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The Big Conversation – Episode 3 | Season 5
It’s a widely held view that science and religion are in conflict, including and perhaps especially over how they approach one of life’s most fundamental questions: what does it mean to be human? But is that really the case, and do we need to rethink how we’ve been seeking the answer, at a time when we seemingly need more clarity over humanity’s identity than ever before?
Atheist science writer and broadcaster Philip Ball, author of The Book of Minds: Understanding Ourselves and Other Beings, From Animals to Aliens, engages with Christian academic Nick Spencer, Senior Fellow at Theos and author of Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science & Religion.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?
- Episode 2: Christianity, the Sexual Revolution and the future of the West
- Episode 4: Do Consciousness and Near Death Experiences Point to an Afterlife?
- Episode 5: The Robot Race, Part I: Could AI ever replace humanity?
- Episode 6: The Robot Race, Part II: How should humanity flourish in an AI world?
- Episode 7: Is Religion Good or Bad for Society?
Audio Transcript for The Big Conversation (Season 5, Episode 3)
Andy Kind (AK), Philip Ball (PB) & Nick Spencer (NS)
AK: Hello, and welcome to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable brought to you in partnership with the John Templeton Foundation. I am your host, Andy Kind.
The Big Conversation is all about conversations around topics of science, faith, philosophy and culture, bringing together as it does some of the brightest and most ardent thinkers from across the belief spectrum.
Well, today we are looking at the subject of what does it mean to be human? Can science and/or religion tell us anything about that? And there’s a common belief, perhaps, that science and religion are in fundamental conflict, coming to different conclusions about what the world is and what it means to be human. But is that really the case? And do we need to rethink some of our preconceived ideas around that?
Well, joining me today to help me definitely answer this question are Philip Ball and Nick Spencer. Hello chaps, welcome, thanks for coming. Philip Ball is a freelance writer and broadcaster who writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and has authored many books on the interaction of the sciences, the arts and the wider culture. His latest book is, ‘The Book of Minds’, a survey of the varieties of minds that do and might exist. And in conversation with Philip Ball today is Nick Spencer. Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos and he is no stranger to The Big Conversation having debated Steven Pinker in season one. He is the author of a number of books, his most recent book being, ‘Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion’.
So, welcome both of you, thanks for coming. I do want to definitely solve the riddle of whether science and religion can answer what it means to be human. Both your books are magnificent, you are both magnificent thinkers.
What I’d like to do in this first section is to start with that question of the conflict between science and religion. And for some people, maybe, there is this idea that this is the age old debate; that science and religion are like the two old firm enemies engaged in some kind of turf war. But, Nick, you believe that actually the idea of a fundamental conflict is quite a modern invention isn’t it? And you talk about the debate being like a swimming pool with most of the noise up in the shallow end. So can you talk to that a little bit?
NS: Yes, it is relatively modern. It dates really from the last third of the nineteenth century. If you were to scroll back a couple of hundred years and say to people science and religion are in conflict they simply wouldn’t have understood what you were talking about. Quite apart from anything else because science and religion are relatively modern terms at least in the way we use them today.
At the end of the nineteenth century an American chemist, born in Britain but he migrated to the US – became a very eminent chemist but he also considered himself to be something of an intellectual historian – a guy called John Draper. And he wrote a history of science and religion and he understood the entirety of centuries of engagement between science and religion through a very contemporary lens. And there were various issues around America, Catholicism, Protestantism, evolution at the end of the nineteenth century which meant that this was a time of some tension between these two disciplines if you like. And he understood that as being typical of the entirety of the history of science and religion and almost retold the whole story as if it was leading up to what he was experiencing at the time. And it was a very popular story at the time. There was another book published twenty years later that told a similar kind of story. It was popularised in scientific magazines and the narrative stuck. And it partly stuck because then, in the 20th century, fundamentalism emerged with its aversion to Darwinian evolution, and it’s with us today. The survey we did at Theos a couple of years ago looked at the fact that something like 60 per cent of people, adults, in the UK think there is a fundamental tension between science and religion, roughly twice as many as think they are compatible. So there is a really pervasive narrative going on there.
AK: And then you’ve got figures like Galileo, haven’t you, who have been sort of co-opted by these different factions. Is that overdone? Was he the sacrificial lamb that he’s purported to be?
NS: It’s a bit overdone. It’s very important not to move from one simplistic narrative of conflict between science and religion all the way to another simplistic narrative which is, well, it was all harmony and it certainly wasn’t all the time; Galileo was the classic example of that. The way he has become an icon of a conflict between these abstract entities of science and religion is disingenuous. He was threatened with torture by the Inquisition. He was banished to a rather nice villa in Tuscany for the last eight years of his life. He was forbidden to write on the subject and his book was put on the index of prohibited books, so there was a real problem there. But it was a very much more complex problem than the myth of Galileo – which was subsequently picked up by Protestants and used as anti-Catholic propaganda – allow.
There were big intellectual issues around the shift away from Aristotelianism at the time, there were large social and political issues, and there were personal issues involved as well such as Galileo’s initial friendship that they turned enmity really with the guy who became the Pope. So there is a story of tension there but it’s not quite the simplistic, iconic story that Protestants first and then secularists subsequently made it out to be.
AK: Fantastic. Well, Philip, you have reviewed Nick’s book in a very lovely way, if you don’t mind me saying. And you talk of religion as being the midwife to science. Do you want to speak to that a little bit?
PB: There are various ways that one can make that argument and I think that you could see, certainly as far as Christianity is concerned, you can see the origins of that start to emerge in the 12th century where there was a strong belief at that point in, I mean, as Nick said, Aristotle was the big philosopher throughout most of the Middle Ages but there was also a Platonic movement, people were very influenced by what Plato thought. And Plato had a very geometric view of the universe. Plato believed that it was created, there was a Creator, but his idea was that it was created from a sort of geometric perspective; that there was harmony in the order of nature. And this idea can be seen to underpin what really emerged during the Gothic Age and, in fact, some people would argue that Gothic cathedrals are an expression of this idea that the universe is coherent. It’s not something that is just made and governed at the whim of God. It has order and logic to it just as the cathedrals. They are incredibly ordered and logical and they make use of particular proportions that are Platonic proportions. And so they are almost an embodiment of the belief that the universe can be understood by us; that there are rules to it, there are laws to it, and we can understand them. And this is something that was very strongly believed and developed, in particular the cathedral school of Chartres. So there were a lot of thinkers then who I think really… until you have that belief, until you have the belief that the universe is coherent and orderly, you can’t even begin to think about doing science because there’s nothing there that we can discover, it’s all down to the whim of God.
So I think that was the beginnings of it. But then, certainly, if we go through to just after the age of Galileo, although Galileo was part of this as well, so this is really the 17th century, what’s often talked about as the Scientific Revolution. It was the age when the Royal Society was formed. It was the age when it started to become acceptable to ask all kinds of questions about nature. Curiosity at that point started to change from what previously had been regarded with suspicion, trying to sort of know too much about the universe, to being a virtue. That it was actually a positive virtue to ask questions about the physical world. And this was very much the position that those early – we think of them as proto scientist, those early scientific thinkers – people like Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, that they were encouraging. And their view, and particularly it was the view of Robert Boyle, who was one of the key figures in the Royal Society, he was an Anglo-Irish ‘scientist’, as we think of him now, his view was very much that it was actually a duty of people like him, of what we now think of as ‘scientists’, to ask these questions about nature and to understand as much as we could about what God had created. It was a religious duty to do that and Boyle was a strong advocate of that point of view. And it was one that was very widely shared at the time that doing science was almost literally a devotional act. So that, too, created a spur really for people to start asking questions about the universe, that you were asking questions about God’s creation.
AK: And that’s what I’m trying to get to; trying to understand where the Venn diagrams overlaps and already we understand that we don’t have a West Side Story stand-off between the Jets and the Sharks.
So, science and religion are siblings, perhaps? Nick, what do you think about that? Is there a way of having a cosy collusion?
NS: Well, I wouldn’t use the metaphor of siblings but one of the metaphors that I played about with in one of the drafts of the book was that it’s almost as if science – again, anachronistic; we are talking about experimental natural philosophy as they might have referred to it in the 17th century – was almost like a child of certain Christian thought. And it was nurtured in this environment. It’s very important to emphasise that science itself is self-evidently successful as far we are concerned. In the late 17th century it wasn’t. So there’s a brilliant satire in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ by Jonathan Swift in which he visits the grand academy of Lagado. And it’s a satire on the role of society. And they are conducting these experiments that are self-evidently, as far as Swift is concerned, ridiculous. Why are you bothering to weigh air? Why are you literally torturing animals to see how long they can survive and pumping air through their lung while you dismember them? These were extraordinary experiments and they were mocked and ridiculed at the time. But, as Phil rightly said, there was a significant stream of thought which said that they are there because you are studying God’s creation. By studying God’s creation, you are somehow honouring God.
And so, remarkably, some of these late 17th century Protestants said, actually, well, you can do science, you can do natural philosophy, on the Sabbath. Now, that’s a big deal for a Protestant at the time because the Sabbath is the time for rest. But their argument is this is a contemplation of God’s creation. And it’s not just resting on outward contemplation, you’re getting into it. And so it’s an appropriate activity. It’s a form of worship, almost, to the extent that – and this will horrify people – to the extent that they said science is one of the activities we are going to do in heaven because this is a kind of glorification of who God is and what God has done. And it’s just important to recognise that, particularly at a time when science was, as it were, very new, very young, still living at home, hasn’t got its own independence, hasn’t got its own legs, and is questioned by a lot of people.
AK: What if you want to go to heaven but you’re not good at science? I would fall into that category. I’m hoping just to walk around the woods and fish for a bit.
NS: That’s enough. You can study them if you want to but you’re allowed in if you’re just wandering.
AK: That’s great.
So, we’ve already got these two areas of overlap; science and religion, Christianity, in this case. Both require a belief in the orderliness of the universe and both require a curious mind. Do you think that’s correct, Philip?
PB: Absolutely, yes. And, as I say, I think it was the liberation of curiosity that happened around what we now commonly think of as the birth of modern science as we know it.
AK: And there’s this idea then that they are – and I think it was Stephen Gould who coined this phrase – the idea of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. Your book is called, ‘Magisteria’, Nick. But you don’t believe that they are non-overlapping magisteria?
NS: No, it’s too neat really. Gould, in a paper and then a book at the end of the 90s came out with this idea that they’re different, discrete, separate magisteria – or teaching disciplines if you like – and that they didn’t overlap because science was about facts, religion is about values, very simplistically. Now, it’s not an atrocious idea, it’s got something going for it, but it’s far too neat and far too tidy a way of separating the two because when you are dealing with a great many things in life, not least the kind of things that are sitting around this table, human beings, you can’t separate facts and values in that ready way.
So Gould is doing it effectively to say the alternative view – that they are competing explanations of material reality – is not right. And in that regard he is correct. But he, as it were, almost goes to the other end of the spectrum and says, not only are they not competing but they have got nothing whatsoever to do with one another and that’s certainly not true historically and I don’t think it’s true normatively either.
AK: We talked about the idea that Christianity is the midwife to science, that doesn’t make it the biological parent does it, Philip? So is it the case that… or is it the case that science needs to come home to its biological parent or it is okay to set up on its own as long as it comes home at Christmas and calls from time to time?
PB: Well, I think what we could see happening as, really from this period, from the 17th century as science began to flourish, began to investigate and understand more and more about the world, for anyone who believed that God was actively intervening in creation, keeping things on the road as it were, or that even a God that set things up in a certain way at the beginning, there seemed less and less for that sort of God to do because we could elucidate more and more natural explanations for all of that. And I think this was part of the mounting tension that if you believed in that sort of God – and it’s not necessarily the case that a believer has to and, in fact, there is a question about whether that sort of creator God or that interventionist God is the right sort of God to believe in – but if you do, the problems are going to mount up because you end up with what people talk about as a God of the gaps, that all God can do is to do the things that science hasn’t yet been able to explain. And this is often the position of scientists who challenge religion saying that it’s just that science hasn’t got to these difficult questions yet, one day it will and then there’s nothing for God to do and so why do we need him? So that’s really the tension that was starting to arise.
But I think that the great point also that Nick makes in his book is that there is also the issue – and really I think this is the central issue – of authority; who has the right to pronounce on why things are the way they are. And that is actually something that goes back much further. That’s something that we see as a flashpoint even during the Middle Ages. For example, there was in the 13th century, famously, an argument about whether Aristotle is the ultimate authority on the physical world or whether the bible and God is. So I think that’s an older and persisting tension. Who has the right, ultimately, who has the final word on why things are the way they are?
AK: So really we’ve got this perceived conflict between science and religion but it’s not really about the cosmos, it’s not about fine tuning, it’s not about neurons, it’s about humanity because both of these magisteria have something to say on what it means to be human.
NS: I think you’ve always got to be careful to say it’s not about something because that implies that actually this was just an illusion and the real battle was here. Sometimes people did disagree about this, they disagreed about the interpretation of scripture, they disagreed about the age of the earth… But, what you tended to find was that those disagreements were often resolved relatively quickly with not too much blood spilled but there were certain underlying tensions that persisted. Phil’s absolutely right, he picked up one about authority. The story about Paris in the 13th century is great because it effectively turned out, when you look at the document history, to be a turf war between the philosophy faculty and the theology faculty. And the theologians didn’t like the philosophers coming in and saying, basically, that theology doesn’t teach you anything.
And so there are other kind of tensions going on there. But going back to where we started the conversation with a perception of a tension between science and religion really emerged in the 19th century. That’s very much about authority. Beginning of the 19th century, if you want to find someone doing science or natural philosophy, you’ll probably, in this country at least, find them in an Anglican rectory. They will be ordained, they will be theologically educated, they would be very interested in the natural world and they would be conducting some serious, maybe not experiments, but observations. Scroll forward fifty, seventy years or so, and science is increasingly become professionalised, autonomous and validated by concerns other than whether you are an Anglican cleric from Oxford and Cambridge. The Anglican clerics didn’t like that. That was a loss of status and authority. So much of the tension was around the shifting balance of authority and who had the right to pronounce firstly on the nature of the natural world – well, science won out, no problem with that one – but critically on the nature of the human. And that’s when things did kick off.
AK: That’s absolutely fantastic. And we’re going to go on to talk about the human mind and what is a mind and how do we decide and do we mind what a mind is and all of that.
But it’s fantastic that we’ve got these areas of overlap. On a personal level, because you do come at it from different perspectives, where – and it’s a question to both of you as we go towards our break – where are the areas between the two of you for instance where there is a contrast in belief where there is maybe a sort of breach in one’s thinking?
PB: We need to work on this, Nick, don’t we? Because we haven’t really found one!
NS: We agree too much. I mean, I feel you would call yourself an atheist? (PB: I would, yes) I would call myself a Christian humanist but I wouldn’t want to put those two words together. So there’s going to be some different conception there on, you know, certainly the status of revelation I guess, the existence of God. But it’s important to recognise that you can be of different sides of that particular fence and yet engage positively and actually agree quite a lot on some of the things you talk about.
PB: I mean, I think what I have found is no reason within science to object to belief. There is nothing to really find in conflict. I mean there are… of course, it depends on your expression of religious belief and it’s not hard to find expressions of religious belief that absolutely do conflict with certain areas of science and that’s a very selective one and often it does centre around the human and around, of course, evolution. And there are arguments made that it also centres around the questions of origins and the origin of life and the origin of the universe. Personally, I think that it’s becoming more and more clear that that’s a false argument. It’s clear simply from the fact that there are religious believers who totally accept the cosmology that we have. There’s no reason to see fundamental conflict there. But, yes, I think questions around what it means to be human, what the source of our values are, those are more difficult areas. But, this is from my own experience, I haven’t yet encountered a reason why science need undermine belief.
AK: And is that the same for you in reverse, Nick?
NS: It is, although I think it’s really important for religious believers to be very honest about this. I guess one way of looking at it is that the whole thing is like a massive jigsaw puzzle, really. There are lots and lots and lots of very small pieces and your task as a believer – and indeed not believing – is to try and fit them together. You’ve not got a picture on the box, you’ve got to work out how these different pieces go together. Now, for the most part, I think they do fit together but at the same time I find myself in certain areas, as it were, of the jigsaw where they don’t fit together. Let me put as a provocation, as it were, to my own side; I think one of the real challenges that evolution by natural selection puts to Christian belief is the idea that pain and suffering seem to be built into the fabric of things. Now I know there are arguments against that and I’ve heard them and I respect them but I’m still uneasy about them. I don’t have a problem with origins, I don’t have a problem with so many things that Christians in the past have had a problem with, with evolution. I don’t think they’re… but I do think there are certain scientific ideas, if you like, that spin off from scientific theories that can present a challenge to religious belief and need to be acknowledged as such.
AK: Well, we’re talking here at The Big Conversation about science and religion, where they overlap and whether either of them can tell us what it means to be human. My guests are Philip Ball and Nick Spencer and we’ll be back after this short break.
Welcome back to The Big Conversation with me, your host, Andy Kind. And today my guests are Nick Spencer and Philip Ball and we are talking about what it means to be human and I do really want to get this sorted definitively over the next hour or so.
But the big question is can science and religion speak to that question? And, Nick, one thing that you’re keen for people not to do is to get these two things muddled up. There are areas of overlap but you would say, I imagine, that religion is about meaning whereas science is about mechanism and when people confuse physics from metaphysics they’re doing it wrong?
NS: Broadly, yes, although both of those terms, science and religion are massive, amorphous, sprawling terms. Any attempt to come up with a definition, a clear definition is always going to fail. As a guide, that’s not bad but the devil is always in the detail.
AK: And you say in your book that the magisteria, being science and religion, are ‘indistinct, sprawling, untidy and fascinatingly entangled’. A bit like headphone wires uses to be before Bluetooth?
NS: My headphone wires are all the time. Sorry, you’ve hit one of my buttons there. Entropy exists whenever you put headphones in a pocket.
AK: Now I feel like we’ve really latched onto something here that I’d like to unpack. If you ever do a second edition you should put that sentence in, you can quote me at the end.
So, then it’s a question of what does it mean to be human and where is that located? So, again I don’t want to offend you by asking you this, Philip, but where is humanity located in the person?
PB: I think one of the big themes that we can see over the history of what we now think of as science has been about questioning the exceptionalism of humankind. It was clearly there at the outset, I mean, one could imagine that it’s clearly there in religious texts which suggest that there’s something special about humanity, we were created as a special sort of entity with guardianship of the world if you like. It was certainly there with the way Aristotle thought about living organisms that he argued that we humans alone have a rational soul that allows us reason as well as just movement and what we see in animals. It was there in the 17th century with Descartes, who regarded to some extent both humans and other animals as machines but humans were special because, again, we had a soul whereas other animals were just mechanical things in the end.
So there seemed to have been this insistence that in some way or another humans have to be exceptional. Once you have… and this is perhaps why Darwin’s theory of evolution is perceived to create so many complications because it insists on a continuity of humans and other animals. That we evolved in the same way from the same progenitus. And so it really challenges that idea and if you believe that that’s so then that applies also to questions of the human mind. And I think, in a way, it feels to me like that’s almost the last bastion of this exceptionalism that I think, to some extent, it persisted until the 20th century. And that’s really what I wanted to challenge and to open up in my book because I think particularly in the past several decades where we have had better techniques that give us better understanding of the minds – and I think we need to think of them as minds – of non-human animals, we can see more continuity, we can see more points of overlap, we can start to say more about how those similarities might have evolved and what they might have evolved from.
So there’s almost a genealogy of mind – well, there literally is – as well as a genealogy of our physical form. And what I try to do in the book is to say one way to think about that is to think in terms of a space of possible minds. Because it’s broader than that, and another reason why we are thinking about this now is because artificial intelligence is forcing us to think, well, is that a kind of mind? Could it be a kind of mind? Is there continuity with ours or is it an entirely separate thing?
Another reason is that we’re starting to think… and not just to think but actually to observe and perhaps even experiment in terms of extra-terrestrial life and could there be extra-terrestrial intelligence and what is the nature of that kind of mind? Can we say anything about it? So I talk about there being a space of possible minds as a kind of a conceptual space for thinking about this problem. And, again, that ends up challenging our exceptionalism; I argue that we are somewhere, we are a cloud of points in fact because we each have a unique mind, they are different kinds of minds, but there’s a cloud of points somewhere in that space, we don’t know what the coordinates are, but somewhere in that space that corresponds to humans, somewhere else there will be the primate minds, chimpanzee minds, probably very close, probably with a degree of overlap. The minds of birds in particular I think are spread quite widely over that space. Birds have extraordinarily diverse cognitive attributes. Somewhere further away perhaps we have mind of octopuses which are fascinating things…
AK: And I’ve almost never done that…
PB: Well then this is the time to start. And, in fact…
AK: Have you done that Nick? (NS: How do you mean?) Thought about octopus’s minds?
NS: Well, Octopuses fascinate me because they are separated from us by something like 500 million years of evolution…
PB: Longer still, about 600. And I say that because it’s before the Cambrian explosion so it goes way back to very, very simple organisms, they diverged very early on.
NS: So they are almost as close as we are going to get on earth to seeing aliens if you like. Fair?
PB: That’s what the philosopher of mind, Peter Godfrey-Smith, has talked about them in that way. And that’s because, you know, they are, I mean, he says they are, if you like, a separate evolutionary experiment in how to build a mind. And physiologically they are very different from ours. So, if you look at a bird or a rodent, they have a brain that has features that are more or less similar to ours. If you look at the brains of octopuses, they really don’t. They look totally bizarre. For one thing, more than half of the neurons of an octopus aren’t in the central brain in the head, they are distributed through the body and there are clumps of them in each of the eight limbs, the eight arms that seem to have a degree of autonomy. So the arms sort of work of their own accord. It’s almost like, and perhaps it literally is like, they are making decisions by themselves. And perhaps this central mind of the octopus is just watching them do things as if they are just other organisms. And the mind itself, it looks different. It has a completely different… the brain has a completely different structure. There’s a hole through the middle of it where the feeding tube goes which is kind of weird, like the brain was an afterthought. So they are very, very different and there is a lot of discussion about what sorts of minds these creatures have. So that’s one particular example that has really opened up this question of what a mind can be and I think it really challenges this long standing notion – that we see actually in the way that the philosophy of mind has been talked about until very recently – this long standing notion that there at least humans are still special. Now we have to confront the fact that probably not.
AK: Ok, interesting. Well, Nick, obviously as a Christian humanist you would hold to the idea that humans are special, made in the image of God, and have a particular value above octopi?
NS: Well, I mean, lots of things going on in that statement. I think the critical thing is what gives something value? And historically all too often Christian believers have got into the habit of thinking something is valued because it is unique, if you like. So humans are valuable because we are not like anything else. And then other things come along and say, actually, they are quite similar. There are lots of other things that are similar to humans and that kind of, almost insecurity that’s build in; we were special, of course we are special. And it’s a little bit like a toddler having their parents bring home a new-born and for a long time you’ve had your parent’s attention solo in the house and all of a sudden there is this horrible little baby that’s very, very similar to you and it’s actually on your patch and you get insecure about it. The point is a toddler is not loved by their parents because they are by themselves. They are loved by their parents just because they are loved. And I think it’s critically important not to mistake the idea that humans might be valuable because they might be different. I do think there are differences between humans and other species and I’d be interested to hear Phil’s reaction on this, but from my point of view, the idea that the human mind is not the only example of a mind that evolution has arrived at is, I think, incredibly important. It seems to suggest to me – and, again, I’m interested to get Phil’s take on this – seems to suggest to me that at the very least the potential of mind as well as the potential for morality and indeed the potential for metaphysics are almost built into the fabric of the whole system so that at some point or another – going back to Stephen Jay Gould here – if you were to rewind everything and then replay the tape of life again, as he said the more analogue age, we’d get a very different picture but you’d get minds again, and you’d get morality again, and you’d perhaps even get metaphysics again.
AK: Would you get octopi? Because I’m still thinking about what you said and I’m anxious because I found it terrifying. And is there a chance – maybe this isn’t relevant to the question of what it means to be human – is there a chance that ultimately octopi will be our supreme overlords?
PB: Well, isn’t it interesting that so often that’s how our conception of aliens, of real aliens… if you think for example of the film ‘Arrival’ there are these octopus like… and that goes back to H G Wells, ‘War of the Worlds’ where his creatures were octopus like, they were described as having tentacles and a massive head and so on. So already there is this perception there is something alien about octopuses so they represent something for us.
But I think what Nick was talking about there in terms of value, one of the things that relativizing minds forces us to do is to ask; why minds? What are minds for, in the first place? And that’s really what I wanted to try and delve into in this book. And what I suggested there is that minds are… in one sense we can think of them as ways to escape our genes, to escape having a preprogramed response to everything in our environment. If you have an organism that lives in a very simple, very predictable environment then it may be enough to sort of hard wire every response so it doesn’t have to think about it, literally. But before very long, once you have any sort of complexity, organisms are moving around, they are interacting with each other, they are in an ecosystem, then that’s not going to work anymore because you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen. So once life started to become at all complex, as it did right back in the Cambrian era if not before, then that’s not going to work. You’d have to try to programme too much into the genetic response and you just can’t predict it. So the alternative is to make a mind; is to make this system that is adaptive, that is innovative, that can improvise. I think that’s the key to minds.
AK: Because you’ve talked about in one of your talks how memory is really important because it helps us to gauge our future responses but you would also say, I imagine, again, the mind is not simply a score predictor because we actually do have something approaching the idea of the illusion of free will but we can make a choice contrary to what we would usually do. The apostle Paul, of course, says I do what I don’t want to do. So how do we navigate that idea of predicting behaviour and also then doing something contrary to that?
PB: Well, there’s this very telling passage in, I guess it’s in ‘The Selfish Gene’, Richard Dawkins famous book in which he recognises that we, at least, seem able to override as he puts it the dictates of our genes. And there is a little sense that maybe he is a little bit outraged at our ability to do this but he recognises that it’s the case. My point is that was an inevitability once you have complex organisms. We need to expect that that’s going to be so and that within that, if you like, we can see the origins of – free will is a very complicated term and both of those words are in a way too loaded to still use – but it’s often talked about now in neuroscience as volition, that’s a better word. That we are somehow self-determining. And that’s what minds have to do. They are able to take in the information from our surroundings but not to respond to it in just like a machine-like way where a button is pressed and you do a certain thing but to process and integrate that information with the internal state of the mind, which includes memory, and you can see something like that even in the simplest of organisms. And as a result of that come up with some kind of a response, some kind of a decision about behaviour. And in a sense that’s what minds do. That’s what they are for.
And you can see that as an adaptive behaviour; minds clearly must be adaptive, they’ve evolved. And so what’s then interesting is that you can see degrees of this emerging throughout the living world from bacteria upwards. People now, a lot of biologists are saying even simple single celled bacteria have to be thought about in cognitive rather than mechanistic terms. There is a kind of cognition that is going on, certainly by the stage of multi-celled organisms, even quite simple ones, that you can see cognition there. And as you get more and more complex you start to have to think about questions like volition. You have to think about decision-making and where that comes from and what that really is. Is that somehow predetermined? Is there somehow an inevitability in there? And, if not, where does the freeness of that response come from in the mind? And there’s absolutely no reason to think that somehow by magic it appeared in the evolution between the ancestors of us and apes and us now. It probably goes further back than that. So it opens up these questions that I think really do get into theological territory about free will and about determination.
AK: Well, we really are on the open plains of discussion now aren’t we. But you talked about Descartes, and obviously he managed to reduce things to first principles; his first principle being, ‘I think, therefore I am’. Essentially, I am a mind and that’s as much as I know.
Nick, as someone coming from a Christian perspective, if we take the evolutionary theory of creation as being true, is there then any kind of consensus within Christian thought of how, why and at what point the human mind spliced off from the animal mind and took the road less travelled?
NS: No is the short answer because I don’t think Christians will comment on this but if they do they are going to be commenting it as philosophers, as scientists those thought is informed by their faith. But you can’t read this off Scripture, you can’t read this off theology, it’s part of a wider discussion.
I think it’s important, you mentioned Descartes there, he’s come up several times in our conversation, and I think that the cogito you’re talking about there, ‘I think, therefore I am’, is a massive misstep in all of this in as far as it does… one of the things that we’ve kind of hovered about in this discussion which is to detach the mind from the body. And the example of the octopus is a great grounding example. But it’s not just octopuses that have minds that are physically part of their body, we do as well. And I think there is a perennial danger of making the association that humans are clever and cleverness is located in the brain and therefore what is quintessential about us is the fact that we are thinking beings at the cost of the fact that that thought only ever occurs within an embodied context.
And so we may come on to a discussion of AI in the future, I think that’s an incredibly important point that processing power and thought and intelligence I don’t think can be discussed meaningfully beyond the wider context, outside the wider context of being embodied. And that is a profoundly theological point because Christian belief is in the resurrection, not in some sort of disembodied existence. The physical is very important. I’m always struck by a little detail at the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus is on the beach and he’s having a fish supper with his friends. And that’s a kind of almost a message for… an image of what true communion is. It’s not disembodied, it’s not just free will or intellect that don’t exist in any kind of material format. It’s embodied, it’s physical as human.
AK: So, are Christians committed to the idea that the brain and the mind are separate things? Can we reduce mind activity to brain chemicals and neurons?
NS: I think that second question is much more directed at Phil than me. I would say that you’ll get a variety of Christians who have a view on this. I mean, I would like to meet a Christian who doesn’t think mind is somehow dependent on the brain because that’s going to be a hell of an argument they will need to make there. But then again it’s this important point about, if you just – I mean, Phil talked about it at the beginning of the book – if you just reduce the mind just to the brain, again, what about all this? What about the wider context in which we live? Fair?
PB: Yea, absolutely. I mean, this point about our minds, or any mind, being embodied is crucial. Even at the very basic biochemical sense our thoughts and our feelings are influenced by hormones coming from around the body; it’s a chemical system. So, absolutely, it’s embodied.
But then even at the more abstract sense, there’s a very strong argument that the kind of thinking we have is predicated on the kind of bodies we have. That we believe we can do certain things because we know that our bodies can move in certain ways and that we can’t do other things. And so if we think about that in terms of, for example, a bird, it will have different ways of conceptualising the world by virtue of the fact that it can fly. The dolphin will have a different conception of the world by virtue of the fact that it has a particular kind of body in a particular kind of environment where gravity, for example, doesn’t really feature strongly. So, that embodiment is absolutely central clearly to the way we conceptualise the world and that’s what minds do, they build representations in some sense of the world in which they operate and use those representations to make decisions.
AK: So would you say then that nobody, no being, no mind, whether animal or human, is perceiving reality as it actually is but simply constructing an idea, a story almost about what’s going on in front of their eyes?
PB: Oh, they absolutely have to. And one of the things that science has shown increasingly is how much of the physical world is invisible, literally, to us. We didn’t know about x rays until the end of the 19th century, and then we started to find also cosmic rays and we now believe, or some people believe, that there is this stuff called ‘dark matter’ that we can’t see or interact with. There’s whole swathes of what you might call reality that we are insensitive to. But I think, actually, this comes down to a more profound point which is about meaning because we said a little while ago about how there’s a notion that religion is about meaning and science is about the physical world but actually, ultimately – this isn’t a sort of territorial grab – but if science cannot say anything about the construction of meaning then there’s a very important part of experience it’s missing.
And one thing I argue about in the book is that minds are also about the construction of meaning and by that I mean even at the very simple level that minds and bodies have evolved to take notice of some things and to ignore others. And those things that it takes notice of are the things that presumably are most central to the persistence, the survival of the animal.
So that, in a way, is a construction of meaning in that it’s assigning value to some inputs coming in from the environment and not to others. And one can argue that this the beginning of a system of constructing value that really, again, there should be continuity between that process happening in an ant or in a slime mold and our own notion of… you know, there are things that we chose to value and to take notice of and things we chose not to.
AK: Fantastic. We’re going to move on in the final section to talk about the future of the mind and whether human minds are going to be joined by robots. It sounds a bit like the plot of the Terminator, maybe it is, but we are going to talk about that.
Nick, in just the next minute, have you got anything to say to build on what Phil was just saying?
NS: So really interesting. What I particularly pick up on in Phil’s answer, most of which I agree on, is the word ‘constructed’ meaning. Would you say minds construct meaning or detect meaning? Because my sense is that if minds exist within certain physical spaces they are constrained in terms of what they are able to do; they can’t construct meaning out of nothing, they are, as it were, bounded and limited by the context in which they find themselves. And that the minds of various different species actually detect meaning for that creature in that circumstance rather than construct it. Do you see what I mean?
PB: Yea, I do. I guess I would argue that constructed is maybe the best word but constructed in evolutionary terms. And I think this is one reason why I think what’s often…this thing that’s often said about scientists, the Nobel laureate Steve Weinberg has said that the more understand about the universe the more pointless it seems, the more meaningless if you like it seems. And this is a very common thing for scientists to suggest. And it seems to me that it’s a category error that the notion that somehow we find that there is intrinsic meaning in the universe, like there’s dark matter in the universe, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Meaning is something that is constructed by minds. That’s why they are minds, it’s why they exist. And so I think that’s where we need to locate meaning not some abstract thing in the universe.
AK: We will locate this conversation on the other side of the break and we really are now into territory that nobody expected. We’re talking here at The Big Conversation about what it means to be human and can science and religion or octopi decide that for us? My guests are Philip Ball and Nick Spencer and we’ll be back for the final and fascinating part of this conversation after the short break.
Welcome back to part 3 of The Big Conversation. It’s been an amazing chat so far and today we are discussing what it means to be human. Can science and religion answer that question for us? My guests today have been and still are Nick Spencer and Philip Ball. And if you don’t mind we are going to continue talking about the mind.
Previously we were talking about the idea of meaning and is it created? Is it detected? Is meaning architectural or is it archaeology? And, Nick, you were about to jump in…
NS: It was only, actually, a small kind of supportive comment in response to Phil’s point quoting Steven Weinberg about the more we understand the universe the more it seems pointless, or some people say meaningless. I’m always interested if people say that. What does pointed look like? What does meaningful look like? If this is totally pointless, if this is totally meaningless, I just trying to understand what would the persuade you that something was meaningful? Is it simply a temporal thing that it has to go on forever and ever and ever? It was more of a question. I don’t particularly consider the creation of which I am a part to be pointless and meaningless although sometimes it can seem rather pointless!
AK: And, Phil, you say in your book that a mind seeks what is meaningful to it in the universe. So in that respect, then, is any world view fair game as long as it’s functional?
PB: Do you mean in terms of the kinds of minds that can exist?
AK: No, I simply mean within human terms; if a mind seeks what is meaningful to it does that mean that we do simply create our own meaning and whatever truth, whatever meaning we create, is that fair game as long as it fits that…?
PB: At the risk of sounding exceptionalist, we are complicated in ways that it seems very hard to find in other creatures but partly because of the complexity of our culture. And those sorts of questions seem to me to be so much cultural questions and part of that, the fact that we have those complex cultures, is that the one thing that we do seem to have that it’s harder to find in the same sense in other creatures is language. And language is about so many things but part of what language is about is the imagination. Is the fact that it allows us to project our own imaginations, if you like, into other people, to convey things and to have interactions of a sort that it’s very hard to see in other creatures. So I think, you know, perhaps the answer is to be found in that seemingly pretty unique aspect of the human mind.
AK: Yea, ok. Nick, talk more about meaning being archaeology rather than simply created. Talk more about the detection of meaning. Because I think you’re right on that, I think we don’t decide that we want to be loved unconditionally, we discover it and we notice these things by their absence, don’t we? We know we want to be loved unconditionally when we feel rejected. We know we want our lives to be full of purpose when it seems as though life’s going nowhere. So can you just talk more about that?
NS: Well, what do I think about this? I suppose from a theological point of view you would argue that if the creation is made by God – made in inverted commas and all the usual caveats applied – there is an intrinsic meaning underlying it. From a human point of view that meaning is found in embodied existences that are sacrificial and loving. Now, very interesting to know what the meaning of that creation would be for a bat or for an octopus and that’s a question I’m pretty agnostic on. But I would say that whereas it’s eminently possible for humans to find meaning and purpose in a wide range of different activities and indeed belief systems, I would want to say that ultimate meaning and certainly ultimate meaning that satisfies us in a profound way is located in relationships and in relationships of sacrifice, generosity, love and so on and so forth.
We do construct those in the sense that we are free people, free persons that engage with one another in a multitude of complex different ways and weren’t not simply on strict kind of railroads of which… deterministic paths but nonetheless I think it is interesting how many different, not just religious but worldviews across human history have found ultimate meaning and satisfaction in what you might call relational integrity or love, for want of a better word.
AK: But certainly what matters to human beings is not simply matter. What matters to human minds lies in an array of directions, Phil?
PB: Well, I think to pick up on what Nick was talking about, a biological position or even an evolutionary position on that you might say is that we are one of the kinds of creatures that is very social. And there is an argument that actually a big part of what has driven our particular kind of cognition is that we have these complex social structures. We’re not unique in that and you can find some of these kinds of propensities certainly in other primates but that our minds have evolved to be minds that can navigate social situations because of the nature of how we live. In contrast, for example, to octopuses which are very solitary creatures. And one of the interesting things about octopuses is that they have this what seems to be a complexity of cognition that doesn’t obviously seem to have been driven by the needs of social interaction. So what’s that about? Why do they have these complex minds if it hasn’t been driven by societal interactions? We don’t know.
AK: And there’s something… I want to talk about sci-fi because in the 1960s all these slightly creepy sci-fi series were out and some of those things that they predicted have now been fulfilled perhaps in the self-fulfilling prophecy type of way.
But what about the future? We’ve got things like AI and all of that and it seems to be accelerating quite quickly. So, Phil, what does the future look like? How sci-fi might the future be? How much of Philip K. Dick might become a lived reality?
PB: Well, when we think about that question, I mean, obviously everyone’s talking about AI at the moment that is a really interesting area to look at. But we tend also to think of technological developments as what devices we’ll have but I think one of the areas that is becoming really sci-fi already is to do with our own flesh and blood, with our own bodies. What is happening in biotechnologies is really quite extraordinary. I’ll give you a person example of that; I have had made from a little piece of my arm something that could reasonably be called a second brain. So, there you go, it was very small, I say was because it no longer is living, but it was about the size of a dried pea, but it was brain like in that it was made, as I say, a piece of my arm a biopsy with tissue was taken, it’s basically skin, those cells were transformed back into a stem cell like state from which they could in principle develop into any tissue type in the body. And then they were encouraged to grow into neurons and the neurons as they grew organised themselves into a brain-like structure in a dish. It wasn’t perfectly brain-like, it had some of the characteristics of what you’d expect in an embryonic brain at that stage of growth, but not perfectly because it didn’t have the rest of a body around it. But there it was. And I have pictures of it and I still find this truly mind boggling but this is the kind of thing that we can now do. And one can imagine, and it’s getting more and more the case, one can imagine getting better at that technology, perhaps finding ways to give it a blood supply so that it can continue growing like a brain. What is the nature of that entity? Does it have consciousness in it? What does it even mean to be an isolated brain? A brain in a vat is an old philosophical construct for thinking about the mind and how it works but now we can actually make something like it. So what sort of possibilities, what sort of questions, ethical and even theological does that sort of capability open up?
AK: And, again, you’re talking really as the Victorian novelists wrote. There was this paranoia around the supernatural and science and how those two things related but, again, this is where we are. So for you then, Phil – I want to get you, Nick, to respond to something in just a moment – but for you then, Phil, is it possible would you say within your mind that at some point in the future we will have something like Skynet coming online, we will have… it is possible that robots could become sentient?
PB: There’s no physical law that seems to forbid such a thing. But I say that only because we actually don’t understand what consciousness is. There is no accepted theory of consciousness or sentience. We’re not even agreed really on what those words mean. So we can’t rule that out. I think there’s also no reason to believe that all you need to do in order to create something that’s sentient like that is to make it bigger. The bigger and better our current AI systems become, suddenly you’ll get to a threshold and they will become sentient. That’s what often happens in sci-fi portrayals and there is no reason to think that that’s the case.
And I think actually there’s something more interesting that is likely to happen, and is already starting to happen with the AI that we have today, that if you think about it as something that’s happening within the space of possible minds, there is no reason why the trajectory it is taking has to somehow head towards human territory which is what we’ve always assumed somehow. It could be going somewhere else entirely; somewhere maybe towards octopuses or somewhere probably quite different. But there’s a kind of cognition there that we don’t yet know about and perhaps even… we talk about consciousness and sentience as being a single thing that we have more or less of but I suspect it’s not a single thing or a simple thing that it probably has… that’s it’s a multifaceted thing. That there might be kinds of consciousnesses that we don’t yet know about. So I think that’s the perhaps more interesting way to think about the way AI is going rather than thinking about at what point does it become human-like.
AK: Okay. Should that happen though, Nick, what challenges would that offer to the Christian worldview, the idea of, again, humans being made in the image of God? Presumably we wouldn’t be able to simply say, well, this toaster is made in the image of God?
NS: I think the challenge here is to human responsibility rather than to human dignity, if I could put it this way. We automatically get in that kind of defensive, well if technology develops in a certain way what will it mean about us, what will it mean about the image of God? Well, I don’t get particularly anxious about that because just because something else is developing in a certain direction doesn’t necessarily change the nature of who I am. That seems to be a conception of dignity that is entirely predicted on comparison and that’s not very healthy. I think the challenge is human responsibility. I think the risk here… people automatically gravitate to; these things are going to take us over and dominate us. But I think the bigger risk is what happen if these things are used by human actors who are malign and want to deceive other human actors? And I think one of the concerns, I mean, just in recent weeks this has been voiced by high profile resignation from Google and from a letter to, I don’t know what it was, The Times by 70 or 80 experts in AI commenting about the fact that there is some kind of almost inadvertent arms race going on here where different companies daren’t take their foot off the accelerator of AI for fear that the market will be cornered by the other company. That is a profoundly unhealthy approach to developing what could be an enormously powerful technology. So I think the main threat is not to our dignity it’s to our responsibility to one another.
AK: Yea, okay. And you talk, Phil, about what it means to have a mind and you have managed to reduce it to the idea of aboutness: there is something it is like to be that thing. So do you have any concept of what it would be like to be a sentient toaster or an alien or a ghost? Because, obviously, the moment we start talking about mind-space it does open up these, what seem like sci-fi novels, but actually are now part of neuroscience and the discussion they’re in?
So, any kind of inkling as to what it would be like, the aboutness, of these non-human…?
PB: Simply, I’m afraid not. This comes back to the famous article by Thomas Nagel the philosopher of what it means be a bat. And he’s saying that there is no way we can… all we can really do is to imagine, ‘what would it be like to have sonar and to fly about’? But of course we are imagining it from the human mind. This is the big challenge in thinking about minds that we are trapped within one and we have no obvious way of getting beyond that.
Having said that, it’s not inconceivable that technologies may extend that. There’s no reason why, for example, it may not be possible to connect minds, to connect your mind with mine. And there are people working, I mean, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is working on… whether it’s getting anywhere or not is less clear, but in principle it may be, you know, you could imagine some kind of device that allows access to our thought processes. And it may be that that will broaden our notion of what this can be.
But I think you can also think about this from the broader view of the organism itself. We’re able, for example, to make so-called chimeric embryos that are a mixture of human cells and those of another animal, monkeys for example. Embryos of this sort have been made. We don’t know what the nature of an organism like that would be. At the moment it’s not clear that it could develop into an actual organism, but it’s by no means clear either that that would be impossible. We know that chimeric organisms that are a mixture of the cells of actually different species are viable, that they will be able to grow into – I mean, it has been done into creatures that are alive – and there’s no reason to think that we are special in that regard. So it would certainly be deemed, and quite rightly, be deemed unethical to do that, to make a human animal hybrid in that sense, but there’s no biological reason why we couldn’t. So I think in some ways, again, it’s the biological rather than the technological that is raising these possibilities of where the boundaries of humankind are and how do we define where humanity or humankind or humanness begins and ends?
AK: And you’re nodding away to that, Nick, you agree with that?
NS: I think it’s fascinating. I think all of us around the table and I suspect most people watching will concur with the point that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And it underlines to me, I mean, two things have particularly underlined to me in this broader conversation of what it is to be human; one is that you can’t have these conversations without grounding them in a serious ethical approach to why one is doing this.
Now, I suspect – again, I’d be interested to hear Phil’s opinion on this – that is a question in some form that might be asked by some other animals but I think we ask ourselves that in an absolutely central and intrinsic way to who we are. Wanting to know why and whether we are pursuing a good. So that ethical reflection, that sense of a should, is central to who we are. But also imagination as well which has kept on coming up in this conversation. Phil was talking in a previous section about how we don’t just respond as algorithms – no complex animal responds as just an algorithm – we have to have that fluidity and adaptability. And one of the lines in Phil’s book is that our intelligence is particularly fluid. It’s unusually fluid. And that means being able to imagine ourselves into things that don’t exist. That’s absolutely quintessential to our ability to navigate the world, and operate with one another, and it would be absolutely essential in terms of our ethical navigation of this technological development. So critical to who we are is the need, not just the capacity, but the need to reflect ethically on the good of what we do and the ability to engage imaginatively with that.
AK: Fantastic. This has been an amazing discussion, thanks for letting me be privy to this, chaps. And we’ve talked about science and religion, we’ve talked about the areas of convergence and the areas of divergence and we’ve concluded, I think definitively that it’s not simply a very, very good thing against a very, very bad thing. It’s not tribal war, that’s great.
Let me give you a thought experiment then just to end with. Let’s say that aliens, like Independence Day, do land at some point in the next hundred years and before they destroy humanity they want to know and they want to ask you two specifically what does it mean to be human? So we’re not asking for theories now, we are asking you, Nick, and you, Phil; what does it mean to be human? You first, Nick.
NS: If that question means, what does it mean to be human different from other species, other forms of life, I would guess I would say, concretely, it is probably eating with somebody. Not just the process of consuming food but the sociality and the openness and the physicality of sharing a meal. Roger Scruton, a conservative philosopher, was very good on this about how for humans, eating is not simply a matter of consumption and getting stuff inside us, it is a profoundly social, relational process. It’s a form of – to slip into theological language – of communion. I think that is quintessentially human.
PB: Well, you’d said it for me, Nick, because that is exactly what I would say; it’s lived social experience. I think what we too easily fall into is expecting that biology, in particular, is going to answer that question. That it will say this is what the human is. And everything we have discovered in biology makes that less and less probable. It dissolves the boundaries rather than brings them into focus. We are not going to find the answer there. I think it is absolutely in lived experience where the answer lies.
AK: Well I think we’ve done it. I think we have, as I hoped we would, definitely answer the question of what it means to be human. Thank you so much for watching The Big Conversation, my guests today have been Nick Spencer and Philip Ball. You might have your own views on what it means to be human but certainly we’ve had some good ideas today and I hope you don’t mind.