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About this episode:
What does the science of brain chemistry and psychiatry tell us about the nature of our mind and our cosmos?
Leading psychiatrist, philosopher and author Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of the influential book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ engages in conversation with Christian neuroscientist Dr Sharon Dirckx as they discuss brain science, consciousness and God.
(from recording of the live event from May 14th)
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Justin Brierley (JB), Iain McGilchrist (IM) and Sharon Dirckx (SD)
JB: Let me introduce you both. Dr Iain McGilchrist is a leading psychiatrist, a philosopher and author of the influential book, The Master and His Emissary, and the new two-volume work, The Matter with Things – I’ve got one volume of it here, so there you go. This is the book everyone is talking about when it comes to psychology, psychiatry, the nature of things and the brain – just released. And how long did you work on this for?
IM: Well, it depends what you mean… laterally, about 10 years I think.
JB: Wow, ok, so it’s been a labour of love. I’m making my way through it – I don’t confess to have read the whole of it yet – but it’s an amazing book.
Sharon is a speaker, author and adjunct lecturer at OCCA – the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics – and has a background herself in neuroscience, so is a very appropriate person to be speaking with Iain tonight. She’s also the author of, Am I Just My Brain? – I have bizarrely the Spanish version here, but you can actually get this in English as well! So that’s an excellent book that gives you Sharon’s perspective on these issues that we’re going to be talking about. And what we’re going to be talking about tonight is the question: Is there a master behind our minds? We’re going to be talking about brain science, consciousness and ultimately God as well – well we’ll get there eventually, anyway!
Let’s start with something of your background first, Iain. Tell us how you came to be investigating and become so enthusiastic about the way our brains work? What was the journey to that?
IM: Well it started quite early, because I was interested in philosophy and theology and went up to Oxford to read that, but was advised by one of the examiners not to do it because it wasn’t an honours degree. And nowadays, Frisbee you can get an honorary degree in! But you couldn’t get an honours degree in philosophy and theology at Oxford in those days, so instead I was interested in literature. And I studied that and I got a Fellowship, and one of the things that concerned me about the way people approached literature – I wrote a book called Against Criticism in the end – is that in taking one of these extraordinarily valuable creations that somebody in the past left to speak to us, in looking at it the way we did, we destroyed all its most important qualities. First of all, if it’s good, it’s unique and irreplaceable and unparaphrasable. Secondly, it’s embodied – we don’t just experience it somehow through computation and certainly the most important parts of it are implicit. All the really valuable things that we care about can’t be expressed directly without loss and therefore defiant, really, to language. It’s true of great art and of great religious sentiments I believe as well. And so I studied philosophers on the mind/body problem, because it seemed to me that in essence what we were doing was disembodying it. And I found that they were just, in a word, too disembodied.
And so I went off to study medicine, became a doctor; I specialised in the area of overlap between psychiatry and neurology. And one day I happened to go to a lecture by a colleague who was talking about the right hemisphere of the brain. And in medical school we’d hardly ever heard about the right hemisphere; everything important was done by the left hemisphere. That couldn’t be more wrong, by the way, as you would know if you read any of my books, but in fact all the really important stuff is done by the right hemisphere, you can’t speak… Anyway, there were connections with my previous thinking. Because what I learned from my colleague who’d spent twenty, thirty years at the bedsides of people who had tumours, strokes or whatever in the right hemisphere, was that their world was utterly changed. It’s hard luck having a left hemisphere stroke – you can’t use your hand, often you lose speech. But the world itself is comprehensible as it was. But with the right hemisphere gone, this is not the case. And the various things that struck me were that I was told that the right hemisphere – and this is true – is good at understanding metaphor, implicit meaning, irony, humour, narratives, myths; the left hemisphere takes it all literally. The right hemisphere is the one that understands uniqueness; the left puts things in categories and says, ‘I’ve got it now, pigeon-holed’. And the right hemisphere is the one which understands embodiment; it has richer connections with the body than the left hemisphere, quite literally, and with the emotional part of our being, which all needs to be present if we’re to make any sense of our lives at all.
JB: And your life’s work, in that sense, has been about looking at the way in which the left hemisphere, which was supposed to be subservient at some level to the right – good at analysing, picking things apart but ultimately under the sway of the right hemisphere, which had the big picture and saw things in their larger frame… But that as a society, we’ve essentially become a left hemisphere society. Just explain that and how that sort of works… I mean, you took a whole book to explain this, but in a nutshell, what’s happened in our culture in the last few hundred years?
IM: Yes, the first thing to say is how effectively the hemispheres are different – I have to say something about that, and then explain how that refers to the cultural history. To condense twenty years and many pages into a couple of sentences, for evolutionary reasons all creatures need to be able to do two things at the same time that are mutually incompossible, as philosophers say. One is to pay attention to a tiny detail in order to grab it; the other is to look out for everything else that is going on, so that while you’re getting your lunch you don’t become somebody else’s. And both of these kinds of attention are very, very important – one highly focused on the detail: to manipulate it, to get it, to pick it up, to use it. And the other, which is the right hemisphere’s task, to hold the whole thing together with broad, vigilant, open, uncommitted, sustained attention.
Now it may not strike you, as it didn’t immediately strike me, how significant this matter of attention is. Since then, I’ve had much to think about and to say about attention, which I think is a deeply moral act, because it changes the world and it also changes you. So we are always, in what we say we know, we are encountering a world – and it’s not one that exists wholly independent of us, as though we didn’t come into it at all. But it’s also not something we make up; there’s something there for us to encounter. And that encounter involves being able to see the world with a kind of sight that is underwritten by the right hemisphere. If you become over-concerned with grabbing, getting, manipulating tools and machines, which are all preferentially dealt with by the left hemisphere, then you don’t see the big picture in which the sort of things that I want to know about and I guess you want to know about – questions like who are we, what are we doing here, what is the world, what is our relationship with it. These are not easily answered.
And then the first of the two main books for which I’m remembered, The Master and His Emissary, in the second half of the book I looked at the history of the west through the prism of what we knew about the hemispheres. And saw that three times, we’d started off in Greece and in Rome, with a very beautiful symbiosis and synergy of what the left hemisphere gives and knows and what the right hemisphere gives and knows. Always with the right hemisphere taking under its egis the left hemisphere; it needs to be the master. The emissary goes and does work for the master; doesn’t really understand the importance of it – it does it, it does computation, then it brings the results back to the master. But at the end of these civilisations they became more and more bureaucratic, devitalised, categorical rather than subtle, and effectively the life, the magic, the imagination, the spirit, went out of the civilisations and they collapsed. And I’m afraid that what I see very, very vividly is in the last couple of hundred years and particularly acceleratingly in the last hundred and even more in the last thirty or forty, that we are moving into this world in which things are atomistic, static, certain, known, black and white in their nature, disembodied, abstract, categorical and really only representations of the reality.
That word representation is important, because at first the world is present to us – or even better, presence is to us, which is eloqution used by philosophers after Heidegger, which I rather like, the suggestion that there’s an activity in that the world, comes to our presence. And the representation is literally an attempt to make it present after the fact, when it is no longer present, and that’s what you have when you have a map, a theory, an abstraction. And we live nowadays in the world of maps, theories, abstractions – we don’t seem to look out of the window and say, ‘the world’s not at all like that’, and if we do, that’s what we’ll see. So that is, in brief, what I feel we’re suffering from at the moment.
JB: Well we’re going to delve into that in all sorts of ways in the course of this conversation. Let me come to you as well Sharon – give us a bit of your background, because although you work in Christian apologetics and theology now, you started off really as you were telling us earlier in science and neuroscience specifically. What was your engagement with that, what were you doing and what did you learn in the process about the nature of the brain and consciousness?
SD: Yes, thank you Justin. So my undergrad was in biochemistry and I went on to do a PhD in brain-imaging and that’s where I got to study… well, for my PhD some of the methodology around functional MRI. I was studying in the late 90s when this new modality was really just getting going and people were really getting the hang of what it could and couldn’t tell us.
JB: And just explain, that’s where you’re scanning the brain, essentially, MRI?
SD: Yes, it’s a way of looking inside the human brain without cutting into it. And that’s why magnetic resonance imaging and other subsequent imaging techniques have really revolutionised neuroscience and how we can study, because prior to that people were limited to post-mortem studies and disease states studies in people that were so desperate that they would be involved and be a research subject. But with the advent of brain imaging we could study healthy volunteers and be looking at healthy brains as well as diseased states. So I studied methodology for my PhD and then I went on to do a postdoc at the Medical College of Wisconsin, actually studying cocaine addiction. So it’s interesting that we’re here discussing consciousness tonight – this was looking at essentially an altered state of consciousness in addicts. This was an ethically approved – very rigorous actually approved process to even begin a study like this in a very well-established laboratory. And so we were looking at the areas of the networks in the brain involved in reward and addiction and that sort of thing, and I was working alongside people that were looking at all sorts of other things as well.
JB: And by the time you were doing this, you were a Christian. What part did that play in this? Because there are of course plenty of people who know plenty about the brain and its activity – the Daniel Dennett’s and the Sam Harris’ and so on – who say, ‘well now we can see the way the brain works, we can assume that it’s all a material process going on, when we see the bits flash up in our brain, when we’re having this experience or that experience, that explains the experience’. What’s your perspective on that?
SD: Yes, my perspective on that is that we need to be very clear on what the science tells us and where we make a leap and start to make a philosophical and world-view statement that the science doesn’t get you to. So the science gets us to connection; there is a connection between the mind and the brain very clearly, that we see both in the development and in the unborn and in child development. Also there’s a clear connection in degenerative disease states and what you’re seeing going on mentally. And of course just in a healthy volunteer, if you put them in an MRI scanner and give them a task to do, you will see networks lighting up that correspond to that use of their mind. And so clearly mind and brain are connected; that is where the science gets us to.
But the science doesn’t say anything about the nature of that connection, and that is where people move into a world-view perspective on it. You know, you might see the front page of… Scientific American in 2017 had a headline about looking at brain networks and how neurons create thoughts. Now that is not a scientific statement; there is nothing in any study that will get you to the conclusion that neurons create thoughts – that’s a world-view perspective. And we need to be really clear on where we make that leap and where suddenly we’ve moved out of the realm of scientific methodology and inference into world-view philosophy.
JB: Would you like to comment on that Iain? Because I know that from the outset I think there’s a certain amount of shared ground between you and Sharon here, that you think there has been far too much of a reductionistic approach to the mind, consciousness and so on, the idea that, ‘well if we can see the way it works physically, we have a completely physical explanation for this’. What’s your perspective on this?
IM: Well I mean I’ll pass over because you know we need to get to the meat of it, but the difficulties in interpreting these scans – actually what is going on? It’s not always what you think. It might be inhibitory; there may be other areas that are important and so on. So I think there’s a problem about that kind of way of understanding it. But certainly I wouldn’t accept from a philosophical point of view that just because we can see a parallel between the brain and consciousness, that the brain makes consciousness.
There are logically three possible relationships between them. One – the one that is favoured by modern science – seems to me the least likely, which is that the brain gives rise to consciousness – emits it. Another alternative is that it transmits it, in the way that a receiver would take in consciousness and produce it like a radio set produces a programme, but it’s not out of the set. And the third, which is the one that I adopt and we may come onto that, is permit – in other words, the brain permits a certain element of consciousness to be expressed. And that’s quite important, because often things only come into being by being restricted or sculpted. William James makes this wonderful remark, that it’s only because of the vocal chords inhibiting the outflow of air in his lungs that he has a personal voice. It may be that the brain has been thought by some other people to be as a sort of filtering device, which allows aspects of consciousness, which are my consciousness, to become apparent. But in any case, I certainly don’t think there’s much going for the idea that if matter is – and it’s a big ‘if’ – if matter really has no consciousness in it, then you can’t make the step from that to consciousness. Many philosophers have tried; nobody has succeeded.
JB: Well one of the first Big Conversations I had on this was with Daniel Dennett, opposite Keith Ward, discussing these kinds of issues. Daniel Dennett, as I’m sure you’re familiar, takes this view that actually it is a purely material phenomenon and that essentially consciousness arises out of very complex chemical, physical interactions. His reasoning I would assume would go along the lines of, well, we don’t have any evidence that anything else is going on than physical stuff – that’s what we see what we measure it and look at it and do the MRI scans. Why would be assume that there is some other thing we call consciousness coming in from the outside, either being transmitted or permitted. What’s your perspective on that?
IM: Well it’s a very basic and well-known point that not everything that matters is matter and is measurable. Love – where do you measure that, how do you do it? The meaning of music – in what lab is he going to find that? Does he deny that music has meaning? I don’t know. But I think his position is wholly incoherent: he says that consciousness is an illusion, but I would point out that for it to be an illusion, there must be a consciousness to be alluded. It’s one of the most remarkable statements by an obviously rather intelligent man.
JB: And to that extent though, a lot of people I think assume that that is the de facto position that exists, because it has been widely spread and it is one of the best known ones. And yet I see interestingly, people coming alongside you who aren’t just necessarily from a religious perspective… I saw Philip Pullman – you know, well-known atheist author – who’s incredibly enthusiastic about your work and has endorsed The Master and His Emissary. Do you find that people are kind of moving away from that naturalist, reductionist view of the mind? Are there people, even if they’re not necessarily religious, willing to say: there must be more than just a material explanation for this?
IM: Yes, I think there are and in a way the word religion is an impediment to this happening more freely. Because most people who haven’t been brought up in a religious tradition and have perhaps rather simplistic black and white ideas about what’s involved – it’s a real turn-off. But you know, if you ask people in this country – it’s different in America I know, but in this country – ‘do you follow a religion?’ – I think about 11% or 12% say yes. But if you ask people, ‘do you think there is more to the Cosmos than is contained within the reductionist materialist position?’ – about 95% of them say yes. So it’s that that I feel is there. And everywhere I go I find that young people are very receptive to these ideas, and as Max Planck said, that science moves forward funeral by funeral…
JB: ‘One funeral at a time’ – yes, interesting. Sharon, anything to add to that before we move on to some of the other issues that we’re going to explore tonight? Are you sensing that the ground is shifting, people are becoming less willing to just say, ‘yes, it’s all a purely material phenomenon’?
SD: Well I think that the reductive materialist position will always be there and so we need to have responses to that ready to hand, and there are different expressions of it – Daniel Dennett is one. But you know, the view that the mind simply is the brain is another way of expressing it. And of course, we can point to what’s known as a philosophically qualia, that there are all kinds of qualitative experiences that we have in life that actually are impossible to describe physically. If I were to ask you to describe to me the smell of coffee in physical terms, you would be at a loss as for how to describe it – the chemical structure of caffeine wouldn’t be enough, doesn’t get you to the smell of coffee. And so all of these qualia in life and not least the qualia of what it is to be you, there is something that it is to be a human being, that actually nobody else – even a scientist with the most highly developed technology – can’t really access the inner reality that it is to be you. And that’s really what the conversation comes down to.
JB: And do you sense then that people are opening up to that perspective? I feel like I’ve heard a lot about the Daniel Dennett sort of materialist perspective… I feel like there are a lot of people, even in the non-religious sort of sphere, are sort of going in other directions. We hear about panpsychism and other sorts of ways of thinking about consciousness at the moment…
SD: Exactly, that was the next thought in my head, that actually the view that everything is conscious, is a way that people are using to solve what’s known as ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ – if we take the term coined by David Chalmers – that the hard problem being how do you get from non-conscious neurons to conscious human beings. He describes that as ‘the hard problem’. And so rather than starting with the building blocks of matter – atoms and molecules – and trying to build a bridge to consciousness, panpsychists and others of other views would say, ‘look, we’re starting in the wrong place – let’s start with consciousness and make that fundamental and primary and build a bridge back to the building blocks of the brain’. And panpsychism is an increasingly popular view today that I’m coming across, and spoke to Philip Goff on Unbelievable a year or two ago, and so obviously there are some critiques of that position. There are many benefits in that it puts consciousness back on the table, but there are some critiques, that I think Christian theism is more persuasive, ultimately. But it’s a helpful viewpoint in hearing from people that are dissatisfied with a very reductionist approach which seeks to segment human beings into just one dimension and just look at them through one lens.
JB: What’s your perspective on panpsychism, this idea that we start with consciousness and sort of build back from there?
IM: I think that is right. I think that, for what it’s worth, I think that matter is a phase of consciousness, so matter is not prior to consciousness – nothing is prior to consciousness. This is a point of view that’s been common to many traditions all round the world for thousands of years; I think people often have insight into the brain without using scanners. But the idea that consciousness is what’s called ontological primitive – i.e. there’s nothing behind it, that it could come out of, it is primary – seems to me to make a lot of sense.
But of course if they’re phases of one another then matter is also a primary because it’s part of consciousness. To give an analogy perhaps – water: what is water? Well normally it’s translucent, it flows easily and it moves over your body and it finds its way through the landscape. But it’s also ice, and ice doesn’t look at all like water or behave like water – it’s solid, it stays where it’s put unless given a push, it’s completely opaque and it’ll break your head open if you hit it, which is not the case with water. And then of course there is steam, in which water is suspended in the air and can be invisible. So you say matter doesn’t look like consciousness – well no, ice doesn’t look like water; steam doesn’t look like water. But there can be different manifestations of the same essence. Different phenomenological expressions of the same essence – that would be my view on that one.
JB: It’s also frequently given as a slightly poor analogy for the Holy Spirit and the trinity, but I’ll leave that aside, the water, ice and steam analogy!
Look, fascinating stuff, taking us into this whole area of the mind and consciousness and so on. I want to return though to your central thesis, Iain, which is that this hemispheric duality in the way in which the left hemisphere has come to dominate the right hemisphere. And in what ways are you seeing that come out in terms of the way people think about big issues around purpose, around the Cosmos, around God as well, which we’ll come to. Has that sort of domination of the left hemisphere which wants to simply organise, categorise and provide data – is that what has, in your view, become the problem with people no longer feeling like they can believe in spirituality or ultimate purpose or even that music has its own intrinsic beauty, rather than simply being the thing that hits our ears and stimulates neurons and so on?
IM: Well there are a number of ways in which I think it renders it very hard to understand what people mean when they talk about spirituality or religion. One is that it’s very hard to make explicit in language, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. As Niels Bohr said about modern physics, it can only be expressed using the language of poetry, but it doesn’t mean it’s not real; he made the explicit connection with religion. That’s one thing that happens.
Another is that the left hemisphere, starting with detail and building up, sees everything as mechanical in the way it would make it by putting this together with that – that’s what the left hemisphere is for. It’s the bit of us that enables us to make things – make tools and manipulate the world around us. Whereas the right hemisphere is able to see a whole, and very often – in fact I would say everywhere in the Cosmos – you don’t just arrive at something by finding out the parts it’s made of, because you can’t know the parts until you know what sort of wholes it can go to make. The very fact that certain things that look when taken out of context very basic and simple, can be very highly important parts of a whole of something else, It shows that this process is creative and needs to be seen in both directions.
The left hemisphere is not happy with ambivalences with things that can’t be specified in black and white. Because it’s the one that needs to go – ‘I’m going to grab it, it’s a rabbit’ – or whatever it is. Whereas the right hemisphere is content with the idea that it has to be able to keep together two things, both if which seem to be true. And the last part of that book – of that volume, the beginning – I have a chapter on the coincidence of opposites, which I think is incredibly important.
IM: Well it’s effectively the idea that if you go back further and further in a certain direction, you don’t get further and further away from what you thought you were doing, because you come round to it in the end. It’s a very old point, that extremes in politics have more in common than the parts in the middle, you know – there’s a fascist left and a fascist right, and there are people in the middle who don’t want to be either. I actually believe there are militant fundamentalist atheist and militant fundamentalist Christians and I put them in the box together and good luck! But the people that I respect – and I think there are enormous numbers of these – are people who are not entirely certain. If they were certain, it wouldn’t be faith. I mean, faith is a word which requires a disposition towards something, not accepting a bunch of propositions. It’s not a matter of a logical argument, it’s a matter of disposing your consciousness in such a way towards the world that it will allow you to experience certain things. Because we can easily, by the way we attend, we can rule things out. And then we think, ‘well it’s not there, show me?’ – and I can’t show you, because you’re not attending right.
JB: Right, interesting. You’ve obviously been engaging for a little while now with Iain’s work on this. Where have you seen the connections with your own work and the way in which Iain talks about this right/left hemisphere and the way it’s come to change the way our culture thinks about things and interacts with things?
SD: Yes, well first of all I’ve found Iain’s work enormously helpful and extraordinarily comprehensive, and will be referring to it for many years to come. And as I was reflecting on it, I see all kinds of illuminations actually, some of them incredibly practical.
Firstly, the way you emphasise the importance of distraction and rest for the flourishing of the imagination and intuition. And we are a society that has forgotten how to rest, and so we are unable to awaken that side of our brain functioning.
Another area… has caused me to think about AI and the influence of our increasing interaction with algorithms, which you could say is a distillation of the proficiencies of the left hemisphere. And so what does that mean for us as human beings, as we continue to interact increasingly with algorithms and our life’s direction or… success in interview is not decided on the basis of intuition and embodiment, but on algorithmic programmes and factors.
And then of course there’s the broader discussion about a change of view, and the perspective that is needed to change ones perspective requires us to be aware that there are factors that we haven’t considered before. And if we have kind of shut down the part of our brain that is proficient in doing that, then the likelihood of us coming to any kind of change of heart or perspective – whether that is religious or anything, political or relational – then we are becoming less and less emotionally intelligent.
IM: Oh I think you’re right – well actually interestingly you’re becoming less cognitively intelligent, but that’s by the by. But importantly we are also becoming less emotionally intelligent, and these views are not just reductive – in the way that they try to account for everything by breaking it down into simple bits – but are actively reductive of what a human being is. So that I believe that in the explosive increase in the amount of time we now have to spend – just within the last five years you can see it accelerating, the amount of our day that is spent interacting with machines, algorithms, because people are expensive and algorithms are cheap. But unfortunately they’re also stupid – I say it’s not artificial intelligence; it’s artificial stupidity. It’s modelling the sort of thing we would never, never do.
And in the past something that would take you five minutes on the telephone can now literally take four hours on the net – sometimes these algorithms go into loops that you can’t break out of and nobody’s tested them properly… ‘oops, something went wrong’ – very helpful comment! I think it has this impact on us that importantly intuition and imagination are now thought of as sort of second-class ways of coming into contact with reality – perhaps leading us away into fantasy. But as I say in that book and I’m constantly saying, fantasy is one thing, but imagination is the only chance we have to reach reality. It’s not a matter of putting fancy dress versions of the world in front us the world – it’s clearing all that away so that for the first time we can see reality as it is. Those of you who know the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge will know exactly what I’m talking about.
SD: I was thinking that even the work of Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings – that’s a wonderful combination of fantasy, but that is pointing to a reality.
IM: Can I tell that little joke? Apparently… J. R. R. Tolkien was a Professor of English at Merton College at Oxford. And the other fellows got thoroughly fed up of people being brought into dinner and fawning on the great man. And one day somebody brought in a guest who went up to Tolkien and said, ‘oh Mr Tolkien, your works are so full of imagination’ and from behind a newspaper, a grumpy maths don was heard to snort, ‘imagination? Imagination? Made it all up!
JB: Wonderful, wonderful!
IM: Which neatly points out the difference between just random creation and actually imagination, which contacts a reality and brings it to us.
JB: Absolutely. And that’s the thing isn’t it, that the maths should serve the thing that really matters, which is the imagination, which is the contact with the values, the purpose that everything that The Lord of the Rings inspires in someone who reads it. Now that’s not to say maths can’t inspire someone, but at the same time…
IM: It certainly can!
JB: Exactly. But there’s a sense in which we’ve got to ask which thing is serving which, I suppose, in the end. I want us to move on to, probably in a blunt way, God. Because this is something you said in this latest book you’ve written, you decided to tackle, Iain – the question of is there a divine source to what you have been so very well explaining in terms of the nature of mind, the brain and the way it engages the world. You said this was the thing you were most worried about writing about, because it’s so difficult to get right, it’s such a divisive topic – the hardest part of the book. Ok, in a nutshell, can you tell us – I hate saying that! – but where have you found yourself landing when it comes to the question of God, and how would you even define that term in the first place, when it comes to this?
IM: Well it’s the left hemisphere that asks me to define this, and if I do define it, it will just say, ‘well that doesn’t add up’. So we have to get away from all definitions. But I know what you’re asking me to do, which is to summarise a lifetime of many years thought, and that chapter alone is a small book – over a hundred pages long. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And many of my colleagues – philosophers who read what I wrote – begged me not to include it. Because they said, you know, ‘the philosophy’s great, but people will just dismiss you’. So far they haven’t, so that’s on the good side. But it seemed to me quite wrong, if I’d left that out, that was really in some ways the most important thing I had to say about anything. And I knew before I started that any language was going to betray me, you know; the Dao that is the real Dao cannot be named – that’s the opening of the Dao De Jing. For Christians, St Augustine: ‘si comprehendis, non est Deus’ – ‘if you understand God, it’s not God you’ve understood’; which actually makes an interesting parallel with Richard Feynman, the quantum physicist, who said, ‘if you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics’.
So that was the difficulty. But you’re asking me to say where I’ve landed over a lifetime. I certainly feel strongly that there is something very powerful, of ultimate importance, of great beauty and the source of life and creativity, which is behind this cosmos, that is expressed in its richness, complexity and responsiveness. Because I believe the Cosmos is conscious and I believe, in short – it sounds very odd to say it very boldly and cheaply and quickly – but I think that it’s perfectly coherent that the whole Cosmos is conscious. And my view is that of a panentheist. So pantheism is the belief that all things are God and that God is all things. But panentheism is really importantly different – that little syllable ‘n’ in the middle means ‘in’. So God is in all things and all things are in God, but neither of these things exhausts God, if you see what I mean. So God is bigger, greater than anything we can say or conceive, but there is no divorce between God and any part of what we find ourselves experiencing.
JB: Very interesting and thank for you condensing it into a nutshell, I know it’s very difficult to do. Ok, where do you land then when it comes to this – and I think you’ve interacted with the kind of perspective that Iain sketched out there. Sharon, both as a scientist and obviously as a Christian, how do you put together the mind, the consciousness and the nature of God within all that?
SD: Well, so I very much hope that neuroscience continues to flourish and develop and there will be enormous growth in understanding and elegant theories as to the mind-brain relationship, and I very much hope that is the case. But where I came to in my book in terms of how I think about it, is there will always be questions that science can’t answer and was never intended to answer. Questions like the one that I had myself as a young child, slightly bored on a Sunday, looking out of the window on a rainy day, suddenly the question comes to me: ‘why can I think? Why do I exist?’ You know, I don’t know what I was attending to exactly at that moment – or maybe I was just distracted and my mind was on freewheel, the clutch was in and I was just kind of coasting. But then questions bubbled to the surface of my consciousness – ‘and so why can we think at all?’
And that’s a really important question to answer. And of course if the forces of nature are not enough to explain consciousness, then maybe ultimate answers to that question lie beyond the forces of nature. And what kind of universe makes sense of the fact that here we are as conscious beings? Is it a non-conscious universe in which human beings are an accidental occurrence, or is it one in which a conscious being has been present right from the beginning and has brought into being the universe that we find ourselves in? And so that’s the view that I hold – Genesis 1:1 says, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. And so before there was anything material, there was God – not just God, a sole being, but the Godhead, the trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a complete, mutually loving, expressive community of conscious beings. And from there, the trinity created the material world.
JB: Now to that extent, that’s different to panentheism, as I understand it. I’ll leave you guys to sort of discuss this between yourselves at this point, but why for you does Christian theism help you to understand the Cosmos, more than perhaps a panentheistic view?
IM: Justin, I think you’re setting up a quite unnecessary and non-supported dichotomy. Panentheism is in fact a very common belief by Christian theologians – Moltmann, for example. Go to Greece or Russia, look at the Orthodox churches, they see God in the whole of creation – they see it in all of the animals and the plants and even the stones. So it’s obviously true in other religions – in the Vedanta. It’s true of Buddhism in as much as it’s a mistake to say there is no god in Buddhism, it’s just that they don’t like that particular word, but they have the idea of all-supporting, creative force, which is in the Cosmos. And I think we don’t have to pick and choose; in fact what I’m trying to do is say that everything, as indeed William Blake, said, ‘all that lives, is sacred’. But I think I’d go further and say, ‘all that is, is sacred’.
SD: And we certainly need more emphasis on the sacred in this day and age. And I think where… a question that I had around panentheism, is around the question of really where love and freedom come from in that world-view? Because if consciousness and the universe are very much in connection to each other and one helps the other into being, then is the act of creation an act of necessity, because it is the means by which the divine kinds of develops and becomes itself, in relationship to the Universe? And also the Universe – are they slightly obligated to get to know the divine and in doing so help it into being?
IM: Well, yes I resist the idea of applying necessity to God under any circumstances. I just think we’re confusing categories. But I do think, as you know from reading my books, that the divine being, the divine essence, the ground of being that answers the question, ‘why is there anything rather than nothing?’, is in process. And I know this is not always a view that Christians are happy with, but the idea is that God, at least in an important aspect – and because we can’t know God fully it may not contradict the idea of God being eternally the same. But my view is that God is manifesting in all kinds of ways and bringing into being what is implicit or only potential within him, and that we and the Cosmos and that divine being are in co-creation together. What we are doing is unfolding aspects of the divine.
What I particularly like is another creation story, which is that of the Kabbalah, or at least the Lurianic Kabbalah, which goes like this: in origin, there was a being – Ein Sof. But I don’t speak Hebrew, but I’m told that it means either nothing, or the being, as it were. And that being, being relational in essence, wanted to create something to have a relationship with. And the first act – what was the first act of Ein Sof? It was to withdraw – it’s called tzimtzum. And that’s the moment when God withdraws or contracts, rather like kenosis in Christianity, to create a space in which there could be something that was not just part of God. And in that space there were twelve vessels. And a little spark of fire came out of Ein Sof, fell on the vessels, and shattered them all – that’s Shevirat ha-Kelim. And the last is Tikkun, which means repair. And in this tradition, humanity is specially called to repair these vases and urns, more beautiful than they were before they were broken. And the way I understand that is by the Japanese art of repairing ceramics with gold – Kintsugi – which produces these very beautiful things.
Now that is wonderful to me, because it suggests this sort of dialogue between different aspects of creation, which I think also goes on in the human mind. So the right hemisphere has a sort of open attentiveness, things come into being in that space from which as it were our thoughts have withdrawn, so something new can happen. It then goes to the left hemisphere, which says, ‘oh familiar, I’ll put it in this category…’ and it’s much too big for that, so that category has exploded. And then the right hemisphere takes it back and makes it better than it was before.
SD: I think in some ways I agree with you, in terms of once things are in being… I actually love the language that you use about the way that we attend and things come into our consciousness, and perhaps you use the language of inter-being. But I think there’s a lot of resonance between what it means to get to know God as a Christian, and the language that you’re using, that I find very beautiful.
I think my main question comes back to the very beginning. Because if I’ve heard you correctly in saying that the divine wanting to have a relationality with something and the Universe has a role in that, I see that as being quite distinct from classical theism, which says that God himself is already in complete and fulfilling relationship within the trinity. And therefore the act of creation is an act of love; he doesn’t require anything, but he created out of love, and that’s where love becomes a reality and becomes possible. And that’s also the foundation of why we’re given freedom as human beings, why potentially the angelic realm was given freedom, and that’s why we have evil, because that’s the context in which love is possible. And so I look to actually the trinity as the way to make sense of that.
IM: I wouldn’t differ from anything much of what you said at all. I wasn’t meaning to suggest that Ein Sof was compelled to do anything. Just that by the very nature of being, it was impossible for it to be without there being something more – not outside, but nonetheless independent. This is where language breaks down. I do very strongly believe that we have freewill; determinism is not supported by neuroscience or by anything at all that I know, and certainly not supported by physics. So I think that is there.
It’s very obvious that there are forces in the Universe and in human experience that draw things together and we can think of that as love, and also separate them. So I always see that the business of creation is a dance of individuation with union; that we need both the forces that individuate. And one way of thinking about it is, Gerard Manley Hopkins thought the whole business of creation was the multiplicity of ‘thisness’ – of all these wonderful creatures. I don’t think one should negate that. But it’s perfectly accommodable in the idea that it is all one. You know, when Oriental people say, ‘all is one’, I say: ‘that’s very good, and all is many’ – you know, that’s the other thing. And Heraclites said the same thing – the Greek sentence says: ‘all is many and the many are one’.
JB: I’d be interested in taking this to quite a practical level, because I know that you’ve critiqued the idea, Iain, of an engineering God – a God who sort of stands outside of the creation in some sense and sort of just makes things happen. That’s too much of a sort of left-brain God, if you like.
IM: It’s an apotheosis of the left hemisphere. I’d like to have power over everything – ‘ah, there’s a God, and that’s me!’
JB: So you don’t like that kind of God. But is the God you do have in mind, a God that you can pray to? A God that will act on your behalf? What sort of a God in that sense… because that is generally the God that a Christian will believe in; a God who to some extent… We are certainly only in existence because we are in the mind of God; God is the foundation for everything – the ground of all being, as it were. But nonetheless it is a God that we can speak to, interact with, directs us, and so on. What do you make of that?
IM: Well first of all I’m enormously respectful of any points of view in this area, because none of us can know for certain anything. I feel that God speaks, but I don’t in my bed hear words in my ear. But I think that in daily life, God speaks to me through the whole of the things that happen. And sometimes I listen for words and I say, ‘why are you not saying anything?’ and the next day things happen. And it reminds me of… There’s a story I used to tell my patients – they say, ‘I want to get better without medication’ and often you can’t, for certain conditions. And I’d say, ‘do you know the story of the man who had a pact with God, that he would save him? And this man went out swimming and got out of his depth, and a boat came along to rescue him and he says, ‘it’s ok, I’ve got a pact with God’. And then the helicopter comes and he says, ‘no no no it’s fine, I’ve got a pact with God’, and then he drowns. And then he goes to heaven and says to God, ‘well you’re a fine one, I thought we had a pact?’ ‘I sent a boat, I sent a helicopter’…’ – so that’s my way of seeing it. I’m amazed by people who actually have literal conversations with God, but that’s not what I believe. And I also think that prayer is not about talking, it’s about listening; it’s opening ones ear and allowing the talking to come to you. Saint Francis said when we pray we should prayer for nothing, nothing – he actually repeats it; Mother Theresa said that it’s in silence when we listen that prayer takes place.
SD: So much there, Iain. Maybe I’ll just come back to this idea of power, actually. And the thing that came to mind for me was that what’s interesting about the Trinitarian God is that yes, he is omnipotent and also imminent and omniscient, but he also is willing to step into human history, if you like – Jesus being the ultimate embodiment of the divine. And he humbles himself, and it involves an emptying of some of his divine attributes, in order to perform that rescue that you talk about. And so for me, I don’t think we have to be afraid of the notion that we can combine transcendence with a God of humility, and a God who is embodied and with us and present. Because that’s what I see in the Christian faith – a God who has come to be with us, and through his being embodied with us, has somehow rescued us and made it possible for us to know him.
IM: Well I think the Christian myth, also – a word I use without any prejudice about whether it’s true or not – is the most powerful mythos about God that I can think of. And the very idea of incarnation is quite wonderful, the idea of the resurrection of the body, which sounds – a child can tell you that can’t be right – is saying something very deep about the way in flesh is taken up into the realm of the spirit and of the divine. So I am enormously indebted to and in a sense I try to honour the Christian tradition in which I was brought up; it’s incredibly rich. I also find things in other religions and it would be odd if there weren’t parallels, because if we’re onto a truth, we’re all onto some sort of truth.
I don’t like the exclusivity of Christianity – whether that exists – I think that’s a mistake. But yes, the business of personal intervention is a difficult one for me, for all the obvious reasons that you must have heard a thousand times before. The Holocaust, in brief, and so many other instances of needless human suffering. The way I make sense of them – I mean rape and torture of children – what one has to say is this is the price that is paid for a free creation; I think that’s the only sensible way of thinking about it. That if we are to be free, we are free to depart utterly from what God would intend.
But I see God as pretty much omnipresent, but I don’t know that he’s omnipotent, because God can’t actually make things that simply don’t make sense, make sense. And that’s what seems to me what miracles are about. Now I’m not saying that miracles don’t take place; what I would say is for that I’d like to know more. It’s never happened to me – I don’t think it’s ever happened in my experience at all. It’s lovely that it happens to some people, but it seems a little bit random. I mean, there are great ways in which if gods came to intervene they could intervene, rather than helping you catch a train or whatever it is. And that’s a difficulty I have with it. It’s not original; I think almost everybody has this, including Christians.
JB: Huge can of worms, just before we go to the questions. But do you want to make a brief response and then we’ll start to take some questions?
SD: Yes, I do. Yes, I think that miracles are a huge area. I think that firstly that there can be the impression that we are being asked to sort of choose between laws of nature or a miracle. But actually when we think about the laws of nature, we’re told that there are actually probabilistic – they’re not fixed certainties. Which means I could throw this glass into the audience and it would follow a certain projectile, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t reach their hand out and grab it and pull it to themselves and change the trajectory. And so the laws of nature are probabilistic, but they’re not certainties.
Secondly it’s through the laws of nature that you recognise the miracle. It’s because you’ve recognised the paranormal because you know what the normal is, and you recognise the supernatural because you know what the natural is. And those that wrote about the resurrection of Jesus said it’s actually because dead people don’t get up and walk again that there’s something extraordinary about this event, that makes us attend to it. And some very logical, thinking people wrote about this, one of whom was Luke the physician and in his biography of the life of Jesus writes not just about his life and morality and teachings but also his miracles. And so for me, from a scientific background, that just gave me pause for thought, to think, ‘ok, some very wise and learned people don’t seem to have a problem with miracles’. And I guess the truth is that if God exists and has created everything that we see, then he would be able to either work within the laws of nature or suspend them – and not because he meddles with nature, but because he is a God who cares and rescues. So that’s how I see it.
IM: I think the conversation would take a long time. I don’t actually accept the probabilistic thing – it’s quite right that nothing is certain and everything is probabilistic, but this doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all and somebody can make water spring out of a wall or something. But believe me I’m not dismissing… well I have to say, other people have experiences I have not had. But if you ask me, I have to base it on everything I know, which is my experience, which people have said to me and all the things I’ve done and read in my life. I find them a problematic area, I must admit. But I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. And about the resurrection, I feel something slightly different, which is that in a way, this mythos is so great and so true that it would almost be a flaw in it, if it were not to have literal truth as well as metaphorical truth. But – perhaps something for another day! – I believe that metaphorical truth is more important than literal truth. Literal truth is a subset of metaphorical truth, in which the potential in the metaphor has been collapsed into an actuality – in the way that a wave function is collapsed into a particle. Doesn’t make the particle greater than the wave function or the field – in fact, the field is greater than the particle.
SD: Well yes, I can see that there’s common ground, even in this area. I guess I would just say that if I’m in my last days of life, do I want metaphorical truth or do I want literal truth? Am I going to live beyond the death of my body or not? I think that for me is when the crunch comes.
IM: But we know from the fact that possibly our bodies are there after death that maybe the loss of ones body at death is not a literal truth, but a metaphorical truth? Anyway!!
JB: We’ll leave it there – wow! Can we give a round of applause to both Iain and Sharon.