by John Lampard.
I have never been any good at philosophy, but am aware that different philosophies undergird theological ‘constructions’. In the past, for example, theologies have been built on the philosophies of Aristotle or Plato. In the last century theologians have used the work of different philosophers as a basis for their theology. For example Moltmann used the philosophy of Bloch and Bultmann and others the philosophy of Heidegger.
The problem of making theology relevant to people’s perception of the world we live in is that there is no ‘base’ or commonly accepted ‘experience’ on which a widely accepted philosophy (or theology) can be grounded. Science, and the scientific method, have been wonderfully successful in creating the modern world, and the way in which we perceive it. The methodology of rational based science has made it very difficult for theology based on a philosophy other than a scientific one to find credibility in today’s world. Is there perhaps an answer? Is there a possibility of a theological approach which is guided or underpinned by a rational, science-based philosophy?
What led me to begin to explore this position has been my abiding interest in the science of cosmology (and I only have an ‘O’ level in science). I am fascinated to discover how our understanding of the nature of the vast expanding and deeply mysterious universe can somehow be incorporated in theology, as it was before Galileo. Can the queen of science (theology) regain her throne?
My interest was aroused when I heard a radio programme, and then read, Philip Goff’s Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Conscience, Rider, 2019, £14.99. Goff has no religious belief, but time and again he is crying out for a way of filling the void. He ends his book with the words, ‘I cannot help being excited by the possibility that… the yearnings of faith and the rationality of science might finally come into harmony.’ (p.216). That is very much where I stand.
I have purposely missed out a vital part of Goff’s quote because it is initially so off-putting and needs explanation. It refers to a worldview of ‘panpsychism.’ I have to admit that the objection to this word by my spell-checker and my own suspicion of anything associated with ‘psychics’ and ‘pan’ in theology is immediately off-putting. But I hope you will persist with my reflection.
‘Panpsychism’ is the study of consciousness, and has been around for centuries. It is based on the scientific observation of the extraordinary ability of so much of the created order to be aware of its environment, and often of itself. This ranges from human beings to animals, plants, and to a coronavirus, and Goff argues further down the chain to inanimate objects, right down to sub-atomic particles. He refuses to limit consciousness to ‘ert’ or living matter and he includes the ‘inert’. He offers as evidence the totally mysterious ‘quantum entanglement’ of two electrons which light-years apart can still ‘influence’ or have a ‘consciousness’ of each other. Particle physicists scratch their heads over this apparent measure of ‘consciousness.’
Galileo’s ‘error’ was that his philosophy created physical science (which has been wonderfully successful) by setting sensory qualities outside its domain of enquiry. Science deals with quantities, not qualities. Goff quotes Alfred Russell Wallace who wrote in 1870, ‘There is no escape from this dilemma – either all matter is conscious, or consciousness is something distinct from matter.’ Goff’s answer is that all matter is conscious, and some measure of consciousness is part of the nature of all that is. Those who propose panpsychism argue that consciousness is part of matter’s intrinsic nature; it is not an added extra.
If all matter has its own level of consciousness, it means that the way in which we view the universe, and its very creation, has to alter. Goff argues that science has been amazingly successful in analysing how matter works, but cannot explore the intrinsic nature of matter. If consciousness resides in the very heart of reality, which some scientists are beginning grudgingly to accept, it opens up a creative field for theologians to develop a new philosophical basis for theology.
I was interested that Goff says it will take many years for philosophy to flesh out a recognisable system incorporating panpsychism (and hopefully a better term for it). Perhaps those who are working in the field of theology could work with them and offer us a new vision of the work and purpose of God based on a philosophy of consciousness.