The difference between time and eternity

FAITH & REASON Andrew Brown examines what recent debate between scientists, philosophers and theologians on human consciousness reveals about Christian belief in the soul and its immortality.
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The Independent Online
One of the paradoxes of religious debate in Britain is that it tends to be unbelievers who defend traditional Christian positions as beliefs which Christians should be compelled to hold; whereas what actual living Christians believe strikes most agnostics as virtually atheistic. A dogmatic belief in the existence of a soul separable from the body seems a necessary part of Christian beliefs to everyone except practising Christians.

The subtlety of Christian beliefs about the soul and its immortality has been made clear to me by a couple of conferences I have attended recently. These were not fringe meetings. One was in Jesus College, Cambridge, and the other in St George's House, a study centre in Windsor Castle. Both brought together philosophers, scientists, and theologians to discuss the study of consciousness. How is it that the three and a half pounds of porridge-like brain, which is all an observer can see in our heads, can produce a thinking, feeling subject?

There are of course innumerable theories to explain this transubstantiation: all have in common the fact that they are pre-scientific and more or less metaphorical. At best, we know that chemical and electrical activity in small, particular areas of the brain is correlated with particular sorts of feeling, perception, and memory. But what these correlations are, and how they arise, remains a fascinating mystery. The study of consciousness is at the moment the fault-line where science and religion grind together hardest.

However, almost everyone studying the field agrees that consciousness, or subjectivity, is umbilically connected to brains.

"When the brain stops, I stop," said John Searle, one of the leading philosophers of the field in Cambridge. But he is an atheist. What somewhat surprised me was to hear Professor Nicholas Lash, one of the most distinguished Roman Catholic theologians in Britain, agree with him. Later that evening, Professor Lash was assailed for his remarks by a furious atheist, who had been raised a Congregationalist; and grew heated himself in reply.

Professor Lash's argument was twofold. The first part was that theology was concerned with truth; and that the world is a complicated place; hence the truth is likely to be a subtle and complicated thing, too. We do not expect to understand nuclear physics; why should we expect to understand the further reaches of theology? There might well be a residue of mystery remaining at the end of theological knowledge, just as there is at the end of scientific knowledge.

The second part of his argument was that language about eternity was necessarily metaphorical. Eternity was not more time, but different from time. Eternal life did not mean "life infinitely prolonged". The approach to it might be described, but the closer we came to eternity, the more metaphorical and analogical our language must become. That did not mean that any old metaphor would do: merely that even our best metaphors were not to be misunderstood literally. Our present consciousness might well be indissolubly flesh-based. The lapsed Congregationalist was beaten back as much by the heat of this assault as by its brilliance. As a bystander, feeling both warmed and illuminated, I set off to find other opinions.

There were three Anglican priests present at this conference. One, the Rev Anthony Freeman, had been sacked from his post in Chichester for espousing beliefs which he thought indistinguishable from those which Professor Lash was now defending. (Professor Lash thought that the distinction between his beliefs and Mr Freeman's was large and clear.) The other two priests were employed, respectively, as a psychologist and an Artificial Intelligence researcher. They, too, took for granted that consciousness must be rooted in some physical being.

This belief can, as we have seen, be stretched to cover traditional doctrines about post-death experience. What it cannot be stretched to do is to encompass traditional beliefs about angels, demons, ghosts and so on. If these are disembodied spirits, they are a contradiction in terms. It is worth noting that this belief can be reached from a purely philosophical as well as an empirical standpoint.

I asked one of the priests present what he did if a parishioner requested an exorcism. Whatever was pastorally helpful, he replied. He did not think it was his job as a priest to allow philosophical scruples, which might or might not be justified, to prevent him from alleviating suffering.

An atheist might conclude from this that Christian intellectuals who keep up with the progress of scientific research are necessarily hypocrites. He would be wrong. The point is that those who flee from science to religion in search of comprehensive and comprehensible certainty are just as mistaken as the travellers who set off to the same end from the opposite direction. This message will not be a popular one.