Neuroscience, the universe and the soul

I am not a fan of the science of the gaps. By this I refer to that 20th Century idea that mystery and belief are simply waiting for scientific explanation. Science and faith are different discourses and not directly equatable. However, it i

s interesting from a faith perspective to look at what advances in neuroscience can now tell us about consciousness, the soul and death. Neuroscience seems to be showing us explanations for what from faith human beings have always intuited to be true.
Take a look at
Through the Wormhole Videos : Science Channel
Hosted by Morgan Freeman, Through the Wormhole explores the deepest mysteries of existence — the questions that have puzzled mankind for eternity.

The Anglican Way. James C. Fenhagen

Contemporary culture always provides context, usually of the combative kind, to religious faith. Yet it provides opportunities as well. I have been struck by an observation of Walker Percy’s in his 1980 novel The Second Coming. One of the novel’s characters, Will Barrett, reflects on the religious dimension of contemporary culture:

Marion had been a conservative Episcopalian and had no use for changes in the Church. Leslie and Jason were born-again Christians and had no use for anything liturgy or sacrament, which got in the way of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Ed and Marge Capp were Californians….Jack Kurl, the minister had no strong feelings about women priests or the interim prayer book…He attended ecumenical councils in the Middle East and Latin America …He wore jump suits. Kitty believed in astrology. Yamaluchi was a Jehovah’s Witness. He believed he was one of the 144,000 who would survive Armageddon and reign. Yamaluchi’s wife, the cook, was a theosophist who believed in reincarnation….Is this an age of belief, he reflected, a great renaissance of faith after a period of mass materialism, atheism, agnosticism, liberalism, scientism? Or is it an age of madness in which everyone believes everything? Which?

Percy’s biting commentary on the confusion which exists in religious America, as significant today as it was then, reinforces in me a conviction that is at the heart of the Episcopal Church’s understanding of the Christian faith. It does indeed make a difference how you understand the Christian faith, and it makes a difference what tradition enshrines it.

In our pluralistic world, we tend to blur denominational differences because of our understandable desire to be both charitable to our neighbors and open to expressions different from our own. I share this spirit. But I am concerned when our desire to be open to others cuts us off from what our own tradition holds to be true. I am committed to an ecumenical view of the Christian church, but not at the expense of denying aspects of my own tradition that I believe must be part of any ongoing dialogue. I believe there is an “Anglican Way” that has much to contribute to the whole church and to which we can witness with conviction. There are three elements of this tradition that I would like to affirm. I do so realizing that we share some of these elements with other churches, but that in our own tradition they take a particular shape.


From the time of the reformation in the sixteenth century, the Anglican Communion has been committed to doctrinal comprehensiveness rather than uniformity. Comprehensiveness involves being able to hold together a number of seeming opposites within a unified whole. It allows for consistent theological debate and inquiry, but others find it hard to understand. A Roman Catholic priest once asked me, “Where can I find clearly stated what Anglicans believe?” My response was, “In the Bible, in the creeds, and in the way we worship. It is all there, but it can only be spelled out in the living of it,” and I believe that to this day.

William J. Wolf, late professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, speaks of the Anglican tradition as a “pastorally and liturgically oriented dialogue between four partners: Catholics, evangelicals, and advocates of reason and


experience.” And the word “partners,” he notes is deliberately chosen to emphasize the need for each aspect of our tradition always to cooperate with others.

This comprehensiveness produces a certain way of understanding Christian faith. It means that we take seriously the need for intellectual integrity that is often obscured by religious fervor. There is a difference between conviction and dogmatism. The difference is faith. Jesus does not offer us absolute certainty. He offers us a relationship of incredible intimacy and power. The church offers tradition and the world offers change. Faith involves living in the tension between these three realities – a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the tradition of the church, and the change that reflects the ongoingness of the world. We remain open to the wonder and mystery of what we do not know and alert to the movement of God in what is new. If our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is serious, we need not fear the hard questions which the world presents to us. We need not fear uncertainty or new ideas or even doubt, for Jesus Christ is our hope and our promise, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Our church has struggled to maintain this comprehensiveness down through the centuries. It is not always easy or without pain, but I think God for what he has allowed us to be.

Personal Spirituality

Secondly, as Anglicans we see personal spirituality emerging from the inter-relationship between liturgical participation, solitude and compassion. All three are necessary and interdependent. Our tradition weaves together a concern for personal freedom with an emphasis on beauty and joyfulness and awe – a tradition made rich by such notables as Julian of Norwich, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and Evelyn Underhill.

Our greatest spiritual treasure is The Book Of Common Prayer – revised many times since its creation in 1549, and today enshrining many strands, shaped by the experience of countless millions. To be a liturgical church, however, involves more than having a book. It is a view of worship that is dialogical, where each person has a place and a part. We gather to pray not only for our own nurture, but on behalf of those who never pray or never darken the church’s door. This being an intercessory community on behalf of others is epitomized in our understanding of the eucharist where we share in Christ’s self-offering on behalf of the world. This understanding of worship does not depend on celebrities or charismatic preachers, but on the work of the people where clergy and laity each take their part and claim their ministry.

One of the phenomena of our time has been the surge of interest in Eastern religions, Christian fundamentalism, mega-churches, and the place of solitude in human life. Young people have left our churches because they did not see what they felt they badly needed. For Anglicans, the recovery of our spiritual roots – roots nourished in a liturgy but deepened and expanded in solitude. It is only in this way that we will become more compassionate and more centered people.

Thomas Merton once observed that the most pervasive form of contemporary violence is activism and overwork.

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation with violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the rot of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

These words, written by a Trappist monk (who himself was quoting a Quaker), reflect a strain that is deep in our tradition as well. It is a tradition of liturgy, solitude, and compassion that speaks to a profound hunger in our world – a hunger we see also in ourselves.

Holy Worldliness

Finally, I want to hold up that aspect of the Anglican tradition which might be called a holy worldliness. It is life affirming rather than pleasure denying. It calls people to faith not out of guilt or fear, but out of a vision of God that invokes response rather than commands it. It is a way of living shaped by words in the first book of the Bible, “And God created the world and it was good.” This is not to say that we are not serious about human sin, but rather that we emphasize what our redemption in Christ makes possible. We are a sacramental church that sees the presence of God’s love in the most mundane of things. We affirm wholeness, sexuality, and human pleasure, not as ends in themselves but as reflections of the love of God. This is why, when we distort or misuse these things God has given to us, the consequences are so serious.

We are surrounded by forces that play on our guilt and our fears, our understandable frustration and concern over much that goes on around us. There are days when, in the words of the song, we want to cry out, “Stop the world, I want to get off.” There are days when it seems that only simple answers and clearly defined enemies will satisfy the uneasiness we feel. But to give in to these feelings is to deny something fundamental in our baptism. We are people of promise who even in the midst of death can proclaim hope. We are part of a tradition that affirms that life is richest when it is given away on behalf of others. It is a tradition that refuses to live by fear or by coercion – regardless of how noble the aim – and lives instead in freedom and in loving response to what God has given us. This is holy worldliness.

Henri Nouwen tells a story that illustrates what such a view of the world might mean: There was once an old man who used to meditate early every morning under a large tree on the bank of the Ganges River in India. One morning he saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the strong current of the river. As the scorpion was pulled closer to the tree, it got caught in the long roots that branched far into the river. It struggled frantically to free itself but got more and more entangled. When the old man saw this, he stretched himself onto the extended roots and reached out to rescue the drowning scorpion. The animal jerked and stung him wildly. Instinctively, the man withdrew his hand, but then, after having regained his balance, he once again stretched out to save the agonized scorpion. Every time the old man came within reach, the scorpion stung him, so badly that his hands became swollen and bloody and his face distorted by pain. A passerby saw the old man stretched on the roots struggling with the scorpion and shouted: “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool risks his life for the sake of an ugly, useless creature. Don’t you know that you may kill yourself to save that ungrateful animal?” Slowly the old man turned his head and looking into the stranger’s eyes, he said “Friend, because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my own nature to save?”

Well, that’s the question: Why should we give up our nature to be compassionate, life- affirming people, even when we get stung in a stinging world? Should we give in to biblical fundamentalism and moralism because we are told this is what makes the church grow? Why should we cease to give of ourselves on behalf of others simply because the world says to protect yourself and draw back lest you be hurt?

As members of the Episcopal Church we belong to a worldwide family that shares a common heritage. In our commitment to Jesus Christ we are at one with all Christians, but in our expression of the commitment we have something unique to give: a tradition of comprehensiveness, personal holiness shaped by a common liturgy, and a life-affirming spirit. Episcopalians treasure other things as well, but these speak with grace and power to a world divided and afraid.

Neuroscience and philosophy must work together Guardian Article

 By Barry Smith

The brain is made up of a series of interlocking systems. Photograph: Sebastian Kaulitzki / Alamy/AlamyThe brain is made up of a series of interlocking systems. Photograph: Sebastian Kaulitzki / Alamy/Alamy

Sunday 4 March 2012

Theories of consciousness are challenged by recent research into the impact of brain function on the sense of self

Human beings are part of nature. They are made of flesh and blood, brain and bone; but for much of the time they are also conscious. The puzzling thing is how the intricate sequences of nerve cells and tissue that make up a person’s brain and body can generate the special subjective feel of conscious experience.

Consciousness creates, in each of us, an inner life where we think and feel; a realm where we experience the sights, sounds, feels, tastes and smells that inform us of the world around us.

To many philosophers the central problem of consciousness is, how can the facts of conscious mental life be part of the world of facts described by the natural sciences?

The 17th-century philosopher, René Descartes, thought they couldn’t and argued that, in addition to our physical makeup, creatures like us had a non-material mind, or soul, in which thinking took place. For Descartes, only humans were subjects of experience. Animals were mere mechanisms. When they squealed with what we mistakenly took to be pain, it was just air escaping from their lungs.

Today we take other animals to be conscious; although we are not sure how far down the phylogenetic scale consciousness extends. Most problematically of all, if consciousness was immaterial, how could the immaterial soul move the physical body, or feel pain in response to physical injury?

The difficulty of understanding such material-immaterial interactions is the reason most contemporary philosophers reject Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Surely it is the brain that is responsible for controlling the body, so it must be the brain that gives rise to consciousness and decision-making. So how does consciousness arise in the brain? Science still has no answer.

To a large extent consciousness has been dethroned from the central role it used to occupy in the study of our mental lives. Freud persuaded us that there is more going on mentally than we are consciously aware of, and that sometimes others can know more about what we are thinking and feeling than we do. Now we are also learning more and more from neuroscience and neurobiology about how much of what we do is the result of unconscious processes and mechanisms. And we are discovering that there are different levels of consciousness, different kinds of awareness, and that much of our thinking and decision-making can go on without it. So a more pressing question might be, what is consciousness for? Is it just a mere mental accompaniment to what is going to happen anyway? In that case it may be our sense of self and self-control that is most in need of revision.

It’s also worth remembering that the only convincing example of consciousness we have is our own. Are the people around me really conscious in the way I am, or could they be zombies who act like humans?

Conscious awareness is bound up with our sense of self, but our sense of self is bound up with awareness of the body. The sense of agency and ownership of our limbs is very much part of who we are and how we operate in the world. But it can also go missing after brain injury. In rare cases of brain lesion people can experience sensations in their own hand but not think the hand or the experience belongs to them.

Wittgenstein once said that no one could have an experience and wonder whose experience it was. An experience I feel has to be my experience and it is conceptually impossible to think otherwise. However, when something goes awry in the injured brain the conceptually impossible becomes possible for certain patients. So the nature of consciousness and how we experience it depends on the proper functioning of the brain. We can be aware in moving our bodies that it is our own body we are moving, and we may still have a feeling of being the agent of that movement, but it may not be our conscious decisions that initiate those movements.

The sense of ourselves as consciously deciding everything we do is surely an illusion: but a persistent one. Equally, the idea that consciousness is unified and must be that way comes under increasing pressure in contemporary neuroscience. There are levels of consciousness and perhaps splits in conscious awareness. Can we have consciousness and lack awareness of it? Do we always know what our experience is like, and is experience always as it seems? Much recent experimental evidence from neuroscience suggests that this may not be the case. So it is a fruitful time for philosophers and neuroscientists to work together, to revise previous models and provide new accounts of how we perceive things and why our experience patterns in the way it does.

There may be no single answer to what consciousness is, but we may still be able to find ways to explain what is going on in the brain. This would help resolve why our conscious experience takes the shape and form it does, and elucidate what happens to consciousness when one of the interacting systems that make possible the self-knowing mind breaks down. These phenomena provide vital clues about the neural correlates of consciousness and are a step on the road to understanding why things work as they do.

Getting at the elusive nature of our own experience and freeing ourselves from faulty interpretations is a tricky business. Many disciplines are needed if we are to make a real breakthrough.

• Professor Barry Smith will take part in a panel discussion, organised by the Guardian, on the nature of consciousness – and whether science will ever be able to explain it – at the Royal Institution in London on Wednesday at 7pm

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