In my lectures I built my story upon orthodox science even up to the most recent discoveries and theories in order to reveal in field after field great and mysterious problems, which are beyond present science and may in part be forever beyond science. Such problems arise, for example, when considering the origin of the Universe in the Big Bang, the origin of life, the manner in which biological evolution was constrained through its waywardness to lead eventually to Homo sapiens, and finally to the origin of each individual conscious self. These problems are of particular relevance to Natural Theology, which is what the Gifford Lectures are about. But within this almost infinitely wide range of enquiry these lectures will serve to uncover many extraordinary contingencies on the way to the origin of each one of us as a consciously experiencing being. The theme of the contingencies that led to us will keep recurring. It is as if we could have been disembodied observers of the sequential lines of contingencies on which our eventual existence depended. I believe that this dramatic licence will give new perspectives in thought and new meaning to our life, which are desperately needed in this age of disillusionment.
The position I adopt is frankly and unashamedly anthropocentric. I make no apologies because I believe that it conforms with the fact that we are central to all oberservations and to all theories. For example when a description is given of an ant colony by Edward Wilson it is the description by a human investigator with his human wisdom and understanding and not by one of the ant sociobiologists of the colony. This is even the case with man's nearest relative, the chimpanzee. The dedicated and sensitive observer, Jane Goodall, does not write as a chimpanzee, surveying himself and his associates with her as an intruder into his colony.
Throughout I have largely restricted my vision to the scientific story of the way that led to us from the Big Bang. This device has been adopted in order to sustain the dramatic character of my presentation. It is a good exercise in imagination to try comprehending the immense delays and twists of fate in the evolutionary way that led to us after life got started about 3.4 billion years ago (the ‘eobacteria’). It took over 2.5 billion years before the appearance of the first multicellular organisms! When the earliest fish, Agnatha, appeared, it could not have been predicted that one line of evolution would lead to mammals. And from the earliest mammals, primitive insectivores, no prediction could have been made of the eventual line of primate evolution to hominids and so to Homo Sapiens with the transcendent endowment of self-consciousness.
Since the Gifford Lectures are interdepartmental, every effort has been made to present scientific material in a simple form with a minimum of technicality, yet at the same time to tell of the most recent conjectures on the points of major interest to the theme of the lectures. In this endeavour many explanatory diagrams have been presented. However, the last three lectures are on the human brain and the brain-mind problem. It has been important to present the most recent concepts on the way in which our knowledge of the structure and function of the brain leads to hypotheses of the brain-mind interaction in perception, in memory, in voluntary action and in all the manifestations of self-consciousness. There would be no human mystery if the human brain were no more than a chimpanzee brain, or even a hominid brain! It is evident therefore that I have to give a more detailed treatment of the human brain than for any other field of scientific enquiry that is essayed in my lectures. It should be possible for the reader to appreciate the wonders of the human brain particularly in its relationship to the self-conscious mind, even if the text and figures are not fully comprehended in the first reading. I pray the reader's indulgence.
The lectures as printed are genuinely the text that formed the basis of the lectures as delivered, and are not some later compilation that lacks the dramatic quality of a personal affirmation. They were already fully written out, but only in small part were they actually read out to the audience. At the end of each lecture the text was delivered to Mrs. Knight, who very efficiently converted my handwriting into the typescript that was delivered to the publishers fifteen days after the last lecture. There were, however, more illustrations for the lectures than appear in this volume. In the book, for the reader's guidance, each lecture is preceded by the Synopsis that was prepared some two months before the lecture and distributed to the audience. Only in Lecture 10 did the lecture depart seriously from the original plan, so the synopsis has been modified accordingly. Throughout the lectures I was greatly helped by the enthusiasm of the large audience who were faithful to the end of the course of three lectures a week for ten lectures, there being also two discussion meetings. I think we felt the experience to be a conjoint intellectual adventure.
JOHN C. ECCLES