenly thinks my defence of objective beauty is a deduction from my theism (‘Williams’ answer is that beauty must be objective since God is the final arbiter of such matters.’) and that the only argument I give besides is ‘merely asserting that David Hume’s subjective view of beauty that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” means that sadomasochism might be beautiful to some people but personally, Williams doesn’t like that sort of thing very much.’ Not that Ed indicates what he thinks is actually wrong with this argument! All of which leaves Ed with a subjective view of beauty – and this despite the facts that he is a moral objectivist, and the fact that it seems hard to be subjective about the one but not about the other (an argument made in my book with reference to G.E. Moore’s definition of beauty)! Ed comments: ‘My own view is that beauty is a manmade construct; an opinion, an emotive response, nothing more.’

Ed’s Core Criticism

Ed begins his review by summing up I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning as a book: ‘In which my antagonist sets out his reasons as to why the atheism of Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Charles Darwin is deeply unsatisfying and that belief in God alone can provide meaning and purpose in people’s lives. Except in relation to the latter he doesn’t. He quite simply does not.’ (I do in fact make it clear that Darwin can’t straightforwardly be labelled an atheist.) Ed is adamant in asserting that I provide no positive reason for the claim ‘that belief in God alone can provide meaning and purpose in people’s lives.’ According to Ed: ‘The book is argued entirely negative terms.’ It isn’t.

While I certainly do claim that belief in God is the only philosophically coherent way in which to believe in an objective meaning and purpose in life, I also defend the more fundamental claim that it is only the existence of God that makes life objectively meaningful and purposeful in actuality (whether or not one believes either the former or the latter). Having noted this nuance, we can note Ed’s concern to hammer home his point about my book failing to even try to make a positive case: ‘There is not one argument, not one sentence, not one word, not one single syllable in support of Williams’ proposition that only belief in God in general and the Christian God in particular is either truthful, useful or meaningful.’ Of course, I think many beliefs are true besides belief in God (!); but in short, Ed’s assertion is simply untrue.

I think Ed means to say that there isn’t a single syllable in my book in support of the propositions enumerated above (i.e. that belief in God is the only philosophically coherent way in which to believe in an objective meaning and purpose in life, and that it is only the actual existence of God that makes life objectively meaningful and purposeful in actuality). Well, my book isn’t concerned to defend ‘the Christian God’ per se – the mere possibility of divine revelation is the book’s closing point. Nor am I concerned to argue that belief in God is ‘useful’ in any pragmatic sense. I thus find it odd to see Ed arguing:

‘Apologists seem to require reminding of this ad nauseum (not that it ever sinksin) that an argument for usefulness is in no way, shape or form an argument for truth. I’m sure the belief that Elvis will return from the dead/ alien captivity provides boundless hope and meaning to certain members of our society, but that is hardly going to persuade a rational skeptic of the truth of this proposition. As Iread the book, I was increasingly convinced that “I Wish I Could Believe In    Wishful Thinking” would have been a far more appropriate title.’

I can only suppose Ed has misunderstood the epistemological moves underlying the reasons I gave for regarding belief in value, meaning and purpose in life as properly basic beliefs (beliefs for which the burden of proof lies with the sceptic).

I am concerned to argue that belief in God is true, and Ed’s assertion that I make no effort to defend this belief is inaccurate. For example, having defended the proposition that objective moral values exist on pages 57-64, I spend pages 64-69 defending the proposition that the entailment of the existence of objective moral values is the existence of God! The entailment of these two propositions is the conclusion that God exists. In other words, pages 57-69 of I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning constitute a defence of the moral argument for the existence of God.

I could understand it if Ed were to argue that the moral argument is invalid, or depends upon a premise with which he disagrees. What I can’t understand is his assertion that I don’t attempt to give positive arguments for the claims that objective moral value exists and that its existence goes hand in hand with the existence of God. Pages 57-69 alone disprove Ed’s assertion that: ‘The book is argued entirely negative terms.’

It also has to be said that Ed apparently fails to take into account the positive theistic argument from mind developed at length in Chapter Five; or the various positive aesthetic (subsuming design) arguments for theism provided in Chapters Six, Seven, Eight and Nine!

Ed’s central complaint against I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning is clearly that: ‘The book is argued entirely negative terms: because the atheist world view provides no hope, no meaning and no purpose to life, it should be rejected in favor of theism. Alas, Williams offers no positive arguments is favor of theism, but simply attempts to show how unattractive he finds atheistic materialism.’ But this is untrue! I do argue that the atheist worldview provides no objective hope, meaning or purpose to life; but I also argue that there is objective meaning (goodness and beauty) and purpose (design) in life and that therefore the atheist worldview is false! It’s Ed’s failure to notice the positive argumentative structure of I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning which leads him to muse:

‘Perhaps because [Peter] knows he is preaching to his own choir, he takes it as read that his audience will have accepted the first premise and attempts to demonstrate that atheism is meaningless and with content. The only justification Williams gives is a personal anecdote about when a women he spoke to at the launch party of his first book, The Case For God, said that she wished she could believe in God as her life might have some purpose and meaning. “Why don’t you?” was Williams’ reply to this poor lost little soul. What I want to know is “Why should I?”

My reply to Ed is that he should pay particular attention to the arguments on pages 57-69 and in Chapters Five-Nine.

Discussing Morals

Bemusingly, in the very same review in which Ed claims that I don’t provide any arguments for theism, he comments: ‘Williams argues that objective morality can only come from God. God exists and he has the final say on matters of right and wrong.’ Thus Ed contradicts himself.

Ed critiques the moral argument by mounting an argument against believing that the Bible contains a genuine revelation from God:

‘Williams makes assertions which sound great on paper but fall apart when given a small injection of reality. As I said in our debate, if there is an objective moral standard, if that objective moral standard is God and if the practice of slavery is objective wrong, then why would God expressly and repeatedly mandate, regulate and justify it in the one book he thought was so important he dictated himself?’

Even if this argument works, it isn’t an argument against theism, only against a Jewish or Christian form of theism which accepts scriptural inerrancy! There are, however, other problems with Ed’s argument. For a start, he states: ‘The moral wrong of slavery is just as applicable to the people of first century Palestine while Paul was recommending the practice as it was in the nineteenth century whilst Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce were opposing it.’ But this fails to take account of the significant differences between the social practices labeled ‘slavery’ in the Bible and in nineteenth century America. The two just aren’t the same, and to treat them as such is therefore to argue by equivocation.

Ed affirms that: ‘Those who argue that objective morality can only be achieved through God still have all their work ahead of them.’ It is unfortunate that Ed doesn’t engage with the multiple reasons given in my book for making a link between the existence of objective moral values and the existence of God (cf. p. 67-69), especially since he grants the only other premise of the moral argument: ‘I believe that there is an objective standard of morality… We must be able to condemn the atrocities carried out by Islamo-fascists as wrong, full-stop. No ifs, no buts, no sickly relativistic maybes.’

Continuing his discussion of morality, Ed writes: ‘There is fulfillment in performing a good deed for its own sake, as opposed to doing it because an invisible Big Brother in sky wants you to do it… A humanist is, after all, someone who can be good when no-one is watching.’ I find nothing to disagree with here except the insinuation that a Christian is someone who can’t be good when no-one is watching (an insinuation that basically confuses applied ethics with meta-ethics).

Ed accepts that ‘there are many good deeds carried out in the name of religious faith,’ but he points out that ‘there are also many atrocities that flow directly from it as well,’ atrocities that he believes ‘don’t equalize at the margins as much as Williams would wish. Is there any wickedness, any evil, any atrocity that is denied to people who think they have God on their side?’ I wouldn’t say that God is on my side in quite the sense in which Ed seems to mean it; but I can only answer that, of course, I believe God has specifically denied my right to commit wicked acts (including acts such as those listed within the ten commandments). In my view, all evil and every atrocity is objectively speaking denied to everyone, including people who mistakenly think they have God ‘on their side’. Such people (who may or may not be culpably mistaken) may of course fail to deny themselves any evil and any atrocity. But then, couldn’t one say exactly the same thing about atheists? That all evil and atrocities are objectively denied to atheists who mistakenly think that they have right - if not God (!) - on their side? Belief in God can be misused to justify evil, but then so can atheism. So can nation or political party. So can love. At least theism can rationally justify calling some things evil, whereas, as Ed himself admits, a materialistic worldview cannot step up to the plate here. Ed may sweepingly proclaim that ‘The smug assertion, trotted out so regularly by believers that an atheist cannot say that the God-ordered atrocities of the Old Testament were objectively wrong, falls down like a house of cards – like all religious reasoning – once matters are thought through a little more carefully.’ But he also admits: ‘When it comes to morality, I make an exception to my otherwise materialistic world-view.’

For more on the moral argument, cf:

Unintelligent Design?

Ed’s complaints against my treatment of intelligent design theory don't contain too much to which I feel a need to respond, except to point out that he misrepresents the ID argument. He misrepresents it as taking the form of an argument from ignorance: ‘I can see the fallacy in the ID argument a mile off. It is little more than a dressed up “God of the Gaps” argument: “I can’t explain how this works. Therefore it must be God.”’ That is indeed an invalid argument. It’s just not one advanced by ID. He also misrepresents ID as an argument for theism, when it isn’t (cf. Casey Luskin, ‘Is Intelligent Design Theory Really An Argument for God?’). Ed himself asks: ‘And just who is this Intelligent Designer? Do you have his business card?’ Well, no, not from looking at nature we don’t. There is no divine signature in our DNA, even if there are indications of intelligence behind our digital code. That’s why design theorists hold (following David Hume) that it’s impossible to justify the conclusion ‘God did it’ simply by looking at the evidence for design in nature. Design gets you a designer, it doesn’t get you a designer label.

Ed opines: ‘Anyone who has read Richard Dawkins’ treatment of Behe and ID in The God Delusion will read these passages with a withering sense of incredulity.’ The thing is, I have read Dawkins’ treatment of Behe (and ID) in The God Delusion. Dawkins doesn’t so much ‘treat’ Behe as completely fail to ‘treat’ him at all. Dawkins doesn’t even quote Behe.

Ed accuses ID of being ‘a political ploy, an attempt to get creationism into school science classrooms by the back door.’ At least for its originators, this simply is not so. Indeed, the major advocacy organization for ID has an official science teaching policy against the teaching of either creationism or ID (and they aren’t the same thing) in schools: 'As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education.' (cf. Discovery Institutes Science Education Policy)

Ed raises the so-called ‘problem of dysteleology’, which is a sub-version of the problem of evil:

‘The reason why humans often suffer terrible back pain is because our spines are supporting 70% of our body weight on its own. Our spines are better suited to aspecies which should be still walking around on all fours. The fact that the human oesophagus shares the roles of swallowing and breathing means that humans are very susceptible to choking to death every time they eat. Some design, I would say. It’s not just argument from the inadequacy of the designer as Williams so desperately contends. To accept that biological organisms were intelligently designed, you have to accept that the designer most have either been stupefying inept or incredibly callous and capricious and cruel.’

I really don’t know what to make of Ed’s comment that: ‘It’s not just argument from the inadequacy of the designer as Williams so desperately contends.’ What I do know is that it’s a pity Ed doesn’t engage with my discussion of the dysteleology argument (p. 137-161).

Ed notes: ‘Willaims cites respectable scientific journals which have purportedly published peer-reviewed article advocating ID.’ [Sic] But there’s nothing merely purported about these publications, as Ed himself makes clear when he comments that ‘the history of peer-reviewed articles advocating ID is sparse...' It is true to say that: ‘the history of peer-reviewed articles advocating ID is sparse to say the least!’ It is, however, somewhat misleading to note that ‘The amount of publish material advocating ID is outweighed by a week’s worth on Darwinian evolution’, unless the papers in question are actually contradicting each other, and even then this wouldn’t settle the question of which paper was correct.

Ed concludes that: ‘ID has all the credibility of the theory that the movements of the planets dictate our lives.’ I beg to differ, but I’m happy to join Ed in recommending that readers ‘listen to [my] Premier Christian Radio debate against Peter Hearty, a member of the UK National Secular Society and a scientist’ since I don’t at all accept Ed’s view that ‘Hearty demolishes every single one of Williams’ assertions without a second thought!’

Readers can listen and make up their own minds @ http://idpluspeterswilliams.blogspot.com/2006/10/gold-award-for-debating-intelligent.html
or www.damaris.org/cm/podcasts/?category=peterswilliams&ps=10

Quote-Mining, Orr What?

Ed complains about what he perceives as: ‘the abject quote-mining that litters the entire book.’ Ed evinces a deep distrust of apologists: ‘This disgraceful tactic should speak for itself without any further comment from me. Right from my first experiences of debating with apologists, I am no longer surprised at such below-the-belt tactics. I wouldn’t trust their word if one of them told me Richard Dawkins’ views on the colour of an orange.’ Ed is apparently sure that I commit this sin on purpose:

‘Maybe I’m guilty of idolatry in relation to certain atheist writers, but as I read the quotes which peppered I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning and the way which Williams was attempting to use their own words against them, I thought, “That doesn’t sound like the Richard Dawkins/Dan Dennett/Charles Darwin I know!” I sourced the quotes from their original texts myself and exactly as I suspected, Williams is engaging in that disgraceful, dirty and dishonest tactic known as“quote-mining”. He takes certain quotes wholly out of context to make it appear that either the authors doubt their own views or they have a faith-based commitment to Darwinian evolution as a means of justifying their non-belief in God.’

Ed presents four purported examples:


Williams quoting Richard Dawkins:

Even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

The full passage from The Blind Watchmaker is as follows:

Instead of examining the evidence for and against rival theories, I shall adopt more of an armchair approach. My argument will be that Darwinism is the only known theory capable of explaining certain aspects of life. If I am right it means that, even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory (there is of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories. One way to dramatise this point is to make a prediction. I predict that, if a form of life is ever discovered in another part of the universe, however outlandish and weirdly alien that form of life may be in detail, it will resemble life on Earth in one key respect: it will have evolved by some form of Darwinian natural selection. Unfortunately, this is a prediction that we shall, in all probability, not be able to test in our lifetimes, but it remains a way of dramatising an important truth about life in own planet. The Darwinian theory is in principle capable of explaining life. No other theory that has ever been suggested is in principle capable of explaininglife. I shall demonstrate this by discussing all rival theories, not the evidence for or against them, but their adequacy, in principle, as explanation for life.

The trouble with the above is that when Ed quotes my quotation of Dawkins he misses out what I put in, namely an ellipse ‘…’ That ellipse indicated that I wasn’t presenting a single unedited unit of quotation. On pages 118-119 of my book that quote actually reads as follows:

'even if there were no actual evidence in favour of the Darwinian theory . . . we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories'.

But what about missing out Dawkins comment that there is of course evidence for Darwinian theory? Am I thereby misrepresenting Dawkins as believing that there is no scientific evidence for Darwinism? Not at all, as the immediate context of my quotation makes clear:

‘For an atheist like Dawkins, evolution is not so much the result of an assessment of the scientific evidence as it is a necessary assumption brought to its interpretation. Dawkins lets the cat out of the bag when he writes that: “even if there were no actual evidence in favour of the Darwinian theory . . . we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.”’

The crucial phrases here is ‘not so much’ (which doesn’t mean ‘not at all’). This quote comes just before I spend several pages elaborating upon the a priori philosophical roots of Darwinism. Later on in the book I am at pains to demonstrate how Dawkins begs the question in favour of Darwinian explanations due to a philosophical commitment to naturalism which trumps his consideration of empirical data (cf. much of Chapter Nine).


Here's another of Ed's examples:

Williams quoting Daniel Dennett:

I have learned from my own embarrassing experience that how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection.

The full passage from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is as follows:

The ideas expressed in this book are just the beginning. This has been anintroduction to Darwinian thinking, sacrificing details again and again to provide a better appreciation of the overall shape of Darwin’s idea. But as Miles van der Rohe said, God is in the details. I urge caution alongside the enthusiasm I have hope I have just kindled in you. I have learned from my own embarrassing experience that how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection. The truly dangerous aspect of Darwin’s idea is its seductiveness. Second-rate versions of the fundamental ideas continue to bedevil us, so we must keep a close watch, correcting each other as we go. The only way of avoiding the mistakes is to learn from the mistakes we have already made. - Dennett (1995) [2006 ed.] p. 521.

The longer quotation appears to me to do nothing to alter the meaning of the shorter quotation. The shorter quotation accurately represents the caution Dennett does urge at greater length in the longer quotation against being too easily satisfied with facile Darwinian explanations. I used this quote from Dennett as a section heading, and as far as I can see this use didn’t misrepresent Dennett as doubting Darwinism.


Ed complains that: 'In another place Williams quotes from the sixth edition of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species by splicing two lines together from different pages of the book! The first part of Williams’ quote actually comes further along by some 20 pages in Darwin’s book on than the second part!'

The quote in question is this from page 418 of I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning:

'...the belief that an organ so perfect as the eye could have been formed by natural selection, is enough to stagger anyone... I have felt the difficulty far too keenly to be surprised at others hesitating to extend the principle of natural selection to so startling a length.'

I'll come back to the order problem Ed notes later, but let's start with the more substantive issue: It wasn't my intention with this quote - used as a section heading - to give the impression that Darwin doubted his own theory! Indeed, the quote itself doesn't display any doubt on Darwin's part! It merely evinces an empathy with those who do doubt: Darwin has himself felt the difficulty in believing that the eye could have formed by natural selection and is therefore not surprised at 'others' hesitating to explain it thus (by the way - the argument I mount in my book concerning the eye focuses upon the irreducibly complex light sensitive spot with which the Darwinian explanation of eye evolution conveniently begins).

The section headed up by this quote in my book actually discussed Richard Dawkins' use of the very argument Darwin used to defend belief in the evolution of the eye. I explain that Darwinists assume graded paths up 'Mt. Improbable' must exist to be traversed by evolution, talking about the 'Darwinian explanation of the eye.' (p. 423.) I assume most people would reckon that Darwin held to a Darwinian explanation of the eye. However, I didn't explicitly say that the views of Dawkins and other Darwinians also represented the views of Darwin on this particular matter, and in that I suppose that someone who didn't read the quote from Darwin with much care (since it suggests his own lack of doubts) and who wasn't apprised of the background to this debate might just possibly have been mislead into thinking that Darwin himself thought that the eye couldn't have evolved. But this impression, if anyone received it, was not one that I intended to generate.

Coming back to the order problem, I should take this opportunity to correct both the quotation and the footnote (number 145), which references: Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, 6th edition (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 184. Although the ellipse in the quotation indicates that the quote isn't a single unit, the single page reference footnote is indeed inaccurate. In point of fact, the two parts of the quote given in my book actually come from pages p165 & 146 respectively (all references herein are to the Darwin Online edition of the Origin that Ed footnotes), which are thus quoted in the wrong numerical order, as Ed correctly points out. The trouble here is clearly the fact that Darwin passes an almost identical comment on pages 218-219 of the Origin:

'the naturalist who reflects on the origin and manner of formation of the eye, with all its marvellously perfect attributes, should make his reason conquer his imagination, I have felt the difficulty far too keenly to be surprised at any degree of hesitation in extending the principle of natural selection to so startling a length.' (my italics.)

I'm grateful to Ed for the opportunity to publically note and correct this mistake.


Finally, I did not mine ‘H. Allen Orr’s damning review of Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box to make it appear that Orr has doubts over Darwinism.’ I very clearly prefaced my quotation from Orr to avoid this impression: ‘H. Allen Orr (a critic of Behe) argues…’ (p. 431.) – before I quoted him on a point of agreement.

In short, I don't think I'm guilty of misquoting people in a way that misrepresents their views.


I reject Ed’s assertion that my book sets about ‘reaching its conclusions without offering any arguments in support’. Indeed, Ed himself rejects this assertion (when he attacks my presentation of the moral argument for theism)! Likewise, I reject Ed’s claim that I have ‘grossly misrepresenting the atheistic world-view’. After all, Ed himself admits that ‘When it comes to morality, I make an exception to my otherwise materialistic world-view’. Ed also admits to embracing a subjective understanding of beauty. I also reject Ed’s multiple miss-characterization of intelligent design theory as i) a directly theistic argument ii) with the logical form of an argument from ignorance that is iii) part of a plot to smuggle the teaching of creationism into schools. Moreover, peer -reviewed ID publications (while comparatively thin on the ground), really do exist and really do continue to get published. Finally, I reject Ed’s accusation that I am guilty of ‘misquoting famous atheistic thinkers' in order to misrepresent their views.

Ed was right to pick up on the fact that one of my footnotes was in error. And I happily grant Ed's stylistic observation that I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning contains many ‘quotes from other sources’. Writing in the theological journal Themelios, Dominic Smart praised I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning for being 'jam packed with quotable quotes and references... Buy the book if you are wont to quote - its a treasure trove.' (Themelios, 31/1, p. 135-136.) But if you don’t like books with lots of quotations and footnotes, then this isn’t the book for you.