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Lecture 1 - The Theme of Natural Theology: How the Challenge Will Be Met

Synopsis and Introduction

Lord Gifford founded these lectures for the purpose of having Natural Theology treated as a science just as Astronomy or Chemistry and without reference to revelation. My great master. Sherrington, gave these lectures forty years ago on the theme “Man on his Nature”. This introductory lecture will be a survey of the great imaginative insights that Sherrington presented on the nature of man. Throughout he adhered strictly to the evolutionary story of man's origin, hence it was beyond Sherrington's understanding how this materialist mechanism of biological evolution could bring forth beings with self-consciousness and values. Yet he insisted on the pre-eminence of man's non-sensual being, the conscious I, which he contrasted with the matter-energy system composing the body and brain. This theme of frank dualism will be developed further in these lectures.

In the last forty years our scientific knowledge has grown enormously beyond what Sherrington could build upon. There will be a brief survey of some outstanding efforts by scientists to do what Sherrington attempted to do, but with newer knowledge. The insights of Schrödinger, Polanyi, Dobzhansky, Penfield, Thorpe and Lemberg in particular provide thematic material for my presentation, which is dependent so much on the philosophy of my life-long friend and collaborator. Popper.

In considering the human mystery in depth we must retrace the steps whereby we came to be what we are. This story has been essayed countless times in our human history with the myths or stories of origin. Literal interpretations of these stories, as for example the stories of Genesis, have been discredited by the scientific knowledge of the last few centuries. So we have to start anew in the light of this scientific knowledge. But where to start? From our present human situation with our culture and our values we go back to primitive men, then to hominids, then to primate forebears and so on down the great evolutionary tree to the origin of life. Always each backward step leads to the next backward step. So the origin of life leads to the creation of Planet Earth with the chemical and physical conditions conducive to life. But that leads further backwards to the creation of the solar system in our galaxy and eventually to the “Big Bang” some 10 to 12 billion1 years ago when the whole universe began. It is impossible to go back further in time. So by necessity the next lecture will begin with the Big Bang! We will from the start be raising fundamental issues for Natural Theology.

Lord Gifford founded these lectures for the purpose of having Natural Theology treated as a science just as Astronomy or Chemistry and without reference to revelation. My great master, Sherrington (1940), gave these lectures forty years ago here in Edinburgh, on the theme “Man on his Nature”. In his initial considerations of what was required Sherrington states:

The Natural Theologist, if we may so address him, in his efforts from consideration of Nature without appeal to revelation, to come to a conclusion about the existence and ways of God has thus to include himself as part of the natural evidence. He then sees himself as a piece of Nature looking around at Nature's rest.


Nature in virtue of himself, has now entered on a stage when one at least of its growing points has started thinking in ‘values’. This comes before him as part of the evidence to be considered. The province of Natural Theology is surely to weigh from all the evidence derivable from Nature, whether Nature, taken all in all, signifies and implies the existence of what with reverence is called God; and, if so, again with all reverence, what sort of God.

1.1 Sherrington's Gifford Lectures

The general theme of Sherrington's “Man on his Nature” is the dualism of man's nature, body and mind. This philosophical position is completely antipathetic to the established philosophy of this materialistic age. For Sherrington this dualistic nature of man was completely mysterious. Much of his lectures 6–12 is devoted to the great enigma of dualism and the interaction between mind and brain, which he well recognized to be contrary to natural science as it then was. At the time of the lectures the prevailing scientific belief was that man in all his most unique mental characteristics - thoughts, imaginings, memories, decisions, creativities in the arts and in the sciences - would ultimately be explicable in a materialist and determinist mode. There would then be no residue pointing to a mental or non-material component in man's make-up. This promissory triumph of monist materialism was the confidently expected goal of the scientific study of man. The brain-mind problem would then become a non-problem after over 2000 years of fruitless philosophical enquiry, and the principal interest of Natural Theology - the uniqueness of man - would evaporate at the same time. Despite the stress of expounding an unpopular philosophy, Sherrington could have subtle asides, for example:

I have seen the question asked “why should mind have a body?” The answer may well run “to mediate between it and other mind”. It might be objected that such a view is undiluted ‘anthropism’. To that we might reply, anthropism seems the present aim of the planet though presumably not its enduring aim.

I shall again raise this question of anthropism in a most striking manner towards the end of Lecture 2.

Always Sherrington was mindful of his assigned task of relating his lectures to Natural Theology. For example at the outset of the tenth lecture he states:

Our topic of last time asked if and how it is that our thinking is correlated with our brain. If Natural Theology argue from the facts of Nature to a Divine Scheme to which they may point, then that question seems germane to our theme. It lies at the threshold of human approach to the whole Natural Scheme. Unaided human sight will at best compass but a corner of the scheme. There will be much to which man has not access. The distances are immense and he is near-sighted. He peers into a small patch and what he sees there he submits to his reason which after all is very newly hatched. What wonder if his conclusions be meagre and insecure. What wonder they are narrowly anthropomorphic. Such they must be. That to him is perhaps their chiefest value at this present. Without that they would not yield him, we may think, the zest, courage, ambition, altruism, which they do, or to come to our point, the idea of the Divine.

This wonderful and inspiring passage is very close to my own beliefs as I give these lectures. In considering the nature of man, the fundamental concept of dualism keeps on recurring in Sherrington's thoughts:

No attributes of ‘energy’ seem findable in the process of mind. That absence hampers explanation of the tie between cerebral and mental. Where the brain correlates with mind, no microscopical, no physical, no chemical means detect any radical difference between it and other nerve that does not correlate with mind. The two for all I can do remain refractorily apart. They seem to me disparate; not mutually convertible; untranslatable the one into the other.

So our two concepts, space-time energy sensible, and insensible unextended mind, stand in some way coupled together, but theory has nothing to submit, as to how they can be so. Practical life assumes that they are so and on that assumption meets situation after situation; yet has no answer for the basal dilemma of how the two cohere.

So in conclusion Sherrington leaves it as a human mystery:

Between these two, naked mind and the perceived world, is there then nothing in common? They have this in common - we have already recognized it - they are both concepts; they both of them are parts of knowledge of one mind. They are therefore distinguished, but are not sundered. Nature in evolving us makes them two parts of the knowledge of one mind and that one mind our own. We are the tie between them. Perhaps we exist for that.

I accept and admire this visionary writing by Sherrington, but, in the light of the knowledge that has been won in the four decades since his lectures, I will attempt to define the brain-mind problem more starkly. No longer should we be content with an exposition of the problem in the black box manner. In Lectures 8 to 10 the latest discoveries and the most advanced thinking on the structure and functioning of the cerebral cortex lead on to hypotheses that are essentially scientific and which are justified by their great explanatory power. I am sure that Sherrington would have approved of these imaginative efforts to build coherent theories relating to the brainmind problem. He also would not have been put off by the criticisms that such theories are not in complete accord with such a basic law of physics as the first law of thermodynamics. As we say in our recent book (Popper and Eccles, 1977), there is need for some revision of physics in order to allow for the interaction of mind and matter in some special regions of the brain. This opinion has already been expressed by the great physicists Schrödinger (1958) and Wigner (1964).

1.2 Subsequent Contributions on the General Theme of Sherrington's Lectures

As could have been forseen, Sherrington's magnificent attempt to face up unflinchingly to the mystery involved in the full range of human experience was subjected to a great barrage of criticism. It is not my task to reply to these critics. There have been effective replies. For example, Gilbert Ryle's (1949) The Concept of Mind was answered by Beloff's (1962) The Existence of Mind and Feigl's (1967) The Mental and the Physical by Polten's (1973) Critique of the Psycho-Physical Identity Theory. And recently Popper and I (1977) have published in The Self and Its Brain an extensive criticism of the various kinds of parallelism and have further developed the dualist-interactionist hypothesis from Sherrington's formulation in the Gifford lectures of forty years ago. I will briefly present comments by distinguished scientists. This material is of particular importance to me at this juncture because it provides me with valuable support for the developments I will essay in these lectures. It will be recognised that in these last forty years our scientific knowledge has grown enormously beyond what Sherrington could build upon.

The great physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1958) formulated in a forthright manner the dualist problem:

The world is a construct of our sensations, perceptions, memories. It is convenient to regard it as existing objectively on its own. But certainly it does not become manifest by its mere existence. Its becoming manifest is conditional on very special goings on in very special parts of this very world, namely, on certain events that happen in a brain. That is an inordinately peculiar kind of implication, which prompts the question: what particular properties distinguish these brain processes and enable them to produce the manifestation? Can we guess which material processes have this power, which not? Or simpler: what kind of material process is directly associated with consciousness?

Much of my Lectures 8 and 10 will be devoted to answering these questions. Schrödinger's comments on Sherrington are most laudatory:

Sir Charles Sherrington published his momentous Man on his Nature. The book is pervaded by the honest search for objective evidence of the interaction between matter and mind. I cannot convey the grandeur of Sherrington's immortal book by quoting sentences; one has to read it oneself.

Moreover Schrödinger analyses the position that has arisen from the scientific method of obtaining a world picture by the restriction of its subject matter to objective phenomena:

The physical world picture lacks all the sensual qualities that go to make up the Subject of Cognizance. The model is colourless and soundless and unpalpable. In the same way and for the same reason the world of science lacks, or is deprived of, everything that has a meaning only in relation to the consciously contemplating, perceiving and feeling subject. I mean in the first place the ethical and aesthetical values, any values of any kind, everything related to the meaning and scope of the whole display. All this is not only absent but it cannot, from the purely scientific point of view, be inserted organically.

Schrödinger here anticipated the criticisms that I shall make of Monod's book Chance and Necessity later it this lecture. He reveals the problem that has to be tackled in considering the nature of man in all its connotations, not only as a scientist, but as a human person with values and emotions, and with deep feelings for personal existence and its meaning, which gives the theme for these lectures on “the human mystery”.

The essential dualism of human experience has been well expressed by another great physicist, Eugene Wigner (1964):

There are two kinds of reality or existence - the existence of my consciousness and the reality or existence of everything else. The latter reality is not absolute but only relative. Excepting immediate sensations, the content of my consciousness, everything is a construct; but some constructs are closer, some further, from the direct sensations.

You will see that Wigner regards the constructs, that is the material world, as having a second order of reality in contrast to the absolute reality of our conscious experiences.

Recognition of the enigma of human experience was well expressed by Thorpe (1961) in a manner completely in accord with Sherrington:

Every man's world picture is a construct of his mind, yet the conscious mind itself remains a stranger within that construct. For me, the essential fact is that, however much or little I know of the world around me, I know my own mind at first hand, and - in a sense - better than I know anything. It is my mind which experiences and interprets all that my sense organs supply, and the whole of science and every other activity of man is ultimately dependent on this basic assumption that the mind is primary in knowing. From this it follows, I believe, that mind and body are in some sense two things and that there is an external world ‘not I’ which is a reality, however imperfect my awareness of it may be.

A little later Michael Polanyi (1966) attacked reductionism of biology to physics and chemistry on the grounds that, in a hierarchy of levels,

the operations of a higher level can never be derived from the laws governing its isolated particulars, it follows that none of these biotic operations can be accounted for by the laws of physics and chemistry. Yet it is taken for granted today among biologists that all manifestations of life can ultimately be explained by the laws governing inanimate matter. Yet this assumption is patent nonsense.

The reference of Polanyi is of course to a complete explanation of all that happens in a living organism. Physical and chemical processes go on in a living organism in a manner that is explicable by physics and chemistry, but are subservient to control by the biological organization of the living cell and this in turn is subservient to control by the whole organism.

Polanyi goes on to state:

The hierarchic structure of the higher forms of life necessitates the assumption of further processes of emergence. Thus the logical structure of the hierarchy implies that a higher level can come into existence only through a process not manifest in the lower level, a process that thus qualifies as an emergence.

This principle will be invoked in Lecture 4, where we will be considering biological evolution.

In his most thoughtful book The Biology of Ultimate Concern, Dobzhansky (1967) presents his views on the human mystery with deep biological wisdom:

Man can transcend himself, and see himself as an object among other objects. He has attained the status of a person in the existential sense, and with it a poignant experience of freedom, of being able to contrive and to plan actions, and to execute his plans or to leave them in abeyance. Through freedom, he gains a knowledge of good and of evil. This knowledge is a heavy load to carry, of which organisms other than man are free. Man's freedom leads him to ask … Big Questions, which no animals can ask. Does my life and the lives of other people have any meaning? Does the world into which I am cast without my consent have any meaning? There are no final answers to these Big Questions, and probably there never will be any, if by answers one means precise, objective, provable certitudes. And yet seek for some sort of answers we must, because it is the highest glory of man's humanity that he is capable of searching for his own meaning and for the meaning of the Cosmos.

These present lectures are attempts to find partial answers to the Big Questions. This is essentially the concern of Natural Theology. Dobzhansky's book is devoted to the Big Questions, and there will be many further references in these lectures to Dobzhansky's ultimate concern, a most apt term that he borrowed from Paul Tillich (1959):

Religion is the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit. Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern. And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit.

Finally I will quote from the great biochemist, Rudolph Lemberg, who died in 1976 leaving an unfinished manuscript entitled Complementarity, which gave his philosophy of science and of life. Later in these lectures there will be further references to this deeply moving testament, a testament of ultimate concern:

We are creatures of the earth and part of nature, and also made in God's image in a sense deeper than that, though nature is also God's creation. We are in a special way God's helpmates to whom some creativity has been delegated. We remain part of nature and can as such enjoy its beauty. The knowledge of the really great scientists has not diminished but enhanced their sense of wonder and mystery. Teilhard de Chardin has shown us that, far from being a hindrance to the freedom of our souls, matter is in fact the complement, providing the handholds and footholds on the mountain of our spiritual climb. It appears that some mere scientists of today have forgotten that man is part of nature and therefore nature can never become entirely alien to him.

1.3 Development of the Theme for the Present Lectures

These excerpts from the writings of great scientists since Sherrington's Gifford Lectures reveal that the message he left has not been neglected, but rather has been developed. I have selected authors and quotations that relate specifically to my lectures. I am happy to identify myself with the thoughts of these authors, all of them my friends. I derive assurance that I am not a lone scientist when I am developing the theme in these lectures that are built upon Sherrington's inspired vision. In designing this course of lectures I have been prompted by one of Sherrington's imaginative and poetic asides in his tenth Gifford Lecture:

Nature has evolved us as compounds of energy and mind. The scene of this operation has been the planet where we are. I would submit with deference that for one of like gift to the historian, here is a theme whose telling would be welcome to humanity. A theme which I would still think of as historical although much of it run back beyond tradition. Even if as fact it be too cloudy for history, it is yet worth telling as an available truth: the planet's story with what it has made and done.

It is a story not remote from us because it is our own. The planet in travail with its children. With the Universe as heroic background for what to us is an intimate and heroic epic. A birth in cataclysm. Aeons of seething and momentous shaping. A triple scum of rock and tide and vapour - the planet's side - swept on through day and night. Then from that side arising shape after shape, past fancy. And latterly among them some imbued with sense and thought. And still more latterly, some with thought eager for ‘values’. The planet, furnace of molten rocks and metals, now yielding thoughts and ‘values’. Magic furnace. Beside its alchemy and transmutations the most impassioned dreams of Hermes Trismegistus and all his fellowship dwindle to paltry nothing.

In the dramatic context of this challenge by Sherrington, my Lectures 2 to 7 will be concerned with the steps whereby we came to be what we are. This story has been essayed countless times in our human history and prehistory with the myths or stories of origin. Literal interpretations of these stories, as for example the stories of Genesis, have been discredited by the scientific knowledge of the last few centuries. So we have to build up our story of origin in the light of this scientific knowledge. But where can we start? In the search for a beginning we can retrace as far as we are able the sequences of happenings up to the present. From our human situation with our culture and our values we can go back to primitive man, then to hominids, then to the primate forebears and so on down the great evolutionary tree to the origin of life. Always each backward step leads to the next backward step, though with less assurance the further we go. So the origin of life leads to the creation of Planet Earth with the chemical and physical conditions conducive to life. And that leads further backwards to the creation of the solar system in our galaxy, and eventually to the ‘Big Bang’ some 10–12 billion2 years ago when the whole universe began. It is impossible to go back further, since time started from that instant, as also did physics. Thus, by necessity, the next lecture will begin with the Big Bang, and will give in outline the principal events that are believed to have happened after that so-momentous occasion. Its scope will be cosmology, not only the history but also the present situation and the future of the universe. We have to realize that our existence here and now is contingent on that initiating cosmic fireball, as it has been called. There is a great chain of contingency from the Big Bang and we will be following the sequences of that chain in lecture after lecture up to our existences here and now.

1.4 Philosophical Basis of the Present Lectures

In these lectures I will endeavour to create an atmosphere of wonder and of humility before the grandeur and immensity of the great cosmos that we can now contemplate in the light of modern cosmology. And superimposed on this material universe we have the creative richness of life in all its wondrous variety with ourselves as participants in life. But we are also able to stand outside the great material world when, as observers and thinkers, we attempt with our creative imagination to understand and to appreciate.

The tremendous successes of science in the last century have led to the expectation that there will be forthcoming in the near future a complete explanation in materialist terms of all the fundamental problems confronting us. These ‘great questions’, as they are called, have exercised the creative thinkers from Greek times onwards. It has been fashionable to overplay the explanatory power of science and this has led to the regrettable reactions of anti-science and of all manner of irrationalistic and magical beliefs. When confronted with the frightening assertion by scientists that we are no more than participants in the materialist happenings of chance and necesity anti-science is a natural reaction. I believe that this assertion is an arrogant over-statement, as will appear in lecture after lecture. In fact the aim of the whole lecture series is an attack on monist-materialism, which is unfortunately believed in by most scientists with religious-like fervour. You might say that it is the belief of the establishment. During the last century there has been a complete inversion of what may be called the establishment. It must be recognized that monist-materialism leads to a rejection or devaluation of all that matters in life, as has been starkly expressed by Monod (1971) in his book Chance and Necessity, where the only value to be recognized as authentic is the truth established by scientific methods. All other values such as beauty, whether of nature or of art, moral values and altruism are regarded as inauthentic. Furthermore those who express beliefs in dualist interactionism, as do Popper and I in our book The Self and Its Brain, are labelled by Monod as animists. It is disconcerting, to say the least, to be relegated by Monod to a category that we share with those practising the most primitive superstitions and magic!

As will appear in these lectures I accept all of the discoveries and well-corroborated hypotheses of science - not as absolute truth but as the nearest approach to truth that has yet been attained. But these lectures will reveal in case after case that there is an important residue not explained by science, and even beyond any future explanation by science. This leads on to the theme of Natural Theology with the idea of a Supernatural beyond the explanatory power of science.

If I should be asked to express my philosophical position, I would have to admit that I am an animist on Monod's definition. As a dualist I believe in the reality of the world of mind or spirit as well as in the reality of the material world. Furthermore I am a finalist in the sense of believing that there is some Design in the processes of biological evolution that has eventually led to us self-conscious beings with our unique individuality; and we are able to contemplate and we can attempt to understand the grandeur and wonder of nature, as I will attempt to do in these lectures. But I am not a vitalist in the generally accepted sense of that term. I believe that all of the happenings in living cells will be found to be in accord with physics and chemistry, much of which has yet to be discovered. Yet, as I have already stated, I believe with Polanyi that there is a hierarchic structure with emergence of higher levels that could not have been predicted from the operations going on at a lower level. For example the emergence of life could not have been predicted even with a complete knowledge of all happenings in a prebiotic world, nor could the emergence of self-consciousness have been predicted.

My aim in these lectures is to review the sense of wonder and of mystery in our human existence. We must not claim to be self-sufficient. If we espouse the philosophy of monist-materialism, there is no base on which we can build a meaning for life or for the values. We would be creatures of chance and circumstance. All would be determined by our inheritance and our conditioning. Our feeling of freedom and of responsibility would be but an illusion. As against that I will present my belief that there is a great mystery in our existence and in our experiences in life that is not explicable in materialist terms. This residue is beyond all else the ultimate value of our world. As I shall suggest in the next lexture, the whole cosmos is not just running on and running down with no meaning. Furthermore, I will suggest in later lectures that we are creatures with some supernatural meaning as yet ill defined. We cannot know more than that we are all part of some great design. Each of us can have the belief that we are acting in some great unimaginable supernatural drama. We should give all we can in order to play our part.

It is customary to formulate questions of an existential kind in a general way, for others rather than oneself; and then to put oneself in the picture. My approach is the reverse. My problems arise in attempting to account for my own personal existence with all my most intimate personal experiences. That gives me the advantage of a privileged enquiry into what is uniquely my experience, which is an experience that cannot to even the smallest extent be shared directly by others, for example, at a trivial level, a pain. So in the first instance I of necessity adopt a solipsistic approach. However from the insights gained I am advantageously placed when I extend my enquiry to other selves. It is a game played between objective and subjective epistemologies. My subjective experiences gain an objective status when ranged against the experiences of others, as observed either at first hand or as expressed countless times by the great creative writers of the world. The world literature is the drama of countless selves - of conscious human beings with their sufferings, their joys, their sacrifices, their aspirations, their despairs, their loves, their hates - all aspects of the human mystery.

I conclude this introductory lecture by stating that the theme of the “human mystery” will be explored in such a way as to raise at every stage fundamental issues in Natural Theology.

  • 1.

    Always in these lectures billion is the American billion, a thousand million.

  • 2.

    Always in these lectures billion is the American billion, a thousand million, because it gives a much more convenient time scale.

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