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Her thesis undermines our most cherished illusions (as she would see them) of individual identity and personhood, yet she comes across as the kind of individual person you would wish to know.

Richard Dawkins. Introduction to Susan Blackmore's book, The Meme Machine, p.xvi.



The last talk I gave to the Brecon Political and Theological Discussion Group was called The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition. In it, I presented a threefold anthropology - body, soul and spirit or, to use the Greek terms: aisthesis - the senses, the means by which we enter into relation with our immediate environment, the universe or 'cosmos' - psyche, as in 'psychology', the mind, incorporating all the characteristics of subjective experience, including emotion, desire, thinking memory - and nous, or the 'noetic faculty', sometimes identified with the heart. This last is the means by which we enter into relation with 'God' or 'Heaven' or 'Eternity'.

This view of things of course presupposes that terms such as 'God', 'Heaven', 'Eternity' correspond to a reality and are not just a pleasant, or perhaps unpleasant, fantasy. Thus the world as we experience it through the senses in space and time exists in a larger context that incorporates, but also extends, space and time. The argument further runs that our life within the confines of space and time, of body and soul, aisthesis  and psyche, is a preparation for entry into this larger framework after our bodily death. The role of the material world, the Universe, in this conception, is as a support mechanism, analogous to the placenta that fulfils the bodily needs of the baby growing in its mother's womb. The role of religion - in the Christian understanding specifically the role of the Church and of ascetic discipline - is to awaken and develop the noetic faculty by which, even in the framework of body and soul, space and time, we can have some experience of the wider supratemporal framework that is our destined future.

In this talk I want to discuss some of the ideas that are held by people for whom the only reality is the world as they experience it through the senses - the world confined to space and time, body and soul, aisthesis (sensation) and psyche (mind). I want to stress straightaway that although this is not my view, I'm not intending to launch a polemic against it. Quite the contrary, I have a great deal of respect for the intellectual integrity of many of the people operating within what seems to me to be a rather limited framework, and since it is no part of my conception to deny the existence of the material world and for example, the interaction of mind and brain, the science of neurology, there is a large area of research, indeed almost the whole area covered by their world view, in which there is no room for disagreement between us at all.


The specific problem I want to address here is the 'mind-body' problem. The literature on this is enormous. It could indeed be said to engage the whole of philosophy, the whole of psychology, the whole of neurology, of theology, perhaps indeed the whole of physics. And yet it is doubtful if any progress has been made since the days when it was discussed in the schools of Athens. And before. 

The problem, very briefly, is that there appears to be two types of 'stuff' in the world. On the one hand there is 'matter', which can be analysed in terms of what we call the laws of physics. On the other hand, there is subjective experience or, using the term very broadly, 'consciousness', which does not seem to be analysable in terms of the laws of physics.

The connection between these two kinds of stuff is very close. Leaving aside any experience we may have of angels, ghosts or demons, we never encounter the phenomenon of consciousness independent of the material object known as a brain - and even if we do encounter angels, ghosts or demons, we experience them in our own consciousness which is, or seems to be, inseparable from a brain. On the other hand, it is only as experienced within consciousness that the material world, including the existence of the brain, can be known. What we are studying when we study the material world can never be anything other than a phenomenon of consciousness. This is the basis of Immanuel Kant's famous assertion that the 'thing in itself', independent of our perception of it, is forever inaccessible to us; and we know that certain crucial aspects of our experience of the world - notably colour and sound - can only exist within consciousness. Hence the distinction Locke draws between secondary qualities, including colour and sound, which can only exist because of the peculiar nature of eyes and ears, and primary qualities, essentially measurable qualities, essentially weight and measurable size, which he thought could be relied on as real objective characteristics of the material world. His view was challenged by Berkeley who argued, indeed demonstrated, that the supposed primary qualities were as much dependent on our human sensibility as the secondary ones.